DC Insider speaks with the International Crisis Group's Iran Project Director, Ali Vaez, on theories concerning an Iranian 'land route' in the region, possible back-channelling between Riyadh and Tehran, and how hardened domestic opinion inside Iran could outweigh pragmatic economic interest.
“The international community must confront America’s hostile and unilaterist approach by taking a definitive decision,” Rouhani said at a speech during a meeting of the Eurasian Union in Armenia last week. With such a definitive viewpoint, what could his endgame be?
“His endgame is to neutralize U.S. sanctions by trying to create a coalition of countries that would help Iran keep its economy afloat, which is not a new idea.
The reality is that, in practice, the Trump administration has been able to remove more of Iran’s oil off the market unilaterally than the Obama administration ever managed
In the first year since Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, the Iranians stayed in the nuclear deal based on the assumption that their compliance with the nuclear deal would make them be seen on the international scene as the good guys and the U.S. would be seen as the inflexible party at fault and that would help them neutralize the U.S. sanctions because countries would be reluctant to comply with them.
In retrospect, that turned out to be quite an inaccurate reading of the situation. The reality is that, in practice, the Trump administration has been able to remove more of Iran’s oil off the market unilaterally than the Obama administration ever managed, even with international support.”
Recently, the decision was made to re-open Iraq’s Qaim border-crossing with Syria. How could this affect the region, as a whole, and can this be beneficial to Iran?
“There is this idea out there that Iran wants to have a land corridor stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon as a logistical channel towards its proxies and partners in the region, especially to Hezbollah.
I've always believed that this is mostly more hype than reality because even during the years that Iraq was not aligned with Iran, Tehran could still support Hezbollah through the air corridor using the airport in Damascus. That alternative is always there."
How accurate are theories that Iran is attempting to carve out a "land-route" for forward staging attacks on Israel and U.S. bases in the region?
“As we have seen in the past few years by Israeli strikes on convoys, going from Iraq to Syria and from Syria to Lebanon, the land route is actually quite vulnerable, so I've never believed that the land corridor was the strategic objective for Iran.
As we have seen in the past few years by Israeli strikes on convoys, going from Iraq to Syria and from Syria to Lebanon, the land route is actually quite vulnerable
However, without any doubt, Iran wants its aligned countries and allies in the region to be integrated better and so that it can also, in addition to having strategic depth, create economic ties between these countries. Thus, the reopening of the border between Iraq and Syria has that benefit, but I wouldn't put too much thought into what it means in terms of balance of the power in the region.”
Recently Ali Larijani, Speaker of Iran’s Parliament, emphasized that, “Iran is open to starting a dialogue with Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region.” Why is this just happening now?
“There seems to be a bit of re-thinking in Saudi Arabia. If MBS has sent some messages to Iranian leaders, including through Pakistani or Iraqi Prime Ministers, sounding a bit more open to dialogue or de-escalation with the Iranians than he was before the attack on Saudi-Aramco then it is possible that he has come to the conclusion that given Saudi Arabia's vulnerability, the Trump administration's reluctance to actually do anything in retaliation against the Aramco attack and President Trump’s troubles at home with his looming impeachment prospect, Saudi Arabia might be left alone in the cold, facing an increasingly aggressive Iran and thus now is the time to deescalate tensions.
Saudi Arabia might be left alone in the cold, facing an increasingly aggressive Iran and thus now is the time to deescalate tensions
However, Saudi Arabia has been reluctant to engage with Iran in the past few years, mostly because of its perception that Iran had the upper hand in the region; that Iran had basically been able to achieve its objectives in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and even in Yemen, and so if Saudi Arabia sits at the table with Iran, it would not be a leveled playing field.”
According to an op-ed in the New York Times, you mentioned that “talking to Trump is a liability” for Rouhani and that he wouldn’t take such a risk “unless he knew a reward would come out of it.” What rewards is he currently seeking out?
“Rouhani invested almost his entire political capital in the JCPOA, which was supposed to open up Iran’s economy to the outside world and bring about significant economic benefits to Iran. In practice, that never happened and in the aftermath of Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, the Iranian economy has basically been pushed into a recession.
I think at this stage, what Rouhani wants is to rectify that situation by forcing the U.S. to lift the sanctions- that is the primary objective.
Rouhani invested almost his entire political capital in the JCPOA, which was supposed to open up Iran’s economy to the outside world
The reason that the French initiative did not result in any kind of de-escalation between Iran and the U.S. was primarily a problem in sequencing, in the sense that the Iranians demanded that Trump provide some assurances that he would lift the sanctions in return for Iran going back into full compliance with his obligations under the deal, stopping any kind of aggressive action in the region, and accepting to also go back to the negotiating table to discuss a broader agreement that would, in addition to the nuclear issue, include its ballistic missile program and its regional activities.”
How is domestic opinion inside Iran shaping the situation?
“These assurances never came. President Trump’s approach was primarily based on getting a photo op first and then engage in discussions about what kind of sanction relief is possible.
Trump doesn't need to convince anyone if he wants to take risks while Rouhani needs to convince an entire political establishment
The problem is for Rouhani, who was been blamed in Iran as being naïve to accept the perceived lopsided JCPOA, it was just untenable to once again engage the U.S., which has violated the original agreement in return for the promise of sanction relief without any kind of guarantees that the president would actually provide that.
There's also the difference that as President Macron himself has described: Trump doesn't need to convince anyone if he wants to take risks while Rouhani needs to convince an entire political establishment that is now very skeptical of the value of engaging with the U.S., especially with a president who now seems to be in a much shakier position than he was a few months ago.”
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
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