January 3 marked the second anniversary of the drone strike that eliminated the Iranian regime’s top terrorist operative, Qassem Soleimani. Marking the occasion, there has been a continuous outpouring of belligerence from the regime. The installed President Ebrahim Raisi demanded that former US president, Donald Trump be tried for ordering the strike at the start of 2020, then went on to threaten “without a doubt” that the followers of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would take revenge on US officials anywhere in the world if no trial were forthcoming.
Iranian authorities also stated that they had identified 127 people as “suspects” in Soleimani’s killing. Raisi’s threat served as a general warning about potential Iran-backed terrorist attacks and assassination attempts against American and US allies. That threat was quickly reinforced by a series of drone and rocket deployments against US forces in Iraq and Syria, as well as the seizure of a ship belonging to one of America’s Arab allies. In a comical twist, on Saturday, the Iranian regime announced “sanctions” on more than 50 Americans over Soleimani’s killing.
White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has responded to the regime’s threats by saying there would be “serious consequences” for Tehran if any US citizens are attacked by the Iranian regime or its proxies. But it is not at all clear that the Biden White House is prepared to follow through on such warnings, and so it is also not clear whether Tehran can be expected to take them seriously.
Whatever Tehran’s intentions, their actions are definitely not helping the ongoing negotiations in Vienna. Those talks aim to restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or the so-called JCPOA. But the Iranian regime has been using a different language as well. Every now and then, the Iranian negotiation team, directly or through Russian counterparts, expresses optimism about the development of the talks.
On January 10, the Iranian regime’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian flew to Muscat to meet with Omani officials. Although it was said the visit sought to upgrade Iran-Oman relations, there are speculations that the timing and the unusual two-day-long visit were merely designed to signal Tehran’s desire to revive the nostalgia of the secret talks with American officials in 2013.
Toward that end, Iranian officials have tweaked their public statements in recent days but have done so without actually signaling any change in the regime’s negotiating position. Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesperson for the regime’s Foreign Ministry, said on Monday that the talks had progressed on “all four issues,” with “nuclear issues” being one of them. The other three, however, were all aspects of sanctions relief. Thus, Tehran has opened the door to speculation that it is negotiating its own return to JCPOA compliance, but is still signaling that this outcome very much takes a back seat to sanctions relief.
It is, of course, impossible to say with certainty what the regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei actually has in mind. In March 2021, two months after the political reshape in Washington, he explicitly expressed his stance on the JCPOA: “We are in no rush and we are not insisting on their (the US) return. Our demand, which is both logical and rational, is the lifting of sanctions.”
So far, the mullahs in Tehran have stubbornly refused all proposals that might lead to mutual reimplementation of the 2015 nuclear deal. And since Raisi was installed as president last June, his regime’s posture in the Vienna talks only seems to have become more calcified. That “election” marked the end of negotiations that had begun in April. They then remained stalled for five months, and only resumed at the end of November with their seventh round. The eighth followed right around the New Year, but even after two rounds under Raisi’s leadership, there has been no meaningful progress in talks with the US and its allies.
While the world powers make no sense of the regime’s political games, the clerics in Tehran do not share the same sentiment. As long as the negotiations carry on, the mullahs enjoy impunity on several fronts, both domestically as well as internationally.
While the P4+1 is trying to preserve the talks at all costs, Tehran keeps advancing its nuclear program beyond JCPOA limits, supports terrorist groups around the world and cracks down on dissent inside the country.
But contrary to the image the mullahs want to depict to the outside world, their ranks are heavily fractured, their power in the region strongly weakened and their status domestically at an all-time low.
The greatest of those crises consists of near-constant public unrest all across Iran, much of it defined by explicit calls for regime change which became prevalent during nationwide uprisings in January 2018 and November 2019. In 2021 alone, despite Iran experiencing the highest fatalities during the Covid-19 pandemic regionwide, hundreds of protests and dozens of local uprisings continued to pose a serious challenge to the clerical regime regardless of what happened in Vienna.
In the last two decades, the West has shown that it won’t annoy Tehran with serious action against its human rights abuses, in order to “maintain the talks” for the sake of “world peace”. But practically, world peace was never achieved nor did the talks bore fruit.
It’s time for the West to reconsider its definition of pragmatism and see the benefits of choosing principles over hallow illusions, translated by Tehran’s mouthpieces in the West as “diplomatic interests”.
If effective diplomacy is using the opponent’s Achilles Heel as leverage to reap the most advantageous outcome, then world leaders should stop listening to biased “experts” in their capitals and start looking at what’s going on in Iran’s streets: The people are demanding the regime’s overthrow and democratic change.