ANALYSIS: How to pursue talks with Iran while isolation haunts the regime

What we have all come to understand is the fact that protests across Iran came as a major shock for the ruling regime and the international community. While the first wave of protests may have been quelled, Iran’s regime fully understands there is an intense fire burning in this powder keg society.

Making matters even worse, and a subject Tehran refuses to discuss, is the parallel expansion of international isolation currently haunting this regime. The Obama years are gone and the United States, Europe and the Arab World are adopting increasingly stronger positions against Iran’s belligerent policies.

Iranian protesters are following these developments closely, knowing the stronger the international effort, the weaker the clerical rulers will be in quelling their demands for ultimate regime change.

Washington initiative

In response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s 120-day ultimatum for Europe to improve the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson paid a visit to his European counterparts to discuss Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional meddling.

This cumulative pressure, with the Trump administration pushing forward this new Washington initiative to reform the JCPOA, is placing the Europeans before a decision they have been kicking down the road for decades, and especially during the eight years of Obama’s full-throttle appeasement drive.

This rift in the West’s actions provided Tehran the breathing room it desperately needed to export its dilemmas abroad, under the banner of “exporting the revolution.” The end results in Iraq, Syria and Yemen go beyond any need of explanation after all these years of atrocities.

Europe changing face

During his London visit, Tillerson placed his finger on a subject considered highly sensitive for Iran. There is a growing consensus between the U.S., the UK, France and Germany over improvements necessary on various segments of the JCPOA and Iran’s behavior in different areas continuously causing concerns for the international community.

Prior to this, signs have been growing of Europe changing face, as Paris and London very specifically made it known that Iran must take major steps back over its bellicosities. Without the Obama administration providing life support for Tehran, the world has no ear for this regime’s claims of pursuing a “defensive” ballistic missile program and meddling across the Middle East “to protect religious interests.”

Despite the reality that European companies were seen initially rushing to Iran following the JCPOA signing, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in his recent visit to Washington said their two countries are determined to even impose economic sanctions on Iran in response to its ballistic missile development.

As similar remarks are heard from the U.K. and Germany, it is wise to conclude that these partners on both sides of the Atlantic are beginning to tighten the rope with meaningful measures against Tehran.

Arab World offensive

Another sign of the recent Iran protests and international isolation hitting Iran where it hurts came as the regime’s top diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif, cancelled his participation in the annual World Economic Forum at Davos.

For those familiar with the Iranian regime, this came as no surprise as Zarif knew harsh questions would be awaiting him regarding Tehran’s quelling of recent protests. Such a scene was witnessed at the verbal beating Aladdin Borujderdi, head of Iran’s parliamentary Security Commission, received during his recent European Parliament visit.

Gulf Arab officials used the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday to slam Iran for its destabilizing behavior in the region.

Zarif’s telling absence left the Davos platform ripe Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to launch a wave of harsh criticism at the Iranian regime.

“[Iran] is using sectarianism and terrorism in order to interfere in the affairs of other countries,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told a panel at the forum.

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash went on to accuse Iran’s influence in the region of “transnational sectarianism” nature, adding a wake-up call to Tehran by describing the recent protests across the country set “very significant” markers.

“The whole idea of not Gaza, not Syria but Iran is what you [Iran] should concentrate on, is a clear message, not from us across the Gulf, but from your own population. Don’t spend $5/6bn annually in Syria, don’t spend a billion on Hezbollah,” he added in reference to Iranian demonstrators protesting the regime’s Middle East policy.

Different perspective

Despite this pressing emphasis on Iran’s ballistic missile drive and regional meddling, Tehran seems to be seeing things differently.

“The JCPOA is facing fragile circumstances. Domestic disputes in this regard can be tantamount to an assist to the U.S.,” according to the Bahar website, close to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
It is quite obvious that Washington’s talks with Europe are not restricted to the JCPOA, but also covering the very issues Iran refuses to mention, cloaking its concerns behind a different perspective regarding recent developments.

It has become a known tactic of Iranian media and figures close to the ruling elite to launch a brouhaha about the JCPOA, while remaining silent on sensitive issues, such as their ballistic missiles and foot-sprints across the Middle East.

Why Iran needs to remain silent in this regard is quite obvious. At a time when people across the country are placing the very pillars of this regime in their crosshairs and demanding regime change, Tehran understands its weakening positions in the international spectrum will have a direct impact on domestic issues.

We must all come to understand conditions inside Iran and its relations with the outside world will never return to the status desired by the ruling regime and those international parties benefiting from these settings.

In such circumstances, each and every government across the globe has a duty to stand on the right side of history, being shoulder to shoulder with the Iranian people. This is no time to decrease any pressure on Iran’s regime. Unlike the JCPOA, the setbacks foreseen for Iran’s ballistic missile program and Middle East meddling must be sweeping and evocative.

If Iran avoids these two subjects, the international community must understand this is exactly where this regime will bleed significantly. Taking action in this regard will also send the correct message to Iran’s protesters.

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ANALYSIS: Understanding Washington’s fast-evolving Iran policy

On the doorstep of US President Donald Trump’s first National Security Strategy speech, the administration launched an unprecedented campaign of pinpointing the crosshairs on the epicenter of all extremism causing havoc across the Middle East: Iran.

This comes following a Wall Street Journal article explaining how in the post-ISIS world Washington will begin pinpointing its focus and resources on the larger and more dangerous threat posed by Tehran.

‘Hard look’

The Trump administration has made it clear that a wide array of destructive policies adopted by Tehran have become unacceptable, a clear indication of the end of Iran’s years of windblown successes, thanks mainly to eight years of the Obama’s unbridled appeasement policy and strategic mistakes of previous administrations.

Described as a “first” by Reuters, last Thursday US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley displayed a detailed exhibition of Iranian equipment used to arm Yemen’s Houthi militias – long known to be backed by Iran – and thus, to destabilize the region, especially its archrival, Saudi Arabia.

“We are not just focused on the nuclear program,” Haley said during a press conference at a US Department of Defense hangar where the Iranian equipment were placed before the media. “We’re also taking a hard look at Iran’s ballistic missile program, its arms exports, and its support for terrorists, proxy fighters and dictators.”

Iran can also be described as the facilitator, and maybe even the godfather, of a slate of malign practices rendering suffering across the Arabian Peninsula, leading to the Levant and eastward to Central Asia.

“It’s hard to find a terrorist group in the Middle East that does not have Iran’s fingerprints all over it,” Haley continued, adding how this regime is “fanning the flames” of conflict.

It is worth reminding that for decades the US State Department has considered Iran the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. We may actually be on the verge of meaningful and long overdue measures against Tehran on this very important and vital subject.

A different Iraq

US policy shifting also faces major decisions regarding the path forward in Iraq, as the three year war against ISIS group begins to wind down and Washington seeks to roll back Tehran’s influence over Baghdad. Disputes between the central government and the Kurdish region, parallel to the May general elections in which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seeks reelection, are important subjects for all parties involved.

“Iran simply does not respect the sovereignty of its neighbors,” said Douglas Silliman, the US Ambassador to Iraq, while voicing how Washington is encouraged over recent efforts made by Baghdad to establish stronger ties with Riyadh and Amman.

This adds to Tehran’s troubles in Mesopotamia, as there are signs of growing rifts among its allies in Iraq’s Shiite majority. A stereotype mentality would suggest Iran is seeking the return of Nouri al-Maliki, a former prime minister considered by many as extremely loyal to Tehran.

Maliki, however, would need the unified support of Iraq’s Shiite community. Troubling Iran’s intentions is how various influential figures, such as Muqtada Sadr, have established close ties with Riyadh or signaled their own objectives.

Hadi al-Amiri, commander of Iraq’s largest Shiite paramilitary group, the so-called Badr Organization, called on his fighters on Thursday to begin taking orders from the national military and end their ties with the group’s political wing.

This move, parallel to unconfirmed reports of orders for the group’s fighters to withdraw from cities they currently control, paves the path for Amiri to take part in the upcoming May 12th parliamentary elections.

Back in July, Ammar al-Hakim, a politician known for his links to Iran, withdrew from the Tehran-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq to launch a new party, the National Wisdom Movement. Al-Hakim has claimed to seek Sunni support for his new initiative.

July was the same month of Sadr’s Saudi and UAE visit, and he also raised eyebrows by calling for the controversial Popular Mobilization Forces to dismantle and integrate into the country’s armed forces.

Reports also indicate that Sadr intends to establish a political alliance with Abadi, the al-Wataniya slate of Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi and the Civil Democratic Alliance before May’s elections. Raising concerns for Iran is the fact that all these parties have called for political reforms in Iraq.

Necessary deterrence

With the US military effort against ISIS decreasing in necessity, the Trump administration is also weighing the future of its Syria campaign, with Iran on their mind. Having recently announced the presence of more than 2,000 American forces stationed currently in Syria, the new goal for these units is a highly debated subject.

As we remember the drastic experience of Obama’s premature pull-out of Iraq and the resulting consequences that paved the path for the rise of ISIS, US Defense Secretary James Mattis has indicated American troops have no intention of leaving the Levant in the foreseeable future.

It is vital to ensure ISIS is prevented the ability to morph into a dangerous new entity with the potential of raising new threats in this already hostile region. Furthermore, rest assured Washington is taking into considerable consideration the presence of Iranian proxies across the Levant, and how the stationing of US troops on the ground acts as a major deterrence element against Tehran’s treacherous initiatives.

Times have changed

Advocates of engagement vis-à-vis Iran are accusing the Trump administration of trailing the path of launching a war with Iran. Their intentions are far from preventing the US from entering a new war, but to protect Tehran from any strong measures, including international sanctions that target the regime and actually benefit the people by weakening the ruling system.

This piece is not a call for war with Iran, and there is a logic that needs understanding for those concerned about Iran responding violently to a US policy shift. Tehran’s support for militias in Iraq back in the 2000s enjoyed the support of two key elements:

1. A completely unified Iranian regime with former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acting as the puppet of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

2. Billions in revenue rendered by skyrocketing oil prices soaring up to nearly $140 a barrel in June 2008.

This is not the case today, as Iranian politics is a scene of unprecedented internal quarrels described locally as “dogfights,” and the lowered price of oil and increasing sanctions leveled against Tehran are disrupting the regime’s efforts, seeking to maximize its regional bellicosity.

‘Global threat’

As emphasized by Ambassador Haley, it is high time for the international community to take decisive action, such as crippling sanctions targeting the regime and its belligerent institutions, to finally bring an end to what has become “a global threat.”

The Iranian opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran, known for blowing the whistle on Tehran’s clandestine nuclear program, indicates how a “firm policy hinges on the following practical measures:

– Evicting the IRGC and its proxy militias from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Afghanistan, and preventing the transfer of Iran’s weaponry and troops to these countries;

– Imposing comprehensive sanctions on Iran and the IRGC, especially preventing their access to the global banking system;

– Referring Iran’s human rights violations dossier, particularly the 1988 massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners, to The International Criminal Court, and placing the regime’s senior officials responsible for these crimes before justice;

– Imposing previous UNSC resolutions covering Iran’s nuclear weapons program, banning uranium enrichment, and launching unconditional inspections into the regime’s military and non-military sites.”

Will Iran’s Troubles In Yemen Propagate Elsewhere?

Recent developments in Yemen and the killing of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh has highlighted what Iran has sought long to cloak. Tehran’s campaign in Saudi Arabia’s backyard has stumbled upon major political and military setbacks, providing the opportunity for Washington to correct a policy in need of strong amending.

How the future unfolds in Yemen has the potential of sparking a series of major defeats for Iran across the region, spilling into the country’s shaky politics and fueling further domestic unrest.

Senior Iranian officials, however, have gone the distance to portray Saleh’s death as a step forward against their regional archrivals, mainly Saudi Arabia.

Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) chief Mohammad Ali Jafari described it as the end of a “sedition” or “treason.”

Ali Akbar Velayati, the international affairs advisor of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, even described Saleh as the agent of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who deserved such a fate.

The two, considered members of Khamenei’s inner circle, describe the latest events in Yemen as a conspiracy. The bigger picture, however, reveals a major rout for Khamenei’s ambitions in the Arabian Peninsula.

Saleh’s forces have separated from the Iran-backed Houthis, depriving Tehran of a large bulk of vital manpower on the ground. Saleh enjoyed the support of a large segment of the armed forces, many tribes and the Popular Congress Party with all its branches in cities across Yemen.

The Houthis, being a militia entity, have now lost this key source of support and legitimacy for their cause. To add insult to injury for Iran, a large portion of Saleh loyalists have pledged allegiance to the Saudi-led coalition, providing crucial ground forces and intelligence to their effort against the Houthis.

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Huthi supporters brandish their weapons during a protest against US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on December 8, 2017. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Muslim and Arab countries across the world to protest against Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians. / MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

This renders meaningless Iran’s claims of now enjoying full control over Sanaa. Even after Saleh’s death Iran sought to seal all resulting rifts in Yemen’s landscape, understanding the meaning of losing Saleh’s boots. This can also be considered a signal of the Houthis’ fragile and vulnerable status quo.

It is safe to say these turn of events have terminated any hope of negotiations for the Houthis, as they have revealed their true nature. It has become crystal clear for all parties in Yemen, and across the Middle East, of the fate awaiting those who mingle with Tehran. To begin with, Yemen’s long slate of tribes will now – if not already – have deep suspicions over Iran’s intentions on their soil.

Comprehending the lack of any tangible future for his regime’s Yemen initiative, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has twice called for engagement and negotiations with regional states.

This marks a stark change in strategy for Iran, as Yemen for Khamenei resembled a bargaining chip, based on the alliance they previously enjoyed with Saleh’s loyalists.

Yemen has now become the most vulnerable piece of Iran’s Middle East puzzle. Tehran’s position in the region is also downgrading and weakened deeply, making Rouhani’s call for talks more understandable.

The setbacks in Yemen has had its impact on Iran’s other political endeavors. Following the recent missile launch from Yemen targeting Riyadh, and evidence showing the missile being of Iranian origin, France and other European countries have voiced positions far different from their stereotype calls for engagement with Tehran.

Parallel to French President Emmanuel Macron seeking talks to curb Iran’s ballistic missile program, his top diplomat Jean-Yves Le Drian in a recent interview signaled Paris will not accept Tehran’s military expansion to the Mediterranean.

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BEIJING, CHINA – NOVEMBER 24: French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian speaks during a meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi (not pictured) at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on November 24, 2017 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Jason Lee – Pool / Getty Images)