Iranian foreign minister’s nuclear diplomacy faces limits

Russia perceives Iran as nothing more than a bargaining chip with Washington.
Sunday 20/05/2018
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrives for a meeting at the Europa building in Brussels, on May 15. (AP)
Challenging task. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrives for a meeting at the Europa building in Brussels, on May 15. (AP)

In response to US abrogation of the Iran nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif embarked on a world tour. The aim was to salvage whatever possible from the wreckage of the nuclear deal. Visiting Beijing, Moscow and Brussels, Zarif met all the remaining parties to the JCPOA, but there are limits to what he can achieve with shuttle diplomacy.

China and Russia are not particularly upset with the implosion of the nuclear agreement, which provides them leverage over both Iran and the United States. The Europeans still appear committed to the JCPOA. However, it is not yet known if they can keep their solidarity should the United States decide to punish European companies that trade with Iran. Worse, there are domestic pressures that go against Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s and Zarif’s attempts to keep the nuclear agreement alive. The cumulative impact doesn’t bode well for the JCPOA’s survival.

The diplomatic lingo, however, has been felicitous. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was all smiles when he received his Iranian counterpart on May 13, assuring Zarif of China’s dedication to “maintaining international agreements.” Wang said that “in the next stage, China stands ready to, together with all parties concerned including Iran, maintain communication and coordination and follow an objective, fair and responsible attitude, so as to continue making efforts to maintain the JCPOA.” While those assurances may sound good, Zarif and the Iranian leadership are perfectly capable of reading between the lines. China is committed to the nuclear agreement until Beijing receives a new offer from Washington after which a “new situation” arises.

Just as importantly, the collapse of the nuclear agreement keeps American and potentially European companies from engaging with Tehran, which leaves the Iranian market open to Chinese companies with no foreign competition. Why would China ruin its bargaining position towards Iran and the US, or invite foreign competition into the Iranian market by keeping the nuclear agreement alive?

In Moscow, Zarif met his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, who assured Tehran that all the remaining signatories of the JCPOA had “legitimate interests” in keeping the deal. Lavrov added: “Therefore we need to defend the legitimate interests of each of us together.”

Zarif and Lavrov also agreed to remain in “close contact” over the nuclear deal, but the Iranian leadership has seen this movie before. While the Islamic Republic wants to see Russia as a strategic ally, Russia perceives Iran as nothing more than a bargaining chip with Washington. Moscow uses the conflict between Tehran and Washington to extract concessions from both, and because the US has more to offer Russia than Iran, the Kremlin unscrupulously sells out Tehran’s interests when the price is high enough.

Perhaps noticing a genuine interest in maintaining the nuclear deal in Brussels, Tehran has taken a bolder approach with the Europeans. It has given them a 60-day ultimatum to guarantee the continued implementation of the deal. But guarantees are something Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, has not been ready or able to give.

“We are talking about solutions to keep the deal alive,” Mogherini said. She added that the measures would seek to allow Iran to continue oil exports and for European banks to operate. However, she also said: “I cannot talk about legal or economic guarantees.”

The EU foreign policy chief’s cautious response is understandable. Already on the brink of a trade war with the United States, the Europeans have no interest in escalating their conflict with Washington. At the same time, Mogherini is aware of the splits within the EU. Certain member states may break with the EU’s Iran policy and follow Washington’s course.

Finally, the hapless Zarif and Rohani face their domestic critics, in particular among the ranks of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC demands Iran’s immediate withdrawal from the nuclear deal, questioning what, if anything, Rohani and Zarif achieved with their nuclear diplomacy. The cumulative impact of external and internal pressures doesn’t bode well for the survival of the nuclear deal.