Tehran expects US engagement but no clear timetable
Washington - In his first news conference after re-election with 57% of the votes, Iranian President Hassan Rohani hinted at the possibility of talks with Washington to ease remaining economic sanctions. This reflects a view not uncommon in Tehran that the administration of US President Donald Trump will, sooner or later, seek engagement.
In his first term, Rohani facilitated and delivered the 2015 nuclear agreement, maintained broad support within the system — including parliament and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and restored economic growth. With a stronger popular mandate, he is now in a better position to push for foreign investment and renew efforts in international diplomacy.
Could that involve talks with the United States? “Don’t rule it out,” an Iranian academic said. “Ayatollah Khamenei has spoken of Trump in a surprisingly respectful way, certainly better than how he spoke about [former President Barack] Obama.”
The notion of tightening sanctions as a step towards talks has been floated in Washington, famously by Ali Vaez in Foreign Affairs magazine in January. The US goal is seen variously as curbing Iran’s regional role or redrawing the 2015 nuclear agreement, described by Trump in his election campaign as the “worst deal ever.”
The administration has its Iran policy under “review” and has introduced sanctions against Iranian and Chinese companies over Tehran’s ballistic missile programme or links to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
However, nearly six months into Trump’s presidency, the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), looks relatively solid. Iran’s compliance has been verified not just by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) but by the US State Department.
Support for the JCPOA was reflected in the welcome given to Rohani’s re-election by Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign affairs high representative, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Saudi Arabia’s response seemed to come in an arms deal with Washington — put at up to $350 billion over ten years — and talk of an Arab version of NATO but neither an arms build-up nor steamy rhetoric preclude talks.
What might US-Iran engagement include? US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, accompanying Trump to Saudi Arabia, said Rohani needed to stop Iran’s missile programme, end its “network of terror” and restore “the rights of Iranians to freedom of speech, to freedom of organisation, so that Iranians can live the life they deserve.”
Along similar lines, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir demanded “that Iran adhere to the letter by the agreement made between it and the P5+1 countries; that Iran cease its support for terrorism, adhere to the UN Security Council resolutions concerning ballistic missiles and cease its human rights violations.”
Iran is under limited pressure over these issues. Russia, China and, less clearly, Europe have said they do not regard the missile programme as contravening UN Resolution 2231, agreed by the Security Council in July 2015, which banned missiles “designed” to carry nuclear weapons.
The “network of terror” is usually taken to refer to Iran’s relations with Hezbollah, militant Palestinian groups and Houthi rebels in Yemen but other than Palestinian threats to Israel these are not of deep concern to Washington and the United States is in a de facto alliance with Iran in Iraq against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Baqer Moin, former head of the BBC Persian service, ruled out early progress with Saudi Arabia but said the case with Washington might be different.
“Rohani is a pragmatist, in line with former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who wanted better relations with the outside world while Iran develops its economy and industry,” said Moin. “The US secretary of state has said they’ll talk to Iran at some stage. At the moment, the Americans are happy to sell as many arms to the Saudis and others as possible but I’m sure Mr Trump is going to keep the nuclear agreement with Iran, which is not only with America but Europe, Russia and China.
“They will, however, put more pressure on Iran, so Iran will make some compromises over the recognition of Israel, over Syria possibly, over Lebanon and Hezbollah. But we have to wait. Mr Trump has changed many things, he’s going to accept Iran as an important country and negotiate. For the moment, he’s happy to sell as many arms as possible to quiet the people at home in America because he has much bigger problems there, including his relationship with Russia.”
The timescale is unclear but important. Tehran awaits a keynote decision from the French major oil company Total, which is seeking clarification from Washington before deciding whether to go ahead with a multibillion-dollar project to develop liquid natural gas from phase 11 of Iran’s vast South Pars gas field. After meeting with Total CEO Patrick Pouyanne in Vienna on May 26, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said he expected a decision “within a month.”