Tehran eyes diplomatic offensive to ease international pressures

September 10, 2017
Greatest challenge. Iranian President Hassan Rohani (R) meeting with Syrian Prime Minister Imad Khamis in Tehran, last January. (The office of Iranian President Hassan Rohani)

Iranian President Hassan Rohani began his second term in a stronger position at home than either of his predecessors, principlist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reformist Mohammad Khatami. Rohani’s backing from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at his inauguration was followed by parliament’s accept¬ance of 16 of 17 of his ministerial nominations.

Rohani wants domestic sup¬port for a diplomatic offensive designed to ease international problems and attract much-need¬ed investment. During the inau¬guration, both he and Khamenei spoke of Iran’s success in avoiding “isolation.” Rohani told parlia¬ment Iran would “not start violat¬ing” its nuclear agreement with world powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and that it should serve as a model for resolving other disputes. For Rohani, the Islamic Republic has taken the moral high ground.

This suggests Iran would seek to maintain the JCPOA alongside other signatories — Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — even if US President Donald Trump abandons it in October when the US Congress is required to review the deal. Whether Trump maintains the JCPOA or strengthens unilateral sanctions over Tehran’s missile programme or support for terrorist groups, Iran might argue it was the in¬jured party. It could then argue it was entitled to further assistance from Russia, China and Europe in achieving economic benefits from the JCPOA.

Tehran’s case was strength¬ened by the quarterly report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the end of Au¬gust confirming Iran’s adherence to the JCPOA. IAEA chiefs in Vi¬enna rebutted criticisms from US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley over physical inspec¬tion of military sites and Iran’s missile programme. EU foreign policy High Representative Fed¬erica Mogherini could hardly have been stronger in defending the JCPOA as “a matter of internation¬al security, international safety and also a matter of credibility of international agreements.”

The Qatar file is probably just under the JCPOA in Rohani’s in tray. Turkey is sending a variety of goods, including textiles, clean¬ing materials, milk products and domestic appliances, to replace those kept out by the Saudi-led blockade. As well as netting growing transit charges, Iran is reportedly receiving $400,000 daily in overflights fees for Qatari aeroplanes diverted from Gulf airspace.

This does not make Tehran’s relationship with Doha central to the dispute between Qatar and the Saudi-led coalition. Elana DeLozier, head of research at the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi, said analysts exaggerated the importance of Qatar paying a $300 million ransom to Shia militia and “Iranian figures” to free a hunting party, including nine Qatari roy¬als, kidnapped in Iraq.

“The Saudi bloc’s issue with Qatar is not about one thing, whether Iran, the Muslim Brother¬hood or terrorist financing,” she said. “From the Gulf’s perspec¬tive, it’s a whole laundry list of things, only a few of which are talked about in the West. Qatar’s relationship with Iran, while part of the laundry list, is not the root cause.”

Saudi Arabia has greater con¬cern over Iran’s role in Iraq, where its own diplomatic offensive has seen Riyadh in recent months host Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Saudis have also announced plans for a consulate in Najaf and for reopening the Jadidah Arar border crossing, closed since 1990.

Sadr’s call for disbanding the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), Iraqi Shia militias partly organised by Iran’s Islamic Revo¬lutionary Guards Corps, once the Islamic State is defeated, challeng¬es Iran. It was quickly dismissed by Abadi but Tehran would be disturbed if, as some expect, pre-eminent Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani rules that the PMF has outlived its mission.

Rohani’s greatest diplomatic challenge may be Syria. Super¬ficially, there may be further signs of progress this month with meetings in Kazakhstan in the next stage of the Astana process involving Russia, Iran and Turkey. But “de-escalation zones” reflect the battlefield power of the Rus¬sian Air Force, the Syrian Army and Lebanon’s Hezbollah: Syria represents a nadir for diplomacy.

Carla Del Ponte resigned from the UN war crimes commission of inquiry on Syria because of what she called “a disgrace for the international community” in the UN Security Council’s failure — due to Russia’s veto — to refer to the International Criminal Court evidence reportedly implicating senior Syrian political and mili¬tary figures. Drawing a contrast to her work in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, Del Ponte said there was “no possibility of seeking justice for the victims.”

Syria has been reshaped with 5 million people, mainly Sunni Muslims, fleeing the country. Their exodus has spread a sense that Syrian President Bashar As¬sad holds power through unjust violence. As this perception permeates the Sunni Arab world, it makes it increasingly difficult for Saudi Arabia to tolerate Iran’s complicity. This deepens the Iran-Saudi rivalry and complicates efforts to find diplomatic solutions for any regional issues.