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Iranian challenges for the Middle East
Published in Ahram Online on 10 - 08 - 2021

The first telephone conversation between new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and a western leader, French President Emmanuel Macron, was the embodiment of the difficulties in relations between Iran and the West.
While there are ambitions to improve those relations, there is very little trust.
During their conversation, Raisi criticised the "tyrannical" sanctions against Iran imposed by the US, which have ravaged the country since 2018, and asked for them to be lifted. He also asked for the Iran nuclear talks to be resumed and for Iran's rights to be respected, but offered no plan to achieve these things.
Raisi, who took office last Thursday, told the French president that the US and the EU must fulfil their obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. He also asked his French counterpart to help secure Iran's "rights" in the talks to revive Tehran's nuclear deal with the world powers.
"In any negotiation, the rights of the Iranian nation should be secured and guaranteed," he said, criticising the US for abandoning the accord and reimposing crushing sanctions under former US president Donald Trump.
Raisi's remarks signal Iran's willingness to return to the negotiating table, but not at any price.
During his inauguration, which signalled the hardliners' dominance of all branches of government in Iran, the former judiciary chief known for his distrust of the West said that the "sanctions must be lifted… We will support any diplomatic plan that supports this goal."
Raisi also stressed his embrace of diplomacy to mend rifts with Iran's neighbours, a reference to the Gulf Arab countries. But he said that Iran was seeking to expand its power as a counterbalance to foes across the region.
"Wherever there is oppression and crime in the world, in the heart of Europe, in the US, Africa, Yemen, Syria, Palestine... we will stand by the people," he said, referring to Iran-backed militias like Yemen's Houthi rebels and Lebanon's Hizbullah. "The message of the [presidential] election was resistance against arrogant powers," he added.
Without proposing specific policies, Raisi pledged to resolve the country's mounting economic crisis, restore the spiralling currency, and "empower poor people".
Macron called on Iran to "quickly resume negotiations in Vienna in order to get to a conclusion and put an end without delay to all the nuclear activities it is carrying out in breach of the agreement," a French government statement said summarising the conversation between Macron and Raisi.
There is no doubt that European optimism for a swift return to the Iran nuclear deal after the election of Joe Biden as US president in November 2020 has faded in recent months.
There are new facts on the ground, on top of which is Tehran's gradual abandonment of its commitment to many of the terms of the original nuclear agreement, the intensification of tensions between it and Israel, and the election of a hardline president.
It is little wonder that many European diplomats believe that the next few months will prepare the ground for either a positive diplomatic breakthrough in relations between Tehran and Washington that will open the way for a return to the nuclear agreement or for a sharp deterioration in relations not only between Iran and the US but also between Iran and Europe.
"A few months ago, we were confident about returning to the nuclear deal. Now this confidence is diminishing. After the developments of the past weeks, the European countries are realising that the path to resuming the deal is fraught with dangers." a European diplomat with knowledge of the negotiations told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Any failure of the talks could be disastrous for Middle East stability. The European countries and the US want Iranian cooperation on crises such as those in Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria. During the conversation between the Iranian president and his French counterpart, the challenging political and financial situation in Lebanon was also discussed.
Iran wields great influence in Lebanon through its backing of the Shia group Hizbullah. Raisi thanked Macron for his support for Lebanon during its unprecedented financial crisis in the phone conversation between the two men, adding that Iran welcomes anything that advances "the stability, security, and improvement of the economic situation of the Lebanese people."
Macron expressed his hope of restoring stability in Lebanon.
The sudden outbreak of hostilities across the Israel-Lebanon border and also with Hamas in Gaza has alarmed many, however. Hizbullah has admitted launching missiles into Israel, perhaps a message for Israel's new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett sent with Iran's approval.
Days before Raisi's inauguration, the region saw a series of escalations, including an explosive-laden drone attack on the Israel-linked tanker MV Mercer Street off the coast of Oman that killed a Briton and a Romanian last week.
The US, UK, and Israel blamed Iran for the assault, though Tehran has denied any involvement.
Speaking to Macron, Raisi emphasised that Iran "is very serious about providing security and preserving deterrence" in the Gulf and the Sea of Oman. The country routinely "confronts offenders of security," he added.
The rising tensions in the region also come while Tehran gradually halts its commitments under the nuclear deal.
After the US withdrawal from the deal in 2018, Tehran has slowly abandoned every limitation it imposed on its nuclear-enrichment activities.
The country now enriches a small amount of uranium up to 63 per cent, a short step from weapons-grade levels, compared to 3.67 per cent under the deal. It also spins far more advanced centrifuges than are allowed under the accord, worrying nuclear non-proliferation experts.
Tehran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful.
Raisi has promised to engage with the US, but he has also struck a hardline stance, ruling out negotiations aimed at limiting Iranian missile development and support for regional militias, both of which the Biden administration wants to address in future talks.
US state department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that the US would wait to see what approach the new government in Iran takes.
"Our message to President Raisi is the same as our message to his predecessors and that is very simple: the US will defend and advance our national-security interests and those of our partners," he said. "We hope that Iran seizes the opportunity now to advance diplomatic solutions."
The Biden administration is expected to be pragmatic in its relations with the new Iranian president. Washington wants Tehran to help solve the crises in the Middle East as a way to prove its goodwill and progress towards returning to the nuclear deal.
One of the main crises is that in Yemen, and on Monday the US said another $165 million in aid would be sent to Yemen to help feed civilians. It said the six-year conflict was "stalemated" as international peace efforts still struggle to gain purchase.
The US focus on humanitarian efforts comes after Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen rebuffed repeated appeals by the Biden administration to enter into peace talks. The Houthi fighters have opted instead to continue a siege to capture Yemen's last government stronghold in the north in the oil-rich Marib province.
"The Houthis are not winning in Marib" despite the grinding siege, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking said in a call with reporters on Monday.
"When that reality dawns on people, dawns on the Houthis, I think it will force them to realise that the continued isolation and the fact that the conflict is more of a stalemate will pull them back, and I hope bring them to the negotiating table," Lenderking said.
He praised the work of Oman and others in the peace talks and described Iran as the only remaining international player in the conflict that was indifferent or worse to the fighting.
"I hear some sweet words coming out of Tehran... but I haven't seen anything on the ground that leads me to believe that the Iranians are prepared to play a constructive role," he said.
Adding to the worries regarding the nuclear talks and the situations in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria, Raisi's tenure started on the wrong foot when Tehran suspended talks on an international prisoner swap and gave a 10-year jail sentence to a British-Iranian national in Iran, Mehran Raoof.
However, the new Iranian president was always likely to start his term with tough language, and the hope is that more pragmatism will emerge as he tries to solve the huge problems the country is facing, especially economic.
The Covid-19 pandemic is surging in Iran, and inflation and shortages are wreaking havoc. Official figures show that the poverty rate in the country doubled over the last two years, reaching 30 per cent in 2019.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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