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Iran JCPOA discussion flawed as long as politics don’t change

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Cyril Widdershoven


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The ongoing JCPOA discussions in Vienna, leading to a vast range of speculations and rumors in the press, and having already an effect on the global oil and gas markets, are flawed as long as the situation on the ground are not changed for the better. The irrational approach currently being pushed forward within the P5+1, including US indirect participation, with regards to re-establishing the old version of the JCPOA agreement, is a road taken for the worse. As has been shown, not only during the Trump Administration, but also before under Obama, the strict rules of engagement that were put in place for Iran have been broken multiple times. Continuing IAEA reports also have indicated that Iran has not been willing to keep to the agreement, based on ongoing international efforts to acquire especially in Europe hard-needed nuclear and weapons technology to develop an Iranian nuclear weapons capability.

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The German, Dutch and Swedish secret services have multiple times reported that they have blocked the acquisition of technology by Iran, with a specific focus on nuclear and missile technology. As reported by several European security services, such as the Dutch AIVD and MIVD (military) and several German state security services, reported in 2020-2021 that Iran is seeking technology in Europe that it needs to develop weapons of mass destruction. The Dutch AIVD said that these efforts continued last year. The findings come after a German intelligence agency last month said Tehran was turning to Europe in its quest for weapons of mass destruction….Sweden also accused Iran of carrying out industrial espionage aimed at products that could be used to make nuclear weapons….Last month, Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Bavaria, a German state, likewise named Iran as one of several countries trying to develop weapons of mass destruction. As published also by the Jerusalem Post, confirmed by Dutch sources, “according to the Dutch report, “The joint Counter-Proliferation Unit [UCP] of the AIVD and the MIVD [the country’s Military Intelligence and Security Service] is investigating how countries try to obtain the knowledge and goods they need to make weapons of mass destruction. Countries such as Syria, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea also tried to acquire such goods and technology in Europe and the Netherlands last year.” The IAEA several times has complained that Iran has denied the IAEA access for over four months to two of its locations. For all three locations, the Agency reports indications of sanitization or demolition. In one case, these sanitization activities occurred from July 2019 onward, immediately after the IAEA reportedly questioned Iran about the detection of particles of chemically processed uranium at the separate location reported earlier.

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These issues are already very worrying, but Iran’s moves are even more aggressive. In April Iran announced that it would start enriching some of its uranium stock at a 60 percent level, well above the JCPOA-set limit of 3.67 percent. The European JCPOA members France, Germany and the UK issued a joint statement expressing concern. In December 2020, Iran’s parliament has restricted the access of IAEA inspectors to Iran’s nuclear sites starting in February 2021. This has not been put in place in reality, as Tehran and Iran have come to a temporary arrangement, the latter will end on 24 June.

Still, the official position taken by European countries, such as Germany, France and UK, in combination with Russia and China, is to re-establish the JCPOA framework as existed and signed by the Obama Administration. At the same time, no negative repercussions have been put in place, or are threatened at present, due to Iran’s ongoing regional power projections, active support of proxy militias, such as Houthis Yemen, Hezbollah Lebanon, Hamas Gaza or even Iraqi Shi’a militias. To even forget the Iranian role in Syria is even incomprehensible during the discussion, as the Tehran regime is actively involved in committing major war crimes or even possible genocide against Syrian minorities and others.

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At present, a real focus should be on the possible outcome of the Iranian elections, which in contrast to Western expectations will not be changing the internal and external policies of the country in general. Some even could argue that the Western assessments, always looking for possible “moderates or liberals” to be talking too, is flawed from the start. Even that the Iranian political landscape has changed, especially looking at the last presidential election in 2017, changes has not been for the better. A possible internal political thaw has not been generating the outcome European and US based leaders were hoping for. In a stark reaction to growing unrest on the streets and calls for change, the Iranian regime, led by Ayatollah Khamenei and the IRGC-backed extremists, have shown a willingness to crack down on anti-government protests, arrest political and social activists, and increase capital punishment for political prisoners. The latte has become even worse after that US president Trump decided to keep to his election promise and left the JCPOA. Increased sanctions, targeting officially a possible change in regime, has led to a severe economic crisis and major decline of oil and gas export and revenues. Opposition in the country is growing, but at present not able to get a foot between the door in the centers of power. Some analysts now are supporting the theme that a low turnout in the upcoming elections is a blow to the regime, but this could be wishful thinking as long as the majority of the economy is in the hands of the IRGC-linked power centers and companies, while the ultimate power still is in the hands of the ruling elite of Ayatollahs led by Khamenei.

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Arguments are still made in the West to look for a possible moderate or liberal candidate to put support for change. Looking however at the political power structure, and the rule that all potential candidates are vetted by a hardline body known as the Guardian Council, aka Khamenei and friends, no real change will happen. Threatening the position of a religious extremist nationalist regime is not possible at present without external forces or pressure. Iranian opposition is fractured, or not even pro-Western in reality, so the initial options are meager. Focusing on existing low turnout options or internal dissent seems to be a very long-term approach, with an outcome no one can predict. In reality, a low turn-out will, as is always proven, even in real democracies, power to the people or power centers still taking part. It will at present give the upper hand to the hardliners and extreme conservatives. The last weeks, the Guardian Council already has intervened and set the stage for a real extremist fundamentalist candidate list, of which only one is really running for president. Out of a long list of candidates, even including figures like Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the Council has barred most reformist or centrist candidates from standing this year. Last week a list of seven candidates were approved by the council. Just two of the seven are so-called reformist/centrist candidates, and both are considered low profile.  In reality, reformist or centrist in Iran is not the same as in Europe, as in the land of the black, grey is already considered more open, liberal or moderate, especially in Western eyes.

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Assessing the current list of approved candidates, only is the viable. Iran’s judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, known from his candidacy in the 2017 elections, where he was the runner-up is the favorite candidate among the hardliners.  Some analysts already stated that the other candidates are on the list to be supporting Raisi’s position. Western powers, especially the ones engaged in the current JCPOA discussions, should heed the warnings about Raisi. If he is elected, the world needs to deal with an extremist optima-forma, known for his brutal and bloody past. Since 2019 Raisi has been subject to sanctions by the US. Important is also to understand that Raisi is not only running for president, but is preparing himself to become the main power broker to take over in future the position of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi is backed by the conservative camp. He joined after the 1979 Iranian Revolution the judiciary, serving as

a prosecutor for most of his career, which has not been without controversy. A long list of international reports accuse Raisi of being a material factor in the special commission involved in the 1988 mass executions of political prisoners and dissidents. He was at that time serving as deputy prosecutor of Tehran’s Islamic Revolution Court. He is also member of the powerful Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for appointing and removing the Supreme Leader.

The only other candidate with a potential is Mohsen Rezai, who already has run for president three times. In 1981 Rezai was appointed commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 1981, leading IRGC forces during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. His link to the IRGC is not to be dismissed, as the latter holds 40-45% of the Iranian economy in a stranglehold, especially oil and gas related sectors. Rezai has a PhD in economics from Tehran University.

Other candidates are Saeed Jalili, former Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2007-2013, during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when he was also deputy foreign minister. He has also been appointed by Supreme Leader Khamenei to every position he currently holds, but now seen by most as part of the “old guard” by younger conservatives.

Seen by some, Mohsen Mehralizadeh is the only reformist running for election. A potential future role is maybe in the offing by Khamenei, as Mehralizadeh was favored above other reformists in this election. In 2005 when he was refused to run for president, Khamenei interfered and reinstated him. The other candidates are Abdolnasser Hemmati (central bank governor, moderate technocrat), Amirhossein Qazizadeh Hashemi (consultant and hardline MP), Alireza Zakani (hardline MP and anti-Iran’s nuclear deal).

If Raisi is the new Iranian president, a long-term strategy by conservatives is becoming successful. The last years, conservatives have been working on a strategy to consolidate power, take over all branches of the government, remove opposition and internal political fights. Raisi presents again the Holy Grail of Khomeini and Khamenei, all needs to be in place to support the absolute power of the supreme leader.

Without any doubt, if the alliance between Khamenei and Raisi becomes a fact, controlling the Parliament and judiciary, and after 18 June also the presidency, Iran’s regional and international strategies are put in granite, with extreme results for the current JCPOA discussions and regional power stability. One thing is clear, current JCPOA discussions, sometimes described as being positive and fruitful, can be thrown into the dustbin, because a new Sheriff is in Town. Raisi and Khamenei will not have any flexibility currently shown by current president Hassan Rouhani and his followers.

The Biden Administration, and its European Partners, will start to assess the options of being confronted by a doomsday-scenario. Flexibility will be out of the window, Iran’s new Sheriff will be trying to get his own deal, which will not include hard-needed parts on reduction of missile development, stricter control on nuclear technology and upgrading uranium. It for sure will not include any discussions on Iran’s power projections and proxy war support. A weak JCPOA team will be slaughtered by Raisi, who has a history of doing the latter. For the Western powers a success is critical, as politicians and media have been pushing against any Trump-era sanctions on Iran, while forgetting Obama also put some before. The wishful-thinking modernization of Iranian politics, as sometimes reported in western media, is a clear fallacy, as the opposite is put in stone. With hardliners (as the Oxford Dictionary states) will be ruling Iran for a prolonged period in time, Western powers should be first addressing another major flaw in the old JCPOA process. By not taking into account the views and fears of regional Arab powers and Israel, there will be no basis for a success at all.

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Without addressing the continuing confrontation between Iran and its neighbors Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, as shown in Iranian interference and outright support for Houthis, Hezbollah, and Shi’a militias in Iraq, a JCPOA is build on sand. If not addressing the increased militarization of the conflict, as shown by Iranian drones and missile technology against Saudi Arabia’s oil and gas infrastructure (Abqaiq), or the expansion of aggressive Iranian naval operations in the Persian/Arabian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz or Red Sea, there is no basis for anyone to stay optimistic.

Pushing for an American/Biden JCPOA approach at present is a godsent for Iran, and its backers in Moscow and Beijing. By opening up in theory Iran’s economy for investments or international trade will not generate a democratization of the region, but will be paying for the militarization and destabilization of major Arab countries. If a JCPOA 2.0 is targeted, it should not be without the involvement of regional powers. Some have been stating that there is a thaw between Riyadh and Tehran, or even Abu Dhabi and Tehran, as media reports stated ongoing discussions between them. For clarity, security and economic discussions have been in place between enemies in the region every single day. Security discussions between Saudi-Iran or UAE-Iran are continuing, mainly focusing on maritime or Iraq issues. To expect a more flexible and open approach to reach a regional cooperation or as some state a regional disarmament agreement is one of the best fairy tales not yet written down for Sheherazade. Economic discussions have been always in play, as all regional powers are in OPEC, GECF and other fora. To link Iran-Saudi cooperation of the Hadj related travel and security discussions as a base for further cooperation is also Western biased and not based on reality. Religious cooperation for Mecca and Medina is outside of the regional destabilization in place. Saudi Arabia also, as the protector of the Two Holy Places of Islam, cannot refuse others to come, without increasing the Sunni-Shia divisions. The latter would play not only into the cards of Tehran, but also would remove part of the Kingdom’s revenues.

The main road to be taken at present should be as follows:

1.    Targeting JCPOA 1.O as a framework of discussion to address the flows of the Obama Administration

2.    Setting up a regional-wide security discussion including the concerns of Arab States in the Gulf, Egypt, Lebanon and Israel.

3.    Introducing a framework in which Iran’s nuclear strategy is leading, but not committing to take this as the sole bone of contention

4.    Addressing and including missile proliferation, proxy wars and disruptive technology, as Iran is heavily involved in drone development and cyberwar

5.    Before even approaching any deadlines, make sure that all aspects are included, including concerns of non-JCPOA parties

6.    Removing any options for Iran to non-conformism of the agreements

7.    Acknowledge that to relief sanctions on Iran will be taken as a win situation by the regime

8.    Prevent use of external revenues or escrow account money to be channeled to non-Iranian proxies

9.    Set up system to address opening international financial system only in case of Iranian investments in non-defense related technologies or proxies/IRGC

To be successful a full-scale realistic approach needs to be taken, leaving behind Western democratization policies, but addressing and assessing the ongoing hardline politics of the regime. To set up a rejoining of the US of the JCPOA will not only be counterproductive, but also be a major win-win situation for a possible Raisi-Khamenei tandem. If supported and regaining access to financials and financial system Iran’s regime is not going to have any incentive or willingness to change its current behavior. Leaving Iran out of the current regional frameworks or oil-gas markets is not going to be a major shock to markets at the same time. Iran’s former OPEC position and impact is currently constrained, showing an impact. A long-term strategy to compel dangers and risks should be leading, not wishful thinking of Western parties or a Biden Administration coup. Iran’s current power projections, supported partly by Russia and China (as they play a long-game) is not to be underestimated, as we did before.