From all accounts, Tehran is struggling to cope with the startling news in the weekend from the G7 summit at Biarritz that a meeting between the presidents of the US and Iran is to be expected in the “coming weeks”.
The cautiously optimistic tone struck by the French President Emmanuel Macron and the conspicuously positive attitude adopted by President Trump along with the fact that the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was actually present at Biarritz (with the prior knowledge and tacit concurrence of POTUS) — all these signalled that France’s back-to-back peace initiatives in the recent weeks with Washington and Tehran have come to a defining moment.
From Biarritz, Zarif took off for Tehran ostensibly to change planes for an onward journey to China as part of a previously scheduled Asian tour. Presumably, he briefed Rouhani on what transpired at Biarritz. Zarif is still on the Asian tour — China, Japan, Malaysia, etc., which are, interestingly, major buyers of Iranian oil.
If the Biarritz formula gains traction, these Asian countries have a key role to play in generating income for Iran out of oil sales, which apparently would incentivise Tehran to get into negotiations with the US.
En route to Beijing, Zarif tweeted, “Iran’s active diplomacy in pursuit of constructive engagement continues. Road ahead is difficult. But worth trying.” China’s foreign minister Wang Yi also spoke to Emmanuel Bonne, diplomatic adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron, by telephone on Monday. Bonne said France wanted to coordinate and cooperate with China to ease tensions over Iran and to maintain the 2015 nuclear deal, according to a report by official Chinese news agency Xinhua.
Iranâs FM Zarif (L) was warmly received by Chinese Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) in Beijing on Aug 26, 2019.
The initial reaction from Tehran at the level of Rouhani also suggested that he may be open to the idea of meeting Trump. Notably, Rouhani said on Monday, “I believe we should use any tool to protect our country’s national interests. If I think that meeting someone helps solve the people’s problems, I will not hesitate. The principle is our national interests.”
Two days later, however, Rouhani’s Chief of Staff and key aide Mahmoud Vaezi, who is an influential figure in the foreign policy establishment, conspicuously moderated what the president had said. Speaking to reporters in Tehran on Wednesday, Vaezi said any meeting with the US officials will solve no problem and the US must come back to P5+1 negotiation table and respect its commitments to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Vaezi didn’t altogether reject the idea of a Rouhani-Trump meeting, but added a template that the negotiations must also involve other guarantor states — E3, Russia and China. On the other hand, an Iranian economic delegation is proceeding to France next week. It could be that Tehran is strengthening its bargaining chip as well as insulating itself from the risk of engaging an interlocutor such as Trump who is fickle-minded, lacks consistency and has no coherent policies — and, above all, is surrounded by a team that includes notorious anti-Iran hawks, especially the National Security Advisor John Bolton.
Meanwhile, we see a significant hardening of Tehran’s stance in an interview with the state TV given by the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Seyed Abbas Araqchi. Araqchi simply ruled out any negotiations with Washington so long as the sanctions remained in place.
In his words, “We are only talking with the European countries over our specific 11 demands (based on the JCPOA) and we will not negotiate with the US.” Vaezi’s remarks must be taken seriously, as was one of the key negotiators of the 2015 nuclear deal and is an authoritative voice. Vaezi underlined that that no country would accept to enter negotiations while being under “maximum pressure” because doing so would mean “surrender”.
The offer held out in Biarritz appears to be simply not good enough for Tehran. Why should Tehran “surrender” after successfully countering the US’ regime change agenda and “maximum pressure” strategy and has failed to reach the objectives behind its unilateral move to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal?
On Wednesday, Iran’s top military commander Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri pointedly reminded everyone that it has been the country’s deterrence power that effectively stopped the US from going ahead with its plans to wage a war against Iran.
Quite obviously, a lot of churning has been going on within the top echelons of the Iranian establishment, which involve multiple agencies at an institutional level and even factions that would have congruent political interests or different priorities at any given time. The influential Majlis has not voiced an opinion. The bottom line is that all power centres would be waiting for the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to speak publicly.