At times it appears nothing has changed. Iran’s leaders celebrated the 35th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution last week, admonishing America and warning that if Western powers deal unfairly with them or seek to humiliate them in talks over the country’s nuclear program, which are set to resume tomorrow, they are perfectly able to threaten regional and global security.
Iran also chose the anniversary of the 1979 toppling of the Western-backed Shah to tout the successful test firing of new missiles including a new multiple-warhead long-range ballistic missile. Iran’s Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehqan bragged the new missile has “the capability of destroying massive targets and destroying multiple targets.”
The test firing came five days after America’s lead negotiator, Wendy Sherman, told a U.S. Senate panel that Iran’s ballistic missile program would have to be part of any accord reached in nuclear talks between Tehran and the so-called P5+1.
And last week in the run-up to the anniversary, Iranian navy commanders said they had sent warships to the Atlantic to approach U.S. maritime borders for the first time.
Those American politicians and analysts who have remained skeptical of Iran’s good faith when it comes to nuclear negotiations greeted the behavior as evidence of continuing malign intent, arguing that Tehran has no real wish to come in from the cold and that the nuclear program is ultimately for military purposes. John Bolton, the neoconservative former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations warned that while the dispatching of two ships to the Atlantic posed no immediate menace “it shows they could put a weapon on a boat or freighter, and if (Iran) has ballistic missiles it could put it anywhere on the U.S. coast.”
For others Iran’s saber rattling is just a necessary appeasement of hardliners within Iran’s establishment opposed to nuclear negotiations and the reform moves of Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani—a way of buying time for him and his backers.
Further, they argue the anti-Western themed anniversary celebrations with their posters in Tehran’s Azadi Square calling for “Death to America” are a reminder to the U.S. that Rouhani also has to contend with mercurial domestic politics and that there are limits to how far he can go and at what speed—especially in the face of tough American rhetoric.
More than a year on since Rouhani was elected in June 2013 promising to introduce new civil rights, restore the country’s flagging, sanctions-hedged economy and to improve relations with the West, debate still rages over whether Iran’s leadership is really ready for change or is just tricking the West to lift crippling economic sanctions in return for a less-than-perfect deal on the country’s controversial nuclear program, one the Iranians insist is for civil purposes only.
Despite the uncompromising remarks from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, debate about Iran is raging behind closed doors even in Israel with some in the country’s defense establishment maintaining that there may be more going on in Iran than meets the eyes of the hawkish Israeli leader.
Writing for the news site Al Monitor, Israeli TV commentator and columnist Ben Caspit maintains: “No one in the Israeli Defense Forces, the military’s Intelligence Directorate, MOSSAD or the Ministry of Defense plans to go dancing in the streets just yet. However, the sounds and images coming out of Tehran are inspiring great hope…Something real is going on there, they say, adding that this is no act.”
Theater or not, all roads appear to lead to Tehran at the moment. Whatever Rouhani’s ultimate objective—or the intentions of the man who finally decides Iran’s policy, the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—Iran appears to be on speed in terms of its diplomatic outreach and activity with visits of foreign leaders planned and rapprochement overtures being made far and wide.
And that includes towards the most powerful faction within the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Fatah. On January 28 Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with Fatah luminary Jibril Rajoub in Tehran—a rare visit by a Palestinian Authority official to Iran, which has cold-shouldered the PLO in the past and backed it rival Hamas, with its traditional rejection of negotiations with Israel.
There was some harsh rhetoric by the Iranian foreign minister accompanying the visit, with the semi-official Iranian Press TV reporting Zarif as saying Israel was using Iran’s “peaceful nuclear program as pretext to divert world public attention from their crimes in Palestine.”
Six days later, though, Zarif was sounding more conciliatory towards Israel, indicating during a German TV interview at the annual Munich Security Conference that Iran wouldn’t oppose a deal on Palestine—a radical departure for Tehran.
This taking with one hand and giving with another is what confounds analysis of Iran’s intentions: each action is open to more than one interpretation and could be viewed menacing … or conciliatory. Recently Iran has been cozying up to Russia, a country with which it has not always seen eye-to-eye but which has been an ad hoc ally for Tehran, most recently on Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to visit Tehran soon.
Is the outreach to Russia just part of an Iranian version of a good-neighbor policy or is it something more threatening when it comes to relations with the West? In mid-January, reports emerged that Russia and Iran are negotiating a multi-billion dollar backdoor oil-for-goods trade arrangement that would, if it goes ahead, weaken the sanctions regime the Obama administration says need to remain in place as an incentive for Iran when it comes to the nuclear program.
White House officials have raised an alarm, arguing that the phased and reversible economic sanctions relief, already agreed upon with Iran, shouldn’t be added to by backdoor deals. Sanctions busting would undermine incentives, Secretary of State Kerry is reported to have told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
When it comes to Russia, is Iran also conveying another message: deal with us on our terms, or we can Cold War-like turn to Moscow? And are Iranian overtures to France, especially to French business, anodyne or a way to undermine Western resolve?
Last week, during a joint press conference with the visiting French President Francois Hollande, President Obama warned the U.S. would come down like “a ton of bricks” on firms that break sanctions on Iran. Last week, more than a hundred French executives visited Tehran in preparation, they said, for a final accord on Iran’s nuclear program.
Already there are stumbling blocks to the P5+1 talks. The Iranian foreign ministry has reportedly insisted that this round would only focus on nuclear issues. “No topic other than Iran’s peaceful nuclear program is to be raised during the negotiations,” says a ministry spokeswoman. Is that a snub of Sherman’s remarks about Iran’s ballistic missile program needing to be dealt with as well or just maneuvering on the threshold of talks?