- The odds of a breakdown in nuclear negotiations with Iran have increased considerably.
- Iranian government statements in New York last week stressed Iran's efforts to de-emphasize the nuclear talks and “diversify” its global diplomatic agenda.
At the UN General Assembly meetings in New York last week, Iranian officials sought to stress their lack of urgency to resolve enduring disputes about Iran's nuclear program. Complaining that the JCPOA broke down even under the Obama administration, Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian asserted that negotiating with the United States now is pointless, because the wall of distrust between the two countries is so high. He blamed the E3– France, Germany, and the UK–of passivity in the face of US violations of the JCPOA, and he signaled that he would seek to engage elsewhere in Europe given his misgivings about their intentions.
The Biden administration is likely to interpret Amir Abdollahian's efforts to convey a lack of urgency as a desire to make irreversible progress and bargain in the future from a position of greater strength. That could mean that Iran would seek the follow the North Korean path and demonstrate a nuclear weapons capability. Iran has different neighbors than North Korea, however, and the US, Israeli, Saudi, and Emirati response to a demonstrated Iranian capability is likely to be harsh. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is in the Middle East this week and will be traveling to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Iranian nuclear file is undoubtedly high on his agenda.
The Iranian language in New York last week was a stark departure from past years. Under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranian officials often complained of US hegemonic designs on the Middle East. Under President Hassan Rouhani, Iranians teased at the advantages that a warmer relationship between Iran and the United States would hold for both countries. This year, President Raisi's UN address stressed that Iran was “strategic” and “rational” (and used the phrase “strategic rationality”) to bat down accusations that Iran was a reckless force in the Middle East. For his part, Amir Abdollahian seemed fond of the word “logic” last week, suggesting that Iran's resistance to negotiations was a consequence of others' actions, and neither a result of Iranian malice nor mere hostility. Yet, Amir Abdollahian seemed to have plenty of hostility for the United States, which he repeatedly accused of complicity in the death of Iranians unable to get medical treatment due to US sanctions.
Amir Abdollahian sought to suggest that Iran has multiple alternatives to concluding a nuclear agreement with the P5+1, and he argued that Iran was unwilling to tie the nation's fate to the nuclear negotiations. He touted Iran's domestic economy, telling one audience that years of sanctions “have forced Iran to look inward.”
While he seemed especially keen to engage countries in Asia, he argued for a broad diversification of Iran's relationships. Yet, countries are unlikely to seek warmer ties with Iran in the face of growing US and Western European hostility. China may prove an exception in the face of a deteriorating US relationship, and China's imports of Iranian oil shot up last spring, as the US loosened enforcement of sanctions as a confidence building measure in the midst of negotiations. However, China's willingness to incur serious costs on behalf of the Iranians is less certain, and Iran is a small but often useful tool in China's broader efforts to win advantage with the United States.
Amir Abdollahian conveys power when he walks into a room. He is tall and speaks assuredly; he is often unsmiling. Unlike many diplomats, he seems uninterested in the language of diplomacy. He told one group, “Words are not measurable, so they are not valuable.” He is looking for results. It is not clear he advanced his cause in New York.