Iran and the United States have recently engaged in a spiraling escalation of threats and warnings, even as they are progressing in diplomatic talks about reviving the 2015 nuclear deal.
On Saturday, Iran’s Parliament placed largely symbolic sanctions on 51 Americans, many of them prominent political and military officials, for “terrorism” and “human rights violations,” in retaliation for the U.S. assassination of Iran’s top commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, two years ago.
Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, then warned that Iran would “face severe consequences” if it attacked any Americans, including any of the 51 people hit with the sanctions. And U.S. officials generally have been quite circumspect in their appraisals of the state of the negotiations on the nuclear deal.
Yet on the same day that Iran issued the sanctions, the country’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, said outstanding differences in the deal were diminishing and that talks were moving forward, the official news agency IRNA reported.
Symbolic acts of sanctioning individuals and issuing sharply worded statements are nothing new in the long and troubled relationship between Tehran and Washington. But the recent exchanges are noteworthy because they come during a negotiation that both sides want to complete successfully, but without appearing to make significant concessions.
Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed tough economic sanctions cutting off most of Iran’s oil revenues and international financial transactions. Trump’s goal was to pressure Iran into a deal that reached beyond its nuclear program, restricting its ballistic missiles and regional political and military activities.
The Biden administration initially wanted to return to the original deal while following the Trump blueprint on missiles and foreign policies, but has now indicated it would accept a return to the 2015 accord without those strings attached.
The Iranians, for their part, said they would entertain only a return to the original accord, but initially demanded the lifting of all sanctions imposed by Trump and guarantees that a future American president would not withdraw from the deal. But Tehran has softened those demands as the negotiations have progressed in Vienna.
Despite all the posturing, the impetus for reaching a deal renewing the 2015 treaty remains strong for both sides.
The Biden administration needs a foreign policy success, particularly after the chaotic exit from Afghanistan, and has said it prefers a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear standoff over military confrontation. Iran, too, having survived the maximum pressure policy of the Trump years, is keen to avoid conflict, gain sanctions relief and revive its ailing economy.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, signaled an indirect endorsement of talks with the U.S. in a speech on Monday when he said the Islamic Republic “holding talks and negotiating with the enemy at certain junctures does not mean surrendering.”
Yet neither side wants to seem too eager to compromise, which would risk appearing weak.
“Iran appears to be buying time under the cover of continued diplomacy,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran director of the International Crisis Group. “Something’s got to give. Otherwise, we are really on a collision course.”
The recent jousting between Tehran and Washington is linked to Iran’s commemoration on Jan. 3 of the two-year anniversary of the assassination of Soleimani. In speech after speech during the ceremonies, Iranian officials threatened revenge against U.S. officials — even though Iran had retaliated five days after the assassination with a ballistic missile strike on an American military facility in Iraq.
Ibrahim Raisi, the newly elected hard-line Iranian president, said that Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, should stand trial in an impartial court and face “ghesas,” a term that in Islamic jurisprudence means an “eye for an eye.” Otherwise, he warned, people would take their own revenge.
The head of the Quds Force, Gen. Esmail Ghaani, issued a broader threat in his speech at a ceremony for his predecessor, Soleimani. “We will facilitate revenge on Americans in any place, even their own homes and by people close to them, even if we are not present,” he said in a video of the speech.
Immediately following the anniversary, Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria stepped up attacks on U.S. interests.
Over a four-day period, they unleashed a series of rocket and drone attacks on a U.S. military base in western Iraq and on the living quarters of State Department employees at the Baghdad airport, according to the Iraqi military and an official with the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition based in Baghdad, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
He said U.S. air defenses shot down all the rockets and drones aimed at the base and the State Department facility, the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center, before they could do any damage, much less inflict casualties.
In northeastern Syria, artillery rounds were fired at a Syrian-Kurdish-led base with U.S. advisers, according to the U.S.-led coalition, which issued a statement blaming the attacks on “Iran-supported malign actors.”
Yet, at the same time that Tehran’s proxies were launching the attacks, Iranian officials were expressing a surprisingly optimistic view of the talks in Vienna, now in their eighth round, while the State Department was offering a more measured assessment.
An adviser to Iran’s Foreign Ministry said he believed a deal could be reached before mid-February, which would coincide with the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Iranian negotiators under Raisi, the new president — who had criticized his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, for being too soft — made an important concession to get things rolling by agreeing to work from a draft agreement worked out with Rouhani’s team, two people familiar with the talks said.
Under that agreement, the U.S. would lift all sanctions related to the nuclear deal (while keeping those for human rights and other issues) and Iran would return to its technical commitments regarding its nuclear program under the old treaty. But critical sticking points remain, such as which sanctions would be lifted and when, and in return for what specific actions by Iran, with an as-yet-to-be determined timeline that would sequence the steps.
Washington’s outlook has been more cautious than Tehran’s. Two senior State Department officials noted some modest progress in the talks, gaining a bit more ground beyond where the negotiations had paused in June. But both officials emphasized, without going into specifics, that major points still needed to be addressed. All the while, patience is wearing thin at the State Department.
“I’m not going to put a time limit on it or give you the number of meters remaining on the runway, except to say, ‘Yes, it is getting very, very, very short,’” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters late last year.
While the United States could still offer Iran more sanctions relief, Vaez from the International Crisis Group said, officials in Tehran have failed to persuade Western negotiators that they are serious about coming back into full compliance with the 2015 accord.
Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdullahian, indicated that Iran may have softened its initial demand for the removal of all sanctions imposed after Trump exited the deal, including those related to human rights.
But in an interview last week with Al-Jazeera, Abdullahian said that at this stage in Vienna, Iran was pursuing “the removal of sanctions” related only to the original nuclear deal and looking to complete sanctions removal sometime in the future.
While the two sides rumble on toward some sort of resolution, there is no doubting the seriousness of the negotiation, Vaez warned.
Iran has long maintained that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. But if the talks fail, Vaez said, its efforts at enriching uranium since the U.S. exited the nuclear deal have put it in a position to move toward weaponization very quickly.