Pictured: Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi speaks before parliament in Tehran on August 25, 2021. (Photo by Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)
Is it because they are still learning the ropes or have they understood that they can no longer afford a change of course? The question concerns President Ebrahim Raisi's new team in the Islamic Republic of Iran sending conflicting signals.
At one level, we have the usual blood-curdling outbursts, mostly coming from the few hundred mullahs and military men who provide the backbone of the Khomeinist regime for the past four decades. At another level, one hears a soothing tune designed to signal that the new team may not be the bitter-ender outfit that former President Hassan Rouhani and his team claimed.
The blood-curdling outburst may be caused by the fact that the usual chorus of verbal revolutionaries hasn't yet realized that their regime is in rather poor shape and can no longer afford the luxury of pseudo-revolutionary logorrhea. On the other hand, the soothing tune may be a lullaby to send real or imaginary foes into a slumber.
In either case, it would be unwise to forget that while Rouhani and his "New York Boys" always had to look behind their back for knife-wielding puritans, the Raisi team, consisting of knife-wielders of the first order, can, if it is needed for the survival of the regime, sell the family silver with no fear of being stabbed in the back.
While Raisi goes around saying he wants "to get things done", thus Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian assures foreign dignitaries that the new "Islamic President" is "pragmatic," presumably prepared to sacrifice ideological shibboleths.
So far, the Raisi team has swallowed its pride by limiting itself to a symbolic military demonstration on the border of the (former Soviet) Republic of Azerbaijan. On the very day that Baku was closing trade routes to Iran, arresting Iranian truck drivers and laying claim to parts of Iranian territory, Abdollahian was receiving the new ambassador from Baku with full pomp and no mention of the injurious behavior of the Aliev clique.
Then came another surprise as Abdollahian announced that if Washington transferred $10 billion to Tehran, he would return to the "nuclear talks" in Vienna "sooner." He did not say what "sooner" actually meant. Nor did he suggest how much would persuade him to return to Vienna immediately.
Some commentators saw the $10 billion demand as a precondition for returning to the "nuclear talks". A day later, however, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told the press that the Islamic Republic would return to the talks with "absolutely no preconditions". What had delayed the return, he said, was the process of "reaching consensus" in Tehran.
Taken as it is, this represents a huge climb-down by the Islamic Republic.
Ever since US President Joe Biden announced his decision to abandon "the maximum pressure" policy launched by his predecessor Donald Trump, Tehran had been piling up conditions for return to the Vienna talks. Believing that Biden would be as keen as Barack Obama to make a deal with Iran, the Khomeinist leadership pretended that it was not in a hurry to resume talks. To underpin that position, Tehran set five preconditions.
The first was that the US agree to lift all sanctions not directly related to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as Obama's Iran nuclear deal is known.
The second condition was that specific sanctions imposed under Trump on Iranian officials and institutions, most notably "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, be canceled.
The third condition was that "other issues" such as Tehran's ballistic missile program and its interventions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen, and human rights related concerns, not be included in the talks.
The fourth was that the US release frozen Iranian assets and lift the restrictions imposed on other countries to do the same.
The fifth condition was to introduce measures to make sure that the US would no longer be able to withdraw from the JCPOA in its revised version. It was not clear how could such measures be introduced unless the JCPOA, an informal accord, was turned into a treaty approved by the US Senate.
In any case, it now seems that Tehran has dropped all its preconditions, thus kicking the ball into Biden's court. The US president may or may not wish to test Tehran's new position.
He may wish to seize the opportunity by ending the diplomatic cul-de-sac created over the JCPOA, thus claiming to have undone another of Trump's signature policies.
But that, even without the unfreezing of Iranian assets, would help the Islamic Republic to benefit from a measure of normality in its foreign trade, especially by increasing oil exports and receiving dollar payments from customers, such as China, India and Japan. Solving its cash flow problem, the Khomeinist regime could heighten its regional profile and be tempted into attempting further mischief.
On the other hand, Biden might seize the opportunity provided by Tehran's claimed "pragmatism" to tackle the real source of tension with the Islamic Republic over the past four decades: its efforts to "export" the Islamic revolution and carve out an ideological empire in the name of its brand of Islam.
Some of us have always believed that the "nuclear issue" was a sideshow designed to divert attention from the fact that, even without a putative nuclear arsenal, the Khomeinist regime has been and remains a threat to regional peace and stability. It has always said it does not intend to make a nuclear bomb but uses the promise not to do what it says it doesn't want to do as a license for doing what it shouldn't be doing in other domains.
Today, the Khomeinist regime may be hitting the bottom of the hole it has dug for itself through reckless behavior and disregard for rules-based international relations. The mullahs have used a promise of tactical retreats as a prelude to further cheating in the future on a number of occasions before. President Clinton fell for it in a big way and President Obama in an even bigger way.
Obama's Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that he could "trust" his Khomeinist interlocutors more than some European allies. The result has been years of prolonged tension in the region and the loss of trust in the US among regional allies.
Our guess is that Tehran's new show of pragmatism does not represent a genuine change of nature by the regime. But that does not mean that the new posture should not be tested. Trust is useful only if it is coupled with stringent verification.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.