Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led last Friday’s prayer for the first time in almost a decade, delivering a toned-down but defiant sermon in which he tried to tarnish protesters against the Iranian regime.
Demonstrators who had torn up images of Soleimani in protest against the actions of the regime were “doing what the enemies want,” he said.
The sermon came a couple of days after a call from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for the nation to “come together” after the demonstrations that erupted against the regime accusing it of lying to the people about the downing of the Ukrainian plane over Tehran after Soleimani’s assassination.
Khamenei focused his attack in his Friday sermon on the US, but he did not spare the three European countries who have been trying to salvage the nuclear deal with Iran.
Last week, Britain, France and Germany triggered a dispute mechanism in the nuclear deal with Iran, a move that could lead to the return of UN sanctions against Tehran. The decision came after Iran announced on 5 January that it would no longer be bound by limitations on its nuclear energy programme.
The three countries have attempted multiple times to salvage the deal, but Iran has refused to return to the agreement.
“We have therefore been left with no choice, given Iran’s actions, but to register today our concerns that Iran is not meeting its commitments under the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] and to refer this matter to the Joint Commission under the Dispute Resolution Mechanism, as set out in paragraph 36 of the JCPOA,” the three countries said in a statement last Tuesday.
In response, Khamenei said that “we are not against negotiations with others, except for the United States, but not from a position of weakness, but instead from a position of strength.” Some interpreted this as an implicit call to open talks with Iran’s Arab Gulf neighbours, though the mood on the other side of the Gulf did not change.
Iranian efforts to engage Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in talks to reach a regional agreement have fallen on deaf ears. These countries will not enter into negotiations separate from a comprehensive deal with the international community that includes Iran’s nuclear programme, ballistic missiles, and interference in its neighbours’ internal affairs through proxy militias.
The position among the Arab Gulf countries is to wait to see a change in Iran’s position. As one Riyadh-based Saudi academic told Al-Ahram Weekly, “there has to be comprehensive negotiation with the main global powers and include the Gulf countries and their concerns.” He added that the inclination was towards a major deal and not bilateral or regional ones that excluded the Americans or Europeans.
Qatar, Oman and to some extent Kuwait have been asked before to help in opening a regional dialogue with Iran. But Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain have been reluctant to swallow the bait of circumventing the Iran-US standoff to give Tehran leeway.
Though the tension was high in the region after Soleimani’s killing earlier this month, it has subsided now without the Arab Gulf countries losing their caution. The possibility of Iranian revenge strikes against certain countries has not completely gone away, but it seems now that Tehran’s target is the US military.
The notion of irrational revenge was refuted by one Gulf analyst, who noted that the Iranian response to Soleimani’s killing by hitting Iraqi bases hosting US troops had proved that Tehran was a “paper tiger”.
He added that the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger airline near Tehran by two rockets fired by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard during the attack on Iraq had also showed how Iran’s claims of being a powerful force were not true.
Some in the Gulf go further to say that the US helped Iran by later announcing that some soldiers from the Ain Al-Assad base in Iraq that was attacked by Iran are being treated for concussion. The missile attack was an “agreed-upon and harmless Iranian response” that was then embarrassing to Iran, which needed the face-saving provided by Washington with the announcement about hospitalising the US soldiers.
Just after the Iranian attack on the bases in Iraq, US President Donald Trump announced a new batch of sanctions on Iran. The policy of maximum pressure is the option being pursued to bring Iran to negotiate a new deal with the West, and the Arab Gulf countries are supporting this trend.
Tehran was furious after what seemed to be a change in the European stand from the deal signed in 2015, from which Trump had earlier withdrawn the US. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for a new deal with Iran brokered by Trump to replace the old one, and then came the three European countries’ announcement about the dispute mechanism.
A change in the European position on the old deal will leave only Russia and China as signatories and mean its complete collapse and the need to negotiate a new one — which is what Washington and the Arab Gulf countries want.
Internal pressure on the regime would be insurmountable, and Tehran would have to capitulate or become a failed state, something that nobody in the region wants to happen.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.