Recent indications of the continued failure by Tehran and Washington to reach an agreement on how to revive the 2015 nuclear deal about. There is Iran’s alleged attack on an oil tanker belonging to an Israeli company off the coast of Oman, the escalation along the border between Lebanon’s Hizbullah and Israel, and the declaration by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard that it would continue to support Shia militias in Iraq.
While confrontations between Israel and Iran on such fronts as Syria and Lebanon have been common in recent years, attacks on oil tankers and ships in the Arabian Gulf undermines freedom of navigation through crucial waterways, affecting international shipping and commerce, and will probably affect the world economy if oil prices continue to rise as a result of tensions.
The maritime security intelligence firm Dryad Global said the attack on the Mercer Street on 30 July was the fifth on an Israel-linked vessel since February. Israel and Iran have traded accusations of carrying out strikes on each other’s ships in recent months. Israel has also been widely blamed for November’s killing of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and several attacks on Iranian civil nuclear facilities.
Along with key oil-rich Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Israel sees Iran as a regional and world threat, warning the relatively new US Biden administration of simply rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal without assurances from Tehran that it will change its policy of intervention in the internal affairs its neighbours seeking to dominate the entire region. Iran, meanwhile, insist it will not bow to Israeli threats, and will retaliate every time either Israel or the United States sabotage its nuclear project or attack its interests in countries such as Iraq, Syria or Yemen.
The reality is that both Iran and the United States need to reach an understanding that would serve the interests of both countries, and help bring stability to several other conflicts marring the Middle East for over 10 years now. In its confrontation with the Unites States, especially under the former Trump administration, which ordered the assassination of former Revolutionary Guard Commander General Qassem Suleimani on his arrival in Baghdad a year ago, Iran not only reneged on agreements it made in the 2015 nuclear deal, but also displayed its regional influence through allies and militias serving its interests in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Palestine and Afghanistan.
The unjustified war through which the George W. Bush administration invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003 simply handed over large parts of Shia Iraq to Iran on a silver platter. Religious and ideological ties to Lebanon’s Hizbullah are a source of pride for both parties. Iran also proved to be a loyal ally to Syria’s Hafez and Bashar Al-Assad, which permitted it to have a deeply rooted presence in both Syria and Lebanon. In Yemen, where Iran’s support for the Houthis in Sanaa was once an undeclared alliance, the link has now turned public and the top Houthi leader attended the swearing-in ceremony of Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi.
Seeking to dominate and lead a Shia-led empire in the Middle East extending to several other Arab countries may in itself be a source of instability in a largely Sunni region. But signs of dissent are also surfacing among former allies in Iraq and Lebanon, who do not accept being ruled from Tehran, and this is not limited to Sunni populations.
Iran’s attempt to delay and temporarily suspend negotiations on the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal might also be a miscalculation on the part of its hard-liners, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iran understands that the Biden administration is seeking to reach a deal, but should not stretch the limits in ongoing negotiations, because Washington is also under pressure from close allies such as Israel and the oil-rich Gulf countries.
Tehran should be open to negotiate over its missile program and regional role, something Khamenei is reportedly opposed to. Iran’s current economic situation also makes the continuation of talks with US and Europe an imperative for its leaders. Unrelenting inflation, the inability to raise wages for workers, especially in key industries such as oil and gas, constant strikes and protests have substantially raised the stakes for the Islamic Republic. The only quick reprieve would be lifting US sanctions. If the current impasse continues, Iran will be the scene of an implosion because of foreign pressures encouraging low-income Iranians to stage a revolt against the government.
Meanwhile, it seems fair for Tehran to request guarantees that the US should not unilaterally abandon a deal reached with other key world powers in the future. Iranians need to feel a sense of stability and that they can plan for the future and improve their economy, as promised by former reformist president Hassan Rouhani.
While threats of war and revenge continue to fly over between Tel Aviv and Tehran, only a fair deal between Iran and the United States, supported by world and regional powers, can bring stability to the region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly