March 31, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: A Partial Nuke Deal Would Salvage a Horrible Week for Iranian Foreign Policy

A likely partial agreement and extension of the nuclear talks comes as no surprise. Iran recognized the March 31 deadline for a political agreement did not really matter and behaved accordingly. The leaks about impasses over limits on centrifuge research and development, continued use of the mountain-encased Fordow enrichment facility, or whether Iran will ship out (or dilute) most of its uranium stockpile were merely last-minute brinkmanship. The real issues appear to be the timing of sanctions relief and the duration of restrictions on—and inspections of—Iran’s program. With various Iran-related sanctions bills under consideration on the Hill, Tehran understands the White House is struggling to find something acceptable to show Congress before legislators return from recess on April 13. With the P5+1 and Washington divided, Iran felt free to maximize its demands as the deadline loomed. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani have not secured their necessary sanctions relief, however. They will hope to return to the table with a stronger hand as we move to the next deadline on June 30, regardless of whether President Obama and the Congress can find common ground.

Otherwise it has been a rough week for Iranian foreign policy. The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen to disrupt the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels’ march to the southern capital of Aden surprised Tehran not just for its timing, but for the scope of the regional coalition Riyadh pulled together— from Pakistan to Morocco. Saudi rhetoric impliesOperation Decisive Storm not only addresses a security threat on its southern border, but also aims to push back Iranian influence and activities in Yemen. The eager participation of Iran’s old ally, Sudan, in the Saudi effort is particularly painful. Adding salt to the wound, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyap Erdogan claimed Ankara was annoyed with Iran trying to dominate the region. The Saudi point that Tehran retains few real friends in the Muslim world is well taken.

What will Iran’s response be, aside from offering moral support to the Houthis? The extent of Tehran’s military support to the Houthis is often debated and the lack of major policy statements from Iranian security leaders indicates Tehran is likely still deciding how to respond to the Saudi moves in Yemen beyond diplomatic overtures. The nuclear negotiations may also be restraining more overt reactions. The success of Riyadh’s nascent Sunni Muslim security coalition would pose a serious threat to Iran’s long-term objectives of leading the Middle East and the Islamic world. Should Saudi and Egyptian forces invade Yemen, Iranian advanced anti-aircraft weapons, rockets, and armor-destroying explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) could all make a disturbing appearance on the battlefield. Militarily, bleeding the Arab coalition forces would drain support for the Saudi campaign. Diplomatically, driving a wedge between Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates or other Gulf states could be at the top of Tehran’s agenda.

Things did not go any better in Iraq last week. Iranian-supported proxies and Shia militia forces were stymied in their combined assault with the Iraqi army to retake the northern city of Tikrit. A frustrated Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi asked the militias to halt their campaign to allow the US and its allies to support the Iraqi security forces with airstrikes. Embarrassed and enraged proxy group leaders such as Hadi al Amari railed against Abadi’s decision. They are not likely to desert the battle, however, and will make sure to photo bomb the victory pictures now that Tikrit is retaken. Iran’s proxies and Shia militias will lick their wounds, hoping the Iraqi government will decide it cannot defeat ISIS with American airpower alone.

Will President Obama be smart enough to finally start working with Congress to build a more coherent position at the negotiating table before the next deadline? Will he press our current advantage in Iraq and Yemen and help our allies check growing Iranian regional power, especially before the windfall of possible sanctions relief?

Iran seems to hope the US and its allies will overplay or misplay their hand on the nuclear negotiations, Iraq, or Yemen. Unfortunately that is not an unrealistic expectation.