July 07, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: Near to a nuclear deal, Iran grapples with bigger headaches

As the world is focusing on the yet-again extended nuclear talks, Iranian leaders are expressing ever greater concerns about the perceived threats from ISIS and Saudi Arabia. How Tehran may respond, including deploying ground forces in Iraq, should give everyone pause.

Positive on the talks. The Iranian leadership appears quite content with waiting until July 7 to conclude a comprehensive agreement with the P5+1. All the angst over Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s reiteration two weeks ago of old redlines (immediate sanctions relief, no military inspections) and seemingly new ones (uranium enrichment will not be restricted for ten to twelve years) appears to have been unwarranted, as expected.

The mostly upbeat reports coming out of the Vienna negotiations do not indicate Tehran has shifted from the basic parameters in the April 2 Lausanne agreement to restrict enrichment for at least ten years, contrary to Khamenei’s new ‘redline’. The negotiators appear to concede that sanctions will be lifted in some sequence tied to the deal’s implementation even if that sequence is still undetermined. Tehran should find the eventual arrangements for a new inspections regime and for answering the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) questions about Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons research manageable, especially given indications that the US and other P5+1 members are willing to bend on these issues. Khamenei tweeted he “recognized our negotiators as trustworthy, committed, brave and faithful” on the original deadline date of June 30. The Supreme Leader is seeing a favorable deal and his satisfaction is showing.

Boots on the ground in Iraq? Over the weekend the Supreme Leader’s Military Advisor, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, said that Iran had deterred ISIS from advancing farther into Iraq. Safavi also claimed “we [Iran] sent the message that if ISIS approaches the holy shrines we will directly enter the area.”

If Safavi’s threat is real, a direct Iranian expeditionary operation to protect Iraq Shia holy sites (in Najaf, Karbala, Samara, or Kadhimiyah) would break Tehran’s doctrinal and psychological barrier of only using proxy or local militia forces beyond Iran’s borders. Rumors of a possible IRGC deployment of combat formations to Syria to shore up President Bashar al Assad’s faltering military indicate we may see a similar shift there. Either move would be a dramatic escalation in IRGC operations.

Iran also organized the first-ever trilateral meeting of the interior ministers of Iran, Iraq, and Syria in Baghdad this week to find better responses to the crisis with the Islamic State. Iranian interior minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli announced that he and his counterparts would discuss counter-terrorism measures as well as the continued “resistance front against Israel.” Supreme Leader’s Foreign Policy Advisor Ali Akbar Velayati also called this meeting an “important development.” As ISIS and Arab Sunni rivals continue to erode Iran’s strategic position in the region, expect Tehran to put more substance, such as directly arming Iraqi Sunni tribes, into the solidifying Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus alliance.

Saudi Arabia as Iran’s new proxy threat? The contest with Saudi Arabia is also looking grimmer in Tehran. The head of Iran’s Passive Defense Organization and leading IRGC strategist, Brigadier General Gholam Reza Jalali, said last week that the Islamic Republic “must be prepared for a new type of conflict” with Riyadh. He stated that Saudi Arabia has evolved from a “regional rival” to a “proxy threat” and claimed that the “cyber realm” is an area of rising tension between the two countries. Most interestingly, Jalali tied these changes to a turn in American strategy.

The United States does not directly intervene in the region, but now does so through reinforcing the intelligence, logistical, advisory, and political frameworks of its regional allies.

Jalali is expressing Tehran’s worry that the new aggressive Saudi leadership under King Salman comes as the result of US encouragement—perhaps at May’s summit in Camp David—for the Gulf Cooperation Council to take on more of the leading role in pushing back Iran’s destabilizing activities. A more active Saudi Arabia poses an increasingly sophisticated risk to Iran’s long-term objectives. Iran may even be worried Saudi Arabia will start effectively using Iran’s own playbook of regional proxy warfare against it, but backed by Gulf state money and US military combat support. This is a game across the region – from to Syria, to Yemen and beyond – the nuclear agreement will only accelerate.