What do politicians do when they cannot do anything but are obliged to pretend that they are doing something?
One answer provided by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, is simple: you organize a meeting.
The meeting that Lavrov is setting up, later this month in Moscow, will bring together junior diplomats from Iran plus Britain, China, France and Germany, that is to say the countries (aside from the US) that formed the notorious P5+1 group created by Barack Obama to give a veneer of legal respectability to the so-called “nuke deal” he concocted with the Iranian mullahs.
For all intents and purposes the “deal’ died when the Trump administration in Washington decided to simply ditch it. Lacking an enforceable legal status, the “deal” always depended on the willingness of the participants to implement it. With Americans walking away from it, there is no way the other nations still apparently in the game could put it on a life-support machine.
That leaves the remaining members of the P5+1 with a clear choice: either pronounce the Obama “deal” dead and seek a framework for new talks on how to solve the perennial “Iran problem” which, paradoxically, all say they are concerned about, or to unite to neutralize the United States and help Iran carry on as usual.
Obviously, the choice they face is not easy.
To side with the US in demanding fresh talks would mean inflicting a humiliating retreat on the Iranian mullahs at a time that, facing economic meltdown and social unrest, they could not afford to appear conciliatory.
To side with the mullahs against the US is even more difficult if only because none of the remaining P5+1 group quite trusts the Islamic Republic. Moreover, none of them has the legal, economic and political wherewithal to help Tehran win in a tussle against the American “Great Satan”.
The problem is that doing nothing is not an option either.
Doing nothing means letting the US increasingly tighten the screws on an already weakened Islamic Republic with unforeseeable consequences. The policy of proximity pressure now in use could lead Iran to a point in which the continuation of the current set-up becomes problematic.
That, in turn, could enable the most radical factions within the Khomeinist movement to claim that the regime’s only effective defense is further aggression. Such a stance could, in turn, make regime-change the only realistic option for all those who are convinced the present Khomeinist system is incapable of changing course in a positive manner. And, that could make the cliché “all options are on the table” more ominous than it has ever been in the case of Iran.
In other words, by trying to revive a status quo that has already lost its raison d’être, Russia and other P5+1 nations are paving the way for an even bigger crisis in the region with “the Iran problem” at its explosive core.
Playing pseudo-diplomacy with the “Iran problem” is both dishonest and dangerous.
However, Lavrov is not alone in indulging in that game. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, a novice in diplomacy, has already played the game with a futile visit to Tehran partly to heighten his own profile and partly to pretend that Germany, its internal problems notwithstanding, is still determined to act as the leader in the badly shaken European Union.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a much bigger player than the hapless Maas, has also used a visit to Tehran to heighten Tokyo’s international diplomatic profile.
An advocate of Japan’s return as a major power, Abe is determined to end his nation’s traditional quietism in international diplomacy and, some claim, is dreaming of a seat in the United Nations Security Council in the context of an enlargement to include other countries such as India and Brazil.
Germany and Japan are not alone in trying to play a role in “easing tension” between the mullahs of Tehran and the Trump administration. Other bit players in this game include the Sultanate of Oman as well as Switzerland that, as often in the past, sees itself as a champion of dialogue among warring nations. Iraq and Qatar have also made noises about “mediation”, largely to heighten their profiles.
The problem is that diplomatic gesticulations may only encourage the mullahs to hang onto their illusion of one day forcing the Trump administration to eat humble pie and declare contrite “return” to the Obama “deal”.
The present impasse may be breached in two ways.
The first is for actual or wannabe mediators to side with the US and tell the mullahs that they cannot have their cake and eat it. Once the mullahs have understood that putative “mediators” could direct their efforts at finding ways of organizing a retreat that avoids utter humiliation for the Khomeinist regime. That should not be difficult as all the remaining P5+1 nations, including Russia, share Washington’s concerns about Tehran’s “exporting revolution” and developing long-range missiles capable of carrying yet non-existent nuclear warheads.
The second way to breach the impasse is to admit that the Obama “deal” is a dead horse that will not come back to life no matter how one kicks it. With that admission, the Iran dossier could be returned to the UN Security Council that has already passed seven resolutions trying to deal with it.
The process didn’t produce the desired results because the mullahs rejected all those resolutions while Obama tried to please them by circumventing the UN, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and invented the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a scheme tailor-made for the Islamic Republic.
A return to the UN, rather than the window-dressing Lavrov is putting up in Moscow, would put the “Iran problem” under the proper limelight as an international concern rather than a duel between Trump and the mullahs. It would also open the path for finding legally binding solutions to a problem that everyone acknowledges is a source of instability, tension and even military conflict in the region.
If the way to end the current crisis is to persuade, or force, the Islamic Republic to begin acting as a normal nation-state, the first step in that direction is to refer it back to the forum designed to deal with problems that normal nation-states have with one another.
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 forAsharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.
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