Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaking in Prague on November 11, 2016.
Photo: AFP/Michal Cizek
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaking in Prague on November 11, 2016. Photo: AFP/Michal Cizek

Iran keeps an open mind on Trump, remarks reveal

Tehran is not unduly worried, hinting that that back-channel contacts have been made with the president-elect's team

November 17, 2016 2:13 PM (UTC+8)

Iran’s comfort level with the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency is steadily rising, notwithstanding the welter of doomsday predictions in the US media that the nuclear agreement of July last year faces sudden death any moment after January 20.

Iran watched closely the zigzagging by the presidential candidates in the run up to the November 8 election, but kept its thoughts to itself, apart from one sardonic remark by President Hassan Rouhani that it was a choice between “bad” and “worse.”

Now that the die is cast and Trump will be the American president, Iran is making its stance known.

Tehran is not unduly worried. Can it be that back-channel contacts have been made with Trump’s campaign team and/or transition team?

Now, that isn’t such as outrageous or heretical a thought as it may seem at first, because, simply put, that is the way Iranian diplomacy has always worked.

Iran is a tireless communicator. A clutch of “red lines” apart, its diplomacy is willing to engage even interlocutors who position themselves as adversaries or detractors.

An overture of sorts

Two key personalities in the Iranian regime, enormously prestigious and powerful within Iran and in the outside world, have stepped forth, finally, to give the authoritative line on how Tehran views the prospect of Trump presidency — Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the Speaker of the Majlis (parliament) Ali Larijani.

Zarif said on November 11 that in his estimation, the Trump administration will accept the landmark nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed by Tehran and world powers. Interestingly, Zarif chose a colorful western capital to make this strategic forecast — Prague.

Zarif said he expects Trump to support the nuclear deal with Iran “once the dust has settled and people are briefed about the realities of the region and the world.”

He added: “It will be in the interest of everybody to remain committed in practice to the JCPOA. But if there are doubts about the implementation, then Iran will have its own options as well.”

Zarif is a highly experienced former career diplomat who served for long years in New York and enjoys extensive contacts with American political elites and the foreign-policy community.

The tenor of his remarks carries a discernible hint that Tehran had all along kept an open mind on Trump and was inclined to take much of what he had said on the campaign trail regarding Iran as the stuff of grandstanding and politicking, and far from the final word on the subject.

Now, how could Zarif be so confident that Trump is open-minded?

Second, his remarks were aimed at Trump’s transition team and close advisors, too — an “overture” of sorts. Third, of course, Zarif was fully conscious that America’s European allies and Iran are on the same page with regard to the implementation of the JCPOA.

Sochi, RussiaRussia's President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Iran's parliament speaker Ali Larijani as they meet after a session of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia, October 22, 2015. Photo: REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool
Sochi, RussiaRussia’s President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Iran’s parliament speaker Ali Larijani as they meet after a session of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia, October 22, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool

The EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini had visited Tehran on October 29 — her third visit to Iran this year — where she stressed that the JCPOA is a collective endeavor of the so-called ‘5 plus one,’ endorsed also by the UN Security Council, which is not open to abrogation by any single country.

Again, Zarif drew the attention of Trump to the geopolitical realities in the Middle East and the world, which militate against the reopening of the Pandora’s box of historical US-Iranian mutual animosity.

Plainly put, without the cooperation of Iran (and Turkey), there are severe limits to what Trump can achieve in ending the Syrian conflict or defeating terrorism, even while acting in concert with Russia.

In any case, all signs point toward an all-out deepening of the Russian-Iranian strategic partnership, going well past the congruence over the Syrian conflict. Only last month, Moscow disclosed that the deal on the S-300 missiles has been successfully completed.

Again, Moscow has chosen to disclose this week that negotiations are under way for a massive US$10 billion arms deal with Iran.

There have been two high-profile visits to Tehran this week by dignitaries from Moscow and Beijing — speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament Valentina Matviyenko (a close political associate of President Vladimir Putin) and Chinese Defense Minister and State Councilor General Chang Wanquan.

Gen. Chang and his Iranian counterpart Gen. Hossein Derghan signed an agreement pledging closer military cooperation in a number of areas including military training and counter terrorism operations. Clearly, China-Iran defense ties are on the upswing again.

A dynamic situation

The Xinhua News Agency quoted Gen. Chang as saying that the development of bilateral relations between China and Iran is not only positive for mutual interest of Chinese Iranian peoples, but also positive for world peace and stability.

Given the close coordination of regional policies by Moscow and Beijing, it may be possible to visualize a Russian-Chinese “firewall” appearing around Iran. Last week, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson affirmed that with the lifting of sanctions against Iran, the stage has arrived for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to take up Iran’s application for membership.

After Zarif’s comments to the international community, the speaker of the Iranian Majlis Ali Larijani’s remarks in Tehran on Sunday to a gathering of some 100 parliamentarians merit even more careful attention.

Larijani cautioned the Iranian religious and political elites against making intemperate remarks about the US president-elect. In a highly nuanced remark, he counseled: “Analyses and remarks about the US president-elect should be more mature, and hasty remarks and premature judgments should be avoided until the Foreign Ministry takes a transparent stance.”

It is a hugely significant remark. Larijani, a veteran statesman of many battles with the “Great Satan,” chose his words with utmost care. He pleaded for patience till such time as when Zarif could take a “transparent stance.”

Larijani spoke in the context of some flippant remarks attributed to influential clerics lately scoffing at Trump.

Larijani appealed to them not to muddy waters at a most critical juncture of transition in Washington. But then, he also spoke of the pitfalls of making “premature judgments.”

Of course, Larijani also deftly differentiated the regime from the irresponsible statements by “nonstate actors.”

Larijani is close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and would have only voiced an authoritative opinion when he appealed for “self-censorship” to be observed by the elites in the political and religious establishment.

Indeed, the salience lies in Larijani underscoring the importance of giving Zarif a free hand to carry on with his excellent work to open lines of communication to Trump’s transition team.

All things considered, therefore, Larijani indicated that Iranian diplomacy has shifted gear toward the incoming Trump era, and there is a dynamic situation at hand and it is a high-stakes game.

Indeed, the final word will be spoken by Supreme Leader Khamenei. Khamenei has only said so far that if the US abandons the JCOPA, Iran too will exercise its choices.

Suffice it to say, Trump’s Iran options are narrowing. A containment strategy is not a viable option. Military attack and war will doom Trump’s presidency. Even Saudi Arabia has got used to the JCOPA.

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