The United States and Iran are not at war; comparing the strength of each, in the context of their ongoing negotiations (although indirect thus far) over returning to the nuclear agreement, does not explain what is currently taking place. By the latter, we mean the positive indications resulting from the international talks in Vienna and the U.S. State Department spokesperson’s announcement on April 7 that Washington is ready to remove sanctions on Iran “that are inconsistent with the JCPOA.”
As usual, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded to the latest American declaration by reiterating his demand for America to return to the nuclear agreement and to lift sanctions, in line with the established Iranian strategy and its long history of statements where Iranian leadership has insisted that Washington remove sanctions before Tehran’s agreeing to return to the nuclear deal.
Washington’s position does not represent a sudden change, as U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has undertaken a series of comprehensive steps since his arrival at the White House targeting the “Middle East” in general and Iran in particular. The first among these steps was the removal of the Yemeni group Ansarallah from the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, the Houthis, as is well-known, being trusted allies of Iran and fierce adversaries of Saudi Arabia.
The signal from the Americans did not do enough to satisfy the Iranian leadership, which, in turn, escalated the nuclear issue and announced its acquisition of a large quantity of uranium and enrichment to 20% purity, a percentage not permitted under the canceled Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. A law issued by the Iranian parliament has authorized production and storage of “at least 120 kilograms of uranium per year” and calls for a halt to inspections led by the International Atomic Energy.
The Iranian intransigence is mirrored in the Arab circles where it holds great influence. Iran continues to target American military bases and coalition forces in Iraq; Iranian militia activities in Syria (which includes the Qassem Soleimani Brigade) also continue; and the formation of a government in Lebanon has been obstructed.
In addition to threatening to pursue its nuclear path to the end and exercising its long and powerful reach throughout the region, last week Tehran took a major strategic step by signing a 25-year strategic, economic and security cooperation agreement with China. As part of the deal, Beijing has pledged to purchase large quantities of Iranian oil and gas at a reduced price, thereby providing China with significant reserves and the Iranian regime with significant liquidity, a step that will greatly weaken the U.S economic blockade of Iran.
The agreement also includes Chinese investments of approximately $400 billion, closely linking the two economies and currencies. The agreement also contains provisions related to military and intelligence cooperation, as well as diplomatic coordination and a wide expansion of internet networks. The deal looks to offer China cheap energy and extends its influence in the region in exchange for bolstering the Iranian regime.
In the context of its larger strategic action seeking to confront China, this latest step by Iran appears to be a dramatic break that must be taken into account, and is the most likely explanation for the generous American promises that were not only prepared to lift sanctions, but also included an additional concession in the form of talk about sanctions “that are inconsistent with the JCPOA.”
However, as is widely known, the U.S. administration’s decisions require the approval of Congress, whose members are largely opposed to Iran, although the signs indicate that returning to the nuclear agreement has become more likely than returning to a highly risky conflict with Tehran.