The Game is On

The wording of the press reporting of Iran’s refusal to attend the talks provides evidence that negotiations are ongoing even if no public and direct talks are taking place. The Wall Street Journal reported: “Two senior Western diplomats said Iran has ruled out attending a meeting in Europe for now, saying it wanted a guarantee first that the U.S. would lift some sanctions after the meeting.” The two major protagonists in this stand-off, the United States and Iran, are maneuvering in attempts to create leverage for a better outcome for their objectives. These negotiations are taking place both domestically and internationally, through the mediums of politics, economics, and the use of military force.

Over the past two weeks, there have been several interactions among Iran, the United States, and other parties that are part of the maneuvering between Tehran, Washington, and other interested parties. The first set of interactions was the rocket attack on a base near Erbil by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias that killed a non-American contractor working for the United States and injured several Americans, including one uniformed service member. In response to this attack, the United States conducted a limited air strike on facilities associated with this militia in Syria. It is unclear whether the rocket attack was part of a strategy of pressure by Tehran on Washington or an act of domestic political jockeying within Iran. If it was a signal by the Iranian leadership to Washington, it was very risky. The type of rockets used are not guided, and it is doubtful the militias have exquisite intelligence on where Americans are at any moment on the base. In other words, the attack could have a produced a much higher casualty count – one that could have triggered a larger U.S. retaliation or could have turned off Washington’s interest in talking with Tehran. It is more likely that it was a statement by some elements in Iran that they have the ability to strike at Washington even if the Iranian government might, at some point, sit down with the Americans to negotiate over nuclear issues. It was a signal that Iran may return to limits on its nuclear capabilities, but it is not going to give up other ways it has to hurt American interests.

On the diplomatic front, the United States announced that it will seek to have the International Atomic Energy Agency board censure Iran over its lack of cooperation with the agency regarding Iran’s nuclear program. In response, Iran threatened to end cooperation with IAEA inspectors altogether. The IAEA then struck a three-month deal with Iran to allow time for negotiating this issue and the JCPOA. Despite the IAEA seeking to create more time for negotiation, the United States and its European allies appear to be moving ahead with the censure motion. Iran, in return, has threatened to pull out of the three-month long deal if the censure goes through. Russia has objected to the U.S. and European maneuver, and the IAEA Director General is seeking to forestall the measure to allow “space for diplomacy.” In sum, regardless of whether U.S. and Iranian negotiators are sitting around a table in Vienna, negotiations are taking place. The talks around a table could still start at any time.

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