Iran wants a deal, but it continues to make getting one impossible

Tehran has doubled down on its backing of militia groups, and the consequences touch us all

Nothing better illustrates the dangerous game of brinkmanship that Iran has embarked upon than the latest round of attacks carried out against Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities.

At a time when the new administration of US President Joe Biden has made clear its desire to re-engage with Tehran on the nuclear issue, thereby seeking to end the hostility that developed between Iran and the US during Donald Trump’s tenure at the White House, the reasonable course of action for the Iranian regime to adopt would be to demonstrate that it is genuinely interested in establishing a more constructive relationship with the outside world.

Instead, as last weekend’s attack on Saudi Arabia’s petroleum plant at Ras Tanura demonstrated, Tehran is indicating that rather than adopting a conciliatory tone, it remains committed to pursuing an aggressive overseas agenda.

The attack on Ras Tanura was one of more than 20 that have been carried out with drones and missiles against predominantly civilian targets in Saudi Arabia in recent days, with the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels claiming responsibility for them.

Relying on proxies to undertake hostile operations in the Middle East has become a standard practice for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as it allows Iran the benefit of deniability while at the same time maintaining its policy of armed aggression throughout the region.

Apart from relying on Yemen’s Houthi rebels to maintain Tehran’s aggression against Saudi Arabia, Iranian-backed militias remain active in Iraq, where they have been held responsible for attacks against US and coalition personnel. They are also a force in Lebanon and Syria, where Iran’s military build-up along the Israeli border has led to a significant increase in tensions.

Moreover, the recent upsurge in Iranian-sponsored violence not only has implications for the Middle East but the wider world. After last Sunday’s drone strikes on Ras Tunara and a nearby Aramco facility, oil prices rose above $70 a barrel, the highest in more than a year.

Nor is this the first time recently that Iran has deliberately targeted Saudi oil facilities. In September 2019, Tehran came close to provoking a military confrontation with US forces in the Gulf after launching an attack on Aramco’s facility in the eastern city of Abqaiq, causing another sharp spike in oil prices.

Certainly, following the recent upsurge in Iranian-sponsored aggression in the Middle East, the prospects of Mr Biden succeeding in reopening negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme look more remote.

For, at every turn, rather than showing a willingness to engage in compromise and conciliation, the regime continues to maintain a defiant and antagonistic attitude towards the outside world.

A good example of Iran’s inability to make even the smallest gesture of goodwill to its Western adversaries can be seen in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman who has just completed a five-year jail term in Tehran on what are generally recognised as trumped-up spying charges.

After officially completing her sentence last weekend, her family in Britain had been hoping that she would be granted her freedom and allowed to return home to be reunited with her husband Richard, who has campaigned tirelessly for her release, and six-year-old daughter Gabriella.

Instead, the only concession made by the Iranian authorities was to remove the electronic tag Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been forced to wear as she finished the rest of her sentence under house arrest at her parent’s home in Tehran.

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After last Sunday's drone strikes on Ras Tunara and a nearby Aramco facility, oil prices rose above $70 a barrel

The Iranian authorities announced that she faces a fresh trial on Sunday in a closed court on charges relating to spreading propaganda against the regime. And so she now faces the appalling prospect of being returned to prison.

The prospect of a new trial has already prompted an angry response from the British government, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson demanding that she be released “permanently” so that she can be reunited with her British family.

Certainly, as far as Iran’s handling of the case is concerned, this was an opportunity for the regime to demonstrate a modicum of goodwill with the West.

Tehran’s shabby treatment of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, moreover, could prove to be counter-productive for the regime if, as it claims, it is genuinely interested in reviving talks on saving the nuclear deal former US president Barack Obama helped to negotiate in 2015.

Britain, together with Germany and France, the other European signatories to the deal, is leading diplomatic efforts to persuade Tehran to engage in exploratory talks to restart negotiations.

But if the regime persists with its heartless treatment of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, London’s ability to reopen talks with Tehran will become a great deal more challenging, especially in terms of persuading the British public that this is the right course of action.

That said, to judge by Iran’s reluctance to engage with even this modest diplomatic initiative on the part of the Europeans, it appears that the hard-line supporters of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are in no mood for compromise. This is despite Iran’s official position being that it wants to revive the nuclear deal.

Earlier this month, Iran rejected an EU invitation to attend an informal summit to discuss the deal – what are known as “talks about talks” in diplomatic parlance.

Consequently, rather than indulging in what Winston Churchill called “jaw-jaw” – that is to say, negotiations – the Iranian regime appears intent on pursuing the other, less attractive proposition, namely “war, war”.

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National