Why US-Iran relations could shift gears in the coming days

Those optimistic about a rapprochement need to calm down ahead of crucial meetings in both Washington and Tehran this week

US President Donald Trump speaks about COVID-19 during a meeting with the Governor of Iowa in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on May 6, 2020. / AFP / SAUL LOEB
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Key developments across the Middle East in recent days have helped to renew a sense of optimism among some about a turnaround in US-Iran relations. But this could yet amount to wishful thinking on their part, as both Washington and Tehran prepare to host meetings over the coming week to decide how to more effectively deal with their adversary.

Decision-makers in Washington will discuss various options to contain the Iranian regime, including perhaps the launch of pre-emptive military strikes. Meanwhile, commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Tehran's influential paramilitary volunteer militia – will focus on their existing strategies in Lebanon and Iraq, where the regime wields considerable influence and is determined to keep within its orbit at any cost and by any means.

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This handout photo provided by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official website via SEPAH News shows Iranian General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guard's aerospace division, during the launch of a military satellite -- dubbed the Nour --  which the Revolutionary Guards said on April 22, 2020 was launched from the Qassed two-stage launcher in the Markazi desert, a vast expanse in Iran's central plateau, amid tensions with US. - Iran's Revolutionary Guards announced on April 22 that they had successfully launched the country's first military satellite, at a time of fresh tensions with US forces in the Gulf. The United States alleges Iran's satellite programme is a cover for its development of missiles, while the Islamic republic has previously insisted its aerospace activities comply with its international obligations. (Photo by - / SEPAH NEWS / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Iran's Revolutionary Guard via SEPAH NEWS" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

In short, far from rapprochement, the coming days and weeks could well witness a further escalation in tensions between the two regional powers.

To be sure there are justifiable reasons for optimism, with Iraq emerging as the primary source of it: Mustafa Al Kadhimi was chosen by a parliamentary majority to become prime minister; he received the metaphorical thumbs-up from regional powers, as well as the Americans, Europeans and Russians.

In a phone call with Mr Al Kadhimi, US President Donald Trump said Iraq was important to regional and international stability, adding that America would continue to provide economic aid. In turn, Mr Kadhimi said Baghdad was keen to have the best possible relations with Washington.

Yet, none of this need necessarily translate to a radical shift in Iran’s policy of control in Iraq – or vis-a-vis American presence in the country – because the regime would simply not give up its influence in Iraq to the US. What's more, I have been told by those in the know that Tehran views Mr Al Kadhimi's government to be a transitional one – a “temporary solution”.

Iraq is therefore no less vulnerable to destabilisation. It remains fragile so long as the US-Iran conflict is not settled.

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Lebanon is a different matter. In the Iranian regime's calculus, that country is essentially a liquid asset so long as Hezbollah dominates its politics and society. Tehran is therefore not as willing to back down there, and is ready to carry out whatever measures possible to guarantee its continued hold.

Of course, this does not mean that Lebanon is more important to the regime than Iraq is. Lebanon is just less complicated for Iran, even though it shares a border with Israel – one of the regime's biggest adversaries. There is a known margin of agreements, red lines, security zones and buffer strips manned by the United Nations Interim Force on the border. There is also now a buffer zone in the Golan Heights guaranteed by Russia, created with the implicit consent of the Assad regime, in neighbouring Syria.

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Washington's position regarding Beirut's fate is not entirely clear. In fact, the only bit of clarity we have is that Washington views its situation exclusively through the prism of fighting Hezbollah.

Hezbollah was recently deemed a terrorist entity by Germany, which according to the US is an effective approach to dealing with its growing influence in the region. Washington continues to crack down on its global operations and networks, even as it applies pressure on European countries to refrain from providing economic aid to Beirut as long as its government fails to adopt radical reforms – including the ending of Hezbollah's domination over the airport, ports and border crossings with Syria.

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The complacency of Lebanon’s leaders, political parties, and its financial and banking institutions, vis-a-vis corruption and nepotism even as Beirut appeals to the world for aid has prompted Alistair Burt, a former UK minister, to call for the Lebanese to reform their system.

“Sort out the corruption and get your economy sorted and stop running to other people," he said at a summit organised by the Beirut Institute last week. "The solutions have got to be in the hands of those who are governing in Lebanon. Ultimately the issue of Hezbollah can't be ducked and that's got to be tackled.”

In this context, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres's report to the Security Council on the implementation of Resolution 1559 which supports free and fair presidential elections in Lebanon and calls upon remaining foreign forces to withdraw from the country  has interesting implications. Mr Guterres said: "I continue to urge the government and the armed forces of Lebanon to take all measures necessary to prohibit Hezbollah and other armed groups from acquiring weapons and building paramilitary capacity outside the authority of the state."

Circling back to US-Iran relations, the whispers about pragmatism are seemingly coming out of some corridors in Washington, because of the desire to avert a confrontation, and from Tehran, as part of a process of reconfiguration ahead of the US presidential election but also as a result of the domestic difficulties in Iran.

Some have also noted that silence on the part of Tehran and Hezbollah about Israel's brazen determination to annex West Bank and the Jordan Valley could be a sign of their willingness to allow the so-called Deal of the Century concerning the fate of Palestine to pass. But the question is: what are they looking for in return? This is a deeper and more important question that may be at the heart of the choice between escalation and de-escalation in US-Iranian relations.

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(FILES) In this file photo taken on February 20, 2020 Security for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) is pictured near a Patriot missile battery as he visits the Prince Sultan air base in Al-Kharj, in central Saudi Arabia. The US is pulling out four of its powerful Patriot missile systems from Saudi Arabia, after determining the threat from Iran that sparked an arms buildup in the region last year had waned, a Defense Department official said May 7, 2020. / AFP / ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS

Reports suggesting that the US move to withdraw patriot missiles from Saudi Arabia could signal a new assessment that it does not consider Iran to be a major threat are inaccurate. They have also been dismissed by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Be that as it may, the meeting in Tehran will shed further light on the fate of Lebanon. Meanwhile, the one in Washington will give us an idea about whether the mood there is for confrontation, or for a pragmatic truce.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute