Those who follow the statements made by the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei regarding the United States and the international community, should not be surprised by Iran’s decision not to return to the negotiating table with the P5+1, and insist on the lifting of sanctions by the United States as a condition of any future talks on the nuclear issue.
To understand Iran’s position, there is a need to return to the period of negotiations between Iran and the superpowers before reaching the nuclear agreement – the JCPOA. The Iranian leader was skeptical throughout the negotiations, and only after an aggressive campaign by President Rouhani, and the realization that this was the best agreement Iran could reach, Khamenei removed his objections and was ready to accept a series of significant steps that pushed back Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions by the United States.
But even after the agreement, Khamenei was very skeptical of Washington’s intentions and refused to authorize any dialogue with the administration, claiming that the strategic goal of the United States, i.e., a regime’s change in Iran, had not changed despite the agreement. The U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal under President Trump confirmed all the Iranian leader’s concerns about American “treacherousness”, and ultimately led to a blatant Iranian violation of the nuclear deal.
Although President Rouhani recognizes the need to have a dialogue with the new administration, he is too weak to influence the Iranian leader to change his decision, certainly when Iran’s presidential elections are “around the corner”. Therefore, it is highly doubtful that Iran will be willing to talk (certainly not directly and/or publicly) with the United States if it has not lifted the sanctions.
From the new U.S. administration perspective, the clock is ticking, and the maneuvering space is shrinking. The agreement between the Atomic Energy Agency and Iran is supposed to last about three months, after which the monitoring regime on Iran’s nuclear program may collapse if there is no return of the parties to the agreement. This fact and the desire to reach an agreement with Iran before a conservative president is elected, do not allow Washington any other option but to lift the sanctions and return to the agreement.
The administration, which considered using the current sanctions to “draw” Iran to the negotiating table (and to show that it is not surrendering to the Iranian demands) and to amend the JCPOA (Even add additional issues such as missiles and regional activity that Iran is very likely to oppose), finds that if it wants to stop Iran’s nuclear progress – It has to lift all sanctions.
Iran is taking a risky gamble because it may find itself “channeled” into significant progress in its nuclear program that will further reduce the chances of reaching an agreement, but it assumes that the administration does not have a better option and in order to avoid irreversible situations it will have to take the first step.
In parallel to the nuclear issue, the attack on an Israeli-owned ship in the waters of the Persian Gulf allows Iran to “kill two birds with one stone,” that is, to continue the same terrorist activity that Iran has begun in recent years near the straits of Hormoz aimed at sharpening the fact that it will not be willing to endure the sanctions imposed on it and to “signal” Israel that it will not hesitate to act against Israeli interests if Jerusalem will continue its activity against Iran.
Israel, concerned about an undesirable deterioration in the northern arena, sought to respond to this attack on Iranian sites in Syria, Iran’s “soft underbelly” that allows it (unlike an attack in Iran or Lebanon) to “signal” the Iranians without risking escalation. But as long as tensions in the Gulf continue, and as long as Israel continues to act against the Iranian presence in Syria (through the airforce) and against Iran’s nuclear program, the two countries will continue the exchange of blows that could eventually lead to a real escalation, an escalation that both countries are trying to avoid (almost) at all costs.