Restraint is the New Face of Iran

After an active beginning for 2020, Iran has calmed down its aggressive maneuvers that once had the world on edge in anticipation of World War 3. After the US assassinated top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in January, Iran nonetheless conducted additional drone strikes in Saudi Arabia, continued hitting tankers in the Persian Gulf, and carried about a nuclear program ramp-up. 

However, Iran’s current geopolitical calculus is changing.

Iraq Stability Forces Coordination

Several factors have convinced Iran to assume a more reserved attitude recently, as the New York Times reports. Chief among these is the situation in its neighbor, Iraq. Last month, Iranian Gen. Ismail Qaani informed Baghdad that Tehran’s officials were not satisfied with the approach to economic problems in Iraq. 

“Things are not good in Iraq and they can’t go on like this because Iraq will become a burden on Iran,” recounted a senior Iraqi political leader who met with General Qaani.

Protests in Iraq, both against the government and America’s occupation force, drove further discontent in Iran and feelings that the situation could cross over the border. Iraq is one of Iran’s closest trading partners and one of its only remaining sources of revenue amid crippling US sanctions. It is not a state that Iran can afford to let fall into further disarray.

The solution was actually to team up with the US to bring in a prime minister that both states favored. When the parliament was incapable of choosing one, Washington and Tehran found their candidate in Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

Iran actually promoted Kadhimi’s nomination, which earned it some good will with Washington. In return, the US extended a four-month waiver for Iraq to buy gas from Tehran, an unusual measure that is customarily only done for one month. The US also removed some forces from Saudi Arabia as a goodwill gesture.

Diplomacy Wins Out

Agreeing on a prime minister for Iraq where both Washington and Tehran have vested interests was not the only point of concession from Iran. At the beginning of the month, Tehran announced it is prepared for an unconditional prisoner swap with Washington, although talks for it have yet to begin.

Iran also slowed down attacks in the Persian Gulf and ordered its proxy militias in Iraq to stop attacking America forces. The Israeli military also reported that Iran is pulling out from Syria, largely as a response to domestic discontent.

“Iran is redefining its regional policies after Gen. Soleimani’s assassination,” Mohamad Hossein Malaek, an Iranian diplomat and former ambassador to China, wrote in Iranian Diplomacy magazine last month. “It’s reshuffling its cards, it’s reassessing its capabilities, and it has entered the arena with a new perspective and plan.”

The goals of Tehran haven’t changed — it still desires a release from US sanctions and access to regional governments where it can spread its influence. However, Iran has found itself increasingly spread thin across the globe, partly due to those sanctions. The Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign combined with renewed attacks from Israel across Syria and Lebanon have made Tehran recoil.

Eyes on US Election

Outside of Iran, the US election has also largely affected Tehran’s decision to tone down its tactics. Tehran has concluded that by causing turmoil in the region, it indirectly helps US President Donald Trump in his reelection bid. Trump has already argued that Iran is a malevolent state and that his administration is the one to bring it in line. Furthermore, it was Trump who threw away the nuclear deal and restored sanctions.

By acting out in response, Iran was only proving Trump right. Now that the US presidential elections are less than six months away, it’s time for Tehran to remove any reason for Trump to use it as a campaign speech.

Finally, Iranian officials also took into account the domestic discontent that boiled over into protests in January as a result of the government accidentally downing a passenger aircraft. The coronavirus pandemic quickly followed, adding to the litany of reasons why Iranians have pent up anger at their government.

Iran’s Attempt at an Image Makeover

By holding off from further attacks in the region, working with the US to push a favorable candidate in Iraq, and removing some forces from Syria, Tehran is essentially trying to reset its global image at a critical juncture. The COVID-19 virus represents a perfect opportunity to do so because it is presently the focus of the international community. When it subsides, perhaps people will have forgotten about Iran’s actions before the disease struck. Tehran can rebuild its image at the perfect time before US elections.

The UN Security Council is also set to rule on an arms embargo in October. The US has already said it should be extended or it will try to snap back UN sanctions through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. However, Russia and China are on the security council and are expected to side with Iran. Even so, it is in Tehran’s interests to avoid stirring up more trouble before the decision is made.

Developments from Tehran this month bode well for the rest of the year. At least into November, Tehran will retain itself. Should Democratic candidate Joe Biden win the US election, Tehran would likely enter 2021 with a more peaceful spirit in anticipation of potentially restoring the nuclear deal once Biden takes office.

Should Trump win reelection, Iran’s government will have to make the difficult decision to stop its nuclear program or face collapse. The state has barely survived a few years under Trump’s sanctions and its unthinkable that it could hold out for another four years. Tehran will be forced to concede defeat to the maximum pressure campaign and make a deal with the devil.