WASHINGTON — As Secretary of State John Kerry flies back from Saudi Arabia to New York for his second meeting this week with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on April 22, some US officials and outside experts are thinking about how the functional diplomatic channels that have been established with Iran over the past few years between the Obama and Rouhani governments might be maintained in the next US presidential administration.
The channels established between the United States and Iran during the last three years of intense Iran nuclear deal negotiations that culminated in implementation of the landmark deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in January, have included unprecedented one-on-one contacts most frequently between Kerry and Zarif and their top deputies, but also between other Cabinet chiefs — US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Iranian Atomic Energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi, and last week, for the first time, between US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Iranian Central Bank governor Valiollah Seif, as well as consultations between dozens of midlevel diplomats and experts. Indeed, as Kerry meets Zarif in New York on the sidelines of the signing of the UN Paris climate agreement, new US Undersecretary of State Tom Shannon and Stephen Mull, the State Department’s JCPOA implementation czar, will be meeting in Vienna with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi and others on the eight-member Joint Commission established to oversee implementation of the Iran nuclear deal.
But for all the frequency and growing to almost normalcy of US-Iranian official contacts in recent years, after decades in which that was taboo, they have yet to be institutionalized by formal US-Iran diplomatic relations, which were broken off after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and subsequent hostage crisis. What’s more, US-Iran normalization is not a realistic near-term prospect, Obama has said, even as he has ushered in historic shifts with Myanmar and Cuba. The prospect of rapprochement is even more fiercely rejected by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who casts it as a fundamental threat to the nature of his regime.
Obama is willing to engage with the Iranians when useful, and has shown he is willing to break old taboos when he traveled to Cuba in March, the White House’s Ben Rhodes said April 21. But from the White House’s perspective, it is Iran putting the brakes on deeper engagement with the United States, Rhodes said.
“The president [Obama] has always indicated that he is willing to engage the Iranian leadership if he believes that that can make progress on different issues,” Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told journalists traveling with Obama in Saudi Arabia on April 21. “He’s spoken to [Iranian] President [Hassan] Rouhani on the phone.”
Rhodes said, “The fact of the matter is, we haven't seen from the Iranians, I think, a desire for that level of engagement. They’ve really focused on the channel between our foreign ministers. And so that's where I think it's most likely to continue.”
Current US-Iran state of play: balancing act
US officials describe a balancing act with Iran, continuing to engage with them quietly on nuclear deal implementation and, in certain settings, on regional issues such as Syria and Yemen, while pushing back on their destabilizing actions in the region, such as providing intelligence to interdict Iranian weapons shipments to Yemen’s Houthi rebels and to Hezbollah.
“The channels opened up as a result of the Iran [nuclear] deal have a meaningful effect, concrete already,” a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, said, citing the example of the US sailors detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps on Jan. 12 when their vessel strayed into Iranian waters; the sailors were released unharmed 16 hours later, after Kerry spoke with Zarif multiple times to quickly resolve the crisis. “The deal created both of these things.”
Regarding US conversations with Iran on regional issues, such as Syria, “They [Iran] are at the table,” the official said, referring to Iran being a member, along with the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia, of the 20-nation International Syria Support Group.
There are quiet conversations on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, with the caveat that Iranian officials are cautious not to go overboard until their government is through the election cycle (Iran has runoff parliamentary elections April 29). Iranian domestic political considerations have put a brake on the pace of more discussions with Iran on regional issues.
“With respect to Iran, I think our approach has been that we will engage with the Iranians where we see an opportunity to make progress,” Rhodes said. “The main vehicle for that engagement has been Secretary Kerry with Foreign Minister Zarif, not just on the Iranian nuclear issue but on Syria and other regional issues.”
He added, “What we’re trying to foster … is a dynamic where we can have a diplomatic dialogue with the Iranians on issues related to these regional conflicts. Precisely because Iran has had a role in these areas, we would like to try to move them in a more constructive direction. And that requires some amount of dialogue. It also requires vigilance.”
Prospects for dialogue going forward
But even as officials such as Rhodes describe the desire to expand dialogue with Iran on regional issues in the coming weeks and months, while navigating domestic political constraints and deep disagreements on how they and their allies see the region, Iranian and US officials are aware that the clock is ticking on this administration, and uncertain if the next administration may seek to maintain relations at this level, if at all.
Former member of the US nuclear negotiating team Richard Nephew said now that the taboo has been broken, he expects that the Obama administration will hand off to its successor a continued open channel with Iran.
“I think that now that the membrane has been broken and we have now got a relationship with them, albeit not a normal one, I don’t see why it would change,” Nephew, now a program director with Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, told Al-Monitor in an interview. “Even a Republican administration would maintain those avenues of communication, because they exist.”
The “political risk” involving opening a communications channel, we are “through that now,” Nephew said. “There has proven some utility for it. I don’t see any chance of that going away.”
But the strength of the channel, and whether it is used to just resolve problems such as the detention of the US Navy sailors or nuclear deal implementation issues, or expanded and deepened to discuss other areas, may largely depend on who is the next secretary of state, or deputy secretary of state, Nephew said.
“There will be a handoff” from Kerry to his successor in terms of the communication channel with Zarif, Nephew anticipated. “It will be an easier handoff if it is Kerry to a Democratic successor. … It will be potentially more complicated if a Republican is coming in.”
Nuclear deal implementation will be basis for continued US-Iran dialogue
Iran nuclear deal implementation is likely to be the core of the basis for continued US-Iran dialogue after the transition from the Obama administration to its successor, Ali Vaez said.
“The best instrument for institutionalizing the channel of communication is the JCPOA and its implementation,” Vaez, a senior Iran analyst with the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor. “Both sides have coordinators who will have to closely monitor the accord's implementation during its lifetime and meet regularly at the Joint Commission's sessions or on ad hoc basis.”
Vaez said, “It is hard to imagine, given the level of skepticism and resistance in Tehran, that the Obama administration could take further steps, like staffing the US interest section in Tehran with Americans, before it runs out of time."
He added, “The only unilateral action that the administration could take is to dilute the no-contact policy. Both sides should also encourage regular contacts between their top diplomats at the UN level — in New York, Geneva and Vienna.”
US-Iran ties may become more "bare bones"
It is unlikely that the next US president is going to maintain this level of engagement with Iran beyond “the bare bones” of nuclear deal implementation, or expend as much political capital on it, at least initially, Gary Sick, a former National Security Council official in the Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, told Al-Monitor.
“I don’t see Hillary [Clinton] walking away from the whole thing [nuclear deal], but I don’t see her as exhibiting any enthusiasm on trying to build on that, or deepen the relationship,” Sick, now a professor at Columbia University, told Al-Monitor.
“I think she does understand [the importance of the opening with Iran] and is surrounded by people like Wendy Sherman [the former US undersecretary of state and lead US nuclear negotiator] and Jake Sullivan [her former deputy chief of staff who was part of the back channel to Iran], who have personal relationships with the Iranians, and they do understand the importance of this,” Sick said. “They were part of it.”
He added, “I don’t see her or them turning around and walking away. But there is a difference between maintaining the bare bones, and taking advantage of what you got. Or as Obama has been prepared to do, be a little more forward leaning, make something more out of this, beyond just the JCPOA.
“Obama was prepared to put a lot of political capital in this. And I don’t think Hillary is. It’s a matter of degree.”
Zarif may provide continuity
What may provide continuity and be even more important than Obama’s and Kerry’s successors in terms of maintaining a US-Iran opening is Zarif, and the breadth of contacts he has quietly made in the US foreign policy community over the years, going back to his time as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, former State Department policy planning official Suzanne Maloney said.
If US-Iran ties last past the Kerry-Zarif channel “is an interesting question that gets to the heart, to what extent is this a personality-driven relationship, at this point,” Maloney, now deputy director of foreign policy programs at the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor. “Or have sufficient institutional ties developed over the course of the past three years of intense diplomatic interaction that, in effect, they will sustain themselves irrespective of the coming and goings of specific individuals.”
“I tend to lean to the latter,” Maloney said. “Despite the fact of the rapport established between Kerry and Zarif, Zarif has really well-established ties across Washington that predate his time as foreign minister,” Maloney said. “I imagine the constellation of folks in place who are in position to move into the secretary of state position have, if not prior direct exposure to him, they would be part of the community that has.”
“I think there are countervailing impulses on the Iranian side, about broadening dialogue or expanding the basis for US-Iran talks,” Maloney said. “There is such high-level scrutiny and pushback in Iran about anything that appears to … use the nuclear deal as a springboard for something that looks like rapprochement. It is more toxic there than here, and it is pretty toxic here.”
Al-Monitor has learned that in addition to his meeting with Kerry and signing of the Paris Climate Agreement in New York on April 22, Zarif is expected to quietly meet with some US lawmakers there, as he has occasionally done in the past. (When Vice President Joe Biden and former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel were senators, among other lawmakers, both met with Zarif when he was Iran's UN ambassador in New York.)
Zarif “was as forward-leaning an Iranian diplomat as ever existed in the US-Iran relationship,” Maloney said. The bigger question than who succeeds Kerry may be what will happen to the nascent US-Iran opening if at some point Zarif leaves the government amid Iranian domestic churn or fallout over the engagement with the West and the nuclear deal.