By Displaying Weakness, the U.S. Undermines Its Negotiating Position with Iran

June 15, 2021 | Emanuele Ottolenghi
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In May, two Iranian naval ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope and entered the southern Atlantic, likely heading toward Venezuela or Cuba—the Islamic Republic’s key allies in the Western hemisphere. As one of the vessels appears to be carrying military craft, and there is reason to suspect they carry other armaments as well, Washington has warned the two Latin American countries not to allow the ships to dock. Emanuele Ottolenghi explains what’s at stake:

Because it thinks Washington will not push back, Iran is trying to provoke the United States in its own backyard, even at a time when the two sides appear close to a deal in Vienna to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord. . . . The Biden administration has done everything in its power to make Iran think the U.S. is in retreat. It has done so in the hope of mollifying Iran and persuading it to negotiate. . . . And so the new administration has dusted off the old policy playbook from the Obama administration.

Within weeks of taking office, the president authorized the unfreezing of billions of dollars of Iranian oil money that sanctions had blocked in Iraq and South Korea. This move eased the financial squeeze Iran was feeling—its oil sales in 2020 had all but collapsed—and gave it breathing space even before it made any concessions.

The Biden administration [likewise] chose to react to multiple Iranian attacks through Iraqi proxy militias by first downplaying Iran’s role and then by launching only a limited symbolic strike in Syria in response. U.S. diplomats have also declined to press Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog in charge of policing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [to which Tehran is a signatory], despite piling evidence of multiple instances of suspicious, unexplained, and troubling nuclear activity.

But while Washington thinks that the key to détente with Tehran is constraint and concessions, these actions indicate weakness in Tehran’s eyes. A military convoy dispatched to the U.S. backyard is more than a test of seafaring capacity. It is a statement. Iran is provoking the U.S. because it can.

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