Since Washington’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — in 2018 under former US President Donald Trump, positions publicly staked out by the Iranian hardline daily newspaper Kayhan have been an insightful indicator of “the state of play” in diplomatic negotiations to resolve the dispute and the dim prospects of negotiations.

In an April 16 editorial, Hossein Shariatmadari, Kayhan’s editor-in-chief who was directly appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, inveighed against South Korea for refusing to release Iran’s frozen assets of around $7 billion in its banks. Shariatmadari called for the use of force against South Korea’s fuel tankers in the Gulf. “We can and should close the Strait of Hormuz [in the Gulf] to South Korean commercial ships and oil tankers and all those vessels carrying goods to or from South Korea, and prevent their passage until they repay our $7 billion debt,” Shariatmadari wrote.

Kayhan’s editor-in-chief inveighed against South Korea for refusing to release Iran’s frozen assets of $7 billion.

Shariatmadari’s comments, reminiscent of the unconventional Iranian attacks and sabotage operations against foreign fuel tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates in 2019 and later, suggest the course of action the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) might take if ongoing negotiations over reviving the 2015 nuclear accord — which curbs Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief — run aground and strangulating sanctions against Tehran remain in place.

This aggressive trajectory is all the more likely as the IRGC itself happens to lie at the heart of the latest stalemate in JCPOA revival talks, given the Biden administration’s strong reluctance to remove the IRGC military-economic juggernaut from the US State Department’s “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (FTO) blacklist, a terror designation that places the IRGC on a par with such terrorist groups as the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February added a new layer of complexity to the multilateral nuclear negotiations, Tehran was unlikely to compromise on the IRGC terror designation. As per local media reports, Iranian officials have also dismissed a US proposal to delist the IRGC but keep its foreign operations arm, the Quds Force, listed as a terrorist entity.

Towards Leadership Succession  

Tehran has incrementally nudged itself into an ever-shrinking corner of resistance during the past years of heightened pressure from Washington over its atomic activities. Now, major shows of flexibility and compromise are bound to anger hardliners who characteristically criticized the “moderate” administration of former President Hassan Rouhani for failing to resist Western demands and firmly defend “Iran’s nuclear rights.” The current so-called “principle-ist” President Ibrahim Raisi — who won the office on a conservative-populist platform of “maximum resistance” over national rights, and with the ample support of the IRGC and a hardliner-dominated parliament. Therefore, he cannot be seen following the same policy of pragmatist moderation as his predecessor did, which is what put Rouhani and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on a collision course with hardliners in the first place.

“As long as there is no agreement on everything, there is no agreement on anything…and today, we do not have an agreement [at all] to talk about,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said in his weekly press conference ​​on April 18, shortly after senior American officials opposed the IRGC terror designation removal and denied release of Iran’s frozen funds in allied nations, including South Korea.

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[Restoring the Nuclear Deal Requires Political Courage from the US and Iran]

More broadly speaking, 44 years after the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic has, in the words of Ayatollah Khamanei, taken its “second stride” and is bracing itself for a momentous leadership succession in a not-too-distant future. This will be the republic’s second change in leadership in its lifetime, the first having happened in 1988 when “founder of the revolution” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini passed away. Given the unequivocal intentions of Iran’s predominantly hardline ruling elite to carry on the revolutionary torch and forge post-Khamenei Islamic Republic in a similar image, the chances of major policy change are increasingly dwindling, be it political moderation and openness to civil liberties at home or pursuit of detente and rapprochement abroad.

Iran has taken its “second stride” and is bracing itself for a momentous leadership succession.

While Tehran has continued talks with regional rival Saudi Arabia under President Raisi — to little avail so far — its regional strategy, including systematic support for Yemeni Houthis and hostility to Israel, has exhibited almost no sign of restraint or compromise. “Wherever we identify a Zionist threat, we will harshly confront them….The destruction of this [Israeli] regime is gaining ground,” affirmed Quds Force commander General Ismail Qaani in a recent speech where he also defended IRGC’s March missile strikes against what the military group had described as “secret Israeli bases” in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. With JCPOA revival talks stalled and the likelihood of further nuclear advances by Iran rising as a result, Raisi has joined the chorus of officials warning against possible Israeli attacks on Iranian facilities.

Perhaps most decisive of all, the more assertive foreign policy and tougher negotiation line are also publicly endorsed and admired by Khamenei. The Supreme Leader seems to be much more satisfied and at ease with the Raisi administration regarding national security matters. In a noted contrast to his longstanding grievancesagainst the Rouhani administration’s nuclear diplomacy, Khamenei praised the current negotiation team for its sustained “resistance” against “excessive demands” in an April 12 meeting with state officials, stressing that the defiant stance has rendered Iran an “attractive example” among other nations. “They have reached a dead end, but we have not,” the top Iranian decisionmaker insisted.

No Choice but to “Look East?”

To steer clear of such a costly and lasting “dead end,” caused by a combination of anti-Western path dependency and political preparation for the approaching leadership succession, Tehran has increasingly sought closer “strategic partnerships” with Russia and China and resorted to a “Look East” strategy that involves an almost exclusive reliance on Chinese and Russian markets for oil exports in the absence of other buyers and clients. While the shaky policy approach remains susceptible to geopolitical fluctuations and shifting priorities in Russia and China’s ties with the United States, Iranian leaders deemed it necessary to avoid hyperinflation, a recurrence of widespread protests over deteriorating living conditions, and, in a nutshell, socioeconomic collapse and chaos.

The “Look East” strategy involves an almost exclusive reliance on Chinese and Russian markets for oil exports.

Iran’s “Look East” policy was first pursued in earnest under former President Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) when the country came under US and UN sanctions over its nuclear program. Ironically, the policy has so far entailed a significant level of compromise in dealings with Russia, China, and major concessions in areas such as energy, trade, environment, as well as geopolitics—the kind of “strategic liberality” or leniency that is conspicuously absent from the Islamic Republic’s nuclear negotiations with Western powers.

With Russia’s war against Ukraine displaying no signs of de-escalation, and American-European sanctions on Moscow starting to bite, the Islamic Republic is more likely than ever to join ranks with the Kremlin in its “maximum resistance” against the West and to persist with its “Look East” policy of increasing its economic dependency on China.