Chess game between Washington and Tehran: who moves first?

US President Joe Biden is ready to sit back down with Iran, along with the other signatories to the nuclear agreement. It is a first step to break the deadlock with archenemy Iran about the deal that Biden‘s predecessor Trump wiped off the table in 2018.

Biden wants to rejoin. Iran also wants rapprochement, but maintains its condition: no unannounced nuclear inspections should be carried out on Tuesday unless the Americans lift the sanctions.

Diplomatic talks between the two countries would mean a radical change of course after four years of great tensions. They are an initiative of the European Union which wants to claim a key role on the diplomatic scene after long standing on the sidelines.

Tensions between the US and Iran

In May 2018, Trump delivered an election promise by stepping out of the Iran deal. He reintroduced the harsh economic sanctions against Tehran. Critics warned that Iran would resume the program of large-scale uranium enrichment in response.

After that, the tensions increased high. In 2019, Trump labeled the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the most powerful part of the Iranian Armed Forces, as a terrorist organisation. A month later, a series of attacks against oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, oil platforms in Saudi Arabia and US military bases in Iraq followed. According to the Americans, Iran was behind that.

In June 2019, the Revolutionary Guard shot a US Army drone from the sky over the Strait of Hormuz. At that time, the US formally reintroduced economic sanctions, and Iran announced a resumption of the nuclear programme in response.

Leaders nuclear program killed

The attack on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January last year was also a severe escalation. The Americans called it a retaliation campaign for an Iranian attack in northern Iraq.

Iran swore revenge, but accidentally shot a Ukrainian passenger plane. 176 people were killed. Iran also fired missiles at American air base in Iraq. Dozens of American soldiers were injured.

In November last year, the leaders of the Iranian nuclear programme were killed, throwing the nuclear weapons programme back a year in time. Iran holds Israel responsible for these liquidations.

Who bows first?

Biden makes no secret that restoring relations with Iran is high on the agenda. The Americans want to revive the deal with Iran. But they do not intend to take the first step by reversing economic sanctions. Washington wants Iran to commit to the deal first by limiting its uranium enrichment.

Iran is increasing pressure: last week, the Iranian Ambassador informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the country will no longer allow unannounced nuclear inspections after 23 February.

But it does not allow the Americans to be fooled, a foreign minister in Washington said: Iran must comply fully with the agreement.

Positive signals

The Americans have now taken the first step on the diplomatic path, and the European Union therefore plays an important role in this. The invitation for an interview with Iran came from Brussels. The French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also discussed the stalemate with top European diplomats and his American counterpart Antony Blinken.

In addition, German Chancellor Merkel called on Iranian President Rohani to send โ€œpositive signalsโ€ to increase confidence and chances of a diplomatic solution.

Not a reliable partner

The major stumbling block seems to be the internal political situation in Iran. The course of that country is determined by a domestic power struggle between moderate President Rohani and hardliners who are likely to want Iran to build up a nuclear arsenal.

There is a great discontent among the population, as evidenced by the large-scale protests that broke out in 2018 and 2019, and the country has been severely affected by the coronapandemic and is suffering from the collapsed oil market. According to some experts, there is a threat of a triple crisis, which is socio-economic, political and ecological in nature.

The internal conflict is now reinforced by the fact that presidential elections are taking place in June. A rapprochement with the US and a relaxation of sanctions would strengthen the moderate forces in Iran, at the expense of the hardliners. But the hardliners in turn can point out that America, after the confrontation policy of Biden’s predecessor Trump, is not a reliable negotiating partner.