The Iranian regime has long aligned itself with Russia to advance its geopolitical and ideological interests. While the US, UK and EU develop their strategies in response to the Ukraine crisis, they must not lose sight of the fact that other Russian forces recently coordinated with Iran and China for naval exercises in the Indian Ocean, thus signaling the continuous growth of an anti-Western bloc whose threat extends well beyond the bounds of NATO.

If left unchecked, Russia’s military moves could embolden different kinds of aggression from Iran, which in recent weeks has used its regional proxies to launch drone attacks on the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

But at the same time, if the international community focuses too much on the crisis in Ukraine, it runs the risk of giving Iran a green light to expand its similar actions, secure in the knowledge that its leading adversaries will be too distracted to offer a suitable response.

Iran’s belligerent approach to foreign policy has only intensified since last summer, when the regime effectively appointed hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi as its new president. The change of leadership led to a five-month pause in the negotiations in Vienna that are aimed at restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

When Iran finally returned to those talks in November, it did so with an even more unreasonable set of demands, including an impossible guarantee that the US would never again withdraw from the deal and for relief not just from nuclear-related sanctions, but also those that target its human rights abuses and terrorist activities.

The situation in Vienna has always been complicated by the fact that Russia and China are parties to the JCPOA, alongside the US, UK, France, Germany and the EU. Those complications are made far more serious now that the Russian incursion into Ukraine has raised questions about the future of Western relations with Moscow. With Russia facing an influx of new US and European sanctions, Putin’s representatives in Vienna will have even greater incentive to back the unreasonable Iranian demands that have defined those talks for the past two months.

Russia’s pending isolation could also prompt further expansions in military and economic cooperation between it and the Iranian regime, to the detriment of Western leverage over both. With that in mind, US and European policymakers must resolve to exploit the available leverage immediately.

If Tehran does not immediately sign up to a longer and stronger nuclear deal when the negotiators next meet, then the Biden administration should move to reimpose the Trump-era “maximum pressure” policy on the regime, but this time with the backing of all America’s European allies. The more economically weakened the regime becomes in the short term, the less valuable it will be to Moscow as a tool of sanctions evasion in the longer term.

Furthermore, increasing pressure on Tehran under the present circumstances could have transformative effects for the region, ultimately depriving Russia of its existing lifeline in its entirety. This is because the Iranian regime has been the site of historic popular unrest ever since a nationwide uprising in January 2018 and the regime now appears to be struggling not only to manage that unrest but also to maintain its hold on power.

The 2018 uprising prompted Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to acknowledge, for the first time, that a pro-democracy opposition group known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran had expanded its social influence. In November 2019, another uprising encompassed many localities and also featured slogans demanding the removal of the theocratic dictatorship. The authorities fiercely cracked down on that unrest, killing 1,500 people in a matter of days. However, just two months later, protesters were back on the streets in more than a dozen provinces.

One of the key figures in that crackdown was Raisi, who was then the head of the judiciary. His subsequent move to the presidency was widely recognized as Khamenei’s endorsement of further political violence, particularly against the NCRI. In 1988, Raisi had served as one of four officials on the Tehran “death commission” that initiated a massacre of political prisoners, expressly targeting the oppositional group and claiming 30,000 lives over the course of three months. But far from intimidating the public into silence, Raisi’s promotion elicited new protests and an election boycott that resulted in the lowest voter turnout for a presidential vote since the advent of the regime.

The only way to confront Iran is by drastically changing some aspects of the situation that have allowed its relations with Russia to flourish. Although truly punishing sanctions on each country may be a step in that direction, the seriousness of the emerging crisis calls for a bolder gambit.

Source » arabnews