While the US has expressed its willingness to unblock Iran’s assets as a step towards improving ties between the two countries, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that nearly $2 billion of Iran’s frozen assets be turned over to the American families of the victims of a 1983 bombing in Beirut and other attacks. Iran has now decided to sue the U.S. for what Tehran calls highway robbery.

It is not all of a sudden that the Syrian question has become an anchor point for significant, if not radical, re-alignments of alliance in the Middle East.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at United Nations headquarters Saturday
US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at UN in this file photo

While Russia’s direct involvement has resulted in meaningfully altering its relations with Iran, Tehran’s own relations with the West, on the whole, have transformed to a considerable extent too.

However, this transformation is, to Iran’s dismay, not going the way the Islamic Republic might have expected in the post nuclear deal scenario. Neither is it smooth enough nor rough enough. Well, this is how it is going to be at least between Iran and the U.S. as long as the Syrian riddle is not resolved.

The continued friction between the U.S. and Iran is mainly because European sanctions on Iran are easing faster than those imposed by the U.S. As it stands, according to some reports, Iranian oil is expected to reach European market in June. Once Iran re-starts its exports, it is expected to deliver, just as it delivered before sanctions were imposed in 2012, as much as 700,000 barrels of oil per day.

While this access to European market would allow the Islamic Republic to earn a lot of revenue in Euros and re-capture the market it had previously lost to Saudi Arabia, it will equally put Saudi Arabia under pressure as it would allow Iran to pursue its wars in the Middle East even more aggressively. Saudi Arabia, however, cannot do much in preventing Europe from indirectly easing economic pressure on Iran as Europe itself stands to benefit from the relatively cheaper oil it is getting from Iran.

It is interesting to note that in the recently held Iran Oil Show, renowned international companies from 38 countries participated. This is apart from the long-term contracts Iran has already signed with oil companies of France, Italy and Greece.

While Iran is happy over its access to Europe, the U.S. is not allowing it an easy access. Iranian vessels controlled by Iran’s NITC are still under sanctions. Not only this, the issue of de-freezing Iran’s assets has become a sort of controversy between both countries.

While John Kerry expressed, during his recent meeting with his Iranian counterpart, his government’s willingness to unblock Iran’s assets as a step towards improving relations between the two countries (read: the U.S. to buy heavy water from Iran), the U.S. Supreme Court recently passed a ruling stating that nearly $2 billion of Iran’s frozen assets be turned over to the American families of the victims of a 1983 bombing in Beirut and other attacks.

While Iran has officially denied any involvement in this issue, the money, which belongs to the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), had been blocked under US sanctions before the court ruling. Tehran has denounced the seizure of the frozen assets as “highway robbery,” vowing that it will retrieve the sum anyway. Last week, 120 member states of the Non-Aligned Movement denounced the US ruling, calling it a violation of Washington’s international and treaty obligations concerning “the sovereign immunity of states.”

The U.S., on its part and considering its interest in the Middle East, cannot politically afford to appease Iran at the expense of its “friendship” with the House of Saud. The decision and subsequent support shown by the U.S. State department is indicative of the difficulty the U.S. is facing with regard to maintaining a “balance” between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

While the U.S. does want to exploit the gradual differences growing between Iran and Russia, it cannot expect to accomplish it without indirectly pushing its two erstwhile allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, towards Russia. The carrot-and-stick policy is expected to continue until the arrival of the new U.S. president next year.

Therefore, despite the ‘warmth’ the foreign ministers of both the countries had earlier expressed, Iran has decided to sue the U.S. for what its president called “theft” of Iran’s assets, adding further that “we will not allow the US to swallow this money so easily.”

Iran’s official protest came in the form of a letter to the United Nations. The letter, which Iran’s UN mission distributed to the news media, asked for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s help in stopping the United States from carrying out the April 20 court ruling. Iran’s foreign minister further opined in the letter that the Americans were interfering with Iran’s ability to conduct financial transactions permitted by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

While this particular episode does indicate the U.S.’ willy-nilly approach to Iran, such episodes might provoke the anti-nuclear deal elements in Iran and damage the nascent and deeply uncertain diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Similarly, such decisions are going to set a strong policy guideline for the new U.S. government to follow. Were the Republicans, many of whom are already opposed to the deal, to come to power in the U.S., the nuke deal might turn out to be a pile of ‘broken promises’ in the face of opposition from within both countries. Were such a scenario to take place, the Middle East might find itself back to square one — immersed in conflict played out by super powers for their struggle for supremacy.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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