If Iran’s claims of successfully launching a monkey into orbit (and bringing him back to boot) turn out to be true, it would mark a major advancement in the Islamic Republic’s missile capabilities. But even if this primate’s epic journey turns out to be just propaganda, the timing of the story alone is enough to shed light onto what the beleaguered country thinks its doing in its nuclear standoff.
That’s because "monkey launch Monday" was also supposed to be the opening day of talks in Istanbul between Iran and the P5 + 1 (the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China, and Germany) to hash out a comprehensive deal limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities and lift crippling sanctions … or to just reach the same impasse that the last four summits did. Either way, Iran’s endless haggling over preconditions scrapped the talks, and the monkey/missile provocation seems like the cherry on top of a deliberate effort to dash hopes for negotiations.
As always, Iran’s internal calculus is murky, but the prospects for a resumption of talks in the near future might not be so far out, and Monday’s sabre rattling might not actually be so scary. (Except for the monkey, maybe.)
Before the Iranian leadership can stomach sitting down to the negotiating table, some erratic grandstanding could score just enough points for the regime to spin a future deal as an agreement they freely entered as opposed to a concession. Iran’s right to a nuclear program has a vaunted position in Iranian nationalism, or at least it does in the eyes of the government. No matter how weak the value of Iran’s rial or how high the price of food, the Islamic Republic won’t allow itself to accept the American narrative that sanctions have somehow won at the expense of Iran’s proud defiance.
A zigzag path to the negotiating table could be just enough to save face and say that Iran’s leaders were in control all along. But what if sanctions haven’t pushed Iran to the brink?
In that case, the regime’s erratic behavior around talks may be a chance to stall until Iran’s leadership future solidifies after elections, or until Iran has another friendly face in negotiations. Iran’s relations with Turkey have frosted recently over the Syrian crisis, and Iran was quick to shoot down the proposal to hold talks in Istanbul. But time may reverse that trend, if Iran can indeed hold out longer, and without some sort of cushion like Turkey between Iran and the P5 +1, a real resolution will likely remain elusive.
This is the optimistic reading, but if recent Israeli intelligence is correct and Iran is in fact voluntarily slowing its nuclear program, then maybe Iran’s monkey business is really only just that.