WASHINGTON – Iran’s announcement on Saturday that an ultraconservative former justice chief Ebrahim Raisi has been elected president now sets off an unpredictable diplomatic drama: The rise of a hard-line government in Iran could actually offer to the Biden administration a brief opportunity to reinstate the 2015 nuclear deal with the country.
President Biden’s top aides, who have negotiated with Iranian officials behind closed doors in Vienna – passing messages from hotel rooms through European intermediaries because the Iranians will not meet them directly – believe the time is right may have come. And, they say, the six weeks leading up to Mr. Raisi’s inauguration offer a unique window to reach a final deal with the Iranian leadership on a painful decision they are delaying.
Officials in Washington and Tehran say Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants to restore a nuclear deal with the West – which President Donald J. Trump tore up more than three years ago years – to lift the crushing sanctions that have kept Iranian oil largely off the market.
In fact, the detailed wording for the resurrected deal was worked out weeks ago in Vienna, the same city where the original deal was finalized six summers ago, according to senior officials. Since then, the resurrected deal has remained, largely intact, awaiting an election whose outcome appeared to be engineered by the Ayatollah. Mr Raisi is one of his proteges and many believe he is the main candidate to become the country’s next supreme leader when Ayatollah Khamenei, now 82, passes away.
The theory in Washington and Tehran is that Ayatollah Khamenei staged not only the elections, but the nuclear negotiations as well – and doesn’t want to give up his best hope of ridding Iran of the sanctions that have kept its oil from rolling out. enter a resurgent market. .
So the indications inside the negotiations are that the final decision to go ahead with the deal could come in the coming weeks, before Mr. Raisi’s inauguration and as the older Iranian government – and by some more moderate measures – is still in office.
This means that Iranian moderates would be set up to shoulder the responsibility of surrendering to the West and bear the brunt of popular anger inside Iran if the sanctions relief does not save the stricken economy. country.
But if the deal goes through, Mr. Raisi’s new Tory government can take credit for an economic recovery, reinforcing its argument that it took a hard-line nationalist government to stand up to Washington and bring back the country.
“For Iran, this is a real Nixon moment for China,” said Vali Nasr, professor of political science at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, who is close to negotiations. . “If anyone other than the Tories made this deal with Biden, they would be torn apart,” he said of Iran’s new leadership. âThe bet is that they can get away with it. No one else could.
If Mr. Biden’s gamble works and a hard-core government is the way forward to deliver on his election promise to restore a deal that largely worked until Mr. Trump quashed it, it wouldn’t be that the last bizarre twist in a deal that has left no one is happy – neither the Iranians nor the Americans.
Mr. Trump was the biggest critic of the deal, but the main objection seemed to be that it had been negotiated by the Obama administration. In an interview during the 2016 campaign, he struggled to articulate his flaws. But he later suggested that restrictions on Iran ended too soon and that the deal did nothing to curb Iran’s missile program or its aid to terrorist groups around the Middle East. . The day he withdrew from the deal, he called it “a horrible one-sided deal that should never have been done.”
Mr Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had predicted that once sanctions began to crush Iran, its leaders would come to implore a deal and accept more favorable terms for the United States and its Western partners. .
They didn’t – and after European powers, who desperately tried to keep the deal alive, broke their promises to make up some of Iran’s lost revenue, the Iranians resumed their production of nuclear fuel. According to U.S. intelligence estimates, Iran is now months away from having enough fuel to produce a few nuclear weapons – but that doesn’t mean it’s technologically ready to take the leap.
A US intelligence estimate released in April concluded that “Iran is not currently undertaking key nuclear weapons development activities that we deem necessary to produce a nuclear device.” The Israelis do not agree.
For weeks, a team led by Robert Malley, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, whose ties to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken go back to high school, have been commuting to Vienna for attempting to resurrect the deal he, Mr Blinken and others negotiated in 2015.
“We have seen the result of the maximum pressure campaign,” Mr Malley said in April. “It’s a fail.”
Those involved in the negotiations say there were two major hurdles that could further derail Mr Biden’s efforts to restore the deal. And both prove the adage that in diplomacy, as in life, there’s no really going home.
The Iranians demanded a written pledge that no future US government could cancel the deal like Mr. Trump did. They want something permanent – “a reasonable sounding requirement” in the words of a senior US official, “that no true democracy can do.”
The deal, after all, is not a treaty because Mr. Biden, like President Barack Obama before him, could never have obtained the consent of two-thirds of the United States Senate. So it’s called an “executive deal” that any future president could reverse, just like Mr. Trump did.
But the Biden administration, fully aware of the shortcomings of the original 2015 deal, also has a request. He wants Iran to agree, in writing, to return to the negotiating table as soon as the old deal is restored and to start framing the terms of a larger deal that is, in Mr Blinken’s words, “Longer and stronger”.
Mr Blinken’s sentence acknowledges that critics of the six-year-old deal are right when they attack the deal because it essentially expires in nine years. Under current terms, in 2030 Iran will be free to produce as much nuclear fuel as it wants, meaning that even if it doesn’t build a bomb, it will have the fuel stockpile to produce enough. quickly.
“The administration there is hoping it can have it both ways,” wrote academic and historian Michael Mandelbaum in March, suggesting the United States would use the old deal as a springboard to negotiate a newer one and much more. strong.
“This is an unlikely scenario,” he said of the prospects for a stronger deal, because once the United States lifts the sanctions that have hit the country hardest. Iran, that “would greatly reduce the leverage needed to improve it.”
Some senior officials in the administration disagree. They say that during negotiations in recent months, the Iranians have made it clear that they believe the sanctions relief achieved in 2015 does not go far enough. It did not allow Iran to conduct a series of international financial transactions, including through the SWIFT system, a complex and secure messaging system used by financial institutions to settle international debts.
Mr Biden’s bet, therefore, is that he will have some leverage left – and that could be enough to extend the duration of Iran’s nuclear fuel production limitations beyond 2030, and put limits on his research and development of new nuclear centrifuges.
Israelis say they are not prepared to take the risk – and they are widely believed to be behind two explosions at Iran’s nuclear facilities in Natanz, both aimed at centrifuges, the giant machines that spin at supersonic speeds, enriching uranium.
For their part, the Iranians have said they have no intention of changing the terms of the deal in a way that would limit its production even further. As Mr. Raisi and other candidates insisted during the campaign, they would also not agree to limit their missile capabilities, or their support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Shiite militias in Iraq or Hamas. , a militant group that relies heavily on support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
And this is Mr Biden’s vulnerability: if he can only restore the old deal, but does not get more concessions, he will expose himself to criticism that he has put back in place a deal that does not. has not resolved the thorny issues with Iran.
Mr. Raisi’s new government has its own talking points: If Mr. Trump could walk away from the deal in 2018, what would stop a new president from doing the same in, say, 2025?
“They know this is the weak point of the American argument,” Nasr said. âBecause a Nikki Haley or a Pompeo could come back and give it all up,â he said of potential 2024 Republican presidential candidates.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh recently told a Clubhouse panel that Friday’s presidential election in Iran will not derail negotiations.
âIn general, our foreign policy is based on continuity rather than change – even with a change of administration,â he said.
But he also clarified in response to a question from the New York Times that Iran “will not do anything” beyond the existing deal. âWe have no new commitments. A new negotiation is not part of our mandate. We are focused on continuing âthe 2015 agreement,â no more and no less â.