Many observers in Iran and abroad are increasingly frustrated by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s reluctance to resume talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was halted in June due to Iranian presidential elections. However, this hesitation could end as soon as Iran announces that it will declare the exact date by which it will join the talks in the coming week.
Raisi’s reluctance is rooted in the fact that the JCPOA was negotiated and signed by former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who represented the reformist-backed government of Hassan Rouhani. From its earliest days, hard-line supporters have discredited and undermined the JCPOA and called it a document of treason, and blamed Rouhani for “submitting” to Western pressure. However, in reality, these hard-line supporters believed that the JCPOA and its major positive economic effects would increase the popularity of reformists among the Iranian people, paving the way for another decade of their time in power.
Therefore, when US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal, he saved Iran’s hardliners from certain defeat. Now Rouhani and Zarif had been weakened and the hard-line supporters had grown bold enough to claim that all of their predictions and arguments against the JCPOA were justified.
In the 2021 presidential election, Raisi, a conservative, won the race in easy competition with a number of other hard-line supporters. Yet while he seemed confident in his campaign, he made an unforced error in the presidential debates by announcing his determination to honor Iran’s commitments under the JCPOA. In fact, in making such remarks he sought not to provoke the Iranian people and Reform voters, who were adamant not to vote, to vote for the only remaining Reform candidates. But it angered a significant part of the hard line, who were mostly behind Saeed Jalili, the former chief negotiator who is a staunch enemy of the JCPOA.
So, part of Raisi’s hard base turned against him and became cynical about his administration’s approach to foreign policy. After the election, to deter further criticism, Raisi’s administration began to pursue a tougher foreign policy. In this vein, Raisi took an uncompromising stance in his first press conference by firmly rejecting any meeting with US President Joe Biden to revive the JCPOA.
However, unlike Raisi, the rest of the Islamic Republic’s political establishment wanted talks to resume. Still, Raisi was determined not to get shot, like Rouhani and Zarif before him, by showing flexibility in talks to revive the JCPOA. Therefore, for Raisi, the decision to resume talks quickly would be tantamount to asserting Zarif’s policy and the reformist path, discrediting the hard-line supporters who repeatedly questioned the former foreign minister – whom Raisi wants. gain support – and ostracize its political base.
To reduce the political consequences of Iran’s return to the JCPOA, the Raisi administration has started targeting the domestic public, not the United States and other parties to the agreement. The long delay in resuming talks has been the centerpiece of this strategy.
At first, Raisi’s foreign policy team, led by Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and his political deputy, Ali Bagheri Kani, has repeatedly said it will only join the talks if they were proving successful. It was an attempt to discredit the results of the six rounds of negotiations between Zarif and the Rouhani administration in Vienna.
Then, for more than two months, Raisi’s team said they were reviewing the results of previous rounds of talks and would come to a conclusion “soon”. It was also done to tell Iranians inside the country and supporters of the administration that Raisi was not as enthusiastic and concession-oriented as the previous government.
Yet after a while, instead of joining the talks, Bagheri Kani arranged meetings with a representative of the European Union in Tehran and Brussels without giving a clear reason. It was also an attempt to show Raisi’s harshness and distinguish his administration from Rouhani before him. This reality follows with Bagheri Kani’s reluctance to mention the JCPOA by name, as if simply associating the Raisi administration with the previous government was unacceptable. Instead, Bagheri Kani only talks about the negotiations as if he talks about seeking a new deal – precisely the idea he wants to instill in Iranians and hardliners.
In accordance with their plan, Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian said Tehran would not resume talks in Vienna from the point where they were stopped, despite Russia and other JCPOA signatories demanded that the Talks resume from the point of their suspension in June. This statement is intended to assure supporters of the national hard line that Raisi’s administration will not pursue the same path that Rouhani and Zarif charted before them. Moreover, Amir-Abdollhian’s remark is also in line with Bagheri Kani’s plan to indoctrinate the Iranians that any revival of the JCPOA will be through a new deal of which only Raisi’s foreign policy team is. responsible and which has nothing to do with the legacies of Rouhani and Zarif.
However, by resorting to such inflexible measures, Raisi’s hardline government is making its task more difficult. For example, Amir-Abdollahian said the JCPOA should return to the point of pre-Trump sanctions, despite the Biden administration’s unwillingness to lift a number of Trump sanctions, including those related to human rights. ‘man.
Likewise, Bagheri Kani stressed that Tehran wanted a credible guarantee that the United States would no longer withdraw from the agreement. Raisi’s team also said they needed a specific time frame to verify the United States’ lifting of sanctions. Some people close to the Raisi government have already declared that the verification process would take three to six months. It should be remembered that a guarantee claim was also pursued by Zarif and Rouhani’s team, but its ability to come to a compromise with the United States is unlikely to recur as the Raisi administration has put his reputation on the line on solving this problem.
So any pulling out of those red lines or showing flexibility would be very costly for Raisi and his team, as their hard base will lose hope and turn against them. At the same time, Iranian reformists would take the opportunity to tell people that hardliners have stymied the deal and made people suffer during Rouhani’s tenure only to be credited with relaunching the JCPOA.
Raisi has a tough job to do: if he travels to Vienna and follows in Rouhani’s footsteps by signing a deal, he’s certain to be attacked from his base. Yet, if he does not come to an agreement, Iran’s dire economic situation will deteriorate further, angering all Iranians. Moreover, the reformists’ argument that Iran’s hardliners are inexperienced in foreign policy would be proven in the eyes of the people.
However, any possible deal to relaunch the JCPOA requires Tehran and Washington to show some flexibility. Raisi’s team needs a face-saving concession for the United States to make the revival of the JCPOA credible in the eyes of Iranian extremists. Therefore, if Biden is truly determined to revive the JCPOA, he must consider the decisive impact of Iranian domestic politics.
Rohollah Faghihi is an Iranian affairs analyst and contributes to Foreign Policy, The Economist, American Conservative, Al-Monitor and Middle East Eye.