What will happen to the nuclear deal under Iran’s new president?
25 Jun 2021|

Last week’s Iranian presidential election was the mother of all predetermined elections. Ebrahim Raisi, head of Iran’s judiciary, was considered not just the frontrunner in the election but a shoo-in for the post. He is a confidant of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is an ideological hardliner, is supported by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and by some accounts is a supreme opportunist who can tailor his views to conform to prevailing preferences.

One observer describes Raisi as ‘a man driven first and foremost by a profound devotion to the acquisition of power rather than a fanatical adherence to ideology’. He is considered a favourite for the supreme leader’s position when Khamenei, who is 82, leaves the scene. One can assume that Raisi’s election to the presidency is a stepping-stone to his appointment as the supreme leader just as was the case with Khamenei, who succeeded Ruhollah Khomeini on his death.

In addition to these background factors, Raisi owes his election to the machinations of the Guardian Council that disqualified several potentially strong candidates, including conservatives, who could have given him a run for his money. Article 91 of Iran’s constitution mandates that the Guardian Council be composed of six experts in Islamic law to be selected by the supreme leader, plus six jurists specialising in different areas of law to be elected by the majlis (parliament) from among those nominated by the chief justice who, in this case, was Raisi himself. Therefore, the cards were stacked in his favour even before the nomination process began.

Raisi also owes his election in substantial measure to US President Donald Trump’s decision in 2018 to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) and to impose draconian sanctions on Tehran in order to exercise ‘maximum pressure’ on it to bend it to Washington’s will on the nuclear, ballistic missile and regional issues, such as Iran’s support to groups and regimes considered terrorists by Washington. Trump’s decision played into the hands of the Iranian hardliners who had opposed the JCPOA and consistently argued that the US couldn’t be trusted to keep its word. The moderates, who had argued in favour of the nuclear deal as necessary for Iran’s economic rejuvenation, were thoroughly discredited and stood no chance of winning this election even if it was truly free and fair.

What does this bode for the future of Iran and the nuclear deal? One can reasonably predict that with Raisi in charge of day-to-day administration, the political atmosphere in Iran is likely to become even more stifling and the limited space allowed under Rouhani to opponents of the government (if not of the system) will be drastically reduced. Moreover, given Raisi’s background and his reputation as a major executioner of the Islamic Republic’s opponents during the early years of the revolution, his government is likely to be very harsh in its treatment of dissenting elements.

In contrast, Raisi will likely be more flexible in his approach to issues relating to JCPOA. In his own words, ‘We are committed to the JCPOA … but the JCPOA needs a strong government to implement it.’ There are three important reasons for his interest in returning to JCPOA. First, he realises that the removal of the bulk of American sanctions is essential for the revival of the Iranian economy and the relief that that will bring to ordinary Iranians. This is extremely important for the popular acceptance of his rule, especially since the low turnout and the rigged nature of the vote cast doubts on its legitimacy.

Second, Khamenei has clearly signalled, although not totally without reservations, that he would like the JCPOA to be reinstated for much the same reasons as Raisi. This means that Khamenei’s approval of the deal once achieved is practically foreordained.

Third, Raisi is expecting the agreement to be signed before he assumes office, and therefore the outgoing administration would be held responsible for its shortcomings. Raisi can take credit for the positive effects after the agreement comes into force and sanctions are lifted without taking the blame for its perceived deficiencies.

Reports suggest that negotiations in Vienna have considerably narrowed the differences between Iran and the US and also that a detailed draft of the resurrected agreement was worked out some weeks ago.

Only two major issues remain before the final agreement is reached. One is the Iranian demand that the US, in light of Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, give a written commitment that no future American government will unilaterally withdraw from the agreement. However, this is unlikely to pass muster among the political class in Washington, many of whom insist that Iran should be forced to accept greater restrictions on its nuclear program.

The US in turn has demanded that Iran agree, in writing, to return to the negotiating table as soon as the JCPOA is restored and begin working towards a more comprehensive agreement that would address US concerns about Tehran’s ballistic missile program and its support for groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Iraqi Shia militias that Washington deems terrorist organisations. This could be an equally big hurdle, especially since Raisi has reiterated the traditional Iranian stand that he won’t countenance any conflating of other issues with the JCPOA and that American demands on these unrelated issues won’t be acceptable to him.

However, both sides are working overtime to save the nuclear agreement, as the failure to revive it could have negative implications for both Tehran and Washington. Creative diplomacy might, in the end, produce a set of formulas acceptable to both sides without either party compromising its basic position. If that happens, as is likely, it would mean for Iran, in the words of Vali Nasr, ‘a real Nixon-goes-to-China moment’.

Only a hardline conservative can make concessions to the US and get away with it without being pilloried by the equally hardline majlis and the government-controlled media. Raisi, because of his credentials, is well poised to perform this role without adverse consequences for himself and his government.