In his inaugural speech as Iran’s eighth President, Ebrahim Raisi—the 60-year-old protégé of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—issued a warning to foreign powers, vowing to counter the “excessive demands of the arrogant and tyrannical powers of the world.” Now with hardliners in full control of the Iranian state, there are concerns about the future of diplomacy between Tehran and Western capitals, particularly Washington.
However, there is reason to believe the new administration in Tehran will want to restore the Iran nuclear deal—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Indeed, in his first speech as President, Raisi reiterated the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, assuring that such weapons are forbidden on religious grounds. He also called for the lifting of sanctions and signaled his desire for diplomacy with regional neighbors.
Several rounds of nuclear talks have already taken place in Vienna since April with Iran and other JCPOA signatories, and indirectly with the US, and have failed to restore the accord. Yet, recently, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Director General, Rafael Grossi, traveled to Tehran and announced Iran’s cooperation in allowing inspectors to service the agency’s surveillance cameras at Iran’s nuclear sites.
So even though talks have been stalled since June 20—as analysts predicted was a strong possibility in the wake of Iran’s presidential election that month and the transition to a new administration—this news shows Tehran’s continued openness to restoring the landmark agreement and towards diplomacy.
The Raisi administration may have negotiators who are more rigid and less flexible if and when the talks resume.
Looking ahead, the Raisi administration may have negotiators who are more rigid and less flexible if and when the talks resume. At the same time, Iran’s nuclear program has been accelerating as a consequence of the Biden administration’s early missteps in not prioritizing a return to the agreement and overlooking the significance of Iran’s election.
When it came to the JCPOA, Raisi, and those in his camp, never trusted Washington, a view that was vindicated by the Trump administration pulling the US out unilaterally in May of 2018 and applying a “maximum pressure” policy on Tehran. This included the extrajudicial assassination of Iran’s top General, Qassem Soleimani, and a deluge of sanctions that have devastated Iran’s economy, hurt its middle class, and hampered the country’s ability to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite President Biden’s strong critiques of his predecessor’s Iran policy and his calls for then-President Trump to address sanctions hurting Iran’s Covid-19 response, his administration is yet to lift those sanctions. Instead, Biden administration officials are communicating to the Islamic Republic “to move forward soon” on nuclear talks. The message from the US side is that there will not be a “better deal” that comes through delaying tactics.
“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in late July while in Kuwait. “At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program.”
Dr. Hamidreza Azizi, an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, believes such statements highlight US apprehensions. “I think this position expressed by the US officials is, first and foremost, related to the change of administration in Tehran and Washington’s concerns that the new Iranian administration might have decided to use delay tactics in order to get more concessions,” he told Inside Arabia.
As a US official explained in an interview with foreign policy journalist Laura Rozen, the Biden administration views Washington re-entering the JCPOA as best for American security interests. But, he continued, “now, we are putting our backs into what it looks like if there is no return. Ultimately, it is going to look a lot like the dual track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”
Tehran has serious doubts about the US’ commitment to the JCPOA in the post-Biden era.
Tehran, for its part, has serious doubts about the US’ commitment to the JCPOA in the post-Biden era, which has added challenges to this year’s talks in Austria. As such, Tehran is demanding that the US side guarantee that Biden’s successor does not upend a revived JCPOA in the future as the Trump administration did. Moreover, Iran’s side can be expected to push for further concessions from Washington with the passing of more time. “Tehran also wants to keep some of the achievements it has made over the past several months in the nuclear field, which would mean a redefinition of Iran’s commitments under the deal,” Dr. Azizi stated. “Obviously, this is also something that the US is not expected to comply with.”
Where Does the Nuclear Accord Stand?
It remains to be seen how pragmatically Raisi and his administration will act. Iran’s new ultra-conservative President will probably bring in ideological figures loyal to the Supreme Leader who see themselves as responsible for defending the principles and values of the 1979 Revolution. But, ultimately, Raisi wants to achieve certain economic results. Raisi’s political future and ascendancy depend on Iran’s economy improving. Therefore, the new President will want to see growth in Iran’s trade relations with countries in the region, as well as China and Russia. Yet doing so will require a lifting of US sanctions, meaning that the Iranians must continue participating in the nuclear talks and eventually make some key compromises.
There are many unresolved nuclear and non-nuclear issues between Washington and Tehran that will likely be harder to address moving forward. Hence, a “less-for-less arrangement,” which puts a short-term cap on the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for relatively small levels of sanctions relief, might be the best fallback option. That said, the Biden administration also has the power to take concrete steps—such as easing Trump-era sanctions, freeing up frozen Iranian assets for vaccine purchases, or approving Iran’s International Monetary Fund loan request—as a show of good faith, to restore the deal and take responsibility for the US role in squandering the diplomatic gains made under the historic agreement.
Notably, Raisi is serving as President at a time when sanctions-hit Iran faces numerous challenges, including managing the spread of Covid-19, water scarcity issues, shortages of medical supplies, inflation, and a high national debt. The citizens of Iran are living with an economy in shambles and desperate for sanctions relief.
Images of the Taliban’s stunningly fast takeover of Afghanistan have raised serious questions about the efficacy of US militarism.
On the American side, images of the Taliban’s stunningly fast takeover of Afghanistan—after 20 years of war, trillions of dollars spent, millions of people displaced, and a tremendous loss of life—have raised serious questions about the efficacy of US militarism. From a global perspective, a return to the JCPOA can be a model for non-proliferation efforts, to avert another costly war and serve global security interests.
The fact that the Raisi administration has allowed the IAEA access to its monitoring equipment and signaled its intention to resume nuclear negotiations, while the US has tabled a resolution to censure Iran, provides some hope that all parties recognize the widespread benefits of restoring the accord. Now they must show political courage and resolve to take the steps necessary to do so.
Co-author: Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, D.C.-based geopolitical risk consultancy.