WASHINGTON – Iran’s announcement on Saturday that an ultra-conservative former judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, has been elected president is now sparking unpredictable diplomatic drama: The rise of a hard-line government in Iran could actually give the Biden government a brief opportunity to turn around restore the 2015 nuclear deal with the country.
President Biden’s top aides, who negotiated behind closed doors with Iranian officials in Vienna – and relayed messages from hotel rooms through European intermediaries because Iranians won’t meet them directly – believe the moment may have come. And they say the next six weeks leading up to Mr Raisi’s inauguration will provide a unique window to reach a final settlement with the Iranian leadership on a painful decision that has delayed them.
In both Washington and Tehran, officials claim that Iran’s top 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Trump tore up more than three years ago – in order to lift the crushing sanctions that continue Iranian oil is largely withdrawn from the market.
In fact, the detailed wording of the revived deal was drafted weeks ago in Vienna, the same city where the original deal was signed six summers ago, senior officials say. Since then, the revived agreement has remained largely untouched for an election, the outcome of which appears to have been tampered with by the Ayatollah. Mr Raisi is one of his protégés and many believe he will be the lead candidate to become the nation’s next supreme leader when Ayatollah Khamenei, now 82, dies.
The theory in Washington and Tehran is that Ayatollah Khamenei staged not only the elections but the nuclear negotiations as well – and will not give up his best hopes of freeing Iran from the penalties that have kept its oil out of a resurgent market.
So the signs in the negotiations suggest that the final decision on whether to continue the deal could be made in the next few weeks, before Raisi is sworn in and the older – and in some ways more moderate – government of Iran is still in office.
That means that if the easing of sanctions does not save the country’s troubled economy, the moderates in Iran will take the blame for capitulating to the West and shoulder the brunt of public anger in Iran.
But if the deal goes through, Raisi’s new Conservative administration can recognize the economic boom and back up his argument that it would take a tough, nationalist government to stand up to Washington and bring the country back.
“This is a real Nixon goes to China moment for Iran,” said Vali Nasr, professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, who is about to begin negotiations. “If anyone other than the Conservatives made this deal with Biden, they would be torn apart,” he said of the new Iranian leadership. “The bet is they’ll get away with it. No one else could. “
If Mr Biden’s bet works and a tough government is the way to deliver on his campaign promise to restore a deal that largely worked until Mr Trump abandoned him, it would be just the latest weird twist in an agreement that is left Nobody stayed happy – neither the Iranians nor the Americans.
Mr Trump was the deal’s biggest critic, but a major objection appeared to be that it was negotiated by the Obama administration. In an interview during the 2016 campaign, he struggled to articulate his shortcomings. However, he later suggested that restrictions on Iran ended prematurely and that the deal did nothing to curb Iran’s missile program or its aid to terrorist groups in the Middle East. The day he pulled out of the deal, he called it “a terrible unilateral deal that should never have been made”.
Mr Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had predicted that once the sanctions begin to crush Iran, its leaders would ask for a deal and agree to more favorable terms for the United States and its Western partners.
They didn’t – and after the European powers, desperately trying to keep the deal alive, failed to deliver on their promises to make up some of Iran’s lost revenue, the Iranians resumed nuclear fuel production. American intelligence estimates that Iran is now months away from having enough fuel to produce a few nuclear weapons – but that doesn’t mean it is technologically ready for that leap.
A publicly published estimate by US intelligence in April concluded that “Iran is not currently engaged in the main nuclear weapon development activities that we believe would be necessary to manufacture a nuclear device.” The Israelis disagree.
A team led by Robert Malley, the Iranian special envoy from the Foreign Ministry, whose connections with Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken go back to the grammar school, have been traveling to Vienna for weeks to negotiate the agreement that he, Mr. Blinken and others negotiated in 2015.
“We saw the results of the maximum pressure campaign,” said Mr Malley in April. “It failed.”
People in the negotiations say there have been two major obstacles that could still undo Mr Biden’s efforts to restore the deal. And both prove the adage that in diplomacy, as in life, there is no real going home.
The Iranians have requested a written pledge that no future American administration can abandon the deal like Mr. Trump did. They want something permanent – “a reasonable sounding request,” in the words of a senior American official, “that no real democracy can make.”
After all, the agreement is not a treaty because Mr Biden, like President Barack Obama before him, could never have got the approval of two-thirds of the US Senate. It is therefore known as an “Executive Agreement” that any future president could reverse, just like Mr. Trump.
But the Biden government, fully aware of the shortcomings of the original 2015 deal, also has a demand. She wants Iran to agree in writing to return to the negotiating table as soon as the old agreement is restored and start working out the terms of a larger agreement which, in the words of Mr Blinken, is “longer and stronger”.
Mr Blinken’s sentence recognizes that critics of the six-year-old agreement are right to challenge the agreement because it essentially expires in nine years. Under current conditions, by 2030 Iran will be free to produce as much nuclear fuel as it wants – that is, even if it does not build a bomb, it will have enough fuel to produce one relatively quickly.
“The government there hopes it can have both,” wrote scholar and historian Michael Mandelbaum in March, suggesting that the United States use the old deal as a springboard to negotiate a newer, much stronger deal.
“This is an unlikely scenario,” he said, of the prospect of a stronger agreement being reached because once the United States lifts the sanctions that have hit Iran hardest, it would “provide the leverage needed to achieve it to improve them, reduce them considerably. “
Some senior administrators disagree. During the negotiations in recent months, the Iranians had made it clear that the sanctions imposed in 2015 did not go far enough. It did not allow Iran to conduct a number of international financial transactions, including the SWIFT system, a complex, secure messaging system used by financial institutions to pay off international debts.
So Mr Biden’s bet is that he will still have some leverage – and that could be enough to extend restrictions on Iranian production of nuclear fuel beyond 2030 and to limit its research and development of new nuclear centrifuges.
The Israelis say they are unwilling to take the risk – and it is widely believed that they are behind two explosions in Iran’s Natanz nuclear facilities, both of which target the centrifuges, the giant machines that spin at supersonic speeds, and uranium enrich.
For their part, the Iranians have stated that they have no intention of changing the terms of the deal in a way that would further restrict its production. Also, as Mr Raisi and other candidates stressed during the election campaign, they would not agree to any restrictions on their missile capacities or their support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Shiite militias in Iraq or Hamas, a militant group that depends heavily on the support of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
And that is Mr Biden’s weak point: if he can only restore the old deal but get no further concessions, he will be open to criticism that he has reinstated an agreement that does not solve the tingling problems with Iran Has.
Mr Raisi’s new administration has its own talking points: if Mr Trump could step down from the deal in 2018, what would stop a new president from doing the same in 2025, for example?
“You know this is the weak point of the American reasoning,” said Nasr. “Because a Nikki Haley or a Pompeo could come back and scrap everything,” he said of the potential Republican presidential candidate in 2024.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh recently said in a chat group in the clubhouse that Friday’s presidential elections in Iran would not bring down negotiations.
“In general, our foreign policy is based on continuity rather than change – even if there is a change of government,” he said.
But in response to a question from the New York Times, he also made it clear that Iran “will do nothing” beyond the existing agreement. “We have no new commitments. New negotiations are not part of our mandate. We are focused on continuing the 2015 deal, “no more, no less”.