The carefully engineered “election” of veteran hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi to serve as the next Iranian president doesn’t change the fundamental equation between the United States and Iran at the indirect nuclear negotiations in Vienna or between Tehran and its Gulf Arab adversaries. But it does help clarify the delicate, finely balanced diplomatic reality and the dangerous confrontational alternatives.
In the long run, Raisi’s election does not signal good news about Iran’s intentions. Like his mentor, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Raisi has ruled out negotiations or other measures to restrain Iran’s missile development program or, most importantly from many Arab perspectives, network of militias and extremist groups throughout the region. Such tangential issues could be used as strategic bargaining tools in the nuclear talks. But the Iranian government, with power solidified by this hard-line faction, will likely remain dead set against compromises on these non-nuclear issues. And this Iranian position is not new or recently hardened. Iran always made it clear in talks with U.S. officials that those issues were not on the table; the only disagreement was among U.S. policymakers and analysts as to whether the U.S. government had the leverage to force them into the mix.
On the nuclear front, the current negotiations could still yield fruit. Unfortunately, that’s precisely because they are so limited. Washington and Tehran are seeking to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement, which the administration of Donald J. Trump withdrew from in 2018, on what both sides agree should be a compliance-for-compliance basis. What’s essentially being negotiated is what would constitute “compliance” with the terms of the now 6-year-old agreement by both parties. The main question for Iran is what it must do to reverse the steps it has taken toward developing its nuclear program that go far beyond the restrictions stipulated in the JCPOA. On the U.S. side, it effectively boils down to how to roll back a range of sanctions imposed after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and the subsequent campaign of “maximum pressure” economic warfare against Iran.
Both issues are fraught. Iran might be able and even willing to roll back activities prohibited by the terms of the JCPOA and divest itself of new stockpiles. But it cannot undo the new engineering and research and development knowledge, particularly regarding more efficient and effective centrifuges, that Tehran has developed over the past three years.
The Trump administration sought to tie up as many sanctions as possible in legislative and administrative mandates and other red tape to make them more difficult to reverse and classified many of them as counterterrorism or anti-crime measures rather than being related to the nuclear negotiations. The administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is reportedly seeking to again ease all the reimposed sanctions that were originally lifted as part of the JCPOA and some that were imposed since. So, in both cases there are new developments that may not be easily resolved simply through compliance with the 2015 document.
Moreover, there is considerable opposition in both Iran and the United States, and doubts among U.S. allies in the Gulf region, about the value of reviving the agreement. Iranian hard-liners always maintained it was a bad deal for the country. For the United States, the JCPOA was essentially a chronological gamble, postponing significant progress on Iran’s nuclear program for 10 to 15 years depending on the specific issue. The value of those sunsets, effectively hoping for a contextual change in the interim that would convince Iran to abandon its nuclear program or at least allow for a meaningful extension of the restrictions, is a lot less convincing in 2021 than it was in 2015 given that six years have passed and Iran is at least as close to nuclear weapons breakout now as it was before the agreement went into effect.
For these reasons, compliance-for-compliance isn’t proving an easy lift. The big advantage is that both sides say they want the same thing, which, in theory, certainly ought to make it attainable. Negotiating compliance is a fairly narrow brief, but the sensitivity of the questions and political opposition are rendering it hard going. The most optimistic scenario for reviving the deal is based on the widely held theory that now that the election has been secured for Raisi, the supreme leader’s faction will be happy to allow incumbent President Hassan Rouhani to agree to terms with Washington and take the blame for unpopular compromises that will be required. Then Raisi’s government will be in a position to claim credit for the economic benefits of sanctions relief and score points by refusing to budge an inch on missiles and sectarian militia groups.
Raisi seemed to signal exactly that approach in the last presidential debate in Iran, when he said he was in favor of a return to the JCPOA but only by a “strong government” that wouldn’t compromise Iran’s national interests, clearly referring to missiles, militias, and other controversial topics. U.S.-Iranian indirect talks may have been bogged down, although some unspecified progress has been reported, in Vienna in part to help Raisi use this as a wedge issue in the election. If this interpretation of Iranian politics and strategy is correct, a breakthrough, at least for a framework, now becomes more likely before Raisi takes office in August.
If they get the green light, Iranian negotiators can compromise on at least two key outstanding issues. They can accept that the United States is not going to lift all of the post-2015 sanctions imposed on Iran and Iranians. And they can commit to restore full cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and give them access to the surveillance cameras they installed in key Iranian facilities.
However, there are worrying signs that tensions are starting to overtake good intentions. U.S. and Iranian officials have been increasingly bitter in blaming each other for a lack of progress. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told The New York Times that the Biden administration was not willing to negotiate indefinitely and that if Iran continues with its current nuclear activities the agreement will become “very difficult as a practical matter” to revive. U.S. forces based in Syria and Iraq have recently come under increasing drone attacks from Iranian-backed militia groups, prompting U.S. airstrikes on both sides of the border that a pro-Iranian militia said killed four of its fighters. U.S. forces in northeast Syria were again attacked with rockets, to which they responded with an artillery barrage.
Despite all of this, Iran needs sanctions relief desperately given continued severe economic woes and the devastating coronavirus pandemic. Historically low voter turnout in the recent presidential election, in which all but a few carefully selected candidates were barred from running, is only the most recent indication of a growing alienation between much of the population and the state. The ruling faction is clearly preparing for the supreme leader’s succession. Khamenei is old and has been battling cancer for years. As one of his closest allies, Raisi may have been installed to succeed him or to possibly arrange for Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba, to take over after his father passes away. Either way, sanctions relief and economic improvement would make such a transition far smoother and more manageable. So, a return to the 2015 agreement, even considering the challenges, is still more likely than not.
Where to go from there is harder to imagine. The sunsets on nuclear restrictions in the 2015 deal are fading fast. An extension of them is possible but would be far more difficult. For Gulf Arab countries, however, none of that is particularly reassuring, given Tehran’s continued refusal to put missiles or militias on the table. Iran is hardly going to be more likely to do that now, following extreme tensions with the Trump administration and Tehran’s apparent willingness to continue supporting militia attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria and the Biden administration’s willingness to hit back.
Some senior figures in the Biden administration have privately said forestalling the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon is the only major U.S. national security imperative in the Middle East, which is essentially the strategic position former President Barack Obama’s negotiators arrived at. Many Gulf Arab leaders would counter that attacks by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria not only target U.S. forces and interests directly but are fully integrated into Iran’s negotiating strategy on the nuclear question. From that perspective, these networks of militants armed with inexpensive and often precision guided drones and rockets, far more than Iran’s conventional missiles or even nuclear weapons, are Tehran’s most potent ace in the hole. But despite the lethality and impact of such weapons, the strategic reality is that they, unlike Iran’s potential nuclear weapons, probably do not have the capability of putting the United States on a path to escalating direct military conflict with Tehran. But, along with Iran’s militia network in the Arab world, these assets will remain major concerns for Gulf Arab governments, highlighting a continued gap in threat perceptions and strategic aims between Washington and its key regional partners.