WASHINGTON — Iran’s announcement Saturday that an ultraconservative former head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, has been elected president now touches off an unpredictable diplomatic drama: The ascension of a hard-line government in Iran may actually present the Biden administration with a brief opportunity to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with the country.
President Joe Biden’s top aides, who have been negotiating with Iranian officials behind closed doors in Vienna — passing messages from hotel rooms through European intermediaries because the Iranians will not meet them directly — believe the moment may have come. And, they say, the next six weeks before Raisi is inaugurated present a unique window to strike a final deal with Iran’s leadership on a painful decision it has been delaying.
Officials in both Washington and Iran contend that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wants to restore a nuclear agreement with the West — which former President Donald Trump ripped up more than three years ago — in order to lift the crushing sanctions that have kept Iranian oil largely off the market.
In fact, the detailed wording of the resurrected agreement was worked out weeks ago in Vienna, the same city where the original accord was finalized six summers ago, senior officials say. Since then, the resurrected agreement has sat, largely untouched, awaiting an election whose outcome had seemed engineered by the ayatollah. Raisi is one of his protégés, and many believe he is the leading candidate to become the nation’s next supreme leader when Ayatollah Khamenei, now 82, dies.
The theory in Washington and Iran is that Ayatollah Khamenei has been stage-managing not only the election but the nuclear negotiations — and does not want to give up his best hope of ridding Iran of the penalties that have kept its oil out of a resurging market.
So the indications inside the negotiations are that the final decision to go ahead with the deal could come in the next few weeks, before Raisi is inaugurated and while Iran’s older — and by some measures more moderate — government is still in office.
That means Iran’s moderates would be set up to take the blame for capitulating to the West and bear the brunt of popular anger inside Iran if sanctions relief does not rescue the nation’s stricken economy.
But if the deal comes together, the new conservative government under Raisi can take the credit for an economic upswing, bolstering his case that it took a hard-line, nationalist government to stand up to Washington and bring the country back.
“For Iran, this is a real Nixon-goes-to-China moment,” said Vali Nasr, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, who is close to the negotiations. “If anyone other than the conservatives made this deal with Biden, they would be torn up,” he said of Iran’s new leadership. “The bet is that they can get away with it. No one else could.”
If Biden’s bet works, and a hard-line government is the pathway to fulfilling his campaign promise to restore a deal that was largely working until Trump scrapped it, it would be only the latest strange twist in an accord that has left no one happy — not the Iranians, and not the Americans.
Trump was the agreement’s greatest critic, but a primary objection seemed to be that it was negotiated by the Obama administration. In an interview during the 2016 campaign, he struggled to articulate its flaws. But he later suggested that restrictions on Iran ended too early and that the deal did nothing to curb Iran’s missile program or its aid to terrorist groups around the Middle East. The day he pulled out of the accord, he called it “a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.”
Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, had predicted that once sanctions began to crush Iran, its leaders would come begging for a deal and agree to terms more favorable to the United States and its Western partners.
They did not — and after European powers, who desperately tried to keep the deal alive, failed to deliver on its promises to make up for some of Iran’s lost revenue, the Iranians resumed their production of nuclear fuel. By U.S. intelligence estimates, Iran is now months from having enough fuel to produce a few nuclear weapons — but that does not mean it is technologically ready to make that leap.
A publicly released U.S. intelligence estimate in April concluded that “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.” The Israelis disagree.
So for weeks now, a team led by Robert Malley, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, whose ties to Secretary of State Antony Blinken go back to high school, has been shuttling to Vienna to try to resurrect the agreement that he, Blinken and others negotiated in 2015.
“We’ve seen the result of the maximum pressure campaign,” Malley said in April. “It has failed.”
People inside the negotiations say there have been two major obstacles that could still derail Biden’s effort to restore the deal. And both prove the adage that in diplomacy, as in life, there is no real going home.
The Iranians have demanded a written commitment that no future U.S. government could scrap the deal as Trump did. They want something permanent — “a reasonable-sounding demand,” in the words of one senior U.S. official, “that no real democracy can make.”
The accord, after all, is not a treaty, because Biden, like President Barack Obama before him, could never have gotten the consent of two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. So it is termed an “executive agreement” that any future president could reverse, just as Trump did.
But the Biden administration, fully aware of the shortcomings of the original 2015 deal, has a demand as well. It wants Iran to agree, in writing, to return to the negotiating table as soon as the old deal is restored and begin hammering out the terms of a bigger agreement that is, in the words of Blinken, “longer and stronger.”
Blinken’s phrase acknowledges that critics of the six-year-old agreement have a point when they attack the accord for essentially expiring in nine years. Under the current terms, in 2030 Iran will be free to make as much nuclear fuel as it wants — meaning that even if it does not build a bomb, it will have the stockpile of fuel around to produce one fairly quickly.
“The administration there hopes it can have it both ways,” scholar and historian Michael Mandelbaum wrote in March, suggesting the United States will use the old deal as a steppingstone to negotiating a newer, much stronger one.
“This is an unlikely scenario,” he said about the prospects that a stronger deal could be reached, because once the United States lifts the sanctions that have hit Iran hardest, it “would severely reduce the leverage needed to improve upon it.”
Some senior administration officials disagree. They say that during negotiations in recent months, the Iranians have made clear they believe the sanctions relief obtained in 2015 did not go far enough. It did not permit Iran to conduct a range of international financial transactions, including through the SWIFT system, a complex, secure messaging system used by financial institutions to settle international debts.
So Biden’s bet is that he will have some leverage left — and that may be enough to extend the length of the limitations on Iran’s production of nuclear fuel beyond 2030 and put limits on its research and development of new nuclear centrifuges.
The Israelis say they are not willing to take the risk — and they are widely believed to be behind two explosions at Iran’s nuclear facilities at Natanz, both aimed at the centrifuges, the giant machines that spin at supersonic speeds, enriching uranium.
For their part, the Iranians have said they have no intention of changing the terms of the accord in ways that would limit its production even further. Nor, as Raisi and other candidates insisted during the campaign, would they agree to any limits on their missile capabilities, or their support of President Bashar Assad of Syria, the Shiite militias in Iraq, or Hamas, a militant group that depends heavily on the support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard.
And that is Biden’s vulnerability: If he can only restore the old deal but fails to get more concessions, he will open himself up to criticism that he has put back in place an accord that did not solve the prickly issues with Iran.
Raisi’s new government has its own talking points: If Trump could walk away from the deal in 2018, what is to stop a new president from doing the same in, say, 2025?
“They know that this is the weak point in the American argument,” said Nasr. “Because a Nikki Haley or a Pompeo could come back and scrap it all,” he said of the potential 2024 Republican presidential contenders.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said in a Clubhouse chat group recently that Friday’s presidential election in Iran would not derail the negotiations.
“In general, our foreign policy is based on continuity rather than change — even with a change of administration,” he said.
But he also made clear in response to a question from The New York Times that Iran “will do nothing” beyond the existing agreement. “We have no new commitments. New negotiation is not part of our mandate. We are concentrating on continuing” the 2015 deal, “not more and not less.”