Jun 21, 2021 - World

What Iran's election means for the nuclear deal

Raisi holds a press conference in Tehran. Photo: Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg via Getty

The election of conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s next president injects new urgency into the efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, but could preclude the possibility of a “longer and stronger” agreement.

Why it matters: President Biden hopes to put Iran’s nuclear program “back in a box” by salvaging the previous deal and then negotiate a follow-on accord to extend the deal’s timelines and cover Iran’s missile program and other issues.

Driving the news: In his first press conference today, Raisi ruled out negotiating over missiles or meeting with Biden.

  • Raisi is a loyal protégé of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and seems to share his hostility toward the West — a significant shift from outgoing President Hassan Rouhani.
  • The Biden administration hoped the prospect of deeper economic engagement could keep Iran at the table beyond the restoration of the 2015 deal, but that's unlikely to be a priority for Raisi, notes Henry Rome of Eurasia Group.

Yes, but: Raisi did underscore today the necessity of the sanctions relief Iran would receive if the U.S. returns to the 2015 deal, which Donald Trump abandoned in 2018.

  • A U.S. official told me on Friday the administration wants to finalize an agreement for both sides to return to compliance with the deal — which Iran has violated by accelerating its nuclear program — before Raisi takes power six weeks from now.
  • "If we don't have a deal before a new government is formed, I think that would raise serious questions about how achievable it's going to be," the official said.

The latest: A sixth round of talks ended yesterday without a deal, though before departing Vienna some of the negotiators expressed optimism that one could be reached in the next few weeks.

  • The head of the UN's nuclear watchdog group said last week that it was clear a deal would have to wait for the new government, but the U.S. official insisted the talks could break down if they drag into August without a breakthrough.
  • Between the lines: Analysts and some diplomats involved in the negotiations have long said it would be easier to reach an agreement with the outgoing administration than with a newly inaugurated government, particularly one led by Raisi.

The big picture: Raisi’s election victory was stage-managed, with Iran’s Guardian Council preventing all other well-known candidates from running — an unusual level of political control even for Iran.

  • Record-low turnout spoke to the disillusionment of voters not only with the options on the ballot, but with a system that has seemed unable to cope with Iran’s economic and COVID-19 crises.
  • Rouhani and the moderate camp have absorbed much of the blame, but that buffer will be gone once Raisi assumes office and hard-liners control every branch of the government.
  • And while Raisi is seen as the leading contender to succeed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, 82, recent Iranian presidents have tended to leave office diminished rather than strengthened, notes Azadeh Zamirirad of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

What to watch: Whether or not Raisi is to become supreme leader, there is another transition looming in Iran. Khamenei will have a loyalist in the presidency to help him ensure the revolution endures.

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