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What a ‘Hard-line’ Iranian President Really Means for the Nuclear Deal and Israel

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi talking about the nuclear deal at a press conference earlier today.
Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi talking about the nuclear deal at a press conference earlier today. Credit: ATTA KENARE - AFP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Judging by the shocked and dismayed reactions around the world, including in Israel, you would think that the newly elected president of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, was running against Thomas Jefferson in a fair and open election in which the “conservative” and “reformist” factions of the perpetual Islamic Revolution were civilly clashing over how to improve the future of Iranian democracy.

Especially odd and somewhat amusing were statements, in both the United States and Israel, along the lines of “How could the U.S. possibly reenter the Iran nuclear deal with a man like Ebrahim Raisi?”

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First, ultimate power in Iran rests with the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s successor). The president of Iran serves at his pleasure and follows his directions to the letter. So whether it is Raisi or, indeed, Thomas Jefferson as president, it make little substantive difference to foreign and security policy.

Second, Raisi did not invent Iran’s nuclear program, nor will he curtail Iran’s nuclear program. This is a decades-long ambition and no amount of sanctions or pressure can alter that. What is debatable, and subject to evolving and changing intelligence assessments, is whether Iran is content with being a “threshold state” – as evidence shows it has been since 2003 – or intent on militarizing its nuclear capabilities.

Third, it’s not as if the original Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 was struck with mild, moderate pacifists like Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Ali Larijani, while Raisi is a dangerous extremist. Essentially, the conservative and reformist factions are two sides of the same revolutionary coin. Differences rarely exist when it comes to Iran’s national security – and when they do, they are limited to style and tactics, not core policy.

Raisi, aka “the Executioner of Tehran,” is a known commodity to Iran specialists and observers. He heads Iran’s judiciary and has been subject to U.S. sanctions since his direct involvement and complicity in executing many thousands of political rivals and dissidents in 1988. He ran for president in 2017 and was defeated by Hassan Rohani, the man he is now replacing. Anyone who follows Iranian politics knows who and what Ebrahim Raisi is, and his position in the Iranian power structure.

In fact, one Iranian affairs scholar, Tel Aviv University’s Raz Zimmt, predicted two years ago that Raisi had been ordained by the religious establishment, i.e., Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and was destined to become president and, later, supreme leader.

His election, however undramatic given the wholesale disqualification of other candidates – particularly those the religious establishment views as moderate “reformists,” or unpredictable outsiders like former President Ahmadinejad – raises some important questions. Has the regime’s legitimacy been tarnished? Is the low voter turnout an indication of a growing disconnect between the regime and ordinary Iranians oppressed by hard economic conditions and the coronavirus pandemic? Are there serious power struggles within the regime? Is there still a viable “moderate” faction in Iranian politics? And so on.

These questions are best left to Iran experts and a perspective available only with time and the geopolitical environment of the next few years.

The nuclear agreement – more specifically the U.S.’ reentry into it – seems an increasingly urgent and immediate issue that may be affected by Raisi’s election. This is, naturally, the issue that concerns Israel, and presents an early and complex challenge to the new Naftali Bennett-Yair Lapid government.

In terms of the time frame, there are two scenarios that can play out: an agreement is reached by August while Rohani is still president; or talks drag on without a deal being concluded until Raisi takes over. On Monday, he already announced that he wants the U.S. and European signatories (France, Germany and Britain) to “revive the agreement that the U.S. violated.”

Talks in Vienna were effectively suspended pending the election, but are scheduled to resume in the coming days with several outstanding and contentious issues still unresolved:

Iranians celebrating the election victory of Ebrahim Raisi on Sunday.Credit: ATTA KENARE - AFP

■ The sequence: Iran is demanding that all U.S. sanctions reimposed after its unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 be lifted. The Americans want gradual reciprocity. Many sanctions – approximately 1,500 – were imposed through anti-terrorism laws and thus require congressional action, not just a presidential executive order.

■ Iran demands reparations for the economic costs and losses it accrued as a result of the U.S. withdrawing despite Iranian compliance.

■ Iran wants a U.S. commitment not to attack its nuclear facilities.

■ The U.S. demands an Iranian pledge to expand the agreement in the coming years to nonnuclear issues, particularly long-range missile development and regional support of terrorism via proxy organizations in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

If both sides show goodwill, good intentions and creative thinking, these differences can be overcome and a deal can be struck. That is exactly why Israel is apprehensive and anxious.

While the new agreement may provide Israel with ample time to devise a grand strategy, it is perceived as being a setback compared to the original 2015 agreement that Israel encouraged then-President Donald Trump to ditch.

Israel’s main concerns pertain to the significant shortening of Iran’s “breakout time” – the period between having the capabilities and actually manufacturing enough weapons-grade enriched uranium for a nuclear device. Since Iran began violating the agreement in 2019, it has enriched uranium using advanced centrifuges. From what Israel knows about the details of a possible agreement being negotiated in Vienna, there is no time-compensation for Iran’s advances. That is also the position of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Right now, Israel assesses the breakout time to be three to four months. In a scathing attack on former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Iran policy, former Military Intelligence Chief Maj. Gen. (ret.) Aharon Zeevi Farkash told Yedioth Ahronoth on Monday that “this is the very last minute of the game. … Israel had no impact whatsoever on negotiations. … Netanyahu failed in preventing Iran’s nuclear program, failed in preventing or adding input or influence to the 2015 agreement … and now Iran is much more advanced than it was while the agreement was in place. Yet [Netanyahu] chose not to do anything, instead trying to set up the Bennett-Lapid government for failure.”

Israel has two main concerns. First, the “military group” – the technological-scientific department in the Iranian nuclear program dealing with weaponizing nuclear capabilities (or, put simply, building a working warhead). U.S. and Israeli intelligence vary on the scope of operations of that department.

Second, the U.S. commitment, if one is actually made in the deal, not to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities presents Israel with a vexing dilemma going forward, requiring a bilateral, discreet mechanism to determine whether Iran is violating the agreement and what the “red lines” are justifying an assortment of possible Israeli actions.

Over the coming week, Israel has two opportunities to convey its concerns: IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi is currently in Washington; and presidents Reuven Rivlin and Joe Biden are set to meet next Monday.

Irrespective of those meetings, a new nuclear deal may be struck and it’s the new Bennett-Lapid government that will have to set up a credible and serious dialogue with the Americans on how to deal with Iran in the aftermath, and to press for and insert its own input into an expanded version of the deal.

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