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Iran Is on Its Way to a New Nuclear Deal, but Who Will Sign It?

In a catch-22, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei might want to postpone a new agreement to help conservatives in the upcoming Iranian presidential election, but a new conservative president might oppose a new agreement

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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EU official Enrique Mora and Iranian diplomat Abbas Araghchi wait for the start of a meeting on the nuclear deal in Vienna on Tuesday.
EU official Enrique Mora and Iranian diplomat Abbas Araghchi wait for the start of a meeting on the nuclear deal in Vienna on Tuesday. Credit: EU Delegation in Vienna / Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“It is a great betrayal of the Iranian nation if any faction or person delays the end of the sanctions even for one hour,” Iranian President Hassan Rohani said in a speech on Iranian television on March 17. “The small minority that is obstructing this path needs to stop its destructive act. If it stops … the government can break the sanctions.”

Rohani was speaking about 20 days before the launch of the talks in Vienna this week between Iran and the six entities party to the nuclear agreement. The comments provide evidence of the harsh disagreement in Iran surrounding the negotiations, despite the consent of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to Iran’s participation.

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To say the least, it’s not accurate to portray the matter as if only a “small minority” opposed the nuclear agreement. The dilemma isn’t whether to hold talks; this ended when the Iranian delegation arrived in Vienna.

The technical details also aren’t controversial. The main point: the lifting of all U.S. sanctions in return for ending Iran’s violations of the agreement, and returning the Iranian nuclear program to its status after the agreement was signed in 2015 and before the United States withdrew in May 2018.

The Iranians’ dilemma is when to sign an agreement – before the presidential election due on June 18, or to let the new president and government win this prize. The Americans’ dilemma is how to return to the deal without losing a large chunk of their prestige.

This is the background for the talks. Iran has made clear that it won’t agree to the old salami method of responding to every goodwill gesture by the Americans with one of its own. Iran’s approach for now is all or nothing.

But as with all negotiations, this is Iran’s opening position, and it could change as the election draws near, or if the White House opts for dramatic action and lifts the sanctions. But even if U.S. President Joe Biden decides to cross this Rubicon, he could find himself facing not just harsh criticism but also a very powerful legal obstacle.

Since the United States withdrew from the nuclear agreement, some 1,500 sanctions have been imposed on Iran against people, institutions, the banking system and the Revolutionary Guards – on top of the sanctions imposed before the agreement that the United States is supposed to cancel.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani in Tehran last month. Credit: AP

The new sanctions are based on the U.S. laws for fighting terrorism, not as part of the effort to halt the Iranian nuclear program. The “nonnuclear” sanctions aren’t included in the nuclear deal, and to lift them, the Biden administration will have to reach a separate agreement  including issues related to Iran's support for terrorism, its ballistic-missile program and its involvement in the affairs of other countries.

The Trump administration planned the sanctions so that any successor who wanted to return to the nuclear deal would find this very hard without a major change in Iran’s military and regional policies.

'A step forward'

There are ways to get around this legislation, particularly given the Democratic control of both houses of Congress, but Biden is already feeling Congress’ slings and arrows. A bipartisan group of 43 senators has sent a letter asking Biden to leverage the sanctions to pressure Iran “to reach an agreement that prevents Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons and meaningfully constrains its destabilizing activity throughout the Middle East and its ballistic missile program.”

In other words, this includes Iran’s support for the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its intervention in Iraqi politics, to mention just two issues. Iran, and a few of the supporters of Washington’s return to the nuclear deal, note that the “nonnuclear sanctions” themselves are a major violation of the nuclear deal.

According to the agreement: “The EU and its Member States and the United States, consistent with their respective laws, will refrain from any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran inconsistent with their commitments not to undermine the successful implementation of this JCPOA” – the nuclear deal.

To them, the Trump administration sanctions are a major violation of the agreement. U.S. legal advisers are now swamped trying to square the circle between the nuclear deal’s language, the Trump administration’s legal justification, and Iran’s demand to lift all the sanctions, whatever the justification. There’s also the Biden administration’s desire to leave itself leverage so it can force Iran to negotiate over nonnuclear issues, which Tehran is refusing to discuss, saying they’re a domestic issue.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran last month.Credit: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader / AP

But these deep differences haven’t stopped the partners in the talks. Iranian media outlets described the meeting this week as “a step forward” and “unity in favor of lifting of the sanctions,” and Iranian officials spoke about “a joint interest” and a desire to “achieve a quick conclusion to the negotiations.”

Lots of other things also reflect the parties’ intention to improve the already optimistic atmosphere, and not to blow up the negotiations, make an ultimatum or pass responsibility back and forth. The list includes the forming of working groups to advance the talks and propose ways to lift the sanctions. Also, a meeting of experts is set for next week, so the pressure campaign on Biden will only heighten.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyah already blew the trumpets of protest when he announced at the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony that Israel won’t be bound by an agreement. This statement might impress his supporters in Israel, AIPAC and a few groups in Congress, but it’s a hollow cry. Israel wasn’t bound by the 2015 nuclear deal either; it wasn’t a party. Consultations with Israel before the Vienna meetings were limited, and it’s doubtful Israel has the power to sidetrack Biden’s quest for an agreement.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are less vocal. Of course they’re worried about the nuclear deal, but they hope to receive security guarantees that will deter Tehran and its proxies from attacking them. The Israel-Gulf coalition against Iran, especially the nuclear deal, is now at its weakest phase, especially given the total rift between Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the tensions with Israel. (And the Biden administration has decided to release aid to the Palestinians.)

Meanwhile, the UAE is continuing with its two-faced policy: It both opposes the agreement and maintains economic relations with Iran.

Iranian officials meeting with officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Tehran last month. Credit: Wana News Agency / Reuters

Bevy of presidential candidates

In the stretch before the Iranian election, pressure groups are acting inside Iran. Some Iranian commentators say Khamenei prefers to postpone a return to the nuclear agreement until after the election so he can keep the reformists from using the deal to win votes. Under this view, a postponement of an agreement will let Khamenei blame the economic crisis entirely on the outgoing government.

Other commentators say Iran needs the nuclear deal quickly to calm public opinion and present a framework for solving the economic crisis, and to distract attention from the pandemic; Iran is now in its fourth wave. These commentators say Khamenei, the supreme decision-maker regarding the agreement, doesn’t really face a threat from the reformists, who suffered a big defeat in the parliamentary election last year and who have failed to agree on a candidate for the presidential election.

This explanation also applies to the conservatives and the radicals, who are promoting a number of candidates, mostly from the Revolutionary Guards and the military, but still don’t know whom they’ll support. Among the best-known names mentioned are former Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, who declared that “he doesn’t belong to any party,” Mohsen Rezaee, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, and Saeed Mohammad, who recently resigned as head of the Guards’ construction headquarters, the most important economic institution in all Iran.

On the civilian side, names being mentioned include Ali Larijani, a former speaker of parliament, Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who failed in his previous run, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the current speaker of parliament who also lost in previous elections, and Saeed Jalili, a former national security adviser.

It seems that the political struggle will be more than just between conservatives and reformists, it will be the Revolutionary Guards and the military on one side and the civilian sector on the other.

If Khamenei postpones his decision on the nuclear deal until after the election, he could find himself facing a president who opposes the agreement, especially if the new president comes from the Revolutionary Guards. This organization fears a revival of the agreement, in part because Iran would have to carry out deep economic reforms to pave the way for foreign investment and aid.

Such reforms would probably shrink the Revolutionary Guards’ control over the economy, put their budgets under oversight and bring foreign companies into sectors where the Guards now have a monopoly.

As in all recent election campaigns, questions have come up about the health of Khamenei, who is 81, and his ability to continue leading the country. Questions are being asked about the legacy he’ll want to leave behind, and who will be his successor.

The importance of these questions has increased as the supreme leader ages. The unknown answers could have a great effect on Khamenei’s decisions on the nuclear agreement.

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