New Puppet, Same Masters

iran nuclear deal

A Look at Iranian Nuclear Talks in Vienna, and Iran’s New President


Iran’s leadership successfully engineered a transfer of its presidency to Ebrahim Raisi, the head of the nation’s justice system. The selection was ostensibly a free election, but even more than on previous occasions, the Islamic Republic’s power brokers made little effort to hide their guiding hand by eliminating any potential reformers or competitive candidates from the race.

Mr. Raisi is known as a hard-liner whose approach to governance and the West is very much in line with that of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the undisputed leader of Iran, and the heads of its military. His name is heavily associated with his direction of the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, which is estimated to have killed thousands of Iranians suspected of posing a threat to the regime and its grip on the nation.

This coming August, Mr. Raisi will formally take over the office from outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, who was publicly touted by some as a moderate, but whose policies rarely differed from those branded as Iran’s hard-liners.

The transfer of power comes at a charged time as Iran negotiates with Western powers in Vienna in an attempt to strike a deal that will allow for the United States to rejoin the nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Biden administration has made returning to the deal a top foreign policy priority and Iran is in desperate need of sanction relief, but progress has been slow.

Now, questions abound as to how Mr. Raisi’s ascendance to Iran’s presidency could affect the talks.

Hamodia discussed the subject with Alex Vatanka, senior fellow and director of the Iran program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

iran nuclear deal
Alex Vatanka

To what extent does Mr. Raisi’s election change or complicate the JCPOA talks?

The Iranian presidency does not make key decisions on foreign policy. The president is a voice, but not a decisive voice, and the offices of the Supreme Leader and the generals of the Revolutionary Guard are far more important — and their positions are continuing to harden. It’s safe to say that nothing will happen in Vienna differently when Raisi becomes president in August. It is highly unlikely that because he is now here anybody will walk out of the room or make any new demands.

The Vienna talks are happening under Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard’s leaders. They have the same power as before the elections and they will continue to be the ones giving key instructions to the Iranian negotiating team.

One thing that might happen is that Tehran will use Raisi’s hardline image to try to ratchet up their rhetoric and to say things like they are tired of the foot-dragging by the West and that they want sanction relief now. But, that’s posturing. It’s part of a negotiating strategy, not a real change in terms of ultimately wanting a deal.

Raisi has never said much about foreign policy. That’s not his purview and he does not have any real experience in this field. We have no reason to think that he comes to the presidency with a foreign policy vision of his own. He will underwrite what has been done and what will be done. His election, or selection is a better word, might be used to make threats like that if a deal is not reached soon they will go up to 80% enrichment or who knows how much, but as I said, that’s just brinkmanship.

Does Mr. Raisi’s victory create a PR and political problem for the Biden administration’s efforts to re-enter talks? How does his human rights record and clear statements about not negotiating beyond the JCPOA make the administration’s sell on a potential deal more difficult?

The good news for Biden is that the American public by and large doesn’t care what happens with Iran, as other domestic issues are more pressing. The vast majority of American voters are focused on the home front. To the extent that people are looking at what is going on with the nuclear talks and Iran, most think that if we could reach a deal with Khamenei calling the shots in 2015, why should it be different now with him still in charge now that Raisi is in the presidency?

The U.S. is not dealing with the Iranian regime because the people on the other side of the table are so decent. Biden’s goal is to contain Iran’s nuclear program, and it doesn’t really matter if the figure on the other side is Raisi or somebody else.

I am sure that the usual suspects in the Senate like Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and some others will object, saying, “How dare [Biden] speak of human rights and deal with Raisi?” But that’s American partisan politics and about scoring points in Washington and will not impact what happens in Vienna. Biden knows that whatever deal he makes, it will not get two thirds approval in the Senate and that he’s going to have to make it an executive agreement and get around needed congressional approval, just like Obama did in 2015.

iran nuclear deal
President Hassan Rouhani, left, and President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, who is the current judiciary chief, in Tehran, June 23. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Iran has much to gain by re-entering the JCPOA and the Biden administration is eager as well. As such, do we have a clear picture of what the sticking points are between the U.S. and Tehran on the JCPOA?

One thing to remember is that Iran needed sanction relief yesterday or two years ago. But, even so, it’s clear that they are not desperate enough to sign something that they do not feel is verifiable. What they are fighting about right now is that, in 2015, even after the deal was signed, there were countries that were afraid to buy Iranian oil. Obama had to send representatives to talk to businesses in other countries to reassure them that they would not be penalized by the U.S. for doing business with Iran.

There are now around 1,500 different U.S. sanctions against Iran and the Iranians want to make sure that they not only can do business, but that they get access to the billions of dollars that they have in banks all over the world that they cannot get to right now.

Iran said weeks ago that they are willing to go back into the JCPOA as it was, but what they are demanding are guarantees that they will actually be able to reap the benefits of the sanction relief.

From their perspective, these concerns make sense. With so many different sanctions in place, a lot of them overlap. So, even if the U.S. lifts ones on an oil company, for example, if there are shareholders in the government or the Revolutionary Guards that are personally sanctioned, other businesses could still be fined by the U.S. for doing business with them.

That fact that these issues were problems after 2015 makes some Iranians question why they should negotiate if they won’t fully reap the benefits anyway.

To what extent do you think the Biden administration is ready to roll back sanctions if they get the assurances they want from Iran?

At the end of the day, the Biden administration can remove all sanctions on Iran going back to ones that were placed on them in the 1980s. But doing that would create two problems. Firstly, it would weaken Biden’s hand in Congress. Even among Democrats, there are plenty of members that are skeptical about dealing with Iran and he needs to maintain a balance in order to deliver a deal that they might not love, but that they will tolerate.

Secondly, if you leave some of the sanctions in place, the U.S. could use that to get Iran back to the table, since the Biden administration says that they want to continue the conversation on ballistic missiles and other issues. If they give away their leverage, there is no way to do that.

Iranians are desperate for all the relief they can get. Of course, their negotiators are asking for everything to be lifted, but I don’t think anybody in Tehran really thinks they will get a clean slate. They’ll be happy if they get a little more than they got from Obama. The main things they are looking at are making sure it’s clear that people can buy their oil without being sanctioned and that their central bank is off the list of sanctioned institutions.

iran nuclear deal
Iran nuclear talks at the Grand Hotel on April 15, 2021 in Vienna. (EU Delegation in Vienna via Getty Images)

How much of a gap is there between Mr. Raisi and President Rouhani? Weren’t there many who felt Rouhani’s moderate label was more about style than substance?

Rouhani was only a moderate compared to an extreme hard-liner. I don’t know why anyone would say that Rouhani was really a moderate. If he was, what did his moderate views accomplish? What did he achieve to loosen the grip of the security establishment and the Supreme Leader over Iran? He either didn’t try or couldn’t, because today Iran is every bit as repressive against political dissent as it was before he took office eight years ago.

[Iranian Foreign Minister] Zarif himself admitted in a recent interview that there are policy areas that the elected government does not have access to in Iran.

What about Mr. Raisi’s appeal to Iran’s leaders? Why was he picked?

He is relatively young, at 60 years old. He can stay in power for 20 years or so, which gives the government a sense of continuity. It’s obvious that a consensus emerged from the Supreme Leader’s office, the Revolutionary Guard, and other powerful members of Iran’s deep state that Raisi is someone who can be controlled. They can trust him. He is not a visionary leader who they have to worry will challenge their power. He has the backing of a couple of key power brokers and it probably helped that his father-in-law is Ahmad Alamolhoda, who is a very powerful cleric in the city of Mashhad, Khamenei’s hometown.

Raisi has the reputation as a loyal foot soldier and a yes-man. He was not chosen for his charisma, because he has not much of that. The Iranian establishment was so sure they wanted him that they embarrassed themselves by eliminating every other viable candidate from the election.

How accurate is it that Mr. Raisi is a leading candidate to replace Ayatollah Khamenei as Supreme Leader?

It’s definitely a real possibility that he could be the next Supreme Leader. Khamenei was President before he became Supreme Leader. The leadership in Iran has the guns to enforce their will and have made it very clear that they don’t care about public sentiment.

Raisi hasn’t been a strong voice until now, but we don’t know if as President he will show another side of himself. That’s what happened with Ahmadinejad. They also thought that he would be a puppet, but once he got into office, he became very outspoken, though based on what we know about Raisi, I don’t think he will do that.

The best possibility for the world would be if, when it comes time to choose a new Supreme Leader, the hard-liners look into the soul of the Iranian nation and realize that they are not liked by most of the population. That realization could lead to a fear that if they don’t take steps to loosen their grip, they could be not far away from another violent revolution, this time aimed at them.

Khamenei clearly believes that his hard-line approach is right and that everybody else is wrong. A change from that approach, and one that gives some deference to what the Iranian people actually want, would be welcomed by everybody.

iran nuclear deal
This satellite image provided by Planet Labs Inc., that has been annotated by experts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies, shows preparation at the Imam Khomeini Spaceport in Iran’s Semnan province on June 20, 2021 before what experts believe will be the launch of a satellite-carrying rocket. Iran likely conducted a failed launch of a satellite-carrying rocket in recent days and now appears to be preparing to try again, their latest effort to advance their space program amid tensions with the West over its tattered nuclear deal. (Planet Labs Inc., James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at Middlebury Institute of International Studies via AP)

Does the extent to which Israeli intelligence and some of what IAEA discovered, indicating that Iran was skirting compliance prior to the U.S. leaving the deal, make rejoining the JCPOA more of a political exercise than one that will actually hold back Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

Some sources have indicated that, but I rely on U.S. intelligence, which basically says that Iran was not enriching in a way that could produce a weapon. If they were, I think you would have seen a different approach from the U.S.

Iran does have the capacity to do so, and it’s legitimate to ask what their intentions are since no country ever invested so many years and so much money in a civilian nuclear program. They definitely have a comprehensive program and could convert it to a weapon program if they wanted to. They have the know-how and I don’t think it’s realistic for even the strongest deal to send them back to zero.

I think a fairer question to ask is whether a good deal would bring more stability to the region. There is reason to be skeptical about that, because in 2015, Iran did not change its disruptive activities at all.

Still, I tend to think that they would like to use this deal as cover to take a different approach. Raisi said that other items are not up for discussion, but Iran knows that they are overextended in Iraq, Syria, and a long list of other places they have established a foothold. They probably would like to look for a way to pull back in certain regional theaters and I think that’s why you see them starting to talk to the Saudis and the Emiratis over the situation in Yemen, for example.

Any closing thoughts on where you feel Iran is headed?

If you really want to know about where Iran is headed, focus on Khamenei. Iran is where it is because of the vision of this one man. Raisi will be the fifth President since Khamenei took power in 1989 and none of them decided as much about where the county was going as he did.

When Khamenei started talking to the West about the nuclear program, Ahmadinejad, who was President at the time, didn’t even know talks had started.

At this point, nobody knows how much money Khamenei has spent on the nuclear program and his efforts to back proxies in the region. It seems clear he would rather die than change course, no matter how unpopular his decisions are.

After Khamenei is gone, for their own political survival, others in power in Tehran will have to think hard about the fact that his policies did not have the backing of the Iranian people. The overwhelming majority of them are fed up and feel they’ve been taken for a ride.

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