In Iranian politics, timing is everything. With that in mind, it is no wonder that Iranian officials are now saying, both explicitly and implicitly, that a return to the nuclear deal will not take place before the election of the new president next week. The expectation is that President Hassan Rouhani will be succeeded by a hardliner.
According to several Iranian sources speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants the resumption of the nuclear deal to take place under a new Iranian government. Given that it is almost the end of the current President Hassan Rouhani’s term, there is no desire on the part of Khamenei and his advisers to give credit to a departing president and his administration.
This stance has provoked concern in Europe and America, where it was hoped the nuclear deal would be restored sooner than later with help from such officials as Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif with whom Westerners had worked during the 2015 talks.
However, to ease those concerns, officials in Tehran announced that negotiations to return to the nuclear agreement would take place regardless of the identity of the new Iranian president.
Government Spokesman Ali Rabiei said that in 2015 the decision to engage with other participants in the deal, including the United States, was made by the supreme leader and had backing from the highest levels of government; this won’t change when Rouhani leaves office, he emphasised.
Iranians are scheduled to go to the polls on 18 June to elect their next president, widely expected to be Iran’s Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative, pragmatic populist who made his name by campaigning against corruption, talking to ordinary people about their court cases and travelling to deprived provinces during the pandemic.
During a TV debate between presidential candidates, Raisi criticised mismanagement during Rouhani’s rule without criticising the president by name. He also criticised the spread of corruption and the deteriorating economic situation. Although he does not trust America, he pledged that if he wins, he will take the path of negotiations to resume the nuclear agreement. But at the same time, he pledged to strengthen Iran in the face of its enemies.
His rhetoric on supporting the poor, tackling corruption, confronting Iran’s enemies, and resuming the nuclear deal to lift economic sanctions led to a rise in his popularity among the lower and middle classes in Iran. He also enjoys close relations with the supreme leader and the support of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which considers the Rouhani administration to be too soft.
An Iranian source told the Weekly that one of the reasons for postponing a return to the nuclear deal until the election of a new president is Khamenei and his advisors’ desire to rearrange Iran’s regional cards before restoring the nuclear deal.
“Iranian officials want to change the regional dynamic, they want to change the ways in which they operate in Syria, Iraq and other places. The thinking is that when resuming the nuclear agreement, Iran does not want its regional activities to be criticised by regional or international parties. The planned changes are intended to reduce tensions,” the source said.
His assessment takes into account reports that Iran has hand-picked hundreds of trusted fighters from among its most powerful ally militias in Iraq, forming smaller, elite and fiercely loyal factions in a shift away from the large groups through which it once exerted influence.
The new, covert groups were trained in drone warfare, surveillance and online propaganda, and they answer directly to officers in Iran’s Quds Force, the arm of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) that controls allied militias abroad.
This change reflects Iran’s response to setbacks, above all the death of military mastermind and Quds Force Chief Qassem Suleimani, who closely controlled Iraq’s Shia militias until he was killed last year in a US drone missile strike.
The shift to smaller groups also brings its own tactical advantages as they are less prone to infiltration and could prove more effective in deploying the latest techniques Iran has developed, such as armed drones.
As for Syria, Iran wants to work with Turkey and Russia in order to end the fighting and declare a political victory that will open the way to ending Iranian military involvement in Syria.
Thus the stage is set for another very consequential Iranian election.
Khamenei repeatedly said that his first priority is a high turnout that would “help increase the country’s deterrence power, give it security and credibility”.
Raisi could benefit from a pro-reform voters’ boycott because he appeals to lower middle class Iranians who tend to vote in all elections and usually favour populist politicians.
Despite being unknown on the international stage, Raisi nevertheless backed nuclear talks in Vienna and said he would pursue “smart and innovative diplomacy” and would not “waste a second to have the cruel sanctions lifted” if elected.
Yet, regardless of the results of the presidential election, Tehran is keen to return to the nuclear agreement, because the political and economic benefits of upholding it outweigh the costs.
The ongoing negotiations in Vienna to revive the deal are progressing slowly but steadily, with diplomats suggesting that an agreement could be reached in the sixth round of negotiations, but the overwhelming assessment is that reaching an agreement before the 18 June presidential elections is unlikely.
Signalling their determination not to derail the nuclear talks, both the US and Europe decided to ignore a fresh warning from Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that it is no longer possible to say with confidence whether Iran is seeking to build a bomb.
Grossi said Iran is not co-operating or providing answers to questions his agency has posed after it found nuclear particles at four undeclared sites. Grossi’s findings were reported to a board meeting of the IAEA in Vienna.
Speaking to the IAEA board on Monday, Grossi said: “The lack of progress in clarifying the agency’s questions concerning the correctness and completeness of Iran’s safeguard declarations seriously affects the ability of the IAEA to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.”
Grossi told the board, “after many months, Iran has not provided the necessary explanation for the presence of the nuclear material particles at any of the three locations where the agency has conducted complementary accesses. In the absence of such an explanation from Iran, I am deeply concerned that nuclear material has been present at the three undeclared locations in Iran and that the current locations of this nuclear material are not known by the agency. Nor has Iran answered the questions with regard to the other undeclared location, or clarified the current location of natural uranium in the form of a metal disc.”
But in a very unusual move the US, France, Germany and the UK decided not to act on the complaints of the UN nuclear inspectorate.
In a tweet just before the board meeting, the Russian Ambassador to the IAEA Mikhail Ulyanov, said that despite the difficult reports everyone understood the need not to get in the way of the nuclear deal talks.
It seems clear that Iran and the rest of the signatories to the 2015 nuclear agreement decided that the diplomatic breakthrough could wait until a new Iranian administration is installed, and this gives Tehran the time and space to put its cards in order both internally and regionally.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly