Thu, Jun 10, 2021

With a Raisi presidency, would the Iran nuclear deal remain on the table?

IranElections2021 by Raz Zimmt

Elections Iran Middle East Politics & Diplomacy

An Iranian young man stands in front of campaign center for the conservative politician, head of Iran's judiciary, and Iran's June 18 presidential elections candidate Ebrahim Raisi in southwest of Tehran. (Photo by Sobhan Farajvan / Pacific Press/Sipa USA)

After the decision by the Guardian Council, a vetting body, to disqualify all but seven out of 592 candidates for the June 18 presidential election, the path appears paved for the election—or rather selection—of Ebrahim Raisi as the next president of Iran.

Raisi, a hardline cleric born in December 1960 in the holy city of Mashhad, has served various roles in the judiciary system since the early 1980s, including his controversial role as Tehran’s deputy prosecutor during the mass executions of political prisoners in 1988. In the 2017 presidential elections, Raisi ran against incumbent President Hassan Rouhani but lost after receiving only sixteen million votes compared to the more than twenty-three million received by Rouhani. However, in the wake of reports of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s deteriorating health, Raisi has emerged as one of the prominent candidates to succeed him. Since being appointed by Khamenei as judiciary chief in March 2019, Raisi has launched a concerted effort to promote changes in the judiciary, improve his public image, and enhance his rapport with the public—apparently with the backing of the Supreme Leader.

In the very likely scenario that Raisi does win the election, he is expected to enter office at a crucial period of ongoing diplomatic efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, which the United States withdrew from under the Donald Trump administration in 2018. At the time of writing, despite the progress achieved in nuclear talks in Vienna thus far, it is still unclear whether it will be possible to reach an agreement that will allow for the return to the nuclear deal before the June 18 election or even before the new president enters office in August 2021.

Raisi’s expected victory heralds the return of the conservatives’ control over all three branches of government, and the next administration is expected to adopt a much more hardline approach to both domestic and foreign affairs. While this development may also affect Iran’s nuclear policy, it does not necessarily mean that Tehran’s overall strategy, and especially its approach towards the future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will change.

First, while the president has significant influence on decision-making, including on nuclear policy, it is the Supreme Leader who holds the ultimate authority in Iran. The president chairs the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the key policy-making forum, and has some influence on its composition. Yet, decisions on strategic issues are often made in a consensual manner and require the Supreme Leader’s approval. Thus, the future of Iran’s approach to the JCPOA will depend mainly on Khamenei himself rather than the identity of the next president. Even during periods when the president and his foreign minister were significantly involved in managing the nuclear talks—as was the case with the nuclear negotiations held by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif between 2013 and 2015—the final decision remained with the SNSC. Zarif himself explained—after being authorized by President Rouhani to conduct the nuclear talk—that policy and decision-making on the nuclear issue would remain within the responsibility of the SNSC rather than the Foreign Ministry.

Second, although Raisi’s positions are indeed more hardline than Rouhani’s, he does not, in principle, oppose a return to the JCPOA. Since Trump’s withdrawal in 2018, Raisi has joined other Iranian officials in criticizing Rouhani’s conciliatory policy towards the US. He also reflected Khamenei’s anti-American views, asserting that the US should not be trusted and that the answer to Iran’s economic crisis lies not in the removal of sanctions, but in adopting a “resistance economy” aimed at encouraging self-reliance and local production. Raisi, however, does not oppose the nuclear agreement itself. In a televised debate held during the 2017 presidential campaign, he stressed that any administration that comes to power should be committed to the JCPOA. “The nuclear deal, despite its shortcomings, is a national document,” he said. Ultimately, Raisi’s positions seem to reflect the common understanding of the Iranian leadership that a return to the nuclear deal in exchange for the lifting of sanctions is required to enable economic growth. Moreover, as president, he will probably have an even greater interest in improving the economic situation, which has always been a major factor in the success or failure of any Iranian president.

Additionally, Raisi could enjoy a higher level of support from Khamenei in comparison to previous Iranian presidents. The relationship between Khamenei and the four presidents who served under him between 1989 and 2021—Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hassan Rouhani—has been complicated and tense in many cases. Over the years, Khamenei has used his growing authority and influence to reduce the power of the presidents and weaken them. Raisi’s presidency may be characterized by a higher level of coordination with the Supreme Leader’s office because, unlike former presidents, Raisi expresses positions that are more aligned to Khamenei’s views on domestic and foreign issues. Similarly, Khamenei seems to have a clear interest in ensuring Raisi’s success as president—assuming the former truly considers the latter a leading candidate to succeed him.

The new president’s positions may, however, affect the tone or style of negotiations, especially if an agreement has not been reached by the time he assumes office in August. It will be much more challenging for Western negotiating teams to hold talks with a less experienced Iranian team expressing Raisi’s anti-American and hawkish positions, particularly if Raisi picks a hardliner, such as former secretary of the SNSC, Saeed Jalili, as his foreign minister. Furthermore, while the prospect of reviving the JCPOA remains far from certain, the chances of moving towards a “stronger and longer” nuclear deal with Raisi as president appear considerably slimmer. Even a more moderate president would likely have faced great difficulty in advancing follow-up negotiations to build upon the JCPOA, given the high level of mistrust between Iran and the US, which worsened following Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and Khamenei’s reluctance to discuss non-nuclear issues, such as long-range missiles and Iran’s regional policy.

There are still many unknowns regarding Raisi and the future of the JCPOA. First and foremost, it is still not entirely clear whether Khamenei himself is serious about returning to the nuclear deal. In addition, further questions remain to be answered: To what extent will Khamenei authorize Raisi to handle the foreign policy? Would Raisi himself be interested in dealing with foreign issues or prefer to focus on domestic issues? Will Raisi choose to appoint a hardline foreign minister, such as Jalili, or a more moderate one? Who will conduct the negotiations and will they remain the responsibility of the foreign ministry or be returned to the portfolio of the SNSC? The answers to those queries will become clearer in the weeks following the president’s inauguration and will indicate the direction of the new administration on the nuclear issue.

In any case, it is worth remembering that the Islamic Republic does not change its overarching strategy abruptly, not even in accordance with the identity of a newly elected president. What ultimately determines Iran’s approach to key issues is how the broader Iranian leadership defines Iran’s national interests. Assuming that Iran is indeed seeking to revive the nuclear deal—albeit on its terms—it can be assessed that it is not only the US which seeks to put Iran “back in the box,” but also the Iranian leadership who is interested in putting the nuclear file back in the box for the next few years in order to address other major challenges, particularly the economic crisis and preparing for the post-Khamenei era.

Dr. Raz Zimmt is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) specializing in Iran. He is also a veteran Iran-watcher in the Israeli Defense Forces. Follow him on Twitter: @RZimmt.