Washington: Biden administrative officials insist that the implementation of the first round of elections for the Iranian president will not affect the prospects for resuming the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. But there are already signs that their goal of reaching a deal has become more difficult.
As the latest negotiations ended on Sunday, but there were no concrete signs of significant progress, optimism about the imminent agreement gradually faded. On Monday, in the first public comment after the vote, the incoming Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi rejected a key goal of Biden, which is to expand the nuclear agreement if negotiators can save the old agreement.
At the same time, Raisi is likely to raise Iran’s demands for sanctions relief in return for Iranian compliance with the deal, as he himself is already subject to U.S. human rights penalties.
“I don’t envy the Biden team,” said Karim Sadjapour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has advised multiple U.S. administrations on Iran. “I think the administration now has a heightened sense of urgency to revise the deal before Raisi and a new hard-line team is inaugurated.”
President Joe Biden and his team have made the return of the United States to the agreement one of their top foreign policy priorities. The agreement is one of President Barack Obama’s landmark achievements. The aides now serving in the Biden administration helped negotiate an agreement that Donald Trump denied and tried to abolish the presidency.
Although Lacey is about to become president, Biden administration officials insist that the prospects for reaching an agreement have not changed. They argued that Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei signed the 2015 agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan or JCPOA, and he will make any final decision no matter who is the president.
“The president’s view and our view is that the decision leader is the supreme leader,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. “That was the case before the election; it’s the case today; it will be the case probably moving forward.”
“Iran will have, we expect, the same supreme leader in August as it will have today, as it had before the elections, as it had in 2015 when the JCPOA was consummated for the first time,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
But hopes for substantial progress before Iran’s election last week were dashed, as people speculated about the impact of the vote on the indirect talks between Iran and the United States in Vienna. Diplomats and others familiar with negotiations believe that the last round, the sixth round of negotiations, can at least produce tangible results even if a comprehensive agreement is not reached.
Now, the round has ended and the seventh round has not been scheduled because Iran’s conservative Attorney General Raisi has absolutely rejected anything exceeding Iran’s minimum compliance with the 2015 agreement in exchange for the lifting of all sanctions by the United States.
In Monday’s public comments, Raisy ignored the United States’ request that Iran agree to follow-up discussions on expanding the initial nuclear agreement to include its ballistic missile program and support for regional organizations designated by the United States as a terrorist organization.
“It’s nonnegotiable,” Raisi said’
Iran experts agree it will be a tough, if not impossible, for Biden to get Iran to go beyond the nuclear agreement.
“I’m very skeptical that once we’ve lifted the sanctions to get them to return they’ll feel any incentive to come back and negotiate more concessions,” Sadjapour said. “And, if we coerce them with sanctions to come back to the table, they’ll argue that we’ve abrogated our end of the nuclear deal. Again.”
Critics of the nuclear deal maintain that the administration has already given away too much in exchange for too little by signaling its desire to repudiate Trump’s repudiation of the nuclear deal. And, they say that even if Iran agrees to some sort of additional talks, the pledge will be meaningless.
“It was pretty obvious that the Iranians were never gong to negotiate in good faith beyond the JCPOA,” said Rich Goldberg, a Trump administration National Security Council official who has espoused a hard line on Iran.
“But now, even if the administration gets some sort of face-saving language from the Iranians about future talks, Raisi has already said they’re not interested. The jig is up,” he said. “You can’t come back to a skeptical Congress, allies and deal opponents and say the promise means anything it means when Raisi has already said it doesn’t.”
But administration officials are adamant that as good as the nuclear deal is, it is insufficient and must be improved on.
“We do see a return to compliance as necessary but insufficient, but we also do see a return to compliance as enabling us to take on those other issues diplomatically,” Price said, adding that the point had been made clear to the the Iranians “in no uncertain terms.”
An additional complication is that Raisi will become the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the U.S. government even before entering office, in part over his time as the head of Iran’s internationally criticized judiciary — a situation that could complicate state visits and speeches at international forums such as the United Nations.
Psaki and Price both said that the U.S. will continue to hold Raisi accountable for human rights violations for which he was sanctioned by the Trump administration.
Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and set about a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran that included re-instating all the sanctions eased under the agreement along with adding a host of new ones.