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Will new leadership in Iran doom the nuclear deal?

Ultimately, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls the shots in the Islamic Republic. So the question remains which he wants more, economic recovery or nuclear capability.

Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi during the election campaign, June 14, 2021. Credit: Armin2210 via Wikimedia Commons.
Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi during the election campaign, June 14, 2021. Credit: Armin2210 via Wikimedia Commons.
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur is the U.S. politics editor for the Jewish Journal.

Iran held a presidential election last Friday. Iran lost.

But that’s no surprise. It was clear long before the votes were counted that the Iranian people were the biggest losers in the election. That outcome had been pre-determined earlier this year, when the nation’s Guardian Council disqualified several prominent reform-minded candidates, leaving hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as the prohibitive favorite against the lesser-known contenders who were permitted on the ballot.

The campaign was essentially a puppet show that allowed Iran’s true and undisputed kingpin Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to install Raisi, his preferred subordinate and potential successor. The result will be an even more repressive regime with even less regard for the rights of its citizens and an even more antagonistic relationship with Israel and the West.

For more than 20 years, Iranian presidential elections pitted doctrinaire candidates closely allied with the preferences of the ruling clerics against opponents with at least some instinct to relax societal constraints domestically and increase international diplomatic engagement. In elections where these options were permitted, the winner was consistently the reform candidate.

But Khamenei is now in his 80s, and his death could create a vacuum allowing an elected president to gain influence. Rather than running the risk of giving that opportunity to a moderate leader, Khamenei and his allies decided not to provide that alternative to the voters this year. Any potential candidate who had previously voiced support for opening Iran either domestically or internationally was banned from the ballot, leaving only one relative centrist as a weak opponent for the ayatollahs’ preferred candidate.

The final outcome was not surprising: Raisi rolled to victory by an overwhelming margin. But the Iranian people recognized that the fix was in and stayed away from the polls in historic numbers. Although the authorities extended voting by several hours to encourage increased turnout, voting participation was at an all-time low.

The question now is whether the installation of a hardline government makes it more or less likely that negotiations over a new Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement will be completed.

The Biden administration has let it be known for months that they considered the June election to be a practical deadline for concluding the talks, given the almost certain election of an Iranian president less willing to compromise than the current leadership. But over the last few weeks, the White House has hinted that the window could extend until early August when Raisi will formally take office. This leaves about six weeks for a new nuclear agreement to be completed, but it is still unclear how much either the United States or Iran actually want that to happen.

Realistically, a new Iranian president may not be all that relevant to the ultimate JCPOA outcome. Khamenei ultimately calls the shots, so the new August deadline might have little substantive impact. But there is great symbolic value for Khamenei, especially if he does see Raini as his potential successor. Responsibility for an agreement with the United States could be assigned to the outgoing moderate president Hassan Rouhani, but the new conservative leadership would then benefit from the economic growth that sanctions relief could bring.

Of course, Khamenei could still decide that quickly achieving nuclear capability is a more important goal than economic recovery. But either way, the decision will not fall to the individual who holds the lesser position of president.

The ball is now in Biden’s court. Iran tried to test him over the last few weeks, by appearing to deploy warships to cross the Atlantic with advanced weaponry for the renegade nation of Venezuela. This seemed like a way of determining whether Biden wanted a nuclear agreement so badly that he was willing to overlook such a provocative act in the U.S.’s own backyard. But the Iranian military vessels instead veered north toward either Syria or Russia, suggesting that the Biden administration has quietly told Iran that such a transgression would not be tolerated.

Biden’s message to Iran continues to be that a new JCPOA is important, but not necessary. The U.S. president would like non-nuclear weaponry and Iran’s support for terrorism to be part of a new agreement, but that seems even less possible under Raisi. So we’ll continue to wait—to see whether Biden is willing to walk away from a bad deal or if he thinks he can build support for something better.

Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.

This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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