Raisi’s win in Iran means nuclear deal must be done by August 3 or not at all

Supreme leader looks to complete Vienna talks, and have sanctions lifted, while moderates can still be blamed for concessions to West

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

President Hassan Rouhani, left, speaks with the media after his meeting with President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, right, who is current judiciary chief, in Tehran, Iran, June 19, 2021. (Official Website of the Office of the Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
President Hassan Rouhani, left, speaks with the media after his meeting with President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, right, who is current judiciary chief, in Tehran, Iran, June 19, 2021. (Official Website of the Office of the Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

A day after hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi was officially declared winner of Iran’s presidential elections, the sixth round of nuclear talks between Tehran and the six world powers known as the P5+1 wrapped up in Vienna.

Iran’s lead negotiator expressed optimism that the sides “are now closer than ever to an agreement.”

With Raisi’s victory, the most pressing question now becomes what effect his election will have on the slow-moving negotiations about a return to the 2015 JCPOA agreement by the US and Iran.

Iran’s strategic approach toward the talks certainly will not change. The overall direction comes from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is convinced that the country’s most pressing concern is crawling out from under the crippling US sanctions imposed by the United States’ Trump administration.

Protesters with the Lion and Sun flag of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an Iranian opposition group, near the Grand Hotel in Vienna where diplomats from the EU, China, Russia and Iran are set to hold talks, on April 6, 2021. (Joe Klamar/AFP)

If Khamenei opposed the talks, they would not be happening at all.

But the pace of talks is set to change drastically with Raisi coming into office on August 3.

The first six rounds of talks crawled forward, with both sides expressing guarded optimism, while pointing out that significant gaps remain.

Many believe that Khamenei instructed the negotiators to slow-walk the talks, making sure that a deal was not reached until it was clear who would triumph in the elections.

With less than two months left in President Hassan Rouhani’s tenure, Iran is expected to press ahead toward a deal.

“I sense that the deep state wants the JCPOA to be restored before Raisi comes into office, so that Rouhani gets the blame for any shortcomings,” said Ali Vaez, Iran Project Director at the Crisis Group.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani walks past a portrait of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as he arrives for a news conference in the capital Tehran, on February 16, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP/File)

Iran will have to make significant concessions to the West over IAEA access to nuclear sites and restrictions on enrichment, and it is convenient for the supreme leader and the conservative, revolutionary camp to hold up Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, as scapegoats who folded to the West when they could have struck a better deal.

If Iran succeeds in getting a deal done during Rouhani’s final days in office, sanctions will gradually be lifted during Raisi’s first months. He will reap the economic dividends, likely winning over many disillusioned Iranians who stayed home during Friday’s elections.

There have been signs that this has been Iran’s intention all along. In early June, an Iranian government spokesman said that he saw no reason an agreement would not be reached before Rouhani left office.

Still, there is no guarantee that the sides will be able to bridge the gaps by August.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin brief reporters about additional sanctions placed on Iran, at the White House, Friday, Jan. 10, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

If that happens, then it becomes unlikely that the sides will ever return to the 2015 JCPOA.

Raisi would not be eager to make concessions that Rouhani refused to offer, especially not in his first months in office. While the sides continue to posture, and occasionally talk, Iran will keep pushing forward with its enrichment program. Despite his clear desire to return to the deal, US President Joe Biden could well be forced to impose additional sanctions on Iran, which would lead, in turn, to further nuclear escalation.

By then, the sides will be too far apart to return to the deal.

“There will be a need for an entirely new agreement, which is going to be extremely difficult,” said Vaez.

The next few weeks will determine whether the region is headed toward a period of relative calm — at least on the nuclear front — or whether there will be significant escalation that could prove difficult to contain.

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