Iran elections and the nuclear deal: Why Biden can’t lose, no matter who wins

By Sina Azodi | June 7, 2021

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei casts his ballots in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Credit: The Office of the Supreme Leader

The ongoing negotiations in Vienna to revive President Obama’s landmark foreign policy agreement with Iran—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—are progressing slowly but steadily, with diplomats suggesting that an agreement could be reached in the sixth round of negotiations. Nevertheless, given the complexity of the US-imposed sanctions, and the advances in Iran’s nuclear program since 2015, reaching an agreement before Iran’s June 18 presidential elections seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, Iranian politics are becoming increasingly chaotic and heated as the country prepares itself for the upcoming presidential election, when President Hassan Rouhani’s successor will be chosen. Only a few weeks before the elections, the Guardian Council, vested with the power to vet presidential candidates, barred a number of powerful candidates, namely Ali Larijani, the former speaker of Iran’s parliament; Eshaq Jahangiri, Rouhani’s vice president; and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Council’s controversial decision paved the way for Ebrahim Raisi, the conservative judiciary chief endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and widely speculated to be Khamenei’s potential successor.

Rouhani’s failure to deliver on his campaign promises to improve the economy—thanks largely to former President Trump’s unsuccessful “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions aimed at extracting new concessions from Iran—has bolstered Iranian hardliners who have historically flourished under external pressure. In this context, it is widely expected that one of the conservatives who dominate the pool of presidential candidates will win the election.

But even though some hardliners have harshly criticized the JCPOA during the run-up to the election, these attacks should not be seen as an indicator of a fundamental change in Iran’s policy toward the nuclear deal. 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 the agreement outweigh the costs. Therefore, the Biden administration should ignore the political fanfare and continue engaging Tehran before and after the election.

Campaign criticisms. As the Islamic Republic approaches the election, attacks on the Rouhani administration, and in particular the foreign ministry, have intensified. Last month’s leak of an audio interview in which Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif criticized the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, especially General Qasem Soleimani’s interference in Iran’s foreign policy, came at a high price for Iran’s chief diplomat, with his critics quickly calling for his resignation. Hossein Haghvardi, a conservative Iranian lawmaker, complained that “[Zarif] has certainly lost the legitimacy to lead the foreign ministry… [W]ith this mindset, this individual should not be at the helm of foreign ministry even for an hour.” Zarif, who has only a few months until the end of his tenure, was forced to apologize to the family of Gen. Soleimani, who was assassinated in January 2020 in a US drone strike.

The leak, first broadcast by the Saudi-funded Iran International news channel, had two interlocking objectives: first, to remove Zarif from the list of potential reformist candidates in the upcoming election; and second, to undermine the foreign ministry and negotiators representing Iran in the Vienna talks, by portraying Zarif as untrustworthy and disloyal to the revolution.

Even worse for Zarif, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, without naming the chief diplomat, delivered an unprecedented and strong rebuke of Zarif’s comments, calling them “shocking,” and a “big mistake.” Khamenei added: “Some of these comments are the repetition of the hostile talks of our enemies, the repetition of the words of America.” Meanwhile, the conservative Kayhan newspaper, widely known to represent Khamenei’s views, recently called Zarif’s performance “indefensible” and “extremely weak.”

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Those remarks stand in sharp contrast to Khamenei’s 2019 portrayal of Zarif as a “child of revolution, honest, and brave.” Khamenei’s repudiation had a devastating impact on the political future of Zarif, who had been called upon by reformist politicians to run in the upcoming election—although Zarif himself has repeatedly rejected any presidential ambitions, even reportedly telling the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission that he would not run in the 2021 election.

Supreme support. Along with the harsh criticism of Zarif, however, Khamenei also offered indirect support for the ongoing nuclear negotiations in Vienna to revive the JCPOA. In a May 2 tweet, he noted that “[n]owhere in the world is foreign policy determined by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Rather, it is determined by governmental bodies at a higher level than the Foreign Ministry—the Supreme National Security Council in our country—and implemented by the Foreign Ministry.”

These remarks should be interpreted as tacit support for the nuclear talks led by Zarif’s deputy, Abbas Araghchi. In essence, Khamenei is suggesting that the decision to negotiate was made by higher authorities, and the foreign ministry is simply executing it.

Against the backdrop of the upcoming election, Khamenei’s remarks are even more significant. President Rouhani is constitutionally barred from running for re-election this year, and hardliners who have already taken control of the Iranian parliament are expected to win the presidency too. Khamenei’s remarks shift the burden of responsibility for the nuclear talks from the Rouhani administration to the Supreme National Security Council, which operates within the framework designated by Khamenei himself. In other words, Khamenei has signaled to the hardliners that he has blessed the nuclear negotiations.

Political posturing. As the election approaches, hardliners who opposed the JCPOA earlier have stepped up their attacks on the administration and the ongoing nuclear talks. In this context, Iranian state TV, traditionally a bastion of conservatives, has been broadcasting a popular spy-thriller series that portrays the Iranian foreign ministry as infected by Western spies. Interestingly, the producer of the series has joined Ebrahim Raisi’s presidential bid, serving as his campaign manager.

The reader should keep in mind, however, that it is commonplace in Iranian politics that opposing factions attack each other for “selling out” Iran or showing fragility in the face of foreign countries. For example, in the aftermath of the Tehran Declaration of 2010, the reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who had lost the 2009 elections to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, compared the fuel swap agreement with Brazil and Turkey to the 1828 Turkmenchay Treaty, a humiliating peace treaty that Iran was forced to sign in the aftermath of Second Russo-Persian War.

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Similarly, in April 2021 then-candidate Ahmadinejad, who has since been disqualified by the Guardian Council to run in the election, attacked the JCPOA by stating that “JCPOA had nothing but loss for our nation. You destroyed our dignity, economy and nuclear industry.”

Despite the public fanfare, it seems that the Nizam (the system) at the highest places has decided to revive the nuclear agreement, and the ongoing attacks are merely vicious factional efforts to undermine the opposing camp in the election. Khamenei, who stated in December 2020 that “if the lifting of sanctions is possible, there should not be even an hour of delay,” is not the only conservative leader who appears to favor a nuclear deal. The current Speaker of Majlis (Iran’s parliament) Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a strong critic of the Rouhani administration, stated in March 2021: “Westerners think that, with regard to the JCPOA, there are two voices in the country. No! The demand of all people and officials is the lifting of all sanctions.”

Factional politics continue to have an impact on Iran’s foreign policy, of course. But given the sensitivity of the nuclear agreement, and the cost and benefits associated with it, Iranian leaders continue to support the JCPOA.

Timing is everything. The fundamental issue for domestic opponents of the JCPOA is that a timely revival of the agreement would buttress Rouhani and reformist factions in the election. Conversely, a delay in the lifting of sanctions until after the June election would work in hardliners’ favor by enabling them to take credit for the economic benefits of the lifting of sanctions.

Both Rouhani and Zarif have criticized opponents who seek to prevent the lifting of sanctions. Zarif said in December 2020 that “some have signaled to the Americans that you can work better with us … and Rouhani will not remain in power.” Nosratollah Tajik, Iran’s former ambassador to Jordan, has observed that “negotiations have caused lots of anxiety for some…Conservatives leak information to change the game so that the assets get released after the elections.”

Even with attempts to delay a deal, and notwithstanding the likely ascendancy of an Iranian hardliner to the presidency, Tehran seems to have made the decision to go back to full compliance with the agreement if the economic benefits promised in the JCPOA indeed materialize. The vicious attacks on the Rouhani administration should be viewed within the broader context of domestic power struggles and the conservatives’ plan to win the election and take credit for the lifting of sanctions.

As long as the United States continues to fully implement its commitments under the JCPOA, the next Iranian administration, regardless of its political affiliation, is likely to abide by the terms of the agreement. Joe Biden need not lose any sleep over this in the coming weeks.

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3 years ago

With all due respect for the author, I tend to disagree; I’m afraid the situation is more likely to go much bleaker, very quickly over the course of the next few days or a couple of weeks, than what is portrayed here.   There are major factors not mentioned here and the factional disputes are reduced to superficial quarrels between forces that have no authority in determining the political directions, thus resulting in an optimistic but very unlikely conclusion. The current cross factional tensions are not just polemic for the sake of gaining electoral support. They represent the complexity of… Read more »