Biden Needs to Move Fast if He Wants a New Deal With Iran
Moderates will lose the June 2021 presidential election in Iran unless there is a new agreement and sanctions relief—and the United States can forget diplomacy if hardliners win.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
Although President-elect Joe Biden had promised before this year’s U.S. election that he would return to the nuclear deal with Iran, doing so will be very difficult for him and for all those who hope that the 2015 agreement will be revived with U.S. support.
Biden will take office on Jan. 20 and will not have much time to revive the deal if that is his plan. There will be about five months while moderate President Hassan Rouhani, whose administration signed the deal, is still in power in Tehran. That’s because the next Iranian president, to be elected in June 2021, will likely be one of Iran’s hardliners. They opposed signing the deal long before outgoing President Donald Trump withdrew from it in May 2018—and they would harshly criticize Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for signing what they perceive as a weak agreement with the United States.
Although Rouhani himself will not be able to run again due to term limits, members of his cabinet or politicians close to the reformists and moderates will certainly compete. Under the current circumstances, reformists and moderates have no chance of winning the election unless the deal returns to the center of Iranian politics.
A revival of the deal by Biden would boost the Iranian economy and more importantly lead to the appreciation of the Iranian rial ahead of the presidential election—a significant issue for ordinary Iranians suffering from inflation and one that could convince them to vote for pro-diplomacy reformists. Even so, the moderates will have a difficult job persuading voters in the upcoming elections to come to the polls, and without the deal’s revival, they will definitely lose.
Politicians from various factions believe that low turnout will help the hardliners win the election as this year’s parliamentary elections proved. In the February 2020 parliamentary elections, the lowest turnout since the 1979 Revolution gave an absolute majority to the hardliners.
According to the official figures, the turnout stood at only 42 percent overall in the whole country with only 26 percent of the people in Tehran province coming to the ballot box. Although there is no official polling in Iran, reformist and moderate politicians are not optimistic about their base in the next year’s presidential election. Mahmoud Sadeghi, a former lawmaker from Tehran in the previous parliament predicted in an interview on June 20, 2020 that no more than 30 percent of the population would turn out in next year’s presidential race.
Since low turnout in the Islamic Republic elections has historically meant hardliner victories, this decline in turnout rate would be good news for conservatives. They could return to power and the world will face a similar experience to what it went through during the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from 2005 to 2013.
Iran’s hardliners are already angry about Biden’s victory in the U.S. election because they believe that if Trump had been reelected, they would have been able bring down the reformists and moderates. But they are now worried that the opposite camp could stay in power with Biden at the White House.
“A government that has for many times sought to negotiate with Trump over the past four years lacks the ability to distinguish opportunity from threat,” Mehdi Mohammadi, an adviser to hardliner Parliament Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, tweeted on Nov. 13. The hardliner politician and columnist with the Vatan-e-Emrooz newspaper, one of the main conservative media outlets in Iran, added: “If only one thing is certain, it is that JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] cannot lift the sanctions.”
Anti-negotiation arguments like these are common in the Iranian media these days. On Nov. 10, Ahmad Naderi, a lawmaker in the Iranian parliament representing Tehran, described the nuclear deal as dead. “There is nothing left of the JCPOA, and if wisdom prevails in our foreign policy, we should never return to this agreement to which no one is committed anymore,” Naderi added. “Democrats have always imposed the most sanctions on Iran, but the pro-Western current in Iran still thinks that Biden’s presidency will solve the country’s problems, which is very unrealistic.”
Such statements and warnings followed the Biden team’s statement promising that: “If Tehran returns to compliance with the deal, President Biden would re-enter the agreement, using hard-nosed diplomacy and support from our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities.”
Meanwhile, in a speech on Nov.15, Qalibaf criticized the Rouhani government’s poor economic record and advised the president to focus on the country’s internal capabilities. He urged Rouhani to look for solutions to the problems at home, not from Washington.
On the same day, a column in the weekly Sobh-e Sadegh belonging to the political bureau of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) called for returning responsibility for leading the nuclear talks from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—headed by Zarif, a moderate—to the Country’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) when Biden takes office. The SNSC is run by Admiral Ali Shamkhani, and Saeed Jalili—the former nuclear negotiator during Ahmadinejad’s era—is a senior member.
If Biden sets any non-nuclear preconditions—issues such as addressing Iran’s missile program or the human rights situation in the country—as prerequisites for returning to the deal, he would simply be letting down all those who are hoping to revive the accord and play into the conservatives’ attempt to sabotage a deal.
Hardliners, after all, have been arguing for decades that the United States will not ease its pressure unless the Islamic Republic fundamentally changes or disappears. With such limited time to reach a deal, adding any other issues to the negotiations will make it impossible for the two sides to reach a deal in the next few months. Biden will simply not have time to lay the groundwork for a process similar to the one that led to the signing of the landmark 2015 agreement.
Meanwhile, the wide-ranging sanctions that the Trump administration has imposed on Tehran has left almost no room for the Rouhani administration to maneuver in the domestic political arena, and he appears empty-handed when he comes under attack from his hardliner opponents.
As a result, it will not be surprising if hardliners in Iran and the groups they control resort to acts of sabotage in the region in the coming months in order to disrupt any possible agreement between Iran and the United States. That’s because hardliners are trying their best to undermine an atmosphere conducive to negotiations between the Rouhani government and the Biden White House. The incoming administration needs to be even more prepared for further destructive action by the Iranian hardliners—both inside and outside the region—with the aim of hindering a new deal.
Recently, despite Zarif’s repeated denials that he has no intention to run in the next presidential election, some political activists and media outlets close to the reformists have been pushing for his candidacy. On the opposite side, the hardliners have recently intensified their campaign to defame the foreign minister for fear that if he enters the race, it will be harder for them to win.
Despite increasing attacks on Zarif from the right, he has remained popular and is capable of garnering the support of Iranians. In various published polls, Zarif is among the most popular figures in the country, and his extraordinary rhetorical skills would cause problems for his rivals in an election campaign.
Even if the deal is revived and Zarif enters the race for president, there would no guarantee that the dissatisfied, tired, and angry people of Iran would be willing to turn out at the polls.
But there is one definite possibility: If Biden fails to revive the JCPOA in the coming months, and the pro-negotiation camp fails to win the June 2021 election, his foreign-policy team will have to prepare themselves to negotiate and deal with a conservative president similar to Ahmadinejad and a hardliner diplomat like Jalili for the next four years. They would be far less amicable negotiating partners than Rouhani and Zarif.