Iran Nuclear Talks Stalled While U.S. Waits for Raisi

Hopes for a fast deal—or any deal at all—are fading.

hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
Michael Hirsh
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi smiles as he greets media representatives during his first press conference in Tehran.
Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi smiles as he greets media representatives during his first press conference in Tehran.
Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi smiles as he greets media representatives during his first press conference in Tehran on June 21. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Contrary to hopes that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, might be looking for a swift revival of the 2015 nuclear deal before the installation of Tehran’s new hard-line government next month, U.S. and European officials now believe that success or failure lies in the hands of the incoming president, Ebrahim Raisi.

According to a senior U.S. official, it now appears that Iran is not prepared to resume negotiations over coming back into compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) until Raisi replaces moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president next month. In recent weeks, some participants in the ongoing talks in Vienna said they thought Khamenei wanted a deal signed before Rouhani left office so that any public backlash from a compromise—only partial relief from U.S. sanctions—wouldn’t politically damage Raisi, Khamenei’s likely anointed heir as supreme leader. 

But that is apparently not going to happen now, and further delays will only make any final deal harder, if not impossible. Some observers believe Iran may now be overplaying its hand, hoping that its technological advances in enrichment will force the Americans to come to a compromise.

Contrary to hopes that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, might be looking for a swift revival of the 2015 nuclear deal before the installation of Tehran’s new hard-line government next month, U.S. and European officials now believe that success or failure lies in the hands of the incoming president, Ebrahim Raisi.

According to a senior U.S. official, it now appears that Iran is not prepared to resume negotiations over coming back into compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) until Raisi replaces moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president next month. In recent weeks, some participants in the ongoing talks in Vienna said they thought Khamenei wanted a deal signed before Rouhani left office so that any public backlash from a compromise—only partial relief from U.S. sanctions—wouldn’t politically damage Raisi, Khamenei’s likely anointed heir as supreme leader. 

But that is apparently not going to happen now, and further delays will only make any final deal harder, if not impossible. Some observers believe Iran may now be overplaying its hand, hoping that its technological advances in enrichment will force the Americans to come to a compromise.

“This could doom the deal,” said Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group, a former close associate of U.S. lead negotiator Robert Malley. “The Raisi team might believe that time is on Iran’s side and that they can ratchet up the nuclear program much quicker than the U.S./EU can counter with sanctions. … This would be a major miscalculation.”

With talks on hold, current Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, one of the chief architects of the 2015 accord, is already in the process of handing over Tehran’s negotiating brief to his successor, who has not yet been named. “They’re forming a new negotiating committee,” said a European diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden’s team is reluctant to surrender any more compromises than it already has to Tehran. At the same time, Iran has taken advantage of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 to steadily improve its ability to enrich uranium and get closer to building a bomb—precisely the kinds of steps that the deal had prevented Iran from carrying out before.

“The Iranians want sanctions relief but are building the pressure with the advance of their nuclear program,” said Dennis Ross, a former senior U.S. diplomat now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They will keep pushing their program, enriching with advanced centrifuges, enriching to 60 percent, producing uranium metal, limiting IAEA access. … They want sanctions relief even as they seek to show they are in no hurry to get it.”

If the standoff is prolonged, the return to the JCPOA might become moot since the original deal’s constraints will no longer be able to sufficiently curb Iran’s nuclear advances. Previously, Rafael Grossi, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), had negotiated an extension of inspection protocols, but he has not been able to do so a third time. If Iran does not resolve its outstanding problems with the IAEA by September, when the agency’s board of governors meets, those violations would be reported to the U.N. Security Council. That could result in a snapback of U.N. sanctions, putting Iran and Western powers back where they were before the Biden administration sought to revive the pact.

A key issue is that Tehran is so far advanced in its technical development, especially its new, much faster IR-9 centrifuge—which it is now testing—that its “breakout” timeline for a bomb has been reduced to a point that the provisions of the 2015 deal may no longer apply. Further complicating matters is the fact that Raisi has been sanctioned by the United States because of his involvement in the execution of thousands of dissidents in the late 1980s and another violent crackdown in 2009. His administration will likely demand that such sanctions be lifted, but this will be politically difficult for Biden to do.

Biden himself, consumed with seeking a deal on Capitol Hill over his infrastructure and other big spending plans, is in no mood to accommodate Tehran. 

The next three months will be critical to Biden’s domestic agenda and his presidency. He doesn’t need any distractions. If I were Biden’s political advisors, I’d want to slow-roll this agreement,” said Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There are no political upsides for him in reaching an accord and almost no margin and advantage to do so. The Republicans hate it and will use the new president—the hanging judge of Tehran—to hammer Biden; too many influential Democrats don’t like it either.”

Iran is demanding that Washington remove all sanctions that former President Donald Trump imposed as “poison pills” to ensure the 2015 deal could never be resurrected. Those include more than 700 sanctions imposed outside of the nuclear pact and designed to break Iran’s economy and humiliate its leadership, especially key figures in Khamenei’s office and on Khamenei himself. The Biden team has indicated that it will not remove all of these.

Michael Hirsh is a columnist for Foreign Policy. He is the author of two books: Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street and At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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