Analysis

The View From Iran: What the Raisi Administration Wants in the Nuclear Talks

President Ebrahim Raisi doesn’t consider reviving the nuclear deal a top priority.

By , a columnist and foreign-policy analyst on Iran and the Middle East.
Two men sit behind a sign on a table that reads "Iran, Islamic Republic of."
Kazem Gharibabadi (left), Iran’s governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and Mohammad Eslami, the chief of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, attend the IAEA General Conference in Vienna on Sept. 20. Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will not be the Ministry of JCPOA during my term in office,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told lawmakers in the Iranian parliament on Aug. 22. He went on to mock his predecessor, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for having spent the bulk of his diplomatic efforts trying to resolve the nuclear crisis and negotiating the since-collapsed nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Amir-Abdollahian’s snarky comments reflect a fundamental change in the foreign policy of the new Iranian government. Unlike former President Hassan Rouhani, President Ebrahim Raisi does not consider resolving the nuclear crisis and reviving the JCPOA, from which then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew in May 2018, as one of his top priorities. Indeed, he announced in his first press conference as president-elect that his government’s foreign policy would not begin with JCPOA and would not end with it and that he would not link the fate of the country’s economy to the negotiations.

In April 2021, just a few months after U.S. President Joe Biden took office, Iran and the remaining participants in the JCPOA (the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, and Russia) began talks in Vienna on reviving the deal. But after six rounds of talks, in which the United States was also indirectly involved, negotiations came to a halt amid the June presidential elections in Iran. The new Iranian government has announced it is reviewing previous rounds of talks and forming a new negotiating team and will return to the talks soon.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will not be the Ministry of JCPOA during my term in office,” Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told lawmakers in the Iranian parliament on Aug. 22. He went on to mock his predecessor, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for having spent the bulk of his diplomatic efforts trying to resolve the nuclear crisis and negotiating the since-collapsed nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Amir-Abdollahian’s snarky comments reflect a fundamental change in the foreign policy of the new Iranian government. Unlike former President Hassan Rouhani, President Ebrahim Raisi does not consider resolving the nuclear crisis and reviving the JCPOA, from which then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew in May 2018, as one of his top priorities. Indeed, he announced in his first press conference as president-elect that his government’s foreign policy would not begin with JCPOA and would not end with it and that he would not link the fate of the country’s economy to the negotiations.

In April 2021, just a few months after U.S. President Joe Biden took office, Iran and the remaining participants in the JCPOA (the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China, and Russia) began talks in Vienna on reviving the deal. But after six rounds of talks, in which the United States was also indirectly involved, negotiations came to a halt amid the June presidential elections in Iran. The new Iranian government has announced it is reviewing previous rounds of talks and forming a new negotiating team and will return to the talks soon.

However, Raisi’s administration has focused on a strategy that prioritizes “neutralizing the impact of sanctions” by strengthening economic ties with neighbors and countries such as Russia and China, among other measures, over resuming talks to revive the JCPOA—a strategy that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has also repeatedly emphasized. Khamenei said in his final meeting with the outgoing Rouhani administration that its efforts had proved the folly of trusting the West.

The policy shift reflects the current Iranian government’s deep disappointment and skepticism when it comes to the United States’ failure to lift economic sanctions on the country. No one in Tehran’s new cabinet believes the United States intends to actually lift the sanctions; on the contrary, they think the United States uses the nuclear talks as leverage to contain Iran’s power. Iran’s new first vice president, Mohammad Mokhber, has said that “it is unlikely we will reach an agreement with the West to lift the sanctions. We cannot link our planning to run the country to reliance on the lifting of sanctions. We must plan in such a way as with presumption that the sanctions will not be lifted.”

The policymakers in Raisi’s administration see the experience of signing the JCPOA in 2015 as a clear example of the U.S. government’s approach and lack of seriousness in lifting the sanctions. They argue that although Iran lost the bulk of its nuclear capabilities under the agreement, Washington did not effectively lift sanctions during the more than two years between the implementation of the agreement and the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal in May 2018.

They say Obama-era sanctions such as the 2015 visa waiver restrictions and the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control’s “sabotage” of issuing licenses for companies to trade with Iran hindered normalization of Iran’s trade with the world and cite remarks by the former governor of Central Bank of Iran as evidence that Iran’s economic benefits from the JCPOA were “almost nothing.” Trump-era measures such as the 2017 ​​Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act and the 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA further contributed to the Iranian government’s frustration with the lifting of sanctions.

Iranian policymakers are now of the opinion that even if the agreement is revived, it will have far fewer economic benefits for Iran than even the pre-U.S. exit era because banks and corporations will have less confidence in the next U.S. president’s commitment to abide by the deal.

Nevertheless, the specific failures of the JCPOA are not the sole reason for the Iranian government’s current skepticism. Their distrust of Washington has much deeper roots.

Iranian officials assume that the overall U.S. policy is to contain Iran and therefore that the Americans will keep the sanctions in place somehow. Even if the JCPOA is revived, the thinking goes, the United States would lift only a small portion of the sanctions and maintain the bulk of them under the new pretext of human rights, Iran’s missile program, or Tehran’s activities in the Middle East. The Biden administration’s continued refusal to lift all sanctions imposed on Iran during the Trump era, many of which were imposed on the pretext of human rights and terrorism, has deepened this distrust.

Given all of this, the prevailing view among policymakers in the Raisi administration is that reviving the JCPOA at any cost should not be on Iran’s agenda and that the country should adopt a tougher stance in future negotiations to secure its anticipated economic benefits.

Specifically, they want any agreement on reviving the JCPOA to include three elements: 1) the removal of all sanctions that were lifted under the original agreement as well as any that have been imposed since the execution of the JCPOA in January 2016; 2) a U.S. guarantee not to withdraw from the deal again; and 3) the stipulation of a comprehensive interpretation of Paragraph 29 of the JCPOA that emphasizes the removal of barriers to the normalization of Iran’s trade. In addition, the negotiations must involve only the JCPOA; other issues such as Tehran’s regional influence and missile program should be off the agenda completely.

The Raisi government considers the passage of time to be to its advantage, enabling it to further develop its nuclear program and thereby increase its leverage in future negotiations. Iran’s economy has also shown more resilience to the sanctions than initially expected and is starting to emerge from the severe downturn it experienced in 2019 and 2020 immediately after Trump’s JCPOA exit. Although Iran’s economy is currently experiencing its highest inflation rate in over two decades (45.2 percent as of August) and living standards have fallen to unprecedentedly low levels, statistics from the Central Bank of Iran suggest an economic recovery is underway.

According to TankerTrackers.com, Iran’s oil exports in 2020 increased compared with 2018 and 2019 and in some months even exceeded 1.5 million barrels. Iran also reported that its revenues from oil and condensate sales in the six months from March to September 2021 were equal to the total oil revenues from March 2020 to March 2021. This increase also comes at a time when oil prices have more than doubled compared with last year, and some forecasts suggest the price could hit $100 per barrel or even higher in the near future.

Iran has announced that Ali Bagheri Kani, the new deputy foreign minister for political affairs—who replaced Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s former chief negotiator during Rouhani’s government—will lead the Iranian negotiating team from now on. Bagheri was a senior member of the Iranian negotiating team under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but was ousted when the Rouhani government took office. He is a staunch opponent of the JCPOA, believing the agreement violates Iran’s national rights and undermines the country’s independence.

Although Tehran has said it will not enter brand-new negotiations and that the Vienna talks will resume from where the previous six rounds were halted, the appointment of a new negotiating team led by Bagheri suggests the Raisi administration intends to pursue a very different stance on resolving existing differences between Iran and the remaining JCPOA parties.

The new approach will likely see the Iranian negotiating team evaluating the results of the negotiations not on paper but in practice and with objective and measurable criteria. Under such circumstances, one can predict lengthy and tense negotiations in the coming months.

Saheb Sadeghi is a columnist and foreign-policy analyst on Iran and the Middle East. Twitter: @sahebsadeghi

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