Analysis

Iran’s New Top Diplomats Are a Problem

Tehran needs to restore the nuclear deal—but the Raisi administration’s officials aren’t up for the job.

By , a postdoc fellow at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian speaks during a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart following their meeting in Moscow on October 6, 2021.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian speaks during a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart following their meeting in Moscow on October 6, 2021. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

As the sixth round of Vienna talks aimed at restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal ended in June, there was little in either the tone or substance of the public statements by senior American, European Union, German, Iranian, and Russian diplomats that suggested negotiations had hit a snag. They even appeared to agree that the talks had succeeded, in the sense that the remaining decisions needed to be made at the level of political leadership in each of their respective capitals.

Iran’s then-President Hassan Rouhani declared at the time that talks had progressed so far that there were no remaining substantive obstacles to the deal’s restoration. Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, even offered a time frame for reaching a final agreement: “We have all chances to arrive at the final point of our negotiations, maybe even by mid-July, unless something extraordinary and negative happens.”

Sure enough, “something extraordinary and negative” appears to have unfolded—namely, the consequences of Ebrahim Raisi’s election as Iranian president. To be sure, key parts of Raisi’s administration are certainly aware of the economic benefits of reviving the deal. But it has become increasingly apparent that Raisi’s appointments at the helm of Iran’s foreign-policy apparatus are inconsistent with his stated aim of diplomatically reviving the deal.

As the sixth round of Vienna talks aimed at restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal ended in June, there was little in either the tone or substance of the public statements by senior American, European Union, German, Iranian, and Russian diplomats that suggested negotiations had hit a snag. They even appeared to agree that the talks had succeeded, in the sense that the remaining decisions needed to be made at the level of political leadership in each of their respective capitals.

Iran’s then-President Hassan Rouhani declared at the time that talks had progressed so far that there were no remaining substantive obstacles to the deal’s restoration. Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s permanent representative to international organizations in Vienna, even offered a time frame for reaching a final agreement: “We have all chances to arrive at the final point of our negotiations, maybe even by mid-July, unless something extraordinary and negative happens.”

Sure enough, “something extraordinary and negative” appears to have unfolded—namely, the consequences of Ebrahim Raisi’s election as Iranian president. To be sure, key parts of Raisi’s administration are certainly aware of the economic benefits of reviving the deal. But it has become increasingly apparent that Raisi’s appointments at the helm of Iran’s foreign-policy apparatus are inconsistent with his stated aim of diplomatically reviving the deal.

To begin with, new Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has at times espoused erroneous views about the 2015 deal and how EU-U.S. ties figure within the context of the agreement. Since the start of his tenure, he has more than once issued confusing statements about the time frame for the resumption of talks, only to be contradicted by his foreign ministry spokesperson.

Confusion was later compounded when Amir-Abdollahian suggested that the Biden administration unfreeze $10 billion of Iranian money before Iran returned to the talks. But more than just confusing world powers about Iran’s intentions, the statements laid bare the minister’s lack of understanding of internal American politics and how it limits the range of possible measures U.S. President Joe Biden can realistically pursue to save the deal. Such remarks have even caused ire among other parties to the deal. Even the Russians, supposedly allies of Iran, have not been able to restrain themselves from ridiculing the confusing language deployed by the new minister.

An even grimmer picture emerges when one considers Ali Bagheri Kani, Raisi’s point man in the nuclear talks. Bagheri Kani has a long track record of staunch and open hostility to the deal he is now tasked with reviving. It is hard not to see this as problematic.

Perhaps under the weight of his fervent opposition to the deal, he once made the demonstrably false claim that the 2015 nuclear agreement did not at the time have the approval of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and that “many” of the redlines set out by the leadership had been ignored by the Iranian diplomats who brokered the deal. He has made other erroneous assertions about the significance of the nuclear pact, which have at various points been countered by experts and diplomats familiar with the deal. But Bagheri Kani’s warped sense of reality does not cease with this agreement. His vernacular betrays a man who struggles to differentiate between vastly different notions such as “negotiation” and “surrender.”

One must wonder whether this foreign-policy lineup possesses the comportment, diplomatic finesse, and technocratic expertise required for an undertaking as complex and delicate as revitalizing the nuclear deal. And Iran’s diplomatic maneuverability is further undermined by other constraints that have less to do with the Raisi administration and more to do with the man at the top of Iran’s power structure, Khamenei.

For instance, Khamenei has barred Iranian negotiators from directly meeting with their American counterparts. This long-standing policy not only is unnecessary but also serves to restrict Iranian diplomacy. According to those familiar with the negotiations, the ban has only slowed the process and increased the likelihood of misunderstandings between the different sides, thus undermining Iran’s goal of lifting sanctions. It casts Tehran as an inflexible party more interested in dabbling around and testing the patience of the other parties than reaching a compromise.

But instead of cutting out the middleman, Raisi’s foreign-policy team added an unnecessary layer of complexity to an already dysfunctional communication strategy by holding separate meetings in Brussels with diplomats from the EU, a party to the deal, reportedly to “go through all the texts” on the table at the end of the last round of the Vienna talks in June and to “clarify” matters in case of questions from Iranian diplomats. If accurate, these reports leave one with the odd impression that Iran’s current negotiators prefer to confide in European diplomats rather than simply call their predecessors in Tehran who, as it so happens, were present at the Vienna talks and are familiar with every technical detail of the deal.

The supreme leader can upend, or at least suspend, this unhelpful ban on direct talks between Iranian and American officials. Ending such a ban would not be unprecedented. Both in the lead-up and during the nuclear negotiations that led to the nuclear deal in 2015, he allowed for direct, at times secret, talks between diplomats from the two countries. This can therefore happen again. Quashing this prohibition is not, and has never been, a surrender to the United States, but it is a mere tool for facilitating diplomacy.

To focus on Iran’s dysfunctional negotiation strategy is not to negate the culpability of the United States in both manufacturing—and later maintaining—this unnecessary standoff. Not even the most clinical observer of U.S.-Iran relations can fail to appreciate that the former bears the lion’s share of responsibility for the cloud of uncertainty that today hovers over the future of the deal. It was the United States that first reneged on its commitments to Iran and imposed draconian sanctions on the country. It is a travesty of justice that instead of having to first atone for its sins by first lifting sanctions and even paying compensation for the pecuniary losses it has been inflicting through sanctions, the United States is allowed to set preconditions for reentering the deal.

But justice is not the main currency of international relations. Power relations are. And navigating the often unfair power dynamics that govern the interstate order requires, among other things, familiarity with the language of the international system, its bureaucratic structure, and its inner workings. It calls for competent diplomats who recognize the difference between what is desirable, what is just, and what is materially possible.

None of this is to suggest that Iran’s negotiators are inevitably doomed to fail. The history of the country teems with instances of seemingly uncompromising and firebrand ideologues who were eventually humbled by the bitter but immovable realities of the global order and learned to mutate into able and pragmatic technocrats for their country.

Whether the people who today lead Iran’s foreign-policy apparatus are capable of such transformation remains to be seen, though we can find reasons not to lose all hope.

Firstly, a date has already been set for the next round of negotiations in Vienna. Furthermore, Amir-Abdollahian recently spoke of his intention to utilize the “expertise” and “capacities” of former Iranian diplomats who took part in the previous nuclear talks, as well as scholars with expert knowledge on the deal. He made no explicit mention of his predecessor Mohammad Javad Zarif—now an associate professor at Tehran University—or Bagheri Kani’s predecessor Abbas Araghchi. But shortly after these statements, the minister and Bagheri Kani did sit with several other former officials familiar with the deal, including Araghchi, to discuss the upcoming Vienna talks.

The Iranians currently charged with unshackling their country from sanctions may in the end prove the naysayers wrong. For the time being, however, the odds are stacked against them.

Sajjad Safaei is a postdoc fellow at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. Twitter: @SajjadSafaei0

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