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Raisi’s Inept Negotiators Are Sinking Iran Deal Talks

The incompetence of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his team is partly responsible for the current impasse.

By , a journalist and Asia Times correspondent.
Amir-Abdollahian and Bagheri Kani face each while in conversation.
Amir-Abdollahian and Bagheri Kani face each while in conversation.
(From left) Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and deputy Iranian foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani confer before their meeting with the Russian foreign minister at the Iranian foreign ministry headquarters in Tehran on June 23. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Progressive commentators in the United States who once championed U.S. President Joe Biden and touted his appetite for multilateralism as an advantage of his foreign policy are now openly criticizing the president for his Middle East approach. Specifically, they say it’s reminiscent of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s agenda and failed legacy in the region, epitomized by his catastrophic withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The argument is that Biden squandered moderate former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s final months in power in 2021 to finalize a JCPOA revival while a breakthrough was imminent and that he is presently mimicking Trump’s maximum pressure scheme without showing the resolve to come to an accommodation with the new Iranian administration.

That Biden is not signaling the flexibility required to rehabilitate the atrophying JCPOA and that his decision to inflict new sanctions on Iran while the negotiations were underway were unquestionably missteps.

Progressive commentators in the United States who once championed U.S. President Joe Biden and touted his appetite for multilateralism as an advantage of his foreign policy are now openly criticizing the president for his Middle East approach. Specifically, they say it’s reminiscent of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s agenda and failed legacy in the region, epitomized by his catastrophic withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The argument is that Biden squandered moderate former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s final months in power in 2021 to finalize a JCPOA revival while a breakthrough was imminent and that he is presently mimicking Trump’s maximum pressure scheme without showing the resolve to come to an accommodation with the new Iranian administration.

That Biden is not signaling the flexibility required to rehabilitate the atrophying JCPOA and that his decision to inflict new sanctions on Iran while the negotiations were underway were unquestionably missteps.

But it would be myopic to gloss over the role the Raisi administration’s incompetence in the craft of diplomacy has played in creating the current impasse.

When the JCPOA was first negotiated, the Iranian side was led by an engineer whose mastery of foreign relations and the art of bargaining, familiarity with the intricacies of international law, and charming presence in the global mainstream media yielded a momentum that was conducive to the nuclear deal breakthrough.

Former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif not only negotiated the JCPOA for Iran but also sold it to a conservative establishment at home and advocated for it the world over. As such, excluding a few detractors in the Persian Gulf and Israel, the international community was in consensus that it was a diplomatic showpiece.

Zarif was not flawless, of course, and his unwavering public relations for Iran cost him his charisma in the eyes of those Iranians who sensed he was acting as a mouthpiece for the regime rather than the voice of the people. But he was a seasoned diplomat conversant in his responsibilities who enjoyed global legitimacy and even the endorsement of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who once called him a “respected adversary.”

Now, the deal’s fate is in the hands of an inexperienced Iranian diplomatic corps that since day one opposed the JCPOA as fragile and a paragon of the “liberal” Rouhani administration’s submission to the West. Thus, when the Americans complain that the Iranian side is making demands beyond the scope of the JCPOA, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The negotiating team, led by ultra-conservative diplomat Ali Bagheri Kani—an outspoken antagonist of the JCPOA who refuses to say its name and instead refers to it as the “2015 agreement”—is leveraging the opportunity to be in the negotiating room with the world powers to clinch concessions that the original deal left out.

The Iranian foreign ministry’s lack of transparency means few details have trickled out of the process, and it remains ambiguous as to what excessive demands are being made. But we do know Iran is pushing to incorporate the delisting of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization in the nuclear deal, despite the fact that the decision to sanction the organization was Trump’s personal démarche in 2019 and is irrelevant to the JCPOA. Yet Iranian negotiators appear unwilling to admit that this sticking point should be worked out in separate talks.

Iran has also been insisting on securing guarantees from the Biden administration that the next U.S. president will not renege on the deal. Here again, this is despite the fact that the U.S. negotiators have been explaining to the Iranians since the very beginning of the talks that a legally enforceable U.S. commitment is a nonstarter, as the Biden administration simply cannot force a future U.S. president or Congress to comply with a deal or treaty indefinitely.

Iranians who felt duped and backstabbed after Trump walked away from the JCPOA in May 2018 might be right in being skeptical about the deal’s survival beyond Biden’s tenure by demanding assurances that it will be binding. But against the backdrop of inimical Iran-U.S. relations, any guarantee that could be granted seems currently unattainable.

Iran doesn’t want to concede that the impossibility of a guarantee is a corollary of the U.S. political and legal system, and even in the latest round of talks in Doha, Qatar, on June 29, it raised similar demands. In doing so, Iran has already wasted one year of the Biden administration’s term in office, and the economic dividends for Iran from a revived deal are still elusive and continue to be deferred.

Much of this is due to the Raisi administration’s eccentric, idiosyncratic brand of diplomacy, which in many ways harkens back to the tumultuous years of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who relied on what I call “camera diplomacy”: negotiating with the United States through media interviews and public speeches rather than by sending his team to talk to their U.S. counterparts face to face and maturely.

Ahmadinejad famously wrote pages-long letters to former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, whose tenures overlapped with his time in office, and invited both to debates at the United Nations. Even his most ardent loyalists, let alone the skeptics, could conclude he was indulging in unrefined grandstanding at best and was not really prepared for any meaningful dialogue with the United States.

In the same fashion, Raisi and his foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, send messages to the U.S. administration through press conferences and public addresses, including when Amir-Abdollahian censured the United States for the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors’ castigatory resolution on Iran back in June. This is not how a political crisis aggravated by lack of trust is going to be remedied.

A team of negotiators assigned by Iran’s foreign ministry is involved in the work to resuscitate the nuclear deal, and they talk to the three European countries that were party to the JCPOA—the United Kingdom, France, and Germany—as well as China and Russia (also parties to the deal), but Raisi has adamantly rejected any prospect of engaging the United States directly. A recourse to the Russians, Chinese, and Europeans as intermediaries for exchanging communication is not a panacea, and it is unimaginable how much resources and time are trifled away when two rivals do not talk directly to sort out a point of contention and how much precision is lost in translation.

One of the assets of the Rouhani government was that it evinced the courage to defy anti-U.S. hard-liners at home, initiate direct negotiations with the United States, and engage in a process that eventually produced a diplomatic breakthrough. The Raisi administration’s stubbornness in not talking to the Americans and its insistence that such talks undermine Iran’s sovereignty will eventually prove to be its soft underbelly and one of the triggers of the JCPOA’s possible collapse. The risks of miscalculation are always higher in settings when the parties to a dispute do not communicate, and here, Iran is the side responsible for heightening those risks with its inflexibility.

Iran’s intransigence may impart the impression that it has already forgone the benefits of a regenerated deal and is not genuinely pursuing a return to the JCPOA. But that is not the case. Iran needs an agreement to redeem its collapsing economy and salvage its moribund energy sector. That the Raisi administration is playing hardball is largely an upshot of its dearth of diplomatic finesse and experience, and the fact that it is bent on ensuring the new deal is more impactful than what its rivals in the Rouhani administration accomplished in 2015, replete with new benefits it can market to its base of supporters as a “good deal.”

Iran’s senior negotiator, Bagheri Kani, has a reputation for his diplomatic inadequacies and is seen as an ideologue who was educated at the conservative Imam Sadiq University as well as has an inconsequential international portfolio. Bagheri Kani was part of a team that engaged in sporadic, hiccupped nuclear talks with the European Union between 2007 and 2013 that ended in failure and preluded the introduction of six Security Council resolutions against Iran under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.

As he did during those convulsive years, Bagheri Kani continues to obsess over the venue and location of the talks disproportionately and sometimes seems completely incapable of making the right decisions on what he is tasked with. For instance, on June 2, shortly before the Doha talks, he traveled to Oslo, Norway, in what he claimed was an effort to move the JCPOA revival forward. Yet observers were baffled as to why he made the trip given how irrelevant Norway has been to the implementation of the Iran deal, not even being a host country for the talks since the whole saga began two decades ago.

His occasional saber-rattling against Israel, which observers say should be left to the top military brass, has also cast his credibility as a diplomat into doubt. Further, some observers also cite his lack of English language fluency as a barrier to meaningful communication with other interlocutors with whom he is supposed to reach a legal understanding on the exactitude of words and technical details.

In addition to all the hurdles thwarting a successful JCPOA restoration, Iran continues to stay its ground that verification of the full removal of secondary sanctions should be a constituent of any new arrangement and prerequisite to its going back into compliance. Yet, nobody knows what the contours of this verification mechanism are and how long it would take for the procedure to be completed for Iran to be satisfied with the outcome.

In the domain of banking, for example, will the test of verification be declared a failure if a major British bank starts processing transactions involving Iranian entities but a small French bank refuses to wire money to Iranian accounts citing outstanding due diligence issues? Then does this mean Iran will not start complying with the JCPOA because one element of the verification regime has marginally aborted and, by extension, the whole deal cannot be implemented?

Success seems to be far-fetched, and even though Biden, since assuming office, has abstained from adopting incendiary rhetoric on Iran lest he ruin the diplomatic process and play into the hands of Tehran hard-liners, he is apparently losing patience, especially when he told an Israeli TV station he doesn’t rule out military force as a last resort to simplify the nuclear riddle.

The Raisi administration’s cluelessness on what course of action to embrace and its counterproductive role in the current stalemate are not expendable, and if it refuses to revise the path, there is not going to be small culpability when the JCPOA dies and Iran plunges into a new cycle of isolation and economic freefall.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist and Asia Times correspondent and a former Chevening scholarship recipient. He is an alumnus of the Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship by the East-West Center, a 2021 Dag Hammarskjold Fund for Journalists fellow, and a 2022 World Press Institute fellow. He was a finalist for two Kurt Schork Awards in international journalism in 2020 and 2021, and his writings have appeared on the National InterestopenDemocracyResponsible StatecraftMiddle East Eye, and the New Arab. Twitter: @KZiabari

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