While the election of Ebrahim Raisi, who is known as a “hardliner” and “conservative” as opposed to the “moderate” Raisani, as Iran’s president could make a compromise difficult in the on-going negotiations between the US and Iran for reviving the JCPOA, the election of Raisi has also added a new variable of fear to the equation that could alter the whole landscape negatively for the talks to even proceed meaningfully. The reason for failure, if it happens, will not merely be the presence of a so-called “conservative” president in Iran, but mainly the fear in the US of dealing with a “conservative”, who is largely portrayed as a “human rights abuser” in the US, and has been under US sanctions since 2019; hence, the question: how will dealing with someone like Ebrahim fare politically for the Biden administration, especially when the Republicans are already putting a lot of pressure on Biden for being “soft” on Iran? What adds to the problem for the Biden administration is Israel’s continuing opposition to JCPOA and its tendency, completely regardless of who rules Iran, to sabotage talks through targeted military attacks inside Iran, which could amount to a declaration of war.
Former president Donald Trump recently said that the Biden administration “cravenly lifted sanctions” on Iran in a “shameful and embarrassing manner.” Mounting Republican criticism on Biden has already led him to refuse to fulfil a core Iranian demand for lifting all sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. “Religious zealots run the place,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina complained this week. “The idea of going back into negotiations with the ayatollah and his henchmen is insane”, he added, stressing his party’s opposition to deal making.
Political actors in the US continue to oppose a revival of the JCPOA, let alone a new deal, despite the fact that Raisi pledged in his very first news conference post-elections that Iran’s “foreign policy does not start by the nuclear deal and it will not be limited to the nuclear deal. We will pursue interaction with the whole world and all the world states under broad and balanced interaction in foreign policy, and only those negotiations which ensure national interests are definitely supported”, adding that Iran will “tell the US that it is duty-bound to lift all sanctions and that it should return and implement its undertakings.”
However, according to John Bolton, Trump’s former National Security Advisers and one of the chief opponents of the JCPOA, “If Biden gives it away [accepts Iran’s demands for lifting sanctions] he will virtually guarantee that the sanctions will collapse, and ultimately Iran will get nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them both on Europe and on the United States.”
In March, 140 members of the House of Representatives, 70 from each party, joined a letter urging that any deal with Iran must not only extend the nuclear agreement beyond 2030 and address other US concerns, but must also include Iran’s ballistic missile program and curb its intervention in other countries i.e., in Syria, which Israel sees plays a vital role for Iran to keep Hezbollah armed. “
As is evident, it is very idea of lifting all sanctions imposed by the Trump administration and simply revive the JCPOA without adding new aspects of Iran’s military and foreign policies that has a certain political cost for the Biden administration, as it is not the Republicans but the mainstream US media, too, which is largely toeing the same line of argument. In a recent report, the New York Times called Ebrahim an uncompromising “ultraconservative”, who not only harbours ambitions with regards to making Iran a regional power ladened with ballistic missiles, if not nuclear weapons, in the near future, but has also termed Iran’s ballistic missile programme “non-negotiable.” A particular type of portrayal that Raisi is being given in the US is going to create more difficulties for the Biden administration, which has been promising to not only revive the JCPOA, but also include non-nuclear issues in the ‘new’ deal too. What Raisi’s stance shows is that, while JCPOA could be revived, the prospects for an altogether new deal are very grim, if not absolutely diminished.
What, however, is going to make things worse for the revival of JCPOA is not simply the rise of Raisi in Iran, who still very largely favours the revival of JCPOA, or the political opposition within the US, but the position that Israel will take vis-à-vis Iran’s new leadership and the revival of JCPOA short of addressing Iran’s ballistic missile programme or its presence in Syria.
Israel, being currently led by its own right-wing political leadership, is most likely to raise the temperature through its own targeted attacks both inside Iran and in Syria to sabotage the process. Its major manifestation came only yesterday (June 23, 2021) when a centrifuge facility was targeted in Iran. While no country or group has claimed the attack, it is a well known fact that the site was on the list of targets Israeli leadership had presented to President Trump early last year. Among the targets presented at the time, according to senior US intelligence official, were attacks on the uranium enrichment site at Natanz and the assassination of Mr. Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist. Israel reportedly assassinated Fakhrizadeh that November, and struck the Natanz plant the following April, damaging a large number of centrifuges. The latest attack is a continuation of the same policy that the Trump administration had sanction, and which the Biden administration has not been able to change.
At the same time, the new Israeli right-wing government has already started taking steps to prepare for an armed conflict with Iran. Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, in view of the presence of a “hardliner” president in Tehran, recently ordered some units of the Israeli Defence Forces to accelerate preparations for a conflict with Iran. Meanwhile, during his visit to the US, Kochavi did highlight the state of Israel’s continuing opposition to the revival of JCPOA.
It is obvious that the real threat to the prospects of the revival of the JCPOA does not come from Iran or its new “conservative” president, but from within the US, and compounded by Joe Biden’s inability to reconcile his administration’s strategic objectives in the Middle East with a deal (the JCPOA) that he himself had helped make and finalise as Obama’s vice-President in 2015. For the Biden administration, the question is not simply about overcoming the “hardliners” in Iran; rather it is about overcoming “hardliners” in both the US and Israel.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.