Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Iran’s election destabilizes Biden’s hope for a nuclear deal

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Biden administration officials insist that the election of a hardliner as Iran’s president will not affect prospects for reviving the shaky 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. But there are already signs that his goal of closing a deal has gotten tougher.

Optimism that a deal was imminent faded when the latest talks ended Sunday with no tangible signs of significant progress. And on Monday, in his first public comments since the vote, incoming Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi rejected a key Biden goal of expanding the nuclear deal if negotiators can salvage the old one.

At the same time, Raisi is likely to raise Iran’s demands that sanctions be eased in exchange for Iranian compliance with the deal, as he himself is already subject to US sanctions on human rights.

“I don’t envy Biden’s team,” said Karim Sadjapour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has advised several US administrations on Iran. “I think the administration now has a greater sense of urgency to review the deal before Raisi and a new hardline team are inaugurated.”

President Joe Biden and his team have made the United States return to the agreement as one of their top foreign policy priorities. The deal was one of President Barack Obama’s signature achievements, one that the advisers now serving in the Biden administration helped negotiate and that Donald Trump repudiated and sought to dismantle as president.

Despite Raisi’s impending presidency, Biden administration officials insist that prospects for a deal have not changed. They argue that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who signed the 2015 agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, will make the final decisions regardless of who the president is.

“The president’s opinion and our opinion is that the leader of the decision is the supreme leader,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. “That was the case before the elections; is the case today; it will probably be the case in the future. “

“Iran will have, we hope, the same supreme leader in August that it will have today, as it had before the elections, as it had in 2015 when the JCPOA was first consummated,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.

But hopes for substantial progress were dashed last week before the Iranian elections amid a flurry of speculation about the impact of the vote on the indirect talks between Iran and the United States in Vienna. Diplomats and others familiar with the talks had thought that the latest round, the sixth, could produce at least a tangible result, even if it did not reach a full agreement.

Now that round is over and a seventh has yet to be scheduled, as Raisi, Iran’s conservative judiciary, brandished an outright rejection of anything more than minimal Iranian compliance with the 2015 deal in exchange for an uprising. of all US sanctions.

In his public comments on Monday, Raisi sidelined U.S. calls for Iran to accept follow-up discussions on expanding the initial nuclear deal to include its ballistic missile program and its support for regional groups the United States designates. as terrorist organizations.

“It is not negotiable,” Raisi said. ‘

Iran experts agree that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Biden to get Iran to go beyond the nuclear deal.

“I am very skeptical that once we have lifted the sanctions to get them back, they will feel some incentive to go back and negotiate more concessions,” Sadjapour said. “And, if we coerce them with sanctions to come back to the table, they will argue that we have repealed our part of the nuclear deal. Again. “

Critics of the nuclear deal argue that the administration has already given too much for too little, signaling its desire to repudiate Trump’s repudiation of the nuclear deal. And they say that even if Iran accepts some kind of additional talks, the promise will be meaningless.

“It was pretty obvious that the Iranians were never going to negotiate in good faith beyond the JCPOA,” said Rich Goldberg, a Trump administration National Security Council official who has taken a hard line with Iran.

But now, even if the administration receives some kind of face-saving language from the Iranians about future talks, Raisi has already said that they are not interested. The jig is over, ”he said. “You cannot go back to a skeptical Congress, allies and opponents in the deal and say that the promise means all that it means when Raisi has already said no.”

But administration officials insist that as good as the nuclear deal is, it is insufficient and must be improved.

“We see a return to compliance as necessary but insufficient, but we also see a return to compliance as allowing us to address those other issues diplomatically,” Price said, adding that the point had been clarified to the Iranians “in no uncertain terms.” .

An additional complication is that Raisi will become the first sitting Iranian president to be sanctioned by the US government.Even before taking office, partly during his time as the internationally criticized head of Iran’s judiciary, a situation that It could complicate state visits and speeches in international forums such as the United Nations.

Psaki and Price said the United States will continue to hold Raisi responsible for the human rights violations for which he was sanctioned by the Trump administration.

Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and launched a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran that included reinstating all sanctions eased under the deal along with the addition of a number of new ones.

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