WASHINGTON (AP) – Biden government officials insist that the election of a hardliner as Iranian president will not hurt prospects for a revival of the stalled 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. But there are already signs that their goal of closing a deal has grown even tougher.
Optimism that a deal was imminent faded when recent talks ended on Sunday with no tangible signs of significant progress. And on Monday, in his first public statement since the vote, the new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi rejected an important Biden target of extending the nuclear deal if the negotiators are able to save the old one.
At the same time, Raisi is likely to increase Iran’s demands for sanctions lifted in exchange for Iran’s compliance with the deal, given that he himself is already facing US human rights penalties.
“I don’t envy the Biden team,” said Karim Sadjapour, Senior Fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has advised several US governments on Iran. “I think the government now has an increased urgency to revise the deal before Raisi and a new hardline team are set up.”
President Joe Biden and his team have made the US return to the deal one of their top foreign policy priorities. The deal was one of President Barack Obama’s key achievements, one negotiated by aides now in the Biden administration that Donald Trump rejected and tried to dismiss as president.
Despite Raisi’s upcoming presidency, Biden government officials insist that the prospect of a deal remains unchanged. They argue that Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who signed the 2015 agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will make all final decisions regardless of who is president.
“The president’s view, and ours, is that the decision maker is the supreme leader,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. “That was the case before the election; it is the case today; it will probably be the case if things go forward. “
“We expect Iran to have the same supreme leader in August as it does today, as it did before the elections, when the JCPOA was first implemented in 2015,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ned Price.
But hopes of substantial progress fizzled out last week before the Iranian election amid a spate of speculation about the impact of the vote on the indirect Iran-US talks in Vienna. Diplomats and others familiar with the talks had believed that the final round, the sixth, could at least produce a tangible result, even if it wasn’t fully completed.
Now this round is over and a seventh round still has to be planned, as Raisi, Iran’s conservative judiciary, expressed an absolute rejection of more than minimal compliance with the agreement by Iran in return for the lifting of all US sanctions.
In his public comments on Monday, Raisi brushed aside US demands that Iran agree to follow-up talks on extending the original nuclear deal to its ballistic missile program and support for regional groups that the US calls terrorist organizations.
“It’s non-negotiable,” said Raisi.
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 lift the sanctions to get them to return, they will feel an incentive to return and negotiate further concessions,” said Sadjapour. “And if we force them to come back to the table with sanctions, they will argue that we have lifted our end to the nuclear deal. Again.”
Critics of the nuclear deal claim the government has already given too much for too little by signaling its will to reject Trump’s rejection of the nuclear deal. And they say that even if Iran agrees to some additional talks, the promise will be meaningless.
“It was pretty obvious that the Iranians would never negotiate in good faith beyond the JCPOA,” said Rich Goldberg, an official on the Trump administration’s National Security Council who has taken a hard line on Iran.
“But now, even if the Iranians give the government some sort of face-saving language about future talks, Raisi has already said they are not interested. The device is up, ”he said. “You can’t go back to a skeptical Congress, allies and deal-opponents and say that the promise means everything it means when Raisi has already said it isn’t.”
But government officials firmly believe that the nuclear deal, as good as it is, is inadequate and needs to be improved.
“We see a return to compliance as necessary but insufficient, but we also see a return to compliance in such a way that we can address these other issues diplomatically,” said Price, adding that the point had been made clear to the Iranians. in an unmistakable way. “
An additional complication is that Raisi becomes the first incumbent Iranian president to be sanctioned by the US government before he takes office, partly during his time as head of the internationally criticized judiciary of Iran – a situation that requires state visits and speeches at international forums like z like the United Nations.
Psaki and Price both said the US will continue to hold Raisi accountable for human rights violations for which he has been sanctioned by the Trump administration.
Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and launched a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran that included the reintroduction of all sanctions eased under the agreement and the addition of a variety of new sanctions.