War Stories

Could Iran’s New President Be Nixon to America’s China?

Ebrahim Raisi is a hardliner with a dismal record on human rights. Is he also someone Biden can make a deal with?

Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi is pictured during his first press conference since his election on the weekend in Tehran, on June 21, 2021. - Iran's new president hailed what he called a 'massive' voter turnout during last week's presidential election. The ultraconservative cleric was declared the winner of the election on the weekend, replacing moderate Hassan Rouhani. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)
Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi is pictured during his first press conference since his election on the weekend in Tehran, on June 21, 2021. ATTA KENARE/Getty Images

How does the election of Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner among hardliners, as Iran’s next president affect the prospects for reviving the Iran nuclear deal? Some say Raisi’s election makes a return to the deal less likely, others say more likely. In fact, nobody knows. Both predictions are mere guesses based on premises. So, to know where we stand, it’s worthwhile to examine those premises.

The optimists cite President Richard Nixon’s trip to China. Only a lifelong anti-Communist like Nixon could have opened relations with Mao Zedong’s China without inciting rebellion from fellow Republicans. Similarly, they argue, Raisi—the head of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, who ordered mass executions of political prisoners, spurring the U.S. to sanction him personally for human-rights abuses—could do the same for restoring the nuclear deal.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

This assumes, however, that Raisi wants to restore the deal, even if it means sacrificing other political goals. No one on the outside really knows if that’s true. Raisi did say, earlier this month, “We will be committed to the [nuclear deal] as an agreement that was approved by the supreme leader.” And “We believe that oppressive sanctions must be lifted, and no effort should be spared in that regard.” The best—right now, the only—way to lift sanctions is to restore the deal, which required Iran to dismantle most of its nuclear infrastructure, in exchange for which the U.S. and other countries would lift most economic sanctions.

All sides were complying with the terms of the deal, which President Barack Obama and six other world leaders signed in 2015—until President Trump scuttled it three years later. Iran sought some way around Trump’s re-imposed sanctions for more than a year, trying to cut separate financial arrangements with the European Union or China, to no avail. Finally, to regain leverage, Iran broke the deal as well, exceeding its limits on enriching uranium. As a result, Iran is now closer to building an A-bomb than it was before the deal was signed.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Joe Biden came into office, determined to go back to the deal, but the two countries got locked into a squabble over who would go first—would the U.S. lift sanctions, then Iran cut enrichment, or the other way around? For reasons still mysterious, the impasse has persisted.

Finally, in April, the U.S. and Iran began holding talks in Vienna—they’ve gone six rounds since, all of them indirect, conducted through European intermediaries (the American and Iranian negotiators haven’t communicated with each other). At the moment, all sides agree that returning to the deal is a good idea.

Advertisement
Advertisement

But several differences remain unresolved, including the standstill on who goes first. The Iranians also want compensation for lost revenues during the Trump sanctions. They also want a guarantee that a renewed deal will last beyond the Biden term, to ward off another reversal by a returning Trump or someone like him. Compensation is a political non-starter. A guarantee is reasonable, but unenforceable, since the deal is an executive agreement, not a formal treaty—a deliberate maneuver by Obama, since it takes two-thirds of the Senate to ratify a treaty, and that wasn’t going to happen. Biden officials are also demanding that Iran’s ballistic missile program and support of regional terrorists be put on the agenda for follow-on talks as a condition for restoring the deal. Not even Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who pushed for the deal in the face of much domestic opposition, would agree to that condition. Raisi has seconded the objection and declared it “non-negotiable.”

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Are some of these demands, made by one side or both, absolute or merely bargaining points? If they’re the latter, what concessions and trade-offs might induce each side to drop them? The answer (which, again, nobody knows) will determine whether or not the Iran nuclear deal has a future.

Two broader points are worth noting. First, Nixon’s trip to China—often invoked in obstacle-strewn diplomatic feats—isn’t always an apt analogy. Nixon had a larger, strategic reason for going to China: he wanted to exploit the triangular geopolitics of the U.S., China, and the Soviet Union—to form an alliance with Beijing as leverage against Moscow, both to strengthen Washington’s hand in the contest between the two superpowers and to help bring a victorious end to the Vietnam War. (He succeeded somewhat on the first goal, not at all on the second.)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Raisi wants to lift sanctions—the only feasible way to recover from Iran’s economic doldrums—but it isn’t clear what other aims he might fulfill by reviving the accord. If there aren’t any, is sanctions-relief alone enough of an inducement? The Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s elite military unit and a major economic force, has always been deeply suspicious of diplomacy with the West, especially diplomacy that imposes restraints on their nuclear development. Can Raisi overcome or coopt their resistance?

Advertisement

Henry Rome, senior analyst for Iran at the Eurasia Group, thinks Iran will make a deal, either before Raisi assumes office in August—so that he can take the credit for the economic boom while Rouhani can take the blame if Washington scuttles it again down the road—or very soon after coming to power. In the long run, Rome told me, Raisi believes in a “resistance economy”—he’s “not interested in access to U.S. dollars or investment by U.S. companies”—but the quick economic benefits of sanctions-relief “would allow him to start his term on a high note.”

Advertisement

Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, agrees, calling Raisi “expedient” and “pragmatic” on issues such as the nuclear deal—vital for boosting Iran’s economy—while still pursuing the regime’s regional politics. The question is whether he can do both.

Finally, intense musing about the transition between Rouhani and Raisi neglects, or at least underplays, the overwhelming fact that Iran’s real decision-maker is the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Not for nothing is his title “supreme leader.”) He’s the one who allowed only the hardest-line candidates to run for president this year, disqualifying anyone even somewhat moderate. He did allow Rouhani and Foreign Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif enormous leeway to negotiate the original nuclear deal—on the promise that it would bring Iran economic relief. When the relief vanished, when Trump replaced Obama and scuttled the promise, Khamenei’s trust subsided too, and it’s an open question whether he’s willing to give the American devils a second try. (He has never met an American official. Raisi says he will not meet with Biden. Then again, Rouhani never met with Obama either, though they did exchange well wishes on the phone.)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

When Obama signed the deal, he resigned himself to the fact that it would restrict only Iran’s nuclear program—not its ballistic missiles or its support of terrorists. Still, he reasoned, better that Iran deal with those other things without nuclear weapons than with them. (He also hoped that the regime’s inclusion into the world economy might moderate its politics, but he saw that as a possible side effect, not at all the central issue.)

The question is whether Biden, given his political struggles on other issues that he sees as more important for the American economy and democracy, can settle with the same compromise—and whether Iran’s supreme leader is interested in moving an inch to let him try.

Advertisement

It is worth remembering that for 34 years, between the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the Obama-Rouhani phone call in 2013, the U.S. and Iran had almost no diplomatic contact at all. It is remarkable that, in just another two years, the two nations, along with five others (Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany), drafted a 159-page accord that cut off all roads to an Iranian bomb with the most intrusive inspection protocols in the modern history of arms control. It is worrisome, but should be no surprise, that, three years after Donald Trump threw it all away, the nations are having a hard and slow time putting it back together again.

Advertisement