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Nuclear Weapons

Iran's Elections Could Complicate a Return to the Iran Deal

by Terrell J. Starr

Iran’s upcoming presidential election in June is raising the stakes of recent talks to revive the Iran Deal. Experts believe the election will produce a winner unlikely to take the more pragmatic tone of the current administration in Tehran.

Iran watchers are moving with cautious optimism after intermediaries between Washington and Tehran agreed in Vienna last week that both countries should plot a path back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) known as the Iran Deal.

But just as hope seemed to set in, Iran’s Natanz atomic facility was sabotaged Sunday, destroying much of its centrifuge supply. Tehran immediately blamed Israel for the attack, calling it an act of “nuclear terrorism.” The response was swift, as Tehran fired a missile at an Israeli-owned ship Tuesday and vowed to enrich uranium up to sixty percent, three times its current level of 20 percent, which already exceed JCPOA levels; 90 percent enrichment is needed to make a nuclear weapon. The attack at the Natanz facility, which Israel has been blamed for, and Tehran’s response are likely to complicate ongoing back-channel negotiations. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a press conference Tuesday that Iran’s vow to increase enrichment was “provocative” and  “calls into question Iran’s seriousness with regard to the nuclear talks.”

men read newspapers at news stand

Men view the covers of local newspapers laid out at a stall in the Shemiran district of Iran's capital Tehran on April 14, 2021. Iran warned it would start enriching uranium up to 60 percent purity, after an explosion it blamed on Israel hit its key nuclear facility in Natanz. The announcement cast a shadow over ongoing talks in Vienna aimed at salvaging the tattered 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers that former US president Donald Trump abandoned three years ago.

ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

None of these events have halted talks in Vienna between U.S. and Iranian intermediaries this week. Negar Mortazavi, an Iran expert and host of the Iran Podcast, praised Biden for not cowing to the more hawkish members of Congress and committing to the original deal. 

“Any changes to the deal are going to be a different deal from the Iranian perspective. It's not just Iran. It was Iran and  P5+1, Mortazavi said, referring to the UN Security Council’s five permanent members  China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States plus Germany. Anything that's different from that deal on the paper is going to be seen as a different deal. Let's just put ourselves in the shoes of the Iranians. They're like, ‘You weren't even able to uphold what we have on the paper. Now, why should we agree to negotiate something newer or different or longer with you?’"

The U.S State Department did not respond to requests for comment. 

As divided as Washington is on the Iran Deal, other Iran watchers besides Mortazavi believe a deal is not only doable, but that the current government in Tehran has a vested interest in coming to an agreement with their counterparts in D.C. Iranians have suffered under U.S. sanctions for decades, but the 1500 or so sanctions that were enacted or reintroduced during the Trump Administration have been especially damaging. Iran’s economy has contracted by nearly five percent since 2017, oil production has dipped from nearly four million barrels per day to well below one million, inflation skyrocketed from 10 percent up to a high of 40 percent in 2019 and has evened out at 30 percent in 2020, per CNBC; and Iran’s fiscal deficit has widened to the point where it is making the nation’s recovery from the pandemic especially difficult.

man in a medical mask

Abbas Araghchi, political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, leaves the 'Grand Hotel Wien' after the closed-door nuclear talks with the EU, China, and Russia in Vienna on April 9, 2021, where diplomats of the EU, China, Russia and Iran held their talks. The US participates in discussions in Vienna to try to save the international agreement on Iranian nuclear power. However, they don't meet at the same table as Tehran and it is the Europeans who will serve as intermediaries between the two parties, in the hope of achieving concrete results after two months of impasse.

JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images

Ellie Geranmayeh, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, focuses on Europe’s engagement with Iran. Many of the critiques European diplomats share with her and are also shared by U.S. officials is that Iran is destabilizing the region with its proxies. That is a complaint that is shared by many members of Congress and a key item that many of them cited when they voted “no” on the deal in 2015. Geranmayeh said on the Black Diplomats podcast in February that Iranian diplomats argue that position doesn’t respect their own security concerns. 

“When you talk to Iranians, they are like ‘OK, put yourself in our shoes. For the last twenty years, we’ve been neighbors with U.S. soldiers on one side of our border in Afghanistan, the other side of our border in Iraq. We have a NATO country in Turkey, which is on our border. Another border is nuclear-armed Pakistan and our main geopolitical foe in the region is a nuclear-armed Israel. So, from our perspective, we’re just trying to keep up with everybody else around us. And how would Americans feel if Iranian military was stationed on its border with Canada and Mexico?’”

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Michelle Dover, director of programs at Ploughshares Fund, said that the voices in Washington trying to unravel the JCPOA aren’t basing their arguments on any technical shortcomings of the deal, but are focused more on ideology. When it comes to the 24/7 monitoring, multi-entry visas for inspectors and other features, Tehran was following the deal and enrichment did not reach levels that would spark fears the country was reaching the 90 percent level needed to build a weapon. 

Being able to measure the enrichment of the uranium flowing through the pipes, environmental sampling, going through facility logs to see what was introduced into different machines and what came out and being able to visit sites that weren't necessarily declared as a part of the nuclear program so that inspectors had much freer access to Iran’s nuclear program are essential elements of the deal, Dover said. 

“The Iran deal is the most stringent non-proliferation agreement we have ever seen,” Dover said. “In terms of the types of monitoring, it was very, very comprehensive. The other piece that I found to be really powerful was that it gave Iran a path back into the international community. It meant that you didn't have to be a pariah state forever.”

people walk through field of nuclear centrifuges

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz uranium enrichment facilities April 8, 2008. Ahmadinejad announced on Iranian state television during the visit that Iran has begun the installation of some 6,000 new centrifuges, adding to the 3,000 centrifuges already at the facility.

Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images

The upcoming presidential elections in May have added pressure to the Biden administration’s timeline. While The Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, is the ultimate decision maker in Iran, its political system is not as authoritarian and one-dimensional as some may assume. Geranmayeh wrote a paper in 2020 that outlines the complexity of the various factions in Iran’s government that has its share of hardliners and moderates. 

What made former President Barack Obama administration's negotiations with Tehran more complicated was that his first term and part of his second coincided with that of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose bombastic declarations of war and anti-semetic rhetoric reinforced the worst fears of Washington hawks and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

As Mortazavi explains, Obama wanted to talk to Iran, but Ahmadinejad was just so toxic and unreasonable that negotiations weren’t possible. She added that Ahmadinejad’s team was so incapable and incompetent that talks could not move forward. At the end of Ahmadinejad’s administration, the Supreme Leader and the Obama team agreed to open secret talks and go around Ahmadinejad, and negotiations moved ahead under new President Hassan Rouhani in 2013.

woman holds sign

Supporters of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani celebrate after he won the presidential election on May 20, 2017, in Tehran, Iran. Tens of thousands of supporters of President Hassan Rouhani have poured onto the streets of Tehran as night fell to celebrate the incumbent's re-election.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Rouhani, who is considered a moderate, won reelection in 2017 and is barred from running for a third term this summer. He has already expressed concern that hardliners in Iran are sabotaging the country’s chances of returning to the JCPOA, pushing back against their narrative that his diplomatic pragmatism has failed. Last year’s parliamentary elections saw wide ranging support for politicians whose hawkish approach mirrors that of the Ahmadinejad administration. 

It is not clear who is expected to win the presidency in June, but all signs point to a candidate that is a hardliner who will take a more hawkish approach than Rouhani.

“If the election were tomorrow, I don't think the moderates would have a very high chance of winning, and it would most likely be a hardliner,” Mortazavi said. “But we still have  more than a month until the election and things could really change in the last few weeks. But, if they don't get back into the deal and if there's no hope for the Iranian economy to recover, it's basically like rolling out a red carpet for the anti-diplomacy camp to win in the election.


Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root, where he writes about U.S. politics and interviews elected officials and high-ranking Democratic Party officials. He is also the founder of Black Diplomats, a weekly foreign affairs podcast that tells stories from a Black perspective. His Twitter handle is @russian_starr.

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