Iran nuclear deal may be just what hard-line president-elect needs

Majid Asgaripour/WANA/Reuters
Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi speaks at a news conference in Tehran, June 21, 2021. Mr. Raisi won with 62% of the votes cast in the June 18 election, but turnout was the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic.

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For years in Iran, the one constant of hard-line politics has been punishment of President Hassan Rouhani over the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. Today antagonism toward the agreement and Washington has not changed, even as Iran prepares for new talks in Vienna to restore the deal.

So then why does Ebrahim Raisi, the hard-liner’s hard-liner, who was elected president a week ago, favor getting back to that same “flawed” deal? Perhaps the main reason, say analysts, is that his ascent to the presidency after a record-low voter turnout means that success for him will require sanctions to be lifted.

Why We Wrote This

Why would Iran’s president-elect want a compromise with the U.S. to revive the nuclear deal? The answer lies in how hard-liners see their best way to satisfy, and pacify, a disgruntled, apathetic population.

The hard-liners’ response to voter apathy is a bid to create a pragmatic new Iran “brand” that accommodates a lack of popular support, and dwindling inspiration drawn from religion, while emphasizing instead satisfying economic needs.

“What we may be seeing is simply a new social contract in the making,” says a well-connected Iranian analyst. “Given the trends that I see and sense among young people that I get to meet in Iran, people would say, ‘Just give me Wi-Fi, some sort of economic prosperity or safety, and then leave me alone with your politics. I don’t need that.’”

For years in Iran, the one constant of hard-line politics has been severe punishment of President Hassan Rouhani over the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with the United States and other world powers.

While negotiating with the American archenemy, hard-liners said, the centrist Mr. Rouhani had presided over a humiliating compromise and traitorous giveaway of Iran’s nuclear crown jewels, for little in return.

Final proof for the hard-liners – both of U.S. duplicity and Iranian foolishness – came when then-President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018 and imposed a new raft of suffocating “maximum pressure” sanctions.

Why We Wrote This

Why would Iran’s president-elect want a compromise with the U.S. to revive the nuclear deal? The answer lies in how hard-liners see their best way to satisfy, and pacify, a disgruntled, apathetic population.

Today hard-line antagonism toward the agreement and Washington has not changed, even as Iran prepares for a seventh round of talks in Vienna to restore the deal, officially titled the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

So then why does Ebrahim Raisi, the hard-liner’s hard-liner, who was elected president a week ago, favor getting back to that same “flawed” deal?

Perhaps the main reason, say analysts, is that Mr. Raisi’s ascent to the presidential seat, with little popular mandate after a record-low voter turnout, means that success for him in office will require sanctions to be lifted.

Hard-liners, too, need sanctions eased as they pursue a new social contract focused on economic fulfillment to replace the once-paramount democratic and Islamic criterion of legitimacy, espoused by Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The sooner the better

And lifting sanctions will require a return to the JCPOA, distasteful as a new compromise with the U.S. may be for hard-liners who now control all key levers of power in Iran.

Ideally, for Mr. Raisi, the nuclear deal would be restored even before he assumes office in August – so Mr. Rouhani could again be blamed for selling out, while the new president reaps the economic benefit.

“Raisi and even some of the hard-line forces behind him ... don’t necessarily favor a revival of the JCPOA, but they want sanctions to be lifted,” says Bijan Khajehpour, a veteran Iran analyst and managing partner at Eurasian Nexus Partners in Vienna.

“Two years ago, they wouldn’t understand that these two actually relate to each other, but now they fully understand that if they really want sanctions to be lifted, then they have to restore the JCPOA,” says Mr. Khajehpour. “They understand this is the only way to get rid of the banking sanctions, the oil and shipping sanctions. So the resolve is there to do it.”

Iranian Presidency Office/AP
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (left) and President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, during their meeting in Tehran, June 23, 2021. For years the centrist Mr. Rouhani was pilloried for the nuclear deal his government negotiated, but the archconservative Mr. Raisi may find that its renewal is key to his success in office.

During the election campaign Mr. Raisi indicated he would not oppose a return to the JCPOA, which has the imprimatur of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But recent reporting that a return to the deal was all but agreed to weeks ago, and that Iran was dragging its feet until after the June 18 election, is overstated, a senior U.S. diplomat said Thursday.

“We still have serious differences that have not been bridged,” a senior State Department official, speaking without attribution, told journalists. “It remains possible ... but we’re not there yet, and I’m not going to speculate as to if or when we will get there.”

When asked if Iran will stick to the JCPOA, Mr. Raisi said Monday that “our foreign policy will not begin with the JCPOA and will not be limited to the JCPOA.” Hard-line media in Iran has shifted from noisily demanding that Mr. Rouhani pull out of the deal, to now claiming that “a strong and revolutionary government is able to claim Iran’s rights” – and that Mr. Raisi can be trusted not only to remove sanctions, but also to “neutralize” them.

Disillusioned voters

Mr. Raisi’s victory was hardly a landslide, and the result of an unprecedented series of moves by the establishment to pave the way for his victory. A veteran of the judiciary, he is tainted by his role in a four-man “death commission” that oversaw the execution of thousands of prisoners in 1988.

He was defeated by Mr. Rouhani at the polls in 2017, and this time faced a boycott by reformists and widespread apathy and voter disillusionment. Fewer than 50% of eligible voters turned out – the lowest ever in a presidential race. And while Mr. Raisi won with 62% of the votes cast, that represents just one-third of the electorate.

The number of spoiled ballots, some 12% of the total – a “protest” vote three times larger than in any previous election – was higher than that received by Mr. Raisi’s closest challenger.

The result is a bid to create a pragmatic new Iran “brand” that accommodates a lack of popular support, and dwindling inspiration drawn from religion, while emphasizing instead satisfying economic needs.

“What we may be seeing is simply a new social contract in the making,” says a well-connected Iranian analyst who travels frequently to the country and asked not to be named.

“Given the trends that I see and sense among young people that I get to meet in Iran, people would say, ‘Just give me Wi-Fi, some sort of economic prosperity or safety, and then leave me alone with your politics. I don’t need that,’” says the analyst. “And in fact, you then have people OK with their livelihoods, who may simply forgo this whole idea of political participation.”

Vahid Salemi/AP
Customers look at rugs at a handcrafts store at Iran Mall shopping center in Tehran, June 9, 2021. Facing a lack of popular support, Iran's hard-line leaders may turn to satisfying economic needs to satisfy the public.

That trade-off marks a transformation from a revolutionary state to one in which popular political support is no longer necessary, says Mr. Khajehpour at Eurasian Nexus Partners.

“We have to accept that ... democracy is not a top priority. It’s economic growth, it’s power projection, it’s controlling the different regional and internal challenges. It’s a very different design of a state,” he says.

“Especially for hard-liners in Iran, it is a lot more inspired by the way [President Vladimir] Putin presents Russia: ‘We are strong,’” with a strong military and economy, says Mr. Khajehpour.

The new social contract

The planned pivot is ambitious, though some elements have fallen into place. Hard-line and conservative voices in Iran note that the Islamic Republic has survived Mr. Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign and Israel’s cyberattacks and assassinations, and has violently crushed widespread protests against corruption, mismanagement, and the struggling economy.

But providing some satisfaction to a disgruntled and increasingly impoverished population is key to such a vision – which makes sanctions relief therefore necessary.

The “new social contract” involves the government giving more power to local councils to resolve local needs, says Mr. Khajehpour. But it is coupled with a “national government that says, ‘I don’t want anyone to interfere in my defense and foreign and regional policy decisions; it’s none of your business. I know it’s not democratic.’”

“And society says, ‘As long as you make sure we have welfare, economic development, and jobs, we are not going to go on the street and protest for political freedoms and human rights,’” says Mr. Khajehpour.

The result is a bid to create a “new brand of Iran,” he adds. But it is a gamble, which in critical ways is dependent on a compromise with Washington – and the actions of your avowed enemy.

“It is true that Iran’s conservatives remain inherently hostile to the United States. ... Raisi has made no secret that this is his mantra,” writes Vali Nasr, an Iran and regional expert at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, in an analysis this week in Foreign Policy.

“Still, behind the veneer of ideological obduracy a new realism is setting in, one that comes with total victory,” writes Mr. Nasr. “In contrast with earlier times when conservatives torpedoed outreaches to the West to hamstring their moderate opponents, now they must seek stability in their relations with the world if they are to successfully consolidate power.

“For that, they must first deal with the United States.”  

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