Nuclear talks under Raisi: Iran’s diplomats are going slow to appear smart

Western observers are despairing at the lack of progress on Iran nuclear talks. But the Raisi administration and the Iranian people both want sanctions relief to help the economy – meaning there is still cause for optimism.

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi at a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran on September 29, 2021
Image by picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com | Iranian Presidency
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Since Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, assumed office in August, his administration has delayed taking part in talks on restarting the nuclear deal jettisoned by Donald Trump. Western capitals were hopeful that Tehran would rejoin negotiations in Vienna – but the new Iranian government has put the question off by citing internal consultations and review processes.

As a result, European and American journalists and diplomats have declared the death of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of action (JCPOA). In a public event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment last week, Joe Biden’s Iran envoy, Rob Malley, explained his pessimism. “Every day [the Iranians] are not coming back to the table … is telling us that this is a team that may not in fact be prepared to come back into [the nuclear deal],” he said. Similarly, France’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre told reporters that, “Iran must show a willingness through acts that it shares the same desire to come back to the negotiating table and conclude an agreement.”

Yet Tehran believes that it has already taken such actions. European External Action Service political director Enrique Mora visited Tehran last week but, following his meetings, an EU official told reporters that Iran is “not yet ready” to resume negotiations in Vienna on the future of the JCPOA. However, he also said that the Raisi administration had “absolutely decided to go back to Vienna and to end [complete] the negotiations.” On Monday, the European Union’s high representative Josep Borrell went further, declaring that he was “more optimistic today than yesterday,” and that “things are getting better” with regard to renewed JCPOA negotiations.

So how can Borrell be confident and Malley doubtful? Part of the explanation is that the mood in Tehran is very different to that in Western capitals; and Borrell seems to have a better sense of what is going on inside Iran. Whereas the delays and nuclear escalations have contributed to growing panic among Western diplomats, in Iran they have had the opposite effect. While Tehran cannot take the patience of the P5+1 governments for granted, for the nuclear talks to succeed domestically, the Raisi administration must make its negotiating approach appear wholly different to that of its predecessor. This is especially true when considering that substantive changes to the terms of the deal are off the table because of political constraints in both Washington and Tehran. Therefore, the Raisi administration has focused on the process aspect of negotiations – which relates to their pace, their principles, and their politics.

At the same time, the realities and responsibilities of governing an Iran gripped by a slow-moving economic crisis will eventually push its government towards reopening negotiations. A new report from the Plan and Budget Organisation, a part of the presidency, presents projections for Iran’s economy with and without sanctions relief. On the one hand, the projections reflect Iranian confidence that sanctions will not tip the economy into a deeper crisis. Aside from the first year, there is little difference in the growth projections presented for the scenarios where sanctions remain or are lifted.

But in other ways, the projected impact of sanctions relief is profound. One of the Raisi administration’s foremost challenges is to bring historic rates of inflation under control – price increases, including for foodstuffs, are driving dissatisfaction and unrest. If sanctions stay, the report warns that annual inflation will soar to 65 per cent in five years’ time. But if sanctions ease, it will subside to 25 per cent over the same period.

Rouhani’s political rivals used the JCPOA to suggest the Iranian negotiators had been credulous in their dealings with the West

The difference of 40 percentage points between the two scenarios powerfully captures what is at stake for this administration – resistance to sanctions is possible, but pursuing relief is politically expedient. As observer Ali Reza Eshraghi wrote in February, there is a “general consensus” in Iran in support of restoring the JCPOA. “Iranian elites of all political leanings want to reduce the pressure on the economy, and recognise that US sanctions have a role to play in this.” Raisi himself confirmed this view at his inauguration, in which he promised “smart engagement” as the path to the restoration of sanctions relief.

So why, if the economic case for renewed diplomacy is so clear, has Iran moved so slowly on resuming negotiations? For the Raisi administration, going slow is about appearing smart. The Rouhani administration’s political rivals used the JCPOA and its failed implementation to suggest that the Iranian negotiators had been credulous in their dealings with the West, too eager to believe that the United States could be trusted to implement its commitments. In his final speech addressing Rouhani administration officials, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, declared that their failures made “clear that trusting the West is not helpful.” He implored the Raisi administration not to make the same mistake. Iran’s top diplomats have got the message.

Raisi appointed a new foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and a new political director and chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani. They are hardliners, but the prestige they will enjoy if they succeed in restoring the JCPOA is likely to incentivise them to make diplomacy work. And, if the deal falls apart, they will be scapegoated. In a recent statement, Amir-Abdollahian explained that Iran was “keeping [its] eyes on the issue of verification receiving the necessary guarantees for the implementation of commitments by the Western parties.” Delay in returning to negotiations in Vienna is a way of appearing less credulous and better prepared for the renewed talks.

The new administration has also navigated some tricky waters in terms of avoiding censure by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In the early autumn, Tehran spent significant political capital to mitigate the diplomatic consequences of its push for greater nuclear leverage when it invited IAEA director Rafael Grossi to Tehran for talks. After they struck a deal to allow the IAEA to keep up the maintenance of its monitoring and surveillance equipment in Iran, hardliner parliamentarians accused Raisi of failing to comply with a law that mandates escalatory actions in Iran’s nuclear programme – an accusation that was also levelled against Rouhani.

Finally, Iran has been allowing the JCPOA to weaken by ceasing to implement its commitments under the deal. Many Western diplomats have interpreted this as a bid for leverage, but it too is part of the effort to appear “smarter” than the previous negotiating team. However, the risk is that the Raisi administration tries to be too clever in its effort to both increase leverage while accounting for domestic politics. In the view of US secretary of state Antony Blinken, the Iranian delays mean that the P5+1 is approaching a point where “returning to compliance with the JCPOA will not in and of itself recapture the benefits of the JCPOA.” Rightly or wrongly, Western good will is wearing thin and Raisi cannot delay forever. He needs to show concretely that he wants to restore the nuclear deal. 

Western governments are correct in their assessment that Iran can live without the nuclear deal – another factor that leads them towards pessimism. While the Trump administration’s reimposition of secondary sanctions on Iran led to three years of contraction and pushed millions of Iranians into poverty, the economy has continued to limp along. Iran has spent the better part of a decade under the most intense sanctions programme ever devised and the economy has so far resisted collapse. Iran’s leaders believe that they can continue to manage the economic crisis while maintaining an assertive posture in the region that assures the country’s security.

But being able to live without something is not the same as not wanting that thing. The Raisi administration is acutely aware that the Iranian people want sanctions relief, and over the last two months it has made no effort to direct the electorate’s desires elsewhere. Indeed, the administration will want to meet the Iranian people’s hopes for their economic future. Western capitals therefore should remain optimistic about the future of the nuclear deal.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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