Many observers in Iran and outside the country are growing frustrated with Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi’s hesitation in resuming the talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which were stopped in June due to Iran’s presidential elections. However, that hesitation has come to an end as Iran has announced that it will rejoin the talks on November 29.
Raisi’s hesitation is rooted in the fact that the JCPOA was negotiated and signed by former foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who represented the reformist-backed government of Hassan Rouhani. Since its initial moments, hardliners discredited and undermined the JCPOA and labeled it as a treasonous document, and blamed Rouhani for “submitting” to Western pressure. However, in reality, these hardliners believed that the JCPOA and its major positive economic effects would increase the popularity of reformists among the Iranian people, consequently paving the way for another decade of their presence in power.
Therefore, when U.S. president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal, he saved Iran’s hardliners from certain defeat. Now, Rouhani and Zarif had been weakened and hardliners had grown bold enough to assert that all of their predictions and arguments against the JCPOA have been vindicated.
In the 2021 presidential elections, Raisi, a conservative, won the race while in an easy competition with a number of other hardliners. Yet while he appeared confident in his campaign, he made an unenforced error in the presidential debates when he announced his determination to honor Iran’s commitments under the JCPOA. In fact, by making such remarks, he sought to not provoke the Iranian people and reformist voters, who were adamant not to cast their ballots, into voting for the only remaining reformist candidates. But this angered an important section of hardliners, who were mostly behind Saeed Jalili, the former chief negotiator who is a staunch enemy of the JCPOA.
Thus, a section of Raisi’s hardline base turned against him and grew cynical of his administration’s approach to foreign policy. After the elections, to deter further criticism, Raisi’s administration began pursuing a tougher foreign policy. In this vein, Raisi took a hardline position in his first press conference by firmly rejecting any meeting with U.S. president Joe Biden to revive the JCPOA.
However, unlike Raisi, the rest of the Islamic Republic’s political establishment wanted the talks to resume. Yet Raisi was determined to not come under fire, like Rouhani and Zarif before him, by showing flexibility in the talks to revive the JCPOA. Therefore, for Raisi, a decision to swiftly return to the talks would be equivalent to affirming Zarif’s policy and the reformist path, discrediting the hardliners who repeatedly questioned the former foreign minister—whose support Raisi wants to attain—and ostracizing his political base.
To decrease the political consequences for bringing Iran back into the JCPOA, the Raisi administration began targeting domestic audiences, not the United States and the deal’s other parties. The long delay in rejoining the talks has been the centerpiece to this strategy.
At first, Raisi’s foreign policy team, led by of Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and his political deputy, Ali Bagheri Kani, repeatedly stated that it would only rejoin the talks if they will be proved to be fruitful. This was an attempt to discredit the results of Zarif’s and the Rouhani administration’s six rounds of negotiations in Vienna.
Then, for over two months, Raisi’s team stated that it was reviewing the results of the previous rounds of talks and would reach a conclusion “soon.” This was also done to tell Iranians inside the country and the administration’s supporters that Raisi was not as eager and concession-oriented as the previous government was.
Yet after a while, instead of rejoining the talks, Bagheri Kani arranged meetings with a European Union representative in Tehran and Brussels without giving a clear reason. This was also an attempt to show Raisi’s toughness and distinguish his administration from Rouhani before him. This reality tracks with Bagheri Kani’s reluctance to mention the JCPOA by name, as if merely associating the Raisi administration with the previous government is unacceptable. Instead, Bagheri Kani only speaks about the negotiations as if he is talking about seeking a new deal—precisely the notion that he wants to instill among Iranians and hardliners.
In line with their plan, Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian has stated that Tehran won’t reenter the Vienna talks from the point at which they were stopped, despite that Russia and the other JCPOA signatories have requested that the talks resume from the point of their suspension in June. This statement is intended to assure domestic hardliners that Raisi’s administration will not continue the same path Rouhani and Zarif set before them. Moreover, Amir-Abdollhian’s remark is also in accordance with Bagheri Kani’s plan to indoctrinate Iranians that any revival of the JCPOA will be through a new deal that Raisi’s foreign policy team alone is responsible for and that has nothing to do with Rouhani and Zarif’s legacies.
However, by resorting to such inflexible moves, Raisi’s hardline government is making the job more difficult for itself. For instance, Amir-Abdollahian has stated that the JCPOA should return to the point of the pre-Trump sanctions, despite that the Biden administration has been unwilling to lift a number of Trump sanctions, including the ones related to human rights.
Likewise, Bagheri Kani has emphasized that Tehran wants a credible guarantee that the United States wouldn’t withdraw from the deal again. Raisi’s team has also declared that it needs a determined period of time to verify the lifting of sanctions by the United States. Some people close to the Raisi government have previously stated that the process of verification would last three to six months. It is worth remembering that a demand for a guarantee was also pursued by Zarif and Rouhani's team, but its ability to reach a compromise with the United States is unlikely to be replicated given that the Raisi administration has staked its reputation on resolving this issue.
Thus, any retreat from these redlines or demonstration of flexibility would be highly costly for Raisi and his team as their hardliner base will lose hope and turn against them. At the same time, Iranian reformists would seize the moment to tell people that hardliners obstructed the deal and made people suffer during Rouhani’s term only to be later credited with reviving the JCPOA.
Raisi has a tough job ahead: If he goes to Vienna and follows in Rouhani’s footsteps by signing a deal, he is certain to come under attack from his base. Yet if he doesn’t reach a deal, Iran’s dire economic situation will deteriorate further, inciting anger among all Iranians. Moreover, the reformists’ argument that Iran’s hardliners are inexperienced in foreign policy would be proved in the eyes of people.
Nonetheless, any possible deal to revive the JCPOA requires both Tehran and Washington to show some flexibility. Raisi’s team needs a face-saving concession from the United States to make the JCPOA’s revival credible in the eyes of Iranian hardliners. Therefore, if Biden is really determined to revive the JCPOA, he must consider the decisive impact of Iran’s domestic politics.
Rohollah Faghihi is an Iran affairs analyst and is a contributor to Foreign Policy, the Economist, American Conservative, Al-Monitor, and Middle East Eye.