The fine print in the JCPOA will please Iran – here's why

The nuclear deal will allow Tehran to bide its time before resuming its destabilising activities in the region
Ebrahim Raisi, Iran's president, holds his first news conference following his victory in the presidential election in Tehran, Iran, on Monday, June 21, 2021. World powers and Iran failed after a sixth round of negotiations in Vienna to revive a nuclear deal that would lift U.S. sanctions on the oil-rich Islamic Republic in exchange for it scaling back its atomic activities. Photographer: Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg

The features of the anticipated nuclear deal between the US and Iran are becoming clearer to the two countries. This means that, in the coming weeks, Washington will convene a meeting involving other global powers to finalise the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) before Ebrahim Raisi is inaugurated Iranian president on August 8.

Mr Raisi won last week’s election and it appears that keeping him on the US sanctions list will not be an obstacle to the deal, despite the symbolism, particularly since Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself is also under sanctions. Tehran is paying no attention to symbolisms, as it seeks sanctions relief that would give its ailing economy some relief.

It seems the Iranian regime will secure most of its demands, including the lifting of sanctions on its crucial oil exports, considering the deals it has signed with China, India and others. Iran also forced the Biden administration to exclude two critical issues from the nuclear negotiations: its ballistic missiles programme and exportation of its ideology to some Arab countries with the help of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Once Washington lifts key sanctions against Tehran, the former will forgo most of its leverage over the latter.

Of course, it is unlikely the Biden administration will lift military sanctions – although there is a proposal whereby Tehran would be allowed to buy defensive weapons but not offensive ones.

President Joe Biden will attempt to window-dress the deal before selling it to the American people. He will claim the US has contained Iran's nuclear threat and that it will exert its influence over Tehran's policies. He will also pay lip service to concerns about Iran's theocratic model by calling for curbs on tyranny and authoritarianism inside that country. He will implement cosmetic measures, similar to the US State Department's recent shutting down of Iranian-backed media websites to give the Iranian people the impression that he still cares about their human rights situation, and that democracies will stand up to theocracies.

However, neither will the repressed public in the country be able to challenge Mr Biden’s claims, nor will the American public care whether or not a Faustian deal is made as long as they are given the nuclear pill.

The Iranian regime has clearly dropped its "moderate" mask, which it found expedient not so long ago. Iran's presidential election was rigged, essentially through the exclusion of moderate candidates from the ballot, and Mr Khamenei's "appointment" of Mr Raisi further proves it is the IRGC that will continue to oversee that country's foreign policy.

But neither the Europeans nor the Americans will care about the electoral process and outcome. Moreover, Mr Raisi's history as a hardliner will be of no consequence to the average American, despite his involvement in bloody crackdowns against protesters and in the torture and mass executions of nearly 5,000 people, including women and children, from an opposition group in 1988.

After signing the nuclear deal, the regime will commit to a grace period, during which time it will refrain from stepping up its regional activities or ballistic missiles programme, giving the impression that the revival of the JCPOA has indeed influenced its behaviour. It will also appear as if Iran has provided certain security guarantees to the West as part of the deal. But this grace period is not likely to last beyond a few months.

Russia is reportedly attempting to secure some of these guarantees, especially those concerning Israel’s security, on behalf of the US. The Kremlin may be able to ensure Iran deescalate its tensions with Israel for two or three months. But what will happen after, only time will tell.

After all, the regime is categorically opposed to providing permanent security guarantees to parties such as Israel, or to committing to curbing Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia, as part of any formal deal. It has so far refused to disengage from Yemen except on its own terms. It is against the integration of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, an umbrella group of militia groups backed by Tehran in Iraq, into Baghdad's security apparatus. The PMF, a precious instrument for Iran within the framework of its relationship with Washington, is also likely to continue being a security threat to US forces inside Iraq. The regime will, meanwhile, continue to destabilise Syria and Lebanon, where it has sizeable influence, while remaining prickly with Israel.

Israeli alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid arrives to attend the first weekly cabinet meeting of the new government in Jerusalem June 20, 2021. Emmanuel Dunand/Pool via REUTERS

In other words, any guarantee from Iran is unlikely to be long-term in nature. Nothing will be provided in writing either.

Over the coming weeks and months, it will be interesting to see how the newly assembled Israeli government will view Iran, the latter's imminent deal with the US and broader Washington-Tehran relations. Israel, after all, is America's most important ally in the region. An adversarial relationship has always existed between Israel and Iran since the latter's 1979 revolution, but it is that very relationship that helps to fuel the far right in Israel and the hardline sections of Iranian society.

In any case, the Biden administration, the various European governments, and Israel to a lesser extent, appear to have concluded that there is no choice but to concede that the IRGC indeed controls Iranian foreign policy and that Mr Raisi will succeed Hassan Rouhani as the next president. But this fatalism will be judged harshly by history because their implications will, in all likelihood, be terrible for the region.

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National

Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National