How will the Iranian elections impact talks to revive the nuclear deal?

Iran’s approved list of presidential candidates primarily features conservatives heavily critical of the deal with the US

This combination of seven photos shows approved candidates for the June 18, Iranian presidential elections from left to right, Mohsen Rezaei, Abdolnasser Hemmati, Alireza Zakani, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, Saeed Jalili and Ebrahim Raisi. AP
This combination of seven photos shows approved candidates for the June 18, Iranian presidential elections from left to right, Mohsen Rezaei, Abdolnasser Hemmati, Alireza Zakani, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, Saeed Jalili and Ebrahim Raisi. AP

Iran’s Guardian Council on Tuesday approved seven candidates to compete in the June 18 presidential elections, the same day that Iranian and American negotiators returned to Vienna for the fifth round of indirect talks intended to salvage the nuclear deal.

A large part of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani’s legacy will rest on whether Iran and the US can successfully come to an agreement on reviving the nuclear deal, which would require Tehran to return to compliance with the accord in exchange for Washington lifting the sanctions that former president Donald Trump re-imposed in 2018.

The Guardian Council notably blocked Mr Rouhani’s allies from running in the election, chief among them his senior vice president Es'haq Jahangiri, a reformist.

Hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, the head of Iran’s judiciary and a staunch ally of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is largely considered to be the frontrunner among the mostly conservative candidates approved to run in the election.

While he famously criticised Mr Rouhani’s “weak efforts” in negotiating the nuclear deal during his failed 2017 presidential run, Mr Raisi may ultimately end up agreeing to a similar bargain with the US should he assume the presidency.

“I’m not convinced that the election necessarily changes anything miraculously, particularly if Mr Raisi wins,” Kenneth Katzman, an Iran specialist at the US Congressional Research Service, told The National.

“It looks like the attempted fix is in with Mr Raisi and of course he is a very, very close protégé of the supreme leader. If he wins, obviously he’s not going to in any way challenge what Khamenei wants.”

And Mr Khamenei, who has the final say on all security matters, has allowed the Vienna talks to proceed in the hopes of seeing crippling US sanctions on Iran removed.

“Khamenei has said that if the United States comes into compliance, the Iranians would be willing to do that, too,” said Mr Katzman. “He’s staked out that authorisation to reach a deal. It’s not like he’s opposing an agreement in any sense.

“I don’t anticipate too much change in the [Iranian] negotiating position.”

Amir Handjani, a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a non-interventionist think tank in Washington, also indicated that the Iranian elections will have little bearing on the Vienna negotiations.

“It’ll have an effect on the margins, atmospherics,” Mr Handjani told The National. “But the actual decision to re-enter the nuclear deal and begin discussions with the United States, that happens at a higher level than the level of the president. That happens with the supreme leader and the Supreme National Security Council.

“That’s a collective decision, and so that decision will remain the same prior to the election as it does after the election. Things that affect that decision are not the election. It will be the great regional issues surrounding Iran and the United States and the issues surrounding the nuclear deal itself.”

In a further boost to the Vienna talks, Mr Khamenei permitted the Rouhani government to extend an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday that will allow the UN watchdog to continue accessing surveillance footage of Iranian nuclear sites for another month.

The nuclear deal paved the way for agency inspectors to enter Iran, but hardliners in parliament put that in peril after passing legislation in December to scale back their access – a breach of the agreement.

Since Mr Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the deal, Iran has gradually escalated its breaches of the accord. AP / ISNA
Since Mr Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the deal, Iran has gradually escalated its breaches of the accord. AP / ISNA

The legislation also allows Iran to scale up certain nuclear activities, in breach of the accord, unless the US lifts its sanctions or European partners in the deal offset the economic impact.

Since Mr Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the deal, Iran has gradually escalated its breaches of the accord, which include the installation of advanced centrifuges at Natanz while stockpiling 2.5 kilogrammes of 60 per cent enriched uranium, 90 kilograms of 20 per cent enriched uranium and 5,000 kilograms of 5 per cent enriched uranium.

The Vienna talks have inched forward as negotiators debate which parts of Iran’s nuclear programme it must scale back and which sanctions the US must lift to return to compliance.

While the deal directly specifies the limits on Iran's nuclear programme and the sanctions Washington must lift, the Trump administration complicated the matter somewhat by issuing several overlapping sanctions designations under ballistic missile, terrorism and human rights authorities.

The additional designations formed the crux of the Trump administration's so-called "Iran sanctions wall", which intended to make it politically costly for President Joe Biden to re-enter the agreement.

In 2019, Mr Trump also levied sanctions on the supreme leader’s office as well as important Iranian officials, including Mr Raisi and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – sanctions Tehran may want lifted as well.

“Just now, they’re haggling over the details,” said Mr Handjani. “They’re very important, but I think at the end, we know what the contours are going to look like.”

With mere weeks to go before the election, it remains unlikely the two sides will finalise all the details to revive the nuclear deal before June 18.

Experts say Iranian elections will have little bearing on the Vienna negotiations. EPA
Experts say Iranian elections will have little bearing on the Vienna negotiations. EPA

Still, Mr Rouhani will not leave office until August, which could potentially allow him to strike a bargain with Washington during the lame duck period of his presidency.

This would also spare Mr Raisi the awkward political optics of striking a similar bargain with Washington should he win the presidency. In the meantime, he will have the luxury of using the deal to hammer the moderate and reformist camps during his campaign.

“All politics is local,” said Mr Handjani. “He’ll use it to discredit anyone that Rouhani comes out to back, but I think he’ll primarily run on domestic issues: corruption, incompetence, economic mismanagement.

“He’ll attack the reformists on that and he’ll position himself as sort of the anti-corruption candidate and someone that can tackle the structural issues of Iranian society and the Iranian economy.”

Published: May 26, 2021 01:02 AM

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