Why Iran’s president wants a new nuclear deal

Why Iran’s president wants a new nuclear deal

Why Iran’s president wants a new nuclear deal
Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi delivers a speech at the Imam Reza shrine in the city of Mashhad in Iran. (File/AFP)
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The incoming president of the Islamic Republic, Ebrahim Raisi, is a hard-liner. But what is his position on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal?

Some policy analysts, scholars and politicians may argue that, since Iran’s hard-liners are opposed to the nuclear deal and negotiations with the West, the president-elect is also against it. But this argument is inaccurate for several reasons.

First of all, it is correct that hard-liners in Iran pursue the revolutionary principles of the Islamic Republic, one of which is counterbalancing Western influence in the Middle East and viewing the West as a rival. But this does not mean that the Iranian regime does not negotiate or reach deals with the West when its survival is at stake both politically and economically.

One example is the Iran-Contra affair, which is known in Iran as the McFarlane affair. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranian authorities were desperate for weapons, so they agreed to put aside their revolutionary ideals and reach an agreement to purchase arms from the US and Israel. At that time, current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was the president of Iran, serving under Ayatollah Khomeini.

Another example is when the US invaded Afghanistan. Due to fears that the Islamic Republic might be next, the Tehran regime cooperated with the US, providing intelligence and advice to American forces.

Secondly, when it comes to Iran’s foreign policy, the final decision-maker is the supreme leader, not the president or the foreign minister. For any major foreign policy initiative to be implemented, it requires the blessing of Khamenei, either directly or indirectly.

Iranian presidents and foreign ministers, whether moderate or hard-line, have an extremely limited amount of power over the regime’s foreign policy.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

In other words, Iranian presidents and foreign ministers, whether moderate or hard-line, have an extremely limited amount of power over the regime’s foreign policy. Between 2013 and 2015, when Iranian officials were holding meetings with US authorities to finalize the nuclear deal, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif could not, and would not, have reached such a critical international accord without the approval of the supreme leader.

Khamenei still wants the nuclear deal. Although he was very reserved about expressing his opinion publicly when the JCPOA was first reached, the supreme leader is now impatient about having US sanctions lifted. In remarks broadcast by state television in April, he said: “We have to be careful (that the dialogue is not conducted) in a way that parties drag (out) the negotiations, as that is harmful for the country.” He had previously said: “Recently, we set a condition and no one will go back on it: The condition is that if they want Iran to return to its JCPOA commitments — some of which have been canceled — the US has to lift all sanctions.”

Iran’s state-controlled newspapers, which mainly buttress and spread Khamenei’s stance on domestic and foreign policy issues, have been warning Raisi against opposing the nuclear deal. The Jahan-e-Sanat daily last month advised the president-elect: “The fact is that the Iranian economy, with the continuation of sanctions and without sanctions, will have at least two forms and nature with significant differences in terms of foreign exchange earnings. Iran is no longer alive enough to include more resilience in the equations… Unknown days and unforeseen consequences will make things difficult.”

Finally, one objective that Iranian politicians across the political spectrum share is to ensure the survival of the theocratic establishment. It is a fact that the regime cannot continue without the nuclear deal and the lifting of sanctions. The JCPOA offers a significant financial boost to the regime.

The regime is bankrupt and the Iranian currency continues to lose value, but Tehran could substantially ramp up its oil exports if it returned to the nuclear deal. The Iranian authorities are already preparing installations to export oil at full capacity within months. The nuclear deal will also clear the way for the West to invest in Iran and fulfill the Iranian leaders’ desire for foreign investment. And it would provide global legitimacy for Iran. This means that its support for militia groups and its military adventurism and destructive behavior in the Middle East would be more likely to be tolerated or ignored by the global powers.

In a nutshell, Raisi wants the nuclear deal because the supreme leader desires it and because the regime needs it. As long as Khamenei is in favor of the JCPOA, Iranian politicians will follow his orders.

  • Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh
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