For Biden, Iranian Hard-liner May Be Best Path to Restoring Nuclear Deal
The next six weeks before a new government takes office in Tehran may be a unique window for clinching an agreement that Iran’s leadership has been delaying.
Iran’s announcement on Saturday that an ultraconservative former head of the judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, has been elected president now touches off an unpredictable diplomatic drama: The ascension of a hard-line government in Iran may actually present the Biden administration with a brief opportunity to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with the country.
President Biden’s top aides, who have been negotiating with Iranian officials behind closed doors in Vienna — passing messages from hotel rooms through European intermediaries because the Iranians will not meet them directly — believe the moment may have come. And, they say, the next six weeks before Mr. Raisi is inaugurated present a unique window to strike a final deal with Iran’s leadership on a painful decision it has been delaying.
Officials in both Washington and Tehran contend that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wants to restore a nuclear agreement with the West — which President Donald J. Trump ripped up more than three years ago — in order to lift the crushing sanctions that have kept Iranian oil largely off the market.
In fact, the detailed wording of the resurrected agreement was worked out weeks ago in Vienna, the same city where the original accord was finalized six summers ago, senior officials say. Since then, the resurrected agreement has sat, largely untouched, awaiting an election whose outcome had seemed engineered by the ayatollah. Mr. Raisi is one of his protégés and many believe he is the leading candidate to become the nation’s next supreme leader when Ayatollah Khamenei, now 82, dies.
The theory in Washington and Tehran is that Ayatollah Khamenei has been stage-managing not only the election but the nuclear negotiations — and does not want to give up his best hope of ridding Iran of the penalties that have kept its oil out of a resurging market.
So the indications inside the negotiations are that the final decision to go ahead with the deal could come in the next few weeks, before Mr. Raisi is inaugurated and while Iran’s older — and by some measures more moderate — government is still in office.
That means Iran’s moderates would be set up to take the blame for capitulating to the West and bear the brunt of popular anger inside Iran if sanctions relief does not rescue the nation’s stricken economy.
But if the deal comes together, the new conservative government under Mr. Raisi can take the credit for an economic upswing, bolstering his case that it took a hard-line, nationalist government to stand up to Washington and bring the country back.
“For Iran, this is a real Nixon-goes-to-China moment,’’ said Vali Nasr, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, who is close to the negotiations. “If anyone other than the conservatives made this deal with Biden, they would be torn up,” he said of Iran’s new leadership. “The bet is that they can get away with it. No one else could.”
If Mr. Biden’s bet works, and a hard-line government is the pathway to fulfilling his campaign promise to restore a deal that was largely working until Mr. Trump scrapped it, it would be only the latest strange twist in an accord that has left no one happy — not the Iranians, and not the Americans.
Mr. Trump was the agreement’s greatest critic, but a primary objection seemed to be that it was negotiated by the Obama administration. In an interview during the 2016 campaign, he struggled to articulate its flaws. But he later suggested that restrictions on Iran ended too early, and that the deal did nothing to curb Iran’s missile program or its aid to terrorist groups around the Middle East. The day he pulled out of the accord he called it “a horrible one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made.”
Mr. Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, had predicted that once sanctions began to crush Iran, its leaders would come begging for a deal and agree to terms more favorable to the United States and its Western partners.
They didn’t — and after European powers, who desperately tried to keep the deal alive, failed to deliver on its promises to make up for some of Iran’s lost revenue, the Iranians resumed their production of nuclear fuel. By American intelligence estimates, Iran is now months from having enough fuel to produce a few nuclear weapons — but that does not mean it is technologically ready to make that leap.
A publicly released U.S. intelligence estimate in April concluded that “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.” The Israelis disagree.
So, for weeks now, a team led by Robert Malley, the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, whose ties to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken go back to high school, has been shuttling to Vienna to try to resurrect the agreement that he, Mr. Blinken and others negotiated in 2015.