Anointing a hard-liner could cause uninformed observers to be more pessimistic about the prospects of reviving the nuclear deal. As the New York Times’s David E. Sanger and Farnaz Fassihi report, however, this election going off as expected paradoxically increases the chances of a deal being signed. For one thing, the only thing needed is the signatures: “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.”
Why would this outcome increase the chances of a deal being reached? The political moment is perfect for Khamenei to cut a deal. Raisi will not take office until August, so the Rouhani government can complete the deal. Why does this matter? Sanger and Fassihi explain:
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 the Iranians are lined up to revive the deal, what about the Americans? Clearly the Biden administration is prepared to reach an agreement, but I am old enough to remember what happened after the nuclear deal was negotiated in 2015. Conservatives in the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia all hated it, helping to torpedo the deal after Donald Trump was elected in 2016. Does a revived deal stand any better chance of success?
To be fair, the conservative case is not without its merits. That case has always been presented disingenuously, however. The deal restrains Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but only temporarily. The cost is that the lifting of sanctions gives Iran more resources to pursue revisionist aims in the region. For conservatives, a richer, more adventurist Iran is worse than an enriching Iran.
The problem is that, under Trump, the conservative policy option did not prove to be any more successful. U.S. sanctions and targeted killings helped to dent Iranian power and plenty. But contrary to conservative claims, it did not destabilize the Iranian regime. Tehran was still able to exercise influence in the region. Furthermore, the U.S. exit from the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, enabled Iran to restart its nuclear enrichment program.
There are other ways the current situation is different from 2015. Israel is no longer led by Benjamin Netanyahu, but Naftali Bennett. True, Bennett dislikes the Iran deal as much as Netanyahu, but he leads a much broader coalition. Simply put, he has less juice to influence U.S. domestic politics than Netanyahu did.
The more significant difference is that Saudi Arabia seems to be in a different foreign policy place. In 2015, the Saudis bitterly opposed the JCPOA. In 2017, the Saudi leadership forged a close bond with the Trump administration based in part on that opposition. There were orbs and everything.
The situation looks a little bit different in 2021. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman faces a hostile Beltway climate after his alleged role in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The Biden administration has been very clear in its desire to reduce its Middle East footprint.
U.S. conservatives will continue to oppose any deal with the current regime in Iran. In contrast to 2015, however, the governments in Jerusalem and Riyadh have less pull. That does not mean a revived nuclear deal will have staying power, but it might have a better chance than one would expect given the incoming Iranian president.