Author: Ilgar VELIZADE
The issue of the Iranian nuclear problem has been widely discussed in the global media for nearly two decades. Many do not expect any more interesting twists and turns in this rather well-publicised topic. At the same time, with the new administration in the White House and a number of encouraging statements from American key officials, primarily President Joe Biden, the situation becomes more intriguing.
Washington makes it clear that it intends to reconsider the approach of the previous Republican administration to the problem. Tehran rogered the signals from Washington, showing that it would have played back on the issue of the further enrichment of uranium. This game of reciprocal hinting would probably have continued, if not the circumstances which made the Iranian minister of foreign affairs to break this languid diplomatic game.
Iran is in a hurry, but not the US...
On March 15, speaking at an online conference with the European Policy Centre think-tank in Brussels, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif advised the American side to accelerate the return to negotiations on the nuclear deal. He noted that the expected presidential elections in Iran may lead to certain delays. “A lame-duck government will not be able to do anything serious. And then we will have a waiting period of almost six months. We will not have a government before September. A lot of things can happen between now and September. So, it is advisable for the United States to move fast,” Zarif said.
If we read between the lines to understand the true meaning of Zarif's message, we can easily guess that the Iranian side is urging Washington to conclude a new deal with the incumbent government of the moderate reformers led by Hassan Rouhani. After all, it is not clear that he will retain his position after the presidential elections. If conservatives come to the power in Iran, then any chances to concluding a new deal may be void.
Both Biden and Rouhani want to reach an agreement as soon as possible. Moreover, Biden needs serious breakthroughs with Iran, which are possible only in partnership with the current moderate government of the country. If he misses this chance today, he risks losing it during his entire term in office. After all, if conservatives come to power in Iran in June 2021, they will be in power until the end of the next presidential elections in the United States.
On the other hand, for President Hassan Rouhani, this breakthrough is important as an argument in the political struggle against his opponents. In recent years, the position of moderates in Iran has been seriously shaken. This happened because of the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Tehran's nuclear program and Washington's introduction of tough economic sanctions against Iran. Rouhani's critics reproached him for being too lenient towards external enemies, which ultimately affects Iran. The policy of concessions, in their opinion, gave the country only a temporary respite, after which the sanctions resumed.
If Washington accelerates the adoption of new agreements with Iran, the Iranian government of moderates has a chance to use the situation in its advantage and ensure the victory of its candidate in the upcoming presidential election.
The reformers will never unite ...
Reformists are now trying by all means to join forces around a single candidate ahead of Iran's presidential elections in June. The Iranian reformist coalition was formed on February 14 to consolidate the votes. But some leaders of the camp criticised the coalition, claiming their parties would not support it. One of them was Mohammad Sadegh Kharrazi, Secretary General of the reformist party Voice of Iranians. He called the new organization undemocratic and suggested that his party might not support it, indicating a split in the reformist camp. At the same time, Kharrazi did not say whether he intends to run for president himself.
However, several other prominent reformists announced the likelihood of their participation in the presidential elections. For example, reformist leader Mohammad Reza Aref said he was considering running. Mostafa Kawakebian, Secretary General of Democratic Party, has also been nominated for the presidency. However, it is not yet clear whether the Council of Guardians approves any of these persons. Nevertheless, we may assume the reformers actively search for candidates to fulfil the role of a leader capable of consolidating the entire electorate.
At the same time, the faction has enough time before the start of the electoral process to unite. Several prominent reformists have already shown interest in participating in the elections. At the same time, observers believe that the political struggle between prominent representatives of the reformist camp seriously undermines their chances of winning the elections.
... and the moderates cannot agree
Iranian moderates also have not yet nominated their candidate who could be approved by the Council of Guardians and unite with the reformists, as was the case during previous elections. Former moderate parliamentarian Ali Motahari announced his decision to run for presidency on February 25. He was the second deputy speaker of parliament in the previous parliament and was disqualified by the Council of Guardians during the 2020 parliamentary elections. This time, the council may prohibit Motahari from running again.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, another potential candidate from the moderate camp, has confirmed that he will not run for president. Incidentally, it was the ability of moderates and reformists to join forces around a single candidate that helped Hassan Rouhani win his first presidential election back in 2013, while hardliners came to the polls with multiple candidates. This time, moderates and reformists may have to join their voices to win again. They will have to choose the people that the council will be forced to approve.
Meanwhile, hardliners in the Council of Guardians are likely to meddle in elections to gain an advantage for their candidates. The Council’s Secretary General Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said his office should pay more attention to "piety" in screening presidential candidates on 20 February. During the 2020 parliamentary elections, this structure disqualified an unprecedented a number of moderates and reformists, motivating its actions with the need to fight corruption. In addition, the council declared these people to be disloyal to the ideals of the Islamic Republic. Although these criteria were quite subjective and disproportionately applied, it appears that the council will again use them to weed out certain candidates.
Possible success of conservatives and the fate of the nuclear deal
Conservatives have good chances in the presidential race amid the uncertainty among reformers and moderates. The head of the Iranian judicial system, Hojat al-Islam wal-muslimin Seyyed Ibrahim Raisi, is the most serious potential presidential candidate. In addition, there are two other strong conservative candidates. The first one is Hossein Dehgan, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war who served as defense minister during Rouhani's first term. The second candidate is Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the former mayor of Tehran and commander of IRGC's aerospace forces.
Interestingly, Ghalibaf has periodically supported the dialogue with the US, while at the same time calling for limiting the American influence on Iran and the entire Middle East. In late 2020, Ghalibaf openly welcomed the defeat of Donald Trump in the US presidential election and called Biden a supporter of "smart" pressure.
It is believed that the new president, whoever he may be and whatever camp he represents, will dissociate himself from the obligations assumed by the extremely unpopular Rouhani administration. This circumstance casts doubt on the conclusion of a new agreement on the Iranian nuclear program with the participation of the United States before the presidential elections in Iran. Since any deal with the Rouhani team may be fragile, the Biden administration is unlikely to push things forward.
In addition, Washington clearly understands that Iran's nuclear policy is determined by the country's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and not by the president or government. But his makes things even more complicated and uncertain. Biden is an experienced diplomat, and, apparently, he will wait until the last moment to bargain with Tehran on terms more favourable to Washington. Can Rouhani, the outgoing figure in Iranian politics, offer these terms? Or is it better to wait for the new host of the presidential post? These are relevant issues concerning not only the fate of the Iranian nuclear program, but also the internal political agenda of the Islamic Republic.