The Best Hope for the JCPOA is … the Hardliners?

With a little less than six weeks before hardline conservative Ebrahim Raisi is inaugurated as the new President of Iran, President Biden’s top aides are engaged in a high stakes game of ‘telephone’ in Vienna. As Iranian negotiators refuse to meet their American counterparts in person, European intermediaries have shuttled between hotel rooms with messages from the two parties.

There has been talk that Raisi is in line to someday succeed Ayatollah Khamenei, who has been a mentor to the incoming president, and may have helped stage-managing his election. So, why the wait on re-inking the deal torn up by President Donald Trump in 2018? New language for a resurrected Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is said to have been finalized weeks ago; it is apparently on ice for the election of … an ultraconservative cleric? The answer: only a deeply conservative Iranian government has the political capital to make this deal work. A moderate government re-upping the deal would be seen as capitulating to the West, but a hardline leader could be seen as a ‘tough negotiator’ extracting much-needed sanctions relief on behalf of the Iranian people and, most importantly, the economic upswing that will likely follow in its wake. The (necessary) smoke and mirrors aside, the prospect of a renewed JCPOA – especially given the deep partisan divides over its legacy – has Washington buzzing.

Some have renewed full-throated criticism of the deal. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton dismissed the idea that after a new JCPOA “sweetness and light will break out in the Middle East” as a “dangerous fantasy.” Similarly, GOP Senator Lindsey Graham rang alarm bells, stating on FOX that “the idea of going back into negotiations with the ayatollah and his henchmen is insane.”

On the other hand, current National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan defended exploring these negotiations on ABC News with George Stephanopolous, but predictably denied that Raisi’s election had anything to do with it:

“Well, I think what we need to do in the United States is keep our eye on the ball. And that is our paramount priority right now is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. We believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve that, rather than military conflict. And so, we’re going to negotiate in a clear-eyed, firm way with the Iranians to see if we can arrive at an outcome that puts their nuclear program in the box.”

So, a new occasion for an old problem? Have we already hashed all this through, or does the ascension of a conservative Iranian government actually change the prospects for a deal with Iran lasting beyond the next changing of the partisan guard in Washington?

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