When agreed in July 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, not only heralded a new period of constructive engagement between Iran and the United States after long years of estrangement but also set the stage for Iran’s integration with the international community – to the chagrin of hardliners in Tehran, congressional hawks in Washington, and Iran’s regional adversaries.
The celebrated diplomatic master stroke, which both President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and then-US president Barack Obama regarded as their seminal foreign-policy achievements, has been going downhill since Obama’s successor Donald Trump walked away from it in May 2018, ruining one of the most representative outcomes of multilateralism in the recent decades and a solid non-proliferation accord.
In June this year, Iranians will go to polls to elect President Rouhani’s successor. Observers expect the new president will be a hardliner or a retired military commander, given that the majority of Iranians are now disillusioned with the state of national economy, downcast about the prospects of better relations with the world and cynical about the resurrection of the JCPOA.
In a presidential race that many Iranians have said they will boycott, a hardliner could clinch an easy victory, as has been the case with all Iranian elections with a low turnout. This likely transition of power from a moderate politician to a radical right-winger could entail serious implications for the direction of Iran-US relations.
Paola Rivetti (left) is an associate professor in government at Dublin City University’s School of Law and Government. A secretary of the Italian Association of Middle Eastern Studies (SeSaMO) and a co-founder and board member of the European Iran Research Group at Sweden’s Lund University, Rivetti has written extensively on Iran’s politics and foreign relations.
Her 2019 book is Political Participation in Iran from Khatami to the Green Movement.
Asia Times spoke to Dr Rivetti to discuss the upcoming presidential election in Iran, the chances of the revival of the atrophying Iran nuclear deal, and the contours of US President Joe Biden’s Iran strategy.
Kourosh Ziabari: Do you believe the establishment in Iran is laying the groundwork for an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander to become president in the June polls? Can the choice of the president make any material difference to where the nation is headed or how its foreign policy is crafted?
Paola Rivetti: Many names are circulating and this is in line with what happened in past elections. While these names are an indication of what kind of power struggles are taking place in Iran regarding the next presidential election, they should not be taken too seriously, as they are likely to change.
However, there are few issues which are important to highlight. The first one is the relative weakness of the clergy, which has been sidelined by consecutive events and as a result of an historical trajectory which has seen the constant marginalization of reformist forces from the centers of power.
Obviously, clergymen come in many shapes and colors, so to say – meaning that they have multiple and diverse ideological leanings. However, important reformist, moderate, progressive and liberal personalities hailed from the clergy, ranging from [the late Ruhollah] Khomeini’s family, [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei’s brother, the support that reformist candidates and politicians have garnered from the progressive hawza in Qom, [Mehdi] Karroubi, Rouhani himself, and others.
The political networks and circles that revolve around these personalities seem to be weak now to the benefit of IRGC-connected circles. In fact, it is quite evident that the IRCG has been strengthening its leverage and influence on the economy, state policies and institutions.
It should suffice to think of the power [the late] General [Qasem] Soleimani built up thanks to his activities in the region; or think of figures such as [Mohammad Baqer] Qalibaf, who, in spite of his multiple failures at being elected president, has been controlling state institutions steadily for decades now.
Second, power balances in Iran are likely to be adjusted to the new phase that is opening up for the country, both internationally and domestically. The stabilization of the region post the so-called Arab Spring is at an advanced stage, but Iran is still engaged in theaters of instability such as Syria and Yemen.
The next phase is a delicate one, and the next president will need to be able to navigate a difficult situation. The regional hostility towards Iran is strong and comes from important regional hegemons, namely Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who have the unwavering support of the United States – and Biden’s presidency is unlikely to structurally change this.
Holding the ground while at the same time pushing for negotiations over the nuclear file and the sanctions will be a difficult endeavor. It will require an in-depth knowledge of the mechanisms of Iranian foreign policy as well as international politics.
Domestically, the regime is aware of the growing disaffection that the population is feeling towards institutions which are failing the people on many grounds: economically, politically and socially. A good dose of flexibility will be needed to fix – if possible – this situation.
It is unsurprising that conservative forces are pushing young candidates or candidates who have a background in working for the youth, at least nominally, or candidates who project an image of modernity, smartness, although they have had a continuous presence in state institutions. Most importantly, the next president will likely have to manage a transitional phase, as the Supreme Leader is aging and it is unclear what will happen next.
I think that the question of whether the president plays an important political role is a vexed one and it has no clear-cut answer, as it really depends on circumstances and contingent balances of power.
Currently in Iran, we have a conservative hegemony which is not different from what is happening around the world – in the US, with Trump’s success; in Europe, with the success of the far right and the numerous conservative-led governments; in India, with [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi; and others.
It follows that the president’s decisions will find less opposition if they go with the flow, while his decision will be obstructed in case they will go against it. I am not sure it is a matter of institutional contraposition per se. Rather, I think it is a matter of political struggle between political factions, and where the president will stand in that struggle.
KZ: President Rouhani’s tenure will expire in August. Is the intervening period between now and then enough for him to engage with the Biden administration on reviving the JCPOA?
PR: Iran is already engaging the Biden administration, and I think that the recent decision by the parliament to increase the level of uranium enrichment up to 20% should be read in connection to this. This decision is one of creating a certain momentum around the Iranian nuclear file, signaling its importance and relevance to Biden. Iranians and Rouhani’s administration are telling him to engage, to care.
Biden made some promises about reviving the JCPOA, and that’s good news. He will need to show to Iran that his administration can be trusted on this. The unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA was a major blow to the trust that Iran can have in the US. That trust needs to be re-established in the first place.
KZ: Will the hardliners in parliament, religious seminaries and other traditionalists opposed to Rouhani, as well as the IRGC, try to derail diplomacy with the Biden administration in case the Islamic Republic decides to make a political investment on fresh talks with the United States with the aim of regenerating the Iran deal?
PR: I think it will primarily depend on Biden’s attitude and his capacity and willingness to demonstrate that his administration can be trusted. This is why, should Rouhani or the next president invest in fresh talks, a certain amount of opposition is to be expected. The US will need to demonstrate goodwill and the ability to deliver, and to convince the Iranians. Should that be achieved, major opposition is to be expected by US allies in the region, too.
KZ: In what ways will Joe Biden’s Iran policy differ from the strategy of Donald Trump? Will he continue exerting maximum pressure and piling up crippling sanctions, or is he going to give engagement a chance to succeed and possibly lift some of the sanctions to incentivize Iran to come back into full compliance with the nuclear deal?
PR: Biden declared his willingness to revive diplomacy, but this technically is a different matter from sanctions and maximum pressure. However, politically, diplomatic efforts are likely to be perceived as empty by Iran, should maximum pressure be kept.
I want to stress that the major obstacles to a genuine diplomatic engagement between the two countries depend on the US, internationally – the US’s regional allies – and domestically.
In fact, the current political situation in the US is extremely unstable and precarious, and domestic politics is likely to receive most of the attention of the president. This could be detrimental to the US’s ability to engage Iran, leaving room for maneuver to US allies in the region which are hostile to Iran. This is why it is fundamental that the US show honest and solid commitment to diplomacy.
KZ: How will the future of Iran-US relations evolve in the aftermath of the 2021 presidential elections? Should we expect a thaw in relations at all, or will the 40-year-old pattern of hostility, with intermittent periods of de-escalation, continue? Does it really depend on who is elected?
PR: While the JCPOA will be difficult to revive, I think that it embodies a positive and powerful symbol: It tells us that it can be done.
Iran and the US can have direct talks and sit around the same table to negotiate. Sure, this must be done with certain arrangements, such as multilateral fora, but the myth about the impossibility of thinking about it has been shattered. I think this is very important to open up possibilities for what the future relations between the two countries look like. Symbols, however, are not sufficient alone.
I don’t see the 2021 election as a game-changer. If we look back, we can see that change has been piling up for years, and that 2015 was the apex of that long trajectory. The JCPOA has been in the making for decades.
The awareness that change can happen, as it happened in 2015, however is not sufficient to make change happen. You need the right environmental circumstances, and I am not very positive that we’ll have them in the future.
In particular, I am worried that the European Union won’t be able to play the same crucial role it played in the past. The EU seems preoccupied with other issues, such as strengthening its border regime in spite of the humanitarian catastrophe that it causes for Iranian citizens and many others. Currently, the Union is weak and dominated by right-wing and conservative forces, which are less interested in multilateralism.
The positive symbol will, however, remain as one with significant gravitational force, although dormant.
Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.