Since Ebrahim Raisi was confirmed as Iran’s next president on Friday, media outlets such as Newsweek and Foreign Policy have published editorials that suggest the ultra-hardline cleric might actually improve the prospects for a restoration of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which the United States pulled out of in 2018. Such arguments fly in the face of the common wisdom as they appeared throughout Western media in the run-up to the election. Then, very few commentators seemed inclined to question the description of Raisi’s pending “election” as a complicating factor in the negotiations that are currently ongoing in Vienna.
The intended purpose of those negotiations is to restore the sanctions relief that the US had put into place with the nuclear deal’s implementation in January 2016 and to prompt Iran to reverse the provocative steps it has taken in violation of that agreement over the past year and a half. The terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action included restrictions on the level and quantity of uranium enrichment the Islamic Republic could undertake, and it set the stage for continual monitoring of declared Iranian nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency. But critics of the agreement deemed that inspection regime to be insufficient, and their perspective contributed to then-US President Donald Trump’s decision to declare Iran out of compliance and announce plans for the US Treasury Department to begin re-imposing sanctions.
From May 2018 until the end of Trump’s term in January 2021, additional sanctions continued to be added, leading Iran to retaliate by announcing escalatory nuclear measures. Following the death of Iran’s top terrorist operative, Qassem Soleimani, in a US drone strike, the Islamic Republic declared an end to compliance with all the JCPOA’s provisions, albeit without formally pulling out of the deal. Since then, Iran and the other signatories – the European Union, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China – have been keeping the agreement on life support in hopes that the presidential transition in Washington would lead to a restoration of the status quo.
However, Iran’s provocations helped to guarantee that that goal would be elusive, especially considering that those provocations continued even after all the signatories agreed to enter into new discussions in April. Five additional sessions of those talks have taken place since then, with the most recent concluding on Sunday, but none of them have featured direct talks between representatives of the US and Iran. Instead, European delegates have been relaying proposals and responses between the main talks and a separate building housing American negotiators. By all accounts, this arrangement is solely the product of the Iranian regime’s refusal to allow direct communication with its chief Western ally. That refusal to meet was reiterated on Monday by Raisi in his first press conference as president-elect.
In the same press conference, Raisi also dismissed the possibility of expanding negotiations to include areas of shared Western concern regarding Iran’s ballistic missile development and its support for militant proxies throughout the Middle East and the Muslim world. In an interview with Newsweek, Mostafa Najafi, a Ph.D. candidate at Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University, characterized these two categories of activity as “inseparable” aspects of a “defensive and military deterrence” strategy that is “not negotiable.”
Najafi noted that the Iranian regime’s perspective on these matters remains entrenched “regardless of the government in power.” In so doing, he seemingly confirmed the accuracy of talking points that helped to fuel a mass boycott of Friday’s election. For more than two months leading up to that election, activists with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran urged eligible voters to avoid the polls and thus avoid lending legitimacy to a system that offers no ideological alternatives in any election. That message had previously been popularized with two PMOI-led nationwide uprisings and countless other protests, all of which voiced equal condemnation of the “reformist” political faction led by outgoing President Hassan Rouhani and the “hardline” faction more closely associated with Raisi and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Piggy-backing off of this messaging, the PMOI promoted last week’s electoral boycott as an opportunity to “vote for regime change,” and the boycott was duly embraced by a wide variety of activists and protest groups that were otherwise unaffiliated with the leading pro-democracy Resistance organization. In the weeks prior to the election, many public protests remained focused on longstanding economic crises, but these also tended to feature slogans like “we have seen no justice; we will not vote anymore.” The implication of such statements is that the regime authorities can now expect Friday’s historically low level of voter turnout to recur in future elections unless something drastic and unexpected changes in the country’s political situation.
Persons familiar with the Iranian regime generally agree that as far as domestic policy goes, the only changes to be expected under a Raisi administration, are changes for the worse. This sentiment largely derives from the lifelong jurist’s reputation as the “henchman of 1988.” Prior to the election, various public demonstrations used this label in order to call attention to the leading role that Raisi played in the massacre of political prisoners during the summer of 1988. The event is believed to have claimed about 30,000 victims, the vast majority of the members of the PMOI. As one of five members of Tehran’s “death commission” at the time, Raisi potentially bears responsibility for a majority of them.
Raisi’s legacy of violent domestic repression was expanded over the past two years as he served the regime as head of the national judiciary. His tenure coincided with the outbreak of the second PMOI-led uprising in November 2019, to which regime authorities responded with the worst crackdown in decades. Within days, mass shooting incidents, mostly carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, had killed approximately 1,500 peaceful protesters. Some 12,000 activists were arrested in the wake of the unrest, and reports of systematic torture by judiciary officials continued to emerge for months afterward, before being collected into a report by Amnesty International.
In the wake of Raisi’s virtually uncontested run for the presidency, many Western media outlets have acknowledged his roles in both the 2019 crackdown and the 1988 massacre, highlighting them as evidence of his status as one of the regime’s most hardline figures. Yet this has not stopped some of those outlets from speculating about the prospects for mutually beneficial discussions between Western authorities and the new Iranian president-elect. Newsweek offered such speculation in the very same article that quoted Mostafa Najafi as affirming Raisi’s commitment to confrontational foreign policy positions that were also popular under his predecessor.
Straightaway with its headline, the Newsweek article suggests that Raisi “could be a dove in hawk’s clothing.” Its author, Tom O’Connor, went on to credit the president-elect for pledging to repair Iran’s strained relations with its neighbors. He then pointed to Raisi’s stated commitment to generating revenue for the Islamic Republic as evidence that he may prioritize revitalizing the nuclear deal. But this goal was never in doubt. The relevant question is whether Iran’s presidential transition will lead to any change in the strategy the regime uses in its effort to secure sanctions relief.
Nothing in Raisi’s initial press conference or in the regime’s broader conduct suggests that such a change is forthcoming, least of all a change to “dove-like” conduct that might benefit Western interests. In fact, since Raisi’s election, the only significant step that Iran has taken with respect to the nuclear deal is to essentially declare victory in the Vienna negotiations, dubiously announcing that the US has already agreed to remove more than 1,000 sanctions put in place by the Trump administration. Statements to that effect offered no indication of reciprocal gestures from Tehran, which has so far insisted that it would only scale back its nuclear activities after US sanctions have already been suspended in their entirety.
Tehran would not even follow up on its unsubstantiated claim of an agreement by clarifying its intentions regarding a temporary arrangement with nuclear inspectors which expires on Thursday. Last year, the Iranian parliament passed a law mandating the expulsion of those inspectors in February unless an agreement over US sanctions had been reached by that time. Full implementation of that law was avoided through an agreement between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, but Iranian nuclear facilities still dramatically scaled down their cooperation with the agency, leaving it largely in the dark about the latest advancements in Iranian nuclear activity.
This month, an IAEA report revealed that inspectors had lost access to far more data than many observers initially recognized. Meanwhile, the threat of expulsion – and of the complete destruction of that data – lingered in the form of Tehran’s refusal to make its temporary agreement permanent. Thursday’s deadline marks the end of a one-month extension of the original three-month agreement, and the regime has expressly deferred the question of whether it will be extended again until after its expiration when the Supreme National Security Council holds its first meeting subsequent to Raisi’s election.
In keeping with pre-election assumptions that negotiations would only become more complicated over time, European delegates to Vienna announced on Wednesday that there was still substantial work to be done in order to restore the JCPOA. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas boasted of progress but stated that there were still “nuts to crack,” while French Culture Minister Franck Riester warned that time was running out and that European authorities might soon have to make difficult decisions regarding the future of the deal.
In the wake of last week’s electoral boycott, the PMOI has expressed a similar sentiment but has expressly added that the correct decision, regardless of its difficulty, is to recognize the futility of negotiating with Tehran, especially under Raisi’s leadership. The PMOI plainly recommends that the international community exert greater pressure on the incoming Iranian government and support a popular movement for regime change.