Features

Uncertain Future for Nuclear Deal as Rouhani’s Presidency Comes to an End

March 15, 2021
Faramarz Davar
5 min read
Ahead of the next presidential election, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has blocked the continuation of negotiations over a return to the JCPOA.
Ahead of the next presidential election, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has blocked the continuation of negotiations over a return to the JCPOA.
The Islamic Republic has resumed enriching 20 percent pure uranium and reduced the intensity of IAEA inspections in an attempt to gain leverage over the talks
The Islamic Republic has resumed enriching 20 percent pure uranium and reduced the intensity of IAEA inspections in an attempt to gain leverage over the talks
f the US sanctions are not lifted by June and unforeseen events occur, the end of the Iran-IAEA interim agreement will only be a prelude to new tensions
f the US sanctions are not lifted by June and unforeseen events occur, the end of the Iran-IAEA interim agreement will only be a prelude to new tensions

Both Iran and the United States have rejected one another’s requests to return to the original commitments in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The nuclear deal now has a very vague outlook in 2021.

Whether US sanctions and the development of Iran’s nuclear program, including accelerating uranium enrichment, eventually lead the two sides to even partly compromise, now depends on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's behaviour in the coming Iranian New Year on March 20.

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Since the nuclear issue took on an international dimension, that is to say, since 2003, the Islamic Republic of Iran has had three presidents. But the model and procedures set by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on this matter, have more or less remained the same.

Negotiations Forbidden by Supreme Leader

In the final months of his last three governments – those of Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani - and ahead of the next presidential election, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has blocked the continuation of effective negotiations.

In the last months of Khatami's administration, the Islamic Republic was in talks with three European countries - Britain, France and Germany - and had sought to get the US government to agree to a comprehensive nuclear deal through these three countries. As the election approached, the Supreme Leader called for the negotiations to be abbreviated and for the European parties to be given a deadline, and at the end of this period the negotiations essentially halted until the results of the presidential election became clear.

Khamenei took the same approach at the end of Ahmadinejad's time in office. While Iran's deputy foreign ministers were secretly negotiating with their American counterparts in Oman, with his consent, and the initial outcomes of the talks indicated a high probability of success, Iran’s representatives were then abruptly forced, at Khamenei's request, to stop the talks until the results of the presidential election were announced.

Ali Akbar Salehi, then-Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic, who later became the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization and one of the top nuclear negotiators with the United States, has said in his memoirs that if this had not happened it would have been possible to reach an agreement sooner and the lifting of sanctions could have occurred more quickly.

Ayatollah Khamenei has repeated this pattern for the third time in the final months of Rouhani's administration, preventing his government from negotiating with the United States as proposed by the European Union. Six months ag,o Iran announced to the United States through Russia that it was ready to attend a meeting of leaders of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. But now the election is approaching, Khamenei has not allowed representatives of the Rouhani administration to attend even informal talks with the United States.

Acceleration of Nuclear Program in Final Months of Governments

Another of Khamenei’s consistent practices on the issue is to accelerate the controversial aspects of the nuclear program in the final months of a given presidency. At his behest, in the last hours of Khatami's government, the Islamic Republic decided to end the suspension of building the yellowcake factory in Isfahan. Ahmadinejad then inaugurated the plant in April 2009.

Rouhani, who at the time was the chief negotiator and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, wrote in his memoirs that the decision was made on the urging of Khamenei himself so the international community would not think that the decision was the result of a change of government. Iran's actions led to a strong resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors. Meanwhile the Islamic Republic ended the suspension of uranium enrichment during the Ahmadinejad administration in response to the resolution of the Board of Governors, which led the nuclear issue to be referred to the UN Security Council.

The same situation repeated itself at the end of Ahmadinejad's government. While public talks with the P5+1 – the five UN Security Council permanent members plus Germany – were under way involving Saeed Jalili, then secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, and secret talks were being held in Oman between deputy foreign ministers shortly before the election, Iran continued to accelerate its the nuclear program. Explaining Khamenei's policy, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has described it as an increase in the “bargaining power” of the Islamic Republic: a policy that members of the Trump administration called "nuclear blackmail."

The scenario is being repeated for a third time in the final months of Rouhani's administration. The Islamic Republic has resumed enriching 20 percent pure uranium and reduced the intensity of IAEA inspections. This action is the result of a resolution of the Iranian parliament that the Rouhani government openly opposed. But according to Zarif, Khamenei personally ordered the government to comply with parliament's law at a meeting attended by Rouhani and Salehi.

This time, to control the level of tension, Iran has simultaneously signed a three-month interim agreement with the IAEA, which allowed the agency's cameras to record nuclear activities up to June 15, 2021, in the absence of intrusive inspections. But the agency will only have access to the recordings if US sanctions are lifted.

New Tensions and Disputes Likely

Presidential elections to determine Hassan Rouhani's successor after eight years will take place on June 18. Just like Khamenei's previous pattern of behavior in the last months of administrations, tensions with the IAEA will rise to create pressure to lift US sanctions. This strategy is the result of a resolution of the Supreme National Security Council, which in turn has been personally approved by Khamenei.

Khamenei is using the development of the nuclear program as a means to force the lifting of sanctions. If the US sanctions are not lifted by June and unforeseen events occur, the end of the Iran-IAEA interim agreement will be a prelude to new tensions and disputes.

With this in mind, Khamenei will inevitably follow in the footsteps of his previous years, which, as the election season approaches and a new president is announced, will escalate tensions in the hope of a subsequent opening, and he will not pay attention to the advice of the Chinese foreign minister given to Rouhani in Tehran 18 years ago: "In a private conversation he said, 'If I had responsibility in Iran, I would set a period of time for economic and scientific progress; and then stand up to the great powers."

Related coverage:

Rouhani: Iran Will Abide by its Nuclear Commitments if America Does Too

Parliamentarians Propose Law to Produce Highly Enriched Uranium

Will Iran Violate the Nuclear Deal on June 27?

The Iranian Election and the Nuclear Agreement

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