Change of politicians and policies in Tehran

Student of the Dual Degree M.A. Program Global Security, Nuclear Policy, and WMD Nonproliferation (MGIMO-MIIS-PIR Center)
September 2, 2021

The summer in Tehran turned out to be eventful. The sixth round of negotiations in Vienna that began in June did not meet the optimistic and timid expectations of the participants for the return of Iran and the United States to the terms of the JCPOA before the presidential elections in the Islamic Republic. As predicted, the conservative candidate Ibrahim Raisi won the election. The negotiation process was delayed and was put on pause to allow the new, 8th, President of Iran to take office and establish the work of the government. All plans to restore the JCPOA were postponed to August, the period after Raisi’s inauguration, however, according to some European politicians, the Vienna talks will resume in September.

New President, New Methods?

In his inaugural speech, Ibrahim Raisi focused on domestic economic development, noted the urgent need to lift sanctions and stressed that he would support any «diplomatic plan» that would contribute to this aim. The second main direction of foreign policy is to ensure security in the region, and force in this context can only be used as a response to threats. The goal of the new president’s foreign policy is to build a security architecture in the region without the intervention of external players, which, according to Raisi, is not a solution, but the problem itself. Diplomacy and «intelligent interaction» with the world were named among the tools for protecting national interests.

Despite the mention of diplomatic methods, analysts say Raisi’s presidency will herald a decline in the influence of moderate and pragmatic politicians, but contrary to expectations, it is unlikely to be a repetition of the brutal confrontational approach of the Ahmadinejad era. Restrained comments in the Western press and moderately optimistic reports in the Middle East media were covered in the Iranian newspaper Etemaad in the article «The Mystery of the 13th Government» with a hint that it is too early to draw categorical conclusions about Raisi’s future foreign policy.

The inauguration itself was accompanied by a scandal. The most resonant visit was paid by Enrique Mora, Deputy Secretary-General of the European External Action Service for Political Affairs. The trip of the European diplomat caused a flurry of criticism of Israel and caustic comments in Western Iranian-language media about the fact that Mora did not receive much honor and was placed at the inaugural ceremony behind the backs of high-ranking representatives of Iranian proxies in the Middle East – Ismail Haniye arrived on behalf of Hamas, from Hezbollah – Naim Gasim, from Islamic Jihad – Ziyad Nahaleh. Nonetheless, Mora continued his mission as a chief mediator at the negotiations in Vienna and met with a number of Iranian officials, including outgoing Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

In his inaugural address, Ibrahim Raisi touched on nuclear issues. The new head stressed that the nuclear program of the Islamic Republic is complete since nuclear weapons are recognized by the ruling regime as illegal and cannot be included in the state’s defense strategy. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Sayed Khatibzadeh also conveyed a tough stance against the use of nuclear weapons, commenting on the 76th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He noted that the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities prove the willingness of the United States to use any means to achieve its goals. He also stressed that the history of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a reminder of the need to eliminate nuclear weapons, which is contradicted by the modernization of nuclear arsenals announced in the United States. According to Khatibzadeh, this also runs counter to Article 6 of the NPT and international disarmament efforts. The Kayhan newspaper, close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, published an emotional article about the need to compel all nuclear states to destroy their nuclear arsenals. The authors of the article note that the world does not need the deterrent force of weapons that can lead to guaranteed mutual destruction.

New power structure in Tehran

In addition to the personality of the president himself, the press is discussing his new cabinet and the balance of power in the Iranian establishment. Even before the official announcement of names of new ministers, the media noted that the most likely candidate for the post of the new foreign minister is Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who previously served as deputy foreign minister and oversaw foreign policy in the parliament. According to Iranian sources, he has good ties with the IRGC and enjoyed the favor of Martyr Gen. Qasem Soleimani. It is also important that Abdollahian has experience of direct negotiations with his American counterparts: in 2007 he was a member of the delegation at the talks with the US on Iraq, the first transparent meeting of the two countries in decades. Before his official appointment, Abdollahian met with European diplomat Enrique Mora. The details of the meeting were not reported; high-ranking Iranian sources speak only of its constructive nature.

However, some resources note that in the case of the new foreign minister, his personality may not be so indicative, since a new balance of powers may be established in Tehran. Nuclear issues, including the Vienna talks on the restoration of the JCPOA, can be transferred to the Supreme National Security Council, which determines the future of the Iranian nuclear program. As a matter of fact, negotiations on the nuclear program were transferred from the Supreme Council to the Foreign Ministry after Hassan Rouhani became president in 2013. Earlier, Iran’s negotiating delegations were headed by the secretaries of the Supreme National Security Council Said Jalili (2007-2013), Ali Larijani (2005- 2007), and until 2005 by Rouhani.

Raisi spoke about the need for cohesive work of all branches of government, noting that in the current circumstances the government, the judiciary and the parliament should complement each other. Amwaj reminds that in the last years of Rouhani’s presidency, relations between the government and the Majlis have been rapidly deteriorating. So, in 2020, the Majlis passed a law according to which the authorities had to take a number of measures that violated Iran’s obligations under the JCPOA in response to Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. In this regard, Rouhani, who is leaving and apologizing for his mistakes, has already warned Raisi that if this law is kept in force, Iran will not be able to conclude an agreement with the United States.

New round of talks

The Iranian media generally do not expect a radical revision of Iran’s approach to the revival of the JCPOA. The policy in this direction is largely determined not by the president and his ministers, but by the Supreme Leader. In the largest national newspaper Iran, Ibrahim Raisi was called upon to adhere to a balanced and pragmatic course in foreign policy and rely on the recommendations of experts who are convinced that the JCPOA is an important document for the country. The authors argue that the value of the JCPOA lies in its legal support from the UN Security Council in the form of Resolution 2231. It is also noted that the text of the JCPOA is the result of the highly professional intellectual efforts of Iranian experts who tried to maximize the country’s interests in the text of the nuclear deal.

It should be borne in mind that in Vienna diplomats are striving to develop a procedure for restoring the JCPOA. For these efforts to be successful, the text of the new agreement must be reviewed by a special committee of the Supreme National Security Council, which in July already rejected the preliminary version of the document due to its contradictions with the law on «Strategic Action Plan to Lift Sanctions and Protect Iranian Nation’s Interest». Also, to date, this committee has assessed 6 rounds of negotiations that have taken place under the Rouhani administration as failed, since the United States did not agree to lift all sanctions and provide guarantees that Washington will not withdraw from the deal again.

In general, the opinion prevails in the Iranian media that Raisi takes a balanced position concerning the JCPOA, and radical conservative politicians have also adjusted their views to a more moderate one. Thus, the fundamentalists who opposed the JCPOA, after Raisi’s victory in the elections, recognized the need to comply with the provisions of the nuclear deal if the partners in Vienna agree to Iran’s terms. For example, a Member of Parliament and the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission and longtime UN Security Council critic Mojtaba Zolnuri, who was part of a conservative camp, set a copy of the JCPOA text on fire after Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. However, he recently stated that he supports the commitments under the JCPOA as long as the United States fulfills its part of the agreement.

Nonetheless, the main national media outlook on the prospects for the 7th round of negotiations is pragmatic and restrained. The Etemaad newspaper reports that it will be more difficult to restore the JCPOA under a new president. So far, at the official level, no decision has been made on the further negotiation and membership of a new delegation. Some sources cite European politicians who say that Enrique Mora failed to agree with Tehran on the exact date of the resumption of meetings at the Vienna Grand Hotel, but the very fact of his talks with Iranian diplomats indicates that the negotiating delegations may meet again on September 1. Amwaj notes that negotiations are likely to continue, and the new team of the Iranian government will pursue the following goals: lifting of all sanctions, providing guarantees from the United States that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, and verification of lifting sanctions, which was interpreted differently by Rouhani and his conservative opponents. Mahmoud Abbaszadeh Meshkini, the spokesperson of the Majlis National Security Commission, spoke about what Iran does not exactly expect from the talks in Vienna. According to him, no one should turn the meeting room at the Grand Hotel into a courtroom over Iran. He also noted that there is no need to address a wider range of issues in the current negotiations.

New attacks, old accusations

Meanwhile, as Iranian politicians seek to prevent the Islamic Republic from being tried, Etemaad newspaper is worried that Vienna has become a site of confrontation between Russia, China and the West. The authors of the same article ask who contributes to the Iranophobic atmosphere, and find the culprit in Great Britain and Iran’s traditional adversaries in the Middle East. London’s accusations against Iran on the occasion of the attack on the Mercer Street tanker, the formation of an international front to condemn Iran, and a joint statement by the G7 members provoked in Tehran the idea that Great Britain is striving to take the place of the United States as an active supporter of Israel in the Middle East. In this equation, «who will re-blame whom», tensions are growing and the window of opportunities is closing, as mutual fears grow: among the Western participants in the JCPOA – that Iran may go far in developing its nuclear program and withdraw from the JCPOA and / or NPT, in Iran – about the fact that the West can further increase the pressure and aggravate threats.

Anti-Iranian sentiments are also supported in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Manama. According to Iranian experts, the weakness of the Iranian positions in Vienna is beneficial to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, since at the bilateral level they can get big concessions from Iran. Earlier in the Middle East capitals, the Iranian card was already successfully played in 2020, when relations between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were normalized, presumably on the basis of an anti-Iranian consensus.

The outgoing «government of hope and trust in America»

Iranians not only look forward to a bright future, but also take stock of a difficult past. On August 1, the 7th President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, addressed the people with a final speech. Apologizing for all the mistakes he made, he nevertheless noted his achievements. Rouhani said his government managed to resolve tensions around Iran’s nuclear program not by means of war, but at the negotiating table. He also recalled that in 2013-2015 the United States put forward great demands on the negotiations and wanted to conclude a holistic security agreement, but Iran managed to reduce the discussion to nuclear issues. At the same time, he stressed that today the main difficulty in Vienna on the way to restoring the JCPOA is the lifting of sanctions imposed on the charge of human rights abuses, missile and regional malign activities, which requires lengthy and difficult negotiations. Rouhani also noted the existing difficulties in Tehran: reaching a new agreement will be difficult since this requires not only an endorsement of the Supreme Leader but also the approval of the conservative parliament. In conclusion, Rouhani, criticized for his pro-Western stance, advised the new administration to pursue a moderate course at home and abroad, as well as develop constructive interaction with the world.

The national media did not reflect Rouhani’s unexpected, after two years of denial, the admission that Israel did steal Iran’s classified information on the nuclear program and handed it over to the United States, which was the reason for Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that fact in 2018 from the UN rostrum but since then Iranian Foreign Minister M.D. Zarif and his deputy A. Arakchi denied this fact more than once.

Outgoing Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic Mohammad Javad Zarif also took up the summing up. As if responding to accusations in such conservative newspapers as Kayhan (against Rouhani: «The Government of Hope and Trust in America»), Zarif, in his last speech at a government meeting, repeated several times that Iran never trusted the West, never relied on the West, and always trusted only its own people. He noted that the 160-page text of the JCPOA, in which diplomats and experts tried to consider all the interests of Iran and foresee any future consequences, was proof of the cautious and critical approach of the Iranian delegation at the negotiations.

Mohammad Javad Zarif also sent a farewell letter to the UN Secretary-General António Guterres. The publicly available 200-page chronicle titled «Letter to the U.N. Secretary-General Documenting Six Years of Western (Non-) Implementation of the «Iran Nuclear Deal» contains numerous letters from the Iranian Foreign Ministry documenting the violations of the American administrations and the reluctance of the European partners after Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Considering the JCPOA the main achievement of his 8-year tenure as foreign minister, Zarif lamented that not a single letter of claim had ever been denied by members of the deal, which, in his opinion, could indicate that no one could provide any legitimate or logical explanations of the JCPOA non-implementation. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also received a personal gift from Mr. Zarif. The Iranian diplomat handed over to the Russian counterpart ‘The Nuclear Deal, The Untold Story of JCPOA: Protecting Iran’s Security, Rights and Development’, a six-volume publication on the events surrounding the Iranian nuclear deal.