Iranian presidential selection paves new path for nuclear extortion

Behnam Ben Taleblu, Andrea Stricker

Following a performative election on June 18, Iran will have a new president: the hard-line Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi’s rise will likely mean a different nuclear negotiating team after August in Vienna, where Iran and six world powers, including the United States, are working to revive the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Despite the new leader’s rhetorical support for nuclear diplomacy, the Raisi presidency offers Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei the option to increase his demands and further extort the West. Washington should not let Tehran use the time between the new president’s inauguration as a mechanism to wrest more appealing terms.

Raisi has a long history of service to Iran’s brutal legal system. In 1988, Raisi and several other clerics oversaw mass executions of political prisoners in one of the worst acts of violence in the country’s 42-year history. Raisi also supported Tehran’s crackdown on protesters during the 2009 Green Movement. In 2019, he was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for his promotion to the position of chief justice.

Raisi’s stance on nuclear diplomacy notwithstanding, Khamenei has the final say on all of Iran’s foreign and security policy matters. This point was underscored recently by U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who acknowledged the regime’s actual leader “was the same person before this election as he is after the election.”

It would behoove Washington, then, not to rush to resurrect the nuclear deal before Raisi’s team enters office, since Iranian negotiators will almost certainly try to use the inauguration to their advantage. Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is no stranger to the good cop-bad cop routine, and he successfully began employing this stratagem against America and Europe more than a decade ago. Paradoxically, Raisi’s reputation as someone who will inevitably toughen demands on Washington means Iran’s greatest extortion could happen well before August. What’s more, the outgoing negotiating team is already briefing Raisi on the status of the talks.

Iran has taken its tough-guy act to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which wants answers from Tehran about suspect nuclear activities. The IAEA also needs to know if Iran will hand over agency data and video surveillance tapes, which may or may not still record information at the regime’s nuclear sites. Iran limited its nuclear monitoring agreements back in February, and now Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA has announced that Tehran is “not required to comply” with requests for clarity from the agency’s beleaguered director general until it gets sanctions relief.

This IAEA spat foreshadows Iran’s evolving approach and demands ahead.

In his first speech after winning the presidency, Raisi demanded that Washington lift all sanctions before the regime comes back into compliance with the JCPOA. Raisi also ruled out broader negotiations over Tehran’s regional activities and missile program, early targets for talks by then-President-elect Joe Biden, whose administration has since made vague pledges to reach a “longer and stronger” follow-on nuclear accord.

Now, Tehran is repeating demands that America lift all sanctions imposed after Washington’s 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA. These sanctions, which target Iran’s regional networks, illicit trade, and missile and military programs, aim to impede Tehran’s security policy and drive down revenues. Reportedly, Iranian negotiators are even demanding broader delistings to enable financial flow and foreign investment in Iran. The regime may frame these as reparations for U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and, until they are provided, refuse to reverse advancements in Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Tehran is certain to continue denying cooperation with the IAEA.

Iran is sure to back its stipulations through Tehran’s time-tested mechanism of using regional attacks and nuclear advances to obtain concessions. Through proxy militias, for example, Tehran may augment assaults against U.S interests in Iraq, create mayhem for Persian Gulf shipping, or strike additional Saudi targets. In the nuclear arena, Khamenei and his Supreme National Security Council could instruct the new hard-line Parliament to pass a law requiring fresh nuclear advances. The Parliament passed a similar law late last year to increase Iran’s leverage against the Biden administration.

Iranian atomic officials followed through on implementing the law, installing numerous advanced centrifuges, producing a sensitive nuclear weapon material called uranium metal, and enriching uranium to a level of 20% purity (later jumping to 60%, which was not stipulated in the law). In February, Iran also stopped implementing the Additional Protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement and reduced JCPOA monitoring provisions, which limited IAEA oversight of sensitive nuclear sites and activities.

If major Western concessions are not forthcoming, a new nuclear law might even “require” Tehran to notify the United Nations Security Council of its intent to begin a three-month withdrawal process from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty under the treaty’s Article X. Iran could also move to produce 90% enriched uranium, which is suitable for nuclear weapons.

Ideally, U.S. and European delegations would not return to Vienna for a seventh round of JCPOA talks and would instead cancel the flawed and expiring JCPOA and re-initiate a multilateral sanctions regime against Iran. Since the West seems intent to push forward, negotiators should anticipate the worst and swiftly counter Iranian attempts to extract more concessions.

The Raisi presidency could represent Iran’s biggest test for the West as an aging and unpopular regime tightens the reins. The international community should remember that a regime comfortable with extortion will never be satisfied — nor should it be appeased. Three years after the Trump administration’s maximum pressure sanctions, the Iranian economy desperately requires relief. Biden and his European counterparts should recognize the immense leverage they possess and not allow Iran to dictate nuclear terms through extortion, be it under the Rouhani or Raisi presidencies.

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