Iranian Leader Is Willing to Play the Long Game on a Nuclear Deal

Reaching an agreement with the West remains a core goal for President Ebrahim Raisi; but, with his eye on a greater prize, he won’t compromise on the country’s ruling ideology to get it

Iranian Leader Is Willing to Play the Long Game on a Nuclear Deal
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi sits near a portrait of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as he speaks during a press conference on Aug. 29 2022 / STR / AFP via Getty Images

A political insider in Tehran recently described to me a core difference between the current Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, and his three predecessors, especially when it comes to their relationship with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Mohammad Khatami, who was president from 1997 to 2005, would argue and debate with the supreme leader behind closed doors, the source says, but in public would stick to what was approved by the leadership. Khatami’s successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would do the reverse: He would not argue behind closed meetings, but he would do what he wanted outside. Meanwhile, former President Hassan Rouhani would argue with the supreme leader and would still carry out his plans as much as he could. Raisi is unique in this regard: He never argues.

Raisi adheres to the letter — and some say to the extent of devotion — to whatever has been agreed within the Iranian theocratic echelon, and he would move to achieve the goals required of him without discussion. Raisi is a judge and a cleric, but his tendency as a judge to examine everything dominates over his tendencies as a preacher. He is a man of few words — conservative, reserved and not outspoken, even in official and public meetings. This has been obvious since the first day the 60-year-old Syed (a title used to address descendants of the Prophet Muhammad through his grandsons) became president.

These characteristics reflect well in the way he deals with the nuclear issue. Raisi committed to the goal of reaching a nuclear agreement that guarantees the lifting of sanctions but without normalization with the United States — even at the level of negotiators from both sides. A deal of necessity is on Tehran’s priority list and stems from its core interests, regardless of who heads the state. Raisi’s government took on the mandate from where the previous government left it, but blended it with other priorities that were identified in his inaugural speech in August 2021, one of which was to establish good relations with Iran’s neighbors as he described them. For him, though, the dilemma is that normalization with the neighborhood requires the boost that the nuclear negotiations can give.

The United States tried to take advantage of this tension between regional and nuclear objectives. The main concern for Washington and its allies has always been Iran’s involvement in the region, and during the indirect talks, Washington sought to link the issue of removing the Revolutionary Guards from its list of terrorist organizations to a broader agreement for Iran to limit regional activity. Later, it added a request that Iran refrain from targeting U.S. officials or former officials that Iran accuses of being involved in the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds Force. (U.S. President Barack Obama did not explicitly tie the two issues together, but there was a mutual understanding for the two sides to discuss other issues after a deal was reached.)

From the moment Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani became Iran’s senior negotiator, the Iranian team adopted a strategy different from the one that prevailed last time. Officially, the government has stayed away from publicizing its negotiations and explaining in detail what is happening behind closed doors, as the previous government did when it tried to rally support for its perceived controversial approach with the West, especially against hard-liners within the establishment. According to the current government, what matters to people is the outcome of the negotiations, not the process itself. In reality, however, Iranian media cover every detail of the negotiations based on leaks or information from government and official sources.

The real problem for Raisi’s government is that it often seems obsessed with comparing what it would achieve with what the previous government did, whether with the Americans or the Europeans.

When Raisi took office, he explicitly pledged to seek the lifting of sanctions on Iran but also emphasized that he would not link the fate of his people to foreigners. Harmonizing these objectives explains the strategy followed by the Iranian president. The priority is not better relations with the West but economic benefits. So Raisi is concerned primarily about the price he might pay for the agreement and compromise Iran’s progress in its nuclear program.

This anxiety emanates from the negotiation road map drawn by Khamenei on the first day of contact between Washington and Tehran in Oman a decade ago. What is required is a good agreement, despite his belief that the United States will not provide the required guarantees and that the rule remains that “trusting the West does not work.”

For Tehran, trust takes time and does not come at once. The experience of building confidence with Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during negotiations with the U.S. and its unraveling when then President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal prompted Khamenei to stress that trust is not what Iran needs in the relationship with Washington. To him, negotiations are not aimed at opening a path to a better relationship between two countries that have had rivalries for more than four decades. What the supreme leader wants, in short, is to end the maximum pressure policy that itself took the Iranians to the threshold of a nuclear bomb.

A year after Raisi became president, an agreement appears much closer than it was before, but without the guarantees Iran was seeking, a deal would be an embarrassment. It is also embarrassing for the U.S. and international powers that the Iranian stockpile of enriched uranium became enough to make the first atomic bomb, that it’s just a decision away from happening.

What keeps negotiations going is the fact that both parties do not have many options to choose from. With a war ongoing in Europe and an unrestrained China, the Middle East cannot be a priority for the United States. Iran, too, takes world events into consideration and wants to be allowed into the global market as soon as possible. In this context, Raisi’s ambition is to be the man who saved his country from a long-lasting crisis without giving up its ideological posture, which puts him in the best position to be the Islamic Republic’s future guardian.

For now, the waiting game continues, with the deal brewing for almost two years without a solid conclusion. Raisi is in no rush. Every barrel of oil he’s selling without a deal is a gain, but he’s also aware that without a deal in place, he’s only getting half the price. U.S. President Joe Biden too needs the 3.8 million barrels of Iranian oil to keep prices stable. Maybe this could help both sides inch closer to a deal, albeit without much enthusiasm.

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