Iran’s Elections Could Complicate U.S. Plans to Renew the Nuclear Deal

June 11, 2021 | Reuel Marc Gerecht
About the author: Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former case officer in the CIA with responsibility for Iranian recruitments.

This week, after the International Atomic Energy Agency announced its suspicions that the Islamic Republic is hiding nuclear materials from its inspectors, the White House decided to lift some sanctions on Iranian oil, and still plans to forge ahead with nuclear negotiations. Meanwhile, Iran will hold its presidential elections next week. The exercise is not particularly democratic—the supreme leader approves the candidates in advance, and his minions have from time to time fixed the results—but neither is it entirely meaningless. While there are important differences among the candidates, not one can be dubbed a moderate, even by the standards of this brutal Islamist theocracy. Reuel Marc Gerecht explains why this matters:

With an Iranian “moderate” as president, President Biden surely would have athletically advanced again Barack Obama’s engagement arguments. To wit: the atomic accord reinforces Iranian softliners; tens of billions of dollars released to Tehran plus the promise of billions more in foreign investment attenuate the regime’s radicalism. Then-President Obama didn’t really mind Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei extorting the West, which is what the nuclear negotiations have been about, . . . since engagement would fundamentally change how the Islamic Republic acted. . . . With Ebrahim Raisi, Khamenei’s preferred candidate for president, this approach becomes harder to do with a straight face.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will be uncomfortable with Raisi as president. . . . Though Raisi’s villainy has many hallmarks, his most notorious actions surround the 1988 slaughter of political prisoners, some of whom were children. . . . With Raisi as president, the White House will have a challenging time portraying a reanimated atomic accord as something other than an extortionate transaction with wicked Islamists who are blatant about their principal hatreds (America, Jews, Israel, and Western culture).

Yet even if Raisi’s election makes it harder for the White House to sell a renewed nuclear deal, Gerecht has little doubt that it will forge ahead. But, he writes, there remains “a big wild card” for the Biden administration:

Unless the clerical regime’s demands make it impossible for Biden to return to the [2015 nuclear deal]—that is, Khamenei won’t let Biden surrender—Israel is the country most likely to scotch the administration’s hopes. Israeli opposition to the nuclear deal is much deeper and broader today than it was in 2015, when most Israelis found it seriously wanting. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s in-your-face efforts to get Congress and the American people to array against it didn’t please a lot of Israelis at the time; it’s a good bet that today far fewer view those efforts negatively.

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