Elections in the United States and Iran have been critical moments with regard to reaching and maintaining the Iran nuclear deal. And almost uniquely in both countries, the Iran nuclear deal and the issue of US-Iran diplomacy more broadly have become potent domestic political issues – and the subject of sometimes-vicious, partisan domestic infighting.
Partly humbled by how US domestic politics and the last four years of the Trump administration have damaged the Iran nuclear deal, the Biden administration and its Iran deal negotiating team seem mostly resigned to the potential tragedy of the situation: namely, that while they have just got back into office, the team under the Hassan Rouhani administration, with whom they were able to successfully negotiate the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal, could soon undergo major turnover; and that they could soon lose as their negotiating counterparts the Iranian diplomatic professionals with whom they were able to successfully reach an agreement, something they recognize cannot be taken for granted.
Notwithstanding any of their own preferences, the US team is leaving Iran to sort out its domestic politics on its own. However, the US team is well aware that the election outcome could impact not only the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)-return talks currently underway in Vienna but also the composition of the Iranian negotiating team in the hoped-for follow-on nuclear deal talks with the new Iranian administration.
After all, it was not until after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013 – five years after Barack Obama was first elected president and one year into his second term – that rapid progress was made on reaching the interim Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), in November 2013; and ultimately the “final” Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA, in July 2015.
Donald Trump’s election in November 2016, the withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018, and the imposition of the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran put severe strain on the deal. In May 2019, one year after Trump quit the deal, Iran started to progressively reduce implementation of its nuclear commitments under the deal in order to protest the lack of sanctions relief under Trump’s maximum pressure campaign, in particular its retraction of oil waivers that had allowed some countries to continue importing Iranian oil until the spring of 2019.
Across the world, proponents of the JCPOA hoped Biden’s election in 2020 would enable a rapid US return to the deal and an Iranian return to full implementation before Rouhani’s second term comes to an end following the election of a new Iranian president on June 18 and his inauguration in August.
But these hopes were not realized. The Biden administration appeared to be hesitant and cautious as it slowly put together its foreign policy team in late January and February. And the time it spent coordinating its Iran policy with European allies and consulting regional partners and key members of Congress, including those whose support it needed to confirm nominees, resulted in a further delay. It did not announce that it was pursuing a “return for return” path with Iran on the nuclear deal until late February.
The Iranians, perhaps disappointed at the Biden administration’s perceived hesitation, then rejected face to face talks with the US on a “compliance for compliance” deal, even in the context of the Joint Commission that oversees implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, which the US was no longer a member of after Trump’s withdrawal.
Overall, domestic politics on both sides have inhibited quick progress. “The problem is both the Iranian side and the U.S. side are finding it very tough to navigate the domestic political restraints,” Ellie Geranmayeh, deputy director of the Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in March.
“The restraints on the Iranian side were created by slow movement on the US side on this file,” Geranmayeh continued. “And the slow movement on the US side by unnecessary hesitation about how re-entry to JCPOA would go down domestically.”
So it wasn’t until April that indirect US-Iranian talks got underway, on the sidelines of the Joint Commission members meeting in Vienna. The aim was to try to draft a roadmap for how a “return for return” deal would work: what sanctions the US would lift, what steps the Iranians would take to roll back its nuclear program and return to full compliance, and how it would all be sequenced.
The fourth round of those indirect talks, described by US and European negotiators as the most productive yet, concluded in Vienna on May 19. A fifth round got underway in Vienna on Tuesday May 25 – less than a month before Iranian presidential elections, with the campaign moving into high gear.
Some Iran experts who closely consult with US negotiators have expressed the view that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may not yet have given the Iranian negotiators at the Vienna talks the maneuvering room they need to rapidly conclude the deal because he is wary that doing so could boost voter turnout in favor of more moderate candidates or lead to an unpredictable surprise.
“If Iran makes the political decision that it genuinely wants to return to the JCPOA as the JCPOA was negotiated, then it could be done relatively quickly and implementation could be relatively swift,” a senior State Department official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists on a call May 6. “But we don’t know if… Iran has made that decision.”
“This is ultimately a matter of a political decision that needs to be made in Iran,” the official added.
US President Joe Biden, when asked on May 7 if Iran was serious about the nuclear talks in Vienna, said that they were, but that their evident seriousness did not yet mean they were prepared to agree to what was necessary for a mutual return to the JCPOA.
"Yes, but how serious and what they're prepared to do is a different story,” Biden said. “But we're still talking."
Some Iranian reformist-leaning thinkers have expressed the view that many people in their camp who previously turned out for Rouhani may stay home this year, in part because they are so frustrated and disappointed by the economic hardships they have endured and the lack of reforms that he achieved, as well as a growing sense of hopelessness.
All of this is to say that Iranian pre-election politics seems to already be affecting the Vienna negotiations, particularly how long they may drag on if a successful outcome is even possible.
Although it recognizes that Iranian elections politics may affect the talks, the Biden administration’s approach is to try to stay on course with the Vienna negotiations; it wants to see if both sides can continue making progress and reach a political understanding on a roadmap to a mutual way back into the deal, whenever that may be.
While the potential impact of the Iranian elections is unclear, “our approach is to forge ahead and try to reach a deal,” a senior US negotiator, speaking not for attribution, told me on May 21. “We will leave it to Iran to decide how their politics will play,” he said.
“Elections have a way of getting in the way of diplomacy,” he added.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated in a May 23 interview that the Biden administration is sticking with its Plan A: to try to restore the JCPOA as a first step to see if they can then pursue a longer, broader nuclear deal with Iran, presumably under its next administration, whoever leads it.
“We are fully prepared to go back to the original deal as it was,” Blinken told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on May 23. “That’s our initial objective. … If we succeed in that, then we can use that as a foundation both to look at how we can make the deal itself potentially longer and stronger, and also engage on these other issues, whether it’s Iran’s support for terrorism, its proliferation, its destabilizing support for different proxies throughout the Middle East.”
Of the four rounds of Vienna talks to date, Blinken said there has been progress in clarifying what each side would need to do to come back into compliance. But, he added: “The outstanding question, the question that we don’t have an answer to yet, is whether Iran, at the end of the day, is willing to do what is necessary to come back into compliance with the agreement,” he said. “It’s getting… clearer and clearer what needs to happen. The question is: Is Iran prepared to do it?”
Reaching a return deal with the Iranians should be possible, but it is not inevitable, the senior US negotiator said on May 21.
“While there is a genuine opportunity for a mutual return to compliance, there is no guarantee of success,” he said. “And while there is no reason it should take long, it could well drag on.”
Laura Rozen writes the Diplomatic newsletter, and is a member of the editorial board of Just Security. She previously served as the diplomatic correspondent for Al-Monitor, where she intensively covered the Iran nuclear deal negotiations, as well as a foreign policy reporter for Politico and for Foreign Policy magazine.
On Twitter: @LRozen
Our blog aims to host a diverse, multi-faceted debate on the Iranian presidential elections on June 18. To this end, it highlights aspects that are important to Iranians in the context of the vote as well as fundamental issues like the question of the importance of elections in an autocratic system. We also consider the perspectives of selected regional actors.