With presidential elections in Iran only three weeks away, questions are emerging about whether and how the development of the nuclear talks currently taking place in Vienna could affect the results of the elections, as well as how the latter could affect the nuclear issue in the future. Perhaps surprisingly, this round of elections seems detached from the nuclear negotiations, unlike the past. But their outcome is still likely to have repercussions for Iran’s tactical approach to the nuclear file.
Since nuclear talks first started, back in 2003, four rounds of presidential elections have taken place in Iran. Especially the 2005 and 2013 elections, which respectively brought Mahmood Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani to power, left huge marks on Iran’s nuclear diplomacy.
In 2005 Ahmadinejad won mainly because of his ability to depict himself as a man of the people, in contrast to candidates such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, against whom he ran in the run-off and whom he accused of contributing to the corruption of the Islamic Republic’s principles and economy for his own advantage. By relying on his mosques and Revolutionary Guards’ networks, the hardliner managed to mobilize an unexpected level of support for himself. But nuclear talks did not feature at all in his electoral campaign and thus did not contribute to his success. Ahmadinejad’s election, on the other hand, pushed Tehran to adopt a different posture in foreign policy compared to the previous reformist administration, led by President Mohammad Khatami. On the nuclear issue, this meant that Ahmadinejad implemented his preferences by removing all previous negotiators and replacing them with people with much more antagonistic views towards France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (known as the E3), the EU, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Soon after Ahmadinejad’s victory, Iran progressively disengaged from talks with the E3, reprising the nuclear activities that were suspended under the previous administration. Talks with Russia, China, the European powers, and the US continued during his two terms, though no significant progress was made towards a deal or de-escalation. Instead Iran continued to advance its nuclear program, increasing the level of its enrichment and stockpiles and building an underground uranium enrichment facility, Fordow.
Rouhani’s electoral victory in 2013, unlike Ahmadinejad’s, was significantly linked to the nuclear talks. As a former chief negotiator on the nuclear issue during Khatami’s presidency, he portrayed foreign policy and the reduction of tensions with the outside world as key to solving the country’s issues, including Iran’s crumbling economy.
Rouhani specifically criticized the approach that Ahmadinejad’s negotiators had taken to the nuclear issue, arguing that more constructive nuclear diplomacy was necessary to strike a deal and roll back the crippling international sanctions. He rode to victory by raising the Iranian people’s hopes that they would directly benefit from nuclear talks, which, through the lifting of sanctions, were meant to improve the economy. Rouhani’s election, albeit not by itself, also significantly affected Iran’s posture on the talks. Soon after his term started, he changed negotiators once again, bringing in experienced diplomats and placing the dossier under the leadership of Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who had served for a long time in the US.
Already in November, just three months after coming to power, the new administration managed to reach an interim agreement, known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). After more than two years of intense negotiations, that deal ultimately led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), announced in July 2015. In 2017, Rouhani won reelection thanks to the fact that the voters believed he could (and should) finish what started – translating the nuclear deal into concrete economic dividends for the Iranian people.
Four years after, with talks in Vienna still in the news cycle, Iranians do not have the same level of interest, let alone hope, that progress on the nuclear issue could actually deliver tangible economic improvement. Even when all parties fully implemented the deal, Iran was not able to fully integrate into the global financial system: many banks and companies were still hesitant to engage with Tehran for fear of US penalties – dashing the Iranian people's remaining expectations of rapid economic recovery. The prospect that the JCPOA would improve the Iranian economy faded even further once the US withdrew from the deal in 2018, triggering the resumption of sanctions and the adoption of President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. Despite the Iranian decision to remain a fully compliant party to the deal for more than a year, the remaining JCPOA parties did not manage to take enough steps to prevent Iran from falling into a deep recession.
With all this in mind, it is thus unlikely that what happens in Vienna will determine whom Iranians will vote for on June 18 – or whether they vote at all. This will be the case even if progress towards the resumption of the JCPOA is made and a compromise reached before the elections. In order for the positive effects of lifting sanctions to actually trickle down into the Iranian economy, different steps will need to be taken from those adopted in 2016, and even in the best-case scenario these changes will take time. Three weeks will not be enough time for an announcement from Vienna to translate into tangible economic benefits that the Iranian people will be able to savor and trust.
Nevertheless, some presidential candidates might still decide to center their campaigns on their stance on the nuclear issue. Moderate conservative Ali Larijani, has for instance echoed some of the slogans adopted by Rouhani in 2013, claiming that successful nuclear negotiation could “provide breathing space for the country's economy”. However, these slogans, years after they were initially made and without the country’s economy having made substantial progress, are unlikely to encourage voter turnout or trigger a sudden wave of hope for the prospects of economic recovery. This is even more the case now that he has been now disqualified from running by the Guardian Council, with other candidates likely even less interested in what happens in Vienna.
What is more likely, instead, is that, once again, the outcome of the presidential elections will affect Iran’s tactical approach to foreign policy, particularly when it comes to the nuclear issue. Of course, the national consensus and the position of the supreme leader does much to determine what Iran does on the foreign policy stage. But even an establishment figure such as President Rouhani has argued in the run-up to the upcoming elections that his administration succeeded in every negotiation it engaged in over the past eight years, whereas previous ones (read Ahmadinejad’s) came back from each one “with a resolution against the country”. Thus, it matters in this context who is holding the Iranian presidency.
While Iranians are thus unlikely to vote on the basis of what candidates say or think about the nuclear issue or on what announcement (if any) is made between now and June 18 in Vienna: Their votes (or lack thereof) are likely to shape the country’s posture towards foreign policy in general, and the nuclear issue in particular, for years to come.
Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi is Senior Research Fellow at the International Security Studies department of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), where she also leads the Unpacking the MENA programme. Her research is concerned with security and geopolitics in the Middle East with a particular focus on Iran.
On Twitter: @AnisehBassiri
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.