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For Iran, Negotiations Aren’t Optional

No matter who wins the U.S. presidential election, Joe Biden or President Donald Trump, the next administration will have to confront a dangerous situation with Iran. Although Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has wrecked the Iranian economy, it has failed to produce Iran’s capitulation or collapse. Instead, as international inspectors affirmed this month, Tehran is closer to having a nuclear weapon today than when Trump took office. The regime’s regional aggression is undiminished. And just this week, it was accused of plotting the assassination of the U.S. ambassador to South Africa in retaliation for the United States’ killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in January.

To address these threats, it will be crucial for the next U.S. president to make a credible effort at diplomacy; indeed, both Biden and Trump have stated a willingness to pursue negotiations. In a Sunday op-ed, Biden reiterated his pledge to reverse the current administration’s policy and re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal, which Trump left in 2018. The former vice president’s proposal can be boiled down to this: “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.” For his part, Trump has claimed on several occasions that if he were elected for a second term, he’d be able to strike a deal with Iran within weeks of his inauguration. A key question facing the next administration is how and when it would take the first step toward reengaging Tehran.

In the United States and Europe, observers increasingly argue that there is a window of opportunity to secure a deal with Iran between the U.S. inauguration in January and the Iranian presidential elections in June. President Hassan Rouhani isn’t eligible to run again and will likely be replaced by a more conservative politician. Thus, the argument goes, Biden (or a reelected Trump) should move quickly to strike a deal with Iran while Rouhani is still in power.

That would be a mistake. To be sure, there are compelling reasons for a new administration to reengage Iran early on to reduce the nuclear and regional risks. But the United States shouldn’t rush to secure a deal in the hopes of shaping Iran’s domestic politics, or for fear that the window of opportunity will close. And the new administration shouldn’t assume that without Rouhani, diplomacy wouldn’t stand a chance.

Rouhani’s 2013 election was key to diplomacy’s success. Under the hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, American diplomats faced counterparts much less inclined or equipped to negotiate in good faith. Rouhani’s election broke the logjam, as U.S. chief negotiator Ambassador Wendy Sherman recounts in her memoir. Yet, U.S. policy-makers should not overstate Rouhani’s personal role or assume that he can play a similar role again. In 2013, Rouhani could run on a diplomacy-first campaign message because the political system, led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, had already decided to tack toward diplomacy, facing a significant escalation in U.S. sanctions and domestic pressure. Secret U.S.-Iranian talks throughout 2012 and 2013 demonstrated Tehran’s different attitude. Rouhani’s election didn’t enable a strategic decision to negotiate; the system’s strategic decision enabled Rouhani’s election.

Rouhani’s political position could not be more different today. In 2013, Rouhani had considerable political capital and was a contender to succeed Khamenei. Today, his standing has collapsed along with that of the nuclear agreement he championed and the economy he promised to revive. He is probably keen to open up talks with Washington in his final months to rehabilitate his political legacy and show that the accord was not in vain. By the same token, with succession looming large, powerful forces have a vested interest in seeing Rouhani fail during the remainder of his tenure. Washington should therefore not assume that Rouhani has the leash to get a deal done, even if it is in his best political interest.

Meanwhile, proponents of diplomacy rightly assess that Rouhani’s successor will almost certainly be more conservative. But that’s not necessarily a death knell for diplomacy. Ahmadinejad will likely not be allowed to run again, and his ilk are not in good standing among the country’s leadership. Even from the perspective of key hardliners—including Khamenei—the Ahmadinejad experiment in hard-line populism was a failure. His mismanagement of affairs at home and his belligerence abroad led to internal turmoil and accelerated the country’s isolation internationally.

Iranian elites are probably more interested in stability than gambling with a volatile candidate, with succession on the agenda and given increasing discontent at home (as demonstrated by the November 2019 protests and the regime’s violent response). It is far too soon to pick a frontrunner for president, although a spectrum of well-known conservative figures appear to have a viable shot, including Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, Ezzatollah Zarghami, Hossein Dehghan, and Parviz Fattah. All have Revolutionary Guards or intelligence credentials, although this says more about the mounting political power of the security apparatus than it does about each man’s likelihood of negotiating with Washington.

Ultimately, it will not be up to the new president to decide whether to negotiate with Washington. When it comes to national security strategy, Iran acts as a unitary actor. This is not to say that the country’s domestic politics don’t matter, but it’d be a mistake to think of the regime’s strategic-level decisions shifting fundamentally with the change in government. Major decisions are made with buy-in from the whole system. Although there will be differences between Rouhani and his successor, if and when Iran decides to return to the negotiating table, it’ll do so regardless of who’s holding the reins of the executive branch.

In the end, Iran will probably have no choice but to negotiate with the U.S. president. Despite extraordinary steps to stabilize the stock market and cover the budget deficit, Iran’s economic situation is not sustainable. The regime can almost certainly not risk the return of widespread protests as it falters further. But Iranian leaders will nevertheless approach negotiations cautiously. Khamenei and others have been quick to point out that Trump’s withdrawal from the last nuclear deal showed that the United States cannot be trusted, and they will approach Washington accordingly. The timing and scope of the negotiations will likely be determined once the results of the U.S. elections are known and Iran has a better sense of the new administration’s composition, goals, and policies. Above all, Iran will assiduously avoid appearing to be in a state of desperation.

There are good reasons for a new U.S. administration to move quickly to talk to Tehran to try to de-escalate tensions. But that’s quite different from chasing the Iranians in the hopes of striking a deal based on the artificial deadline of the Iranian elections. The United States’ track record of trying to influence Iranian domestic politics leaves a lot to be desired. Not only will such attempts fail to secure American interests, Iran will also leverage this desire to its advantage. Ultimately, timelines guiding the U.S.-Iranian diplomatic process should serve the United States’ objectives, not vice versa.

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