President-designate Biden’s decisions on the appointment of senior foreign policy and national security officials and cabinet-level positions have served consistently in the Obama administration, and her experience in negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran will, of course, feed into her advice. It is unlikely, however, that president-elect Biden’s interest in renewed contact with Tehran will be quickly reciprocated by the Iranian regime forces that have seized power in recent years.
The influence of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has declined since the new National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan flew to Oman to conduct secret negotiations that eventually led to the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA). These “acceptable” representatives of the Iranian regime have been hindered by incompetence, corruption, economic failure and internal power struggles.
For Sullivan, Antony Blinken and the rest of the national security team, this is a major roadblock. Instead of engaging with an Iranian president and foreign minister at the height of their power, they will instead have to work with forces that are much bolder in their goals and much stronger in their positions.
The composition of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), which drives national security decision-making in the Islamic Republic, has changed since the conclusion of the nuclear deal in 2015. Rouhani is more isolated in the SNSC than ever before because of the new members who have joined since then.
One of the new additions after 2015, Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, Chief of Armed Forces General Staff, has been critical of the JCPOA and has not spoken out loudly in favor of Rouhani’s presidency. Indeed, the two clashed over Tehran’s reaction to the corona virus. This is in contrast to his predecessor Hassan Firouzabadi, who defended Rouhani’s nuclear negotiations and gave decisive military support to his efforts.
SNSC members also include the new head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hossein Salami, who as a former commander of the Aerospace Force is a strong supporter of its missile program. He has taken a more provocative stance on missile technologies than his predecessor Mohammad Ali Jafari, who argued that Iran’s self-imposed 2,000 km missile range is sufficient to assert his interests. Salami, on the other hand, seems more willing to support a longer range, after he once warned: “If Europe wants to become a threat, we will increase the range of our missiles”. Under Salami, some IRGC member organizations are already pushing for the nuclear dossier to be transferred from the Foreign Ministry back to the SNSC, which had traditionally conducted negotiations with the West prior to Rouhani’s election. The current secretary of the SNSC, Ali Shamkhani, is himself a long-time guard.
As if this headwind were not enough, Rouhani now faces two of his leading political rivals in the SNSC: Parliamentary President Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, both of whom remain ambitious actors and were his opponents in previous Iranian elections. Ghalibaf’s predecessor, Ali Larijani, ran legislative interference for Rouhani in the JCPOA, which he called “good business”. The then conservatives even accused Larijani of having pushed through the bill to approve the agreement in a parliamentary session lasting only 20 minutes.
The new speaker and the Chief Justice have already worked together in recent months to prevent initiatives under Rouhani’s leadership, such as a proposal to sell oil loans, and Ghalibaf has blamed the country’s economic problems on “Pasteur and Baharestan”-a reference to locations of government offices in Iran-not US policy or politics.
Their pugnacity towards Rouhani could also extend to the nuclear file. The assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh could feed the arguments of hardline elements of the regime, especially in the IRGC, for a more uncompromising position. In the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, Iran’s top leader reportedly suspended a Quds Force revenge appeal after repeated setbacks by the regime this year, including the explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility in the summer. Fakhrizadeh’s death could thus contribute to Khamenei upsetting the balance between the factions in the near future.
If this is the case, it will be a problem for a Biden administration seeking immediate engagement. Ghalibaf has stated that the new parliament will “negotiate and compromise with the USA…. as pointless and harmful”. To make matters even more complicated: One of the representatives of the top leader in the SNSC, Saeed Jalili, still has ambitions for the presidency and could run in 2021. It is unlikely that he too wants to help Rouhani rehabilitate his image, at the risk of giving pragmatists a boost, and he could be an influential voice behind the closed doors of the SNSC.
It is tempting to believe that there is a quick solution and that the Biden administration has only a limited window of opportunity to re-enter the JCPOA, as if Rouhani had full capacity to act. He has not, and the US should not fall into the trap of believing that American policy can strengthen the so-called moderates and suppress the influence of the hardliners at this point in the Rouhani administration. The new conservative power dynamic in Iran is also more about the own succession of the eighty-year-old top leader than about a reaction to US policy.
The Biden government should be skeptical of arguments that there is a narrow window of opportunity to make contact with the regime before Rouhani leaves office. He is a lame duck president who is facing an enormous headwind. But this does not mean that the talks are completely off the table. Tehran is playing a long game, and the supreme leader will make the final decision, regardless of who is president. He has authorized dialogue with the West under both hardline and pragmatic administration, even after earlier attacks on nuclear scientists a decade ago. A new Iranian president might also be better positioned in the system to negotiate more expansively than Rouhani. Ultimately, Washington should not rush to restore from 2015 a reality that no longer exists.
Jason M. Brodsky is the political director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). He is on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author.