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What Iran's New President Could Mean For The Iran Nuclear Deal


Diplomats from Russia, China, Germany, France, the European Union and Iran have been meeting on and off since last spring to try to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. That deal gave Iran relief from sanctions in return for limits on its nuclear program. Then President Trump reimposed those sanctions, and Iran started breaching those limits. The group of diplomats came together again yesterday, just a day after the Iranian government announced that hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi had won the presidential election. We're going to spend the next few minutes now talking with Vali Nasr about how all of this could affect the fate of an Iran nuclear deal. He's a professor of international affairs and Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.


VALI NASR: Thank you very much.

CHANG: All right. So before we dive into the Iran nuclear deal, can you just give us an idea of who Ebrahim Raisi is and how he compares to his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani?

NASR: So Ebrahim Raisi is a judge by profession and training, is currently the Iran's chief justice, and he hails from the conservative side of Iran's political spectrum. He's been very loyal to the supreme leader, and he essentially was elevated by the supreme leader to his current position. And the difference with his predecessor is that his predecessor belonged to the first generation of the revolution. He was a statesman with considerably more experience in foreign policy, which Mr. Raisi does not have at the moment.

CHANG: OK. And how might Raisi's election change efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal at this point?

NASR: Immediately it will not have an impact because these negotiations in Vienna have not been coupled with Iran's presidential elections. They are going to extend it beyond the election itself. And the progress that have happened until this point in time had a lot to do with the support that it received from the supreme leader. And therefore, the issues that remain on the table are not dependent on Mr. Raisi's views, but rather on the position that the supreme leader will take on the final deal.

CHANG: How much political benefit could Raisi derive from a deal?

NASR: I think a great deal because he has not negotiated it. He basically can blame all of its shortcomings on his predecessor. But I also suspect that partly his election to the presidency benefits the supreme leader, and that's why he won and he was supported by the supreme leader, because now with the hard-liners in control of all the positions of power, they basically will have to own the deal and the relationship with the U.S. And they cannot throw stones at it sitting on the sidelines. And I think Mr. Raisi, given the support of the supreme leader, given his own political pedigree, is perhaps the best positioned in managing Iran's extremely hard line of radical and anti-nuclear deal parliament.

CHANG: OK. Well, as we've been mentioning, diplomats have been meeting for weeks. They've said that they are making progress. But do you have a sense of how close they actually are to reviving the Iran nuclear deal?

NASR: I think they're both very close and very far. In other words, the technical issues - that was the job of the technical committees to discuss - on lifting of sanctions or on Iran's path back to full compliance have been pretty much done, and there is a broad agreement on the majority of issues. The fundamental issues that remain are really political issues, which at the same time could be the biggest obstacles, namely whether Iran would be willing to enter the deal without the United States giving it any kind of guarantees that what happened under President Trump won't happen again, which is a risk that Iran would have to take. And it's a political decision that the supreme leader has to make. And secondly, how will Iran respond to America's demand that it should agree at this point to follow on negotiations beyond a 2015 deal?

CHANG: You wrote a piece in March warning that President Biden has a very short window to revive this deal. And I'm curious, given all that has happened in the last few weeks, do you still feel the same way?

NASR: I think we still are in a short time frame. I mean, if the two sides cannot revive the deal in short order, then the trajectory of the relationship is going to go in more and more negative direction. Iran will continue to enrich and probably engage in activities in the region that would be destabilizing in order to put pressure on the U.S. That would provoke reaction from the U.S., which in turn would provoke another reaction from Iran. So we are right now in a sort of a holding pattern since January that President Biden came in, in that the Iranians are hopeful that there will be a deal. The Americans are hopeful that there would be a deal. But if dealmaking drags out, if there is no light at the end of the tunnel clearly evident, then I think the calculations on both sides will change.

CHANG: Vali Nasr is a professor of international affairs and Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

NASR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.