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Biden’s Iranian Opportunity

The election of hardline President Ebrahim Raisi in Iran has raised fears that the country will refuse to negotiate with the West. But with Iran's economy in tatters, and the Sunni Taliban returning to power in neighboring Afghanistan, Iran's leaders have every incentive to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

For years, Iranian moderates, such as former President Hassan Rouhani, tried and failed to reach an understanding with the West. Now, a hardliner is in charge. Does President Ebrahim Raisi’s election spell the end of what Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei once called Iran’s “heroic flexibility” in dealing with the West? In the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the question now matters even more.

The answer is yes and no. Raisi is not going to take up the mantle of attempting to reconcile with the West. The ideological confrontation with the United States is central to the Islamic Republic’s fundamentalist identity.

Moreover, both moderates and radicals in Iran still view the strategy of building a proxy-supported Iranian “empire” across the Middle East – advanced by the late military commander Qassem Suleimani, who was assassinated by the US last year – as vital to uphold and advance the Islamic Revolution’s purpose. No true rapprochement is possible between the West and Iran, especially now that hardliners are fully running the show.

It is also worth noting that “heroic flexibility” never applied to Iran’s dealings with Israel – another fundamental bugbear. Raisi’s administration will certainly maintain Iran’s shadow war with the “Zionist entity.”

Iran’s recent attack on an Israeli-managed cargo ship near Oman in the Arabian Sea has been viewed by some as a kind of strategic shift – or, at least, escalation – as it represented a blatant violation of freedom of navigation in international waters. But, in truth, it is merely a continuation of a war in which both Iran and Israel have never shown much regard for international norms.

Israel assumed that, by not using its own merchant fleet – 99% of its foreign trade is handled by international ships – it could avoid such assaults. But just as Iran’s forces in Syria are vulnerable to Israeli attacks, Israeli-linked entities in the Arabian Sea – a theater thousands of miles from the country’s coast, but close to Iran’s mainland – are vulnerable to Iranian attacks.

Iran will not forego the opportunities this represents, not only to impose direct costs on Israel, but also to undermine the Abraham Accords, which, by establishing diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab states, are viewed by Iran as a strategic setback. Already, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are reaching out to Iran, out of concern that US President Joe Biden’s administration’s foreign policy in the region will not protect their interests.

But none of this means that Iran is gearing up for a direct confrontation with the West. Raisi has inherited an economy on life support. The COVID-19 pandemic and Western sanctions have cost Iran about 1.5 million jobs. Moreover, oil- and gas-export revenues have plummeted; annual inflation has reached almost 50%, with the cost of basic foods soaring by nearly 60%.

Clearly, Khamenei’s 2011 vision of a self-reliant Iranian “resistance economy” has not been realized. Nor will it be. Furthermore, now that Raisi is president, Iran’s hardliners can no longer blame pro-Western moderates for Iran’s economic woes. To stave off potential unrest, Iran’s government must stem the economy’s decline by persuading the international community to ease sanctions, which will require it to reach some sort of understanding with the US over its nuclear program.

True, Russia and China are Iran’s more natural allies. But neither country will give Iran the resources it needs to sustain its costly proxy wars or reverse its economic decline. China, in particular, views Iran as a pawn in its broader chess match with the US – one that it would willingly sacrifice for, say, an agreement on vital trade issues.

An Iranian empire in the Middle East is simply not a strategic priority for China. At the same time, Iranian fundamentalists cannot be too happy with their Chinese ally’s brutal crackdown on its Muslim Uyghur population. The bilateral relationship thus does not represent a way out of Iran’s current predicament.

So, a new nuclear agreement is an existential imperative for Iran. And, as much as he dislikes the idea of striking a deal with the US, Khamenei understands this. Remaining on the threshold of nuclear breakout – a position it attained following America’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018 – without actually crossing it may be Iran’s current bargaining position. This is what Raisi might have meant when, prior to his election, he upheld Iran’s need to return to the JCPOA in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

But the real bone of contention lies not in whether the parties are willing to go back to the old JCPOA, but the terms on which Iran would accept the US demand for a new, long-term deal once the JCPOA expires. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has unrealistically called for a “longer and stronger” accord, one that stops Iran from amassing nuclear material for generations, halts its missile tests, and ends its support of terrorist groups.

What is clear is that America should do all it can to encourage Iran’s “heroic flexibility.” After America’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the last thing the US needs is even more chaos in the Middle East. Likewise, the victory in Afghanistan of the Sunni Taliban – staunch ideological enemies of Shia Iran – should strengthen Iran’s commitment to avoid stoking conflict with the West. Now might be as good an opportunity as the US is going to get to reach a lasting nuclear agreement with Iran.

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