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Iran’s next president gives Biden a new nuclear headache

Iran has chosen a new president, which means Joe Biden faces a new dilemma.

Ebrahim Raisi, the victor in Iran’s recent, tightly controlled election, is not just any hardline Iranian politician. He stands accused of an array of human rights abuses, including the mass killing of political dissidents, and former President Donald Trump imposed sanctions on him. Now, Biden and top aides, led by U.S. special envoy for Iran Robert Malley, are facing pressure over whether to lift the sanctions on Raisi as they negotiate with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

Hawkish former U.S. officials and analysts in Washington say Biden shouldn’t lift the sanctions, which Trump imposed on Raisi citing his alleged role in human rights abuses. But Iranian officials are implying the sanctions need to be among those the U.S. lifts if the nuclear deal is to be resurrected.

The question is among many that hover over the nuclear talks, which just wrapped up a sixth round this weekend. The discussions have primarily taken place in Vienna, with European officials acting as go-betweens for delegations from Iran and the United States, which do not have formal diplomatic relations and are not directly negotiating with each other.

Officials say the talks are making progress, but no one is willing to definitively predict that a resolution is in sight, and Raisi’s election could complicate the deliberations.

“Everything is being negotiated under the mantra of ‘Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,’ so at this point, nothing is agreed because not everything has been agreed,” a U.S. official familiar with the issue said. “There are fewer [differences] that remain, but almost by definition those that remain are the most difficult to resolve.”

Senior diplomats from Britain, France and Germany echoed those remarks in a statement Sunday, urging all sides to “return to Vienna and be ready to conclude a deal.” Diplomats also are closely watching talks between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, on a possible extension of a temporary inspections agreement that expires Thursday.

A final arrangement to revive the 2015 deal would have to include the U.S. lifting an array of sanctions and Iran ending many of its nuclear activities, as well as a consensus on how to sequence those steps. The U.S. also wants assurances from Iran that it will commit to follow-on talks about a more expansive, longer-lasting deal, while Iran wants U.S. pledges that Washington won’t back out of a revived 2015 agreement the way Trump did.

Biden administration officials are largely avoiding discussing specifics about their negotiating position in public.

They won’t say, for instance, whether they are making it a condition that Iran explicitly commit in writing to future talks about a bigger deal. The Biden administration hopes those future talks can cover issues such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and its support for proxy militias and terrorist groups. Such future talks also would likely include addressing concerns raised by the scientific knowledge that Iran has gained over the past two years.

The administration’s critics warn that, once the U.S. lifts many sanctions to revive the original agreement, Biden will lack necessary leverage to persuade or force Iran back to the table, no matter what Tehran says now.

But U.S. officials say their Iranian counterparts have indicated that they want, among other things, more economic relief than what the original nuclear deal offers, so Tehran has an incentive to come back for more discussions.

“The same conditions that brought about the [original deal] could bring about a follow-on deal because there still are issues on which Iran wants more from the U.S. and issues on which the U.S. and others want more from Iran,” the U.S. official said.

U.S. officials also won’t say, at this stage, whether they’ll agree to lift the sanctions on Raisi.

Raisi, 60, is a cleric with long experience in Iran’s regime, including overseeing its judiciary. He is implicated in many human rights abuses, among them an alleged role in the mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s. Raisi, who will take over the presidency in August, won an election Friday that was manipulated in his favor after many candidates were disqualified. That manipulation upset a large number of ordinary Iranians, and voter turnout was unusually low.

Among U.S. officials, there’s some confidence that Raisi’s election isn’t an insurmountable obstacle to reviving the 2015 deal.

For one thing, Raisi has indicated he is on board with a return to the deal. The timing could offer him some political cushion. Should the two countries agree on a return to the deal before he takes office, he can blame his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, if the agreement’s revival fails to bring Iran enough economic relief. Should Iran experience an economic boom due to the deal’s revival, Raisi can claim credit.

But negotiators in Vienna are wary of the possibility that Raisi could try to make a mark early on by injecting additional demands into the negotiations.

On Monday, he held a news conference in which he demanded that the United States “lift all oppressive sanctions against Iran.” He said Iran’s ballistic missile program is “non-negotiable” and ruled out limits to Iran’s support for militias outside its borders.

Those are topics U.S. officials hope to address as part of a broader follow-on deal with Iran. Raisi ruled out a meeting with Biden, which was unlikely to happen in the first place. When asked about his role in the 1980s executions, Raisi largely deflected, saying, according to media reports, “I am proud of being a defender of human rights and of people’s security and comfort as a prosecutor wherever I was.”

In Iran’s Islamist governance system, final authority rests with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who seems inclined to reach an arrangement with Washington that will remove many of the sanctions that have damaged his country’s economy. Raisi is close to Khamenei and may succeed him as supreme leader, and he is likely to ultimately follow Khamenei’s instructions on how to approach the current talks.

Some recent history also bodes well: the talks that led to the 2015 deal originally began under another hardline Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, though they were later handled by the team assembled by Rouhani, the outgoing Iranian president, who is considered a moderate.

Whether the Biden administration agrees to lift the sanctions on Raisi could come down to how it decides to categorize them.

When Trump left the nuclear deal, in 2018, he reimposed all the nuclear-related U.S. sanctions that had been lifted by the agreement. He then went further, heaping sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program but also for human rights abuses, support for terrorism and other issues. (Even when the nuclear deal was fully in place, the U.S. had kept on Iran an array of non-nuclear sanctions, including ones related to human rights. Trump simply added more.)

Iranian officials have demanded that all the Trump-era sanctions be lifted. “They avoid focusing on specifics — they say all [Trump-era sanctions] should be lifted and don’t focus on individual names,” the U.S. official familiar with the situation told POLITICO. But by definition that includes the sanctions on Raisi, which Trump levied in 2019.

U.S. officials already have communicated to Iran that Biden will not lift every single sanction imposed by Trump, because many of them appeared to have a legitimate basis. But they’ve also indicated some Trump-era sanctions appeared aimed at making it harder to return to the nuclear deal, not punishing Iran for terrorism or other non-nuclear reasons. The suggestion is that those sanctions could be lifted.

It is rare for the United States to sanction the head of a foreign government. In theory, the sanctions limit Raisi’s ability to travel, including coming to New York for United Nations gatherings.

Already, some critics of the original nuclear deal are insisting that the Biden administration, which has made a point of touting its commitment to human rights, keep the sanctions on Raisi. Amnesty International recently said the incoming Iranian president should be investigated for “crimes against humanity.”

“You look at Raisi’s record and the sanctions are warranted,” said Michael Singh, who served in former President George W. Bush’s National Security Council. “If you’re serious about targeting human rights abusers, then Raisi falls in that category.”

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