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6 August 2021updated 13 Sep 2021 5:32pm

Joe Biden’s steep climb on Iran nuclear talks

A new hardline president in Iran complicates the US path to rejoining the arms control agreement.

By Emily Tamkin

This week, US President Joe Biden’s journey to rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal, seemed as winding as ever. 

Iran swore in on Thursday 5 August its new president, Ebrahim Raisi, who once studied in one of the supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s Islamic seminaries. While Raisi, in his first presidential speech, promised support for “any diplomatic plan” that will bring Iran closer to being able to trade freely with the world, he is nevertheless a hardliner, and one who also warned foreign powers against involving themselves in the region’s affairs. 

The EU’s decision to send a senior official to the inauguration was criticised by human rights activists and by Israel, who, along with the US and the UK, blame Iran for a recent suspected drone attack on a tanker in the Arabian Sea. Yet the EU stressed in a statement that it considered diplomatic engagement with the new Iranian administration a priority, wanting to “facilitate the way back to full JCPOA implementation”. 

The JCPOA came into effect in 2016 and was signed by the US, EU, UK, France, Germany, China, Russia and Iran. The deal placed restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme, which Iran accepted in exchange for sanctions relief. Former President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. Biden is now tentatively trying to get the United States back in. But in the meantime, Iran has breached the enrichment caps established by the deal, and has come closer to making weapons-grade uranium, which former US officials have said was a move designed to strengthen Iran’s hand at the negotiating table. 

In June, via negotiations in Vienna, it looked for a moment like progress was being made. But now the talks are at a standstill. Even America’s top negotiator, Robert Malley, has cautioned that there is a risk Iran’s demands will be unrealistic. 

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It is possible that a new Iranian president will bring fresh energy to the talks. But it is also possible – and indeed likely – that the hardliner will take a tough approach. 

The domestic situation in the US hasn’t made things easier for the Biden administration. Attitudes toward the Iran nuclear deal were already, broadly speaking, divided along partisan lines at the time of the plan’s inception (though there were, in 2015, exceptions; Senator Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was opposed). And foreign policy in the US has not become less partisan in the six years since. 

Last month, after the US charged four Iranians with plotting to kidnap a New York journalist and human rights activist who was critical of Iran, Republican senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Jim Risch of Idaho, the latter being the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged the Biden government to suspend negotiations over Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme. In Washington as well as Vienna, the administration faces a steep climb. 

[See also: What next in Israel and iran’s shadow war?]