Iran’s presidential election: new possibilities for nuclear negotiations?

There is a certain fatalism surrounding Iran’s presidential election this Friday, June 14th, with many people having lost interest because of the limited field of candidates (eight) being allowed to stand. This is coupled with soaring unemployment and inflation in the Islamic Republic, caused by mismanagement and encroaching economic sanctions from the Western countries over its nuclear program. Many of the country’s young people, who constitute a very large proportion of the electorate, are disheartened by the diplomatic damage to Iran’s international reputation, and the economic hardship that is impacting on their everyday lives.

This has all brought the nuclear program into the election campaign spotlight. One of the presidential front-runners, Saeed Jalili, is currently Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator and two other candidates, Hasan Rouhani and Ali Akbar Velayati, have also formerly held that position. In a debate last Friday on national TV in Tehran, the candidates seemed split on the issue of nuclear negotiations. Velayati, a former Foreign Minister and still very close to the Supreme Leader as his adviser on international affairs, accused Jalili of overplaying his hand in the negotiations and exacerbating the crisis:

“You want to take three steps and you expect the other side to take 100 steps, this means that you don’t want to make progress…This is not diplomacy…We can’t expect everything and give nothing…What people are seeing, Mr. Jalili, is that you have not gone forward even one step, and the pressure of sanctions still exists.”

Jalili most recently met with the E3+3 (P5+1: United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany) in Almaty, Kazakhstan in early April. The E3+3 called on Iran to curb enrichment above 5 percent, convert existing 20 enriched uranium into fuel for a research reactor or export it, and shut down Fordow in exchange for limited sanctions relief. Initial reactions from Jalili were somewhat promising, but little progress has been achieved since.

Since April, news and developments on the Iranian nuclear program and negotiations have been muted. Last week the IAEA Board of Governors declared its concern over Iran’s planned start-up of its new Arak heavy water reactor, but decided to postpone any further action against Iran pending post-election developments. Iran’s IAEA Ambassador Ali Ashgar Soltanieh reacted in a conciliatory manner, offering the Agency access to better monitor activities there.

There remains uncertainty as to whether the next leader of the Islamic Republic will make a big difference. The Iranian nuclear file is in any case under the control of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, and not Iran’s president. None of the candidates are likely themselves to bring a dramatic new strategy to the nuclear negotiations and because of this, the view from most analysts is that this a new president in power will lead to little change on the nuclear front.

However, the disputes between the Supreme Leader and incumbent President Ahmadinejad have certainly damaged Iran’s capacity to negotiate with the E3+3. A change of president could yet open up the possibilities, even if the new president is not more personally inclined to offer significant concessions.
These are the views of the author.

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