Opinion

Why Iran's Mullahs are Slow-Walking a Nuclear Deal, Even With Joe Biden

Ali Jamenei

As the situation within Iran continues to deteriorate, why is the Iranian regime dragging its feet on negotiations with the U.S. on its nuclear program? After all, successful completion of those could lead to the lifting of sanctions on the mullah regime and have actual economic benefits for the Iranian people. 

But the mullahs have chosen to slow-walk the matter, despite the eagerness of the Biden White House to get another nuclear deal done. 

The first clue can be found in Iran's politics.  

In a speech on the eve of the Iranian New Year, the mullahs' Supreme Leader said, "I have repeatedly stated that I believe in and hope for a young and Hezbollah-minded government. ... Some (individuals), although old, are young at heart, hard-working and cheerful, such as the great martyr Qassem Soleimani[the eliminated commander of the terrorist Quds Force]." 

In the 2021 sham presidential election in Iran, a host of candidates, including the former speaker of parliament and Khamenei's advisor, Ali Larijani, were disqualified, thus paving the way for the selection of Khamenei's handpicked candidate, Ebrahim Raisi. In Khamenei's mind, a young and Hezbollah-minded government is a government completely under his control. Khamenei pushed aside the so-called "reformists" or "moderates," who had helped the regime prolong its lifespan for decades. This 'moderate' faction facilitated the policy of Western appeasement by creating false hopes of change or 'reform' within the regime. Khamenei, in short, has decided to go extreme. 

Becoming a "One Voice" Government 

Why did Khamenei cast aside the so-called moderates, who had been such an important ally of his regime?  

Well, he did this primarily to fulfill his desire to create a "one-voice" entity, meant to address the regime's legitimacy crisis, both internally and internationally. 

A "one-voice" policy is meant to counter possible uprisings while not refraining from nuclear and missile programs, regional warfare, and international adventures. 

The two national uprisings of 2018 and 2019, which were curbed only by the bloody repression of the insurgent youths, deepened the regime's crisis of illegitimacy. These significant and unprecedented uprisings, initiated by ordinary people suffering from high inflation, staggering unemployment, and deteriorating living conditions, took the entire regime by surprise. Similar uprisings are destined to be repeated more extensively and ferociously. 

Khamenei installed Ebrahim Raisi as his new president using a manipulated election. According to Amnesty International and the United Nations, Ebrahim Raisi was heavily involved in the massacre of more than 30,000 political prisoners in the summer of 1988. Amnesty International's Secretary General Agnes Callamard called Raisi's victory "a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran," and urged an investigation of "his involvement in past and ongoing crimes under international law." 

Raisi's appointment is meant to intimidate the Iranian people by prohibiting and discouraging any future uprisings. Most of Raisi's cabinet members have held extensive roles in Iran's repressive machinery, and more than 30 of his administration members are functionaries of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Despite ongoing efforts of intimidation and the oppressive efforts of the regime, the number of insurgent youth forming Resistance Units has increased throughout Iran, both in the numbers and the reach of their campaigns, especially after the widespread November 2019 uprisings. Let's just say Khameini has problems. 

These units in fact are a mullah's nightmare: They are advocating for the separation of religion and state and strongly support gender equality. The Resistance Units also advocate for the Ten Point Plan of Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi. As they gain in popularity, especially among the youth, the Iranian people support these groups in a variety of ways. Khamenei and other regime officials truly fear the formation of such a powerful resistance front in Iran. 

Iran's Resistance Units are engaged in writing anti-regime graffiti, organizing protests and distributing leaflets. In this way, they urge the Iranian society to revolt against religious theocracy. In a report after the 2019 uprising, a regime interior ministry official acknowledged that the Resistance Units were instrumental in forming that uprising.

Protestas Irán
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An Unbalanced and Unfair Confrontation 

After the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, a theory emerged within the Iranian regime that superpowers could be challenged through asymmetric warfare. Based on this theory, the mullahs' regime pivoted towards building a nuclear bomb, intensifying in terrorist activities in the region, and expanding its regional influence in neighboring countries and beyond. 

Due to its medieval religious dogmas, this regime cannot meet the people's essential social and economic needs. Khamenei is facing an explosive and fragile situation inside Iran. Naturally, the regime's leadership turned to internal repression of the people and creating tensions and conflicts in the region. The regime also believes a nuclear weapon can guarantee its survival and has invested heavily in this endeavor. In short, they don't want to give up their bomb through some negotiation with Joe Biden, nor even give the appearance of giving it up. 

In the minds of the mullahs, they might just lose power. 

Now let's turn to how the mullahs view actual nuclear weapons as their key to holding internal power. 

In August 2002, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) revealed Tehran's clandestine nuclear weapons program. This shocking revelation was a big blow to the theocracy's nuclear ambitions. To compensate for its nuclear setbacks, Tehran increased its regional influence and accelerated the development of ballistic missiles. 

According to an Iranian analyst close to government circles, "What can guarantee the JCPOA's [Iran nuclear deal] survival is a show of Iran's national power." He defines national power as follows: 

- Maintaining nuclear capabilities so that if the Americans decide to abandon the JCPOA again, Iran will move toward producing 90 percent enriched uranium 

- Maintaining the country's defensive power (missile and drones development program) 

- Reducing vulnerability to sanctions 

Another source close to the Iranian regime believes what could prevent the U.S. from abandoning the JCPOA again is to announce that "if the deal is violated, it (Iran) will build its own bomb and set Saudi Arabia on fire." 

Regime theorists believe that if Western countries find Iran in a weak position, they will destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, reduce its missile power, and demand Iran's unconditional withdrawal from the region's countries. 

Such analysis assumes that Iran is a lightweight while the P5 + 1 is a heavyweight. So "no one expects a lightweight boxer to win, but if he can resist and buy time, his opponent will get tired, and his strength will increase over time. In this confrontation, we must increase our resistance and, above all, strengthen the economy. I am convinced that what allows the regime to continue to breathe is first the economy, then its defense capacity, and finally the amount of enriched uranium." 

Resumption of Nuclear Talks 

All signs indicate that the parties involved in the recent round of the JCPOA negotiations are losing hope for reaching an agreement. The parties involved have not modified their positions. 

Iran does not consider its missile programs and regional behavior to be negotiable. It is not satisfied with anything less than lifting of all sanctions and tangible positive consequences for Iran's economy. 

On the other hand, the United States considers any concessions to Iran to be contingent on changes to its missile programs and menacing regional intransigence. Furthermore, both Washington and the European Troika agree that Iran's advancements in its nuclear programs and lack of cooperation with the IAEA have further complicated the negotiation process. 

Tehran has agreed to join the next round of talks with the P4+1 (i.e. excluding the U.S.) scheduled for Nov. 29. A vexing issue for Tehran remains sanctions, which the United States, and not Europe, has imposed and enforced. In that respect, negotiations with Europe alone will not necessarily address the regime's main demand, namely the lifting of U.S.-led sanctions. 

Europe, like Washington, has shared its serious concerns regarding Iran's missile program and its destabilizing behavior in the region, stating that it considers Iran's nuclear and missile program to be a potential threat to itself and its allies. 

Perhaps the most critical sign of the potential failure of the Nov. 29 talks and any subsequent negotiations lies in Iran's continuation of its hostile activities in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman. The drone assassination plot against the Iraqi Prime Minister conducted by Iran-backed proxies using Tehran's weaponry, the seizure of oil tankers, and conducting dangerous military maneuvers, magnify Tehran's clear message that it has absolutely no intention of modifying its regional behavior. It is worth noting that such actions are meant to portray a powerful image in the eyes of loyal forces within the regime. 

The remarks of Fereydoun Abbasi, a member of the Energy Commission of Iran's Parliament, fully confirm the above assessment. "The current government believes in detente, which is rooted in resistance," he said. And detente means lifting all sanctions related to the JCPOA and other sanctions related to human rights and terrorism. 

"If people want independence and want to solve their economic challenges, they should know that hard power supports soft power in negotiations," he added. That is a thinly veiled reference to a nuclear weapon. 

At present, Iran's economy is held hostage to the regime's foreign policy, which itself is captive to the progress of nuclear negotiations. If the Iranian regime fails to equip itself with a nuclear bomb, its bargaining power will decrease substantially. Obligating itself to the terms and conditions of Western governments will mean that it will be forced to subsequently address human rights abuses and accept a retreat in regional meddling and missile development. 

Even though refusing to negotiate is contrary to the Iranian people's welfare and future, the regime believes that it must continue the current path to the end, leading to a nuclear bomb. Abbasi believes that "deterrence should be further extended beyond Iran's neighboring countries. Iran's deterrence should emerge in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and Antarctica. Therefore, we must work on factors influencing the nuclear arena (i.e. obtaining the bomb) because the symbols of power for any country, including the Islamic Republic, is to establish a serious presence in certain arenas."

Hamid Enayat is a Paris-based Iranian analyst and Iran expert.