Iran under a conservative president still needs the JCPOA

Ebrahim Raisi may have criticised the nuclear deal in the past, but as president, he will have to abide by it.

Ebrahim Raisi won the June 18 presidential elections in Iran [Getty Images/Meghdad Madadi]

The low turnout in the recent Iranian presidential election is sounding alarm bells for Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who repeatedly asked the electorate to go to polling stations as a show of defiance against foreign powers, especially the United States, which is often dubbed the Great Satan in Iranian political vocabulary.

But with a participation rate of less than 50 percent, the lowest in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, no such heroics can be claimed. Instead, President-elect Ebrahim Raisi will hold the unenviable record of receiving the lowest popular vote for any president in Iran since 1979. His is a hollow victory that does not generate political legitimacy for the Iranian regime.

For more than 50 percent of the electorate, the Islamic regime has been a failure and a source of entrenched misery. High inflation, economic stagnation, unemployment, nepotism and the absence of avenues for cultural and political expression have driven the population to the brink. The mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, which made Iran a regional source of infection in 2020, was the last straw.

The Iranian leadership is well aware of the extent of popular alienation and the potential for political unrest. In recent years, Iran has been rocked by a series of spontaneous protests over economic woes; in late 2017, even a spike in the price of eggs triggered popular discontent.

That is why Raisi’s predecessor, President Hassan Rouhani, was determined to address underlying economic challenges. He had Khamenei’s support to find a compromise with the West on the hot issue of Iran’s nuclear programme. By the time Rouhani took office in 2013, the programme was a matter of national pride but also of increasing tension with Western governments, especially the US.

In 2015, he had a popular mandate and the approval of the Supreme Leader to show “heroic flexibility” and sign the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in return for the removal of sanctions that were crippling the Iranian economy. Unfortunately for Rouhani and the Iranian economy, sanctions were never fully lifted and in 2018 then-US President Donald Trump formally withdrew from the nuclear deal.

This was a humiliating experience for Rouhani and other pragmatists who had risked their political future on the JCPOA and sanctions relief. The hardliners, including Ebrahim Raisi, felt vindicated when Trump withdrew from the deal, ridiculing Rouhani’s team for their naivety.

But the issue has not gone away. The JCPOA is under renewed negotiation since President Joe Biden took office in Washington, with the prospects of its revival. Raisi, who will take office in August, will inherit unfinished business.

Despite Raisi’s attacks on Rouhani for being weak in international talks and proclamations of entering the international stage from a position of strength, he subscribes to the unspoken consensus in the leadership that Iran’s economy is in desperate need of resuscitation. Ahead of the elections, he expressed commitment to the JCPOA, despite having criticised it in previous years.

Therefore, he is likely to follow through with the deal when he assumes the mantle of the presidency. More importantly, the Supreme Leader. whose decisions set the agenda, has already endorsed the deal and is keen to see the benefits flow through to the economy and calm the pent-up popular fury with Iran’s economic decline.

While it is not clear how the incoming president will manage JCPOA negotiations, that he is generally open to its revival gives the Biden administration an opening to make an offer to the Iranian leadership they cannot afford to miss. By pushing through talks in Vienna, the US can offer meaningful sanctions relief, including access to global finance, which Iran desperately needs. In return, the JCPOA will set in place a strict inspection regime and limits on uranium enrichment to ensure Iran does not pursue a nuclear weapons programme.

The deal was negotiated in 2015 as the best mechanism to monitor Iran’s nuclear programme and as an early warning system against weaponisation. If renegotiated, Raisi will likely abide by it.

The decline of the political fortune of Iranian pragmatists should not distract Washington. Offering real economic benefits in a revived JCPOA is the best way to ensure Iran’s compliance, especially if accompanied by a unilateral US gesture of goodwill. Raisi is not in a position to reject realistic prospects for economic recovery, a topic so central to the Iranian leadership’s own survival.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.