Talking Points

Biden's Iran miscalculation

Iran officially has a president-elect, Ebrahim Raisi, who will be sworn in Thursday. Raisi replaces outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate first elected in 2013 to succeed Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the hardliner who first came to many Americans' attention in 2007. That's when he spoke at Columbia University, expressing skepticism of the history of the Holocaust and insisting Iran doesn't "have homosexuals." On the scale of Rouhani to Ahmedinejad, Raisi is closer to the latter.

His distance from Rouhani is particularly important on the subject of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. Rouhani presided over the deal's creation during the Obama administration and attempted to negotiate with the Trump and Biden administrations to restore U.S. participation in the pact after then-President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018. Raisi — who is personally sanctioned by Washington for his alleged involvement in the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the late 1980s — says he'll negotiate, too, but he's expected to be comparatively uncompromising.

None of this is news for President Biden and his team. Raisi was elected in June in a race generally thought to be designed for his victory. This administration knew Raisi was coming. So why did they wait? Why didn't they rejoin the Iran deal while Rouhani was the man on the other side of the table?

Restoring the JCPOA was a key Biden campaign promise, and the administration's foot-dragging has likely made it more difficult — perhaps even impossible — to fulfill. Immediately after Biden's inauguration, the Rouhani government proposed a simultaneous Iran-U.S. return to JCPOA compliance, a way for both governments to get a diplomatic win while saving face. Biden declined. Does he imagine Raisi will be equally accommodating?

There's one more way in which Biden's delay on this issue is unfortunate. I don't want to be simplistic here, but Iran's elections are much quicker than ours. The list of approved candidates was released in late May — months after Biden had rejected the simultaneous return plan. It'd be naïve to think U.S.-Iran relations were the only factor in Raisi's selection, but it would also be naïve to think they were irrelevant. If the moderate Rouhani had been able to restore the deal in February, would a hardliner like Raisi have been the favorite come May? We'll never be able to say with certainty, but we can be pretty sure diplomacy will be more difficult going forward.