There has been a split among the Iranian elite over the law on the strategic plan to counter US sanctions passed by the Iranian Majlis (Parliament). The law was summarily approved on December 1 in response to the murder of Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
The new law provides for an almost complete departure from the international nuclear agreement – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In particular, at least 1000 IR-2M centrifuges are required to be installed at the Natanz nuclear center so as to dramatically speed up the process of separating uranium-238 and uranium-235. The Fordo nuclear plant is to resume uranium enrichment to a concentration of 20%. The Arak heavy-water reactor, with its core dismantled back in 2016, should be restored to the pre-nuclear-deal state to make it able to produce weapons-grade plutonium upon completion. The law also obliges the government to stop voluntarily implementing the Additional Protocol to the safeguards agreement with the IAEA, i.e. to block access of agency inspectors to Iranian nuclear facilities. The law still leaves the door ajar for the West, obliging the Iranian government to get back to implementing the deal if the United States and Europe begin to honor their part of obligations under the agreement, that is, they will open Iran full access to trade and economic exchange mechanisms.
The plan was approved by an overwhelming number of MPs, most of whom belong to the conservative political wing. Its adoption was a demonstration of hardliners who no longer want to suffer humiliation from the United States and Europe. The law is expected to be ratified by the Guardian Council headed by ultraconservative Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. After that, the document will enter into force.
In contrast, the moderate government led by President Hassan Rouhani advocates a dialogue with the West and the solution of interstate and international problems through negotiations. During a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, President Hassan Rouhani stressed that the government disagrees with the approved documents and believes that the decision is detrimental to the course of diplomacy.
The intensity of differences between the two branches of government is open to guesswork, since a downright confrontation between them rarely goes public.
As a President and a human being, Rouhani can be understood. The long-term nuclear negotiations and the subsequent JCPOA are his life's work and the prime objective of his election promises.
After 2003-2005 negotiations on Iran's nuclear program with Europe, during which he led the delegation of the Islamic Republic, Rouhani was even called "a diplomat Sheikh" for his speech-craft. However, back then, Iran made some concessions like a partial suspension of some nuclear facilities. Immediately after taking office as President in August 2013, Rouhani resumed negotiations with the six international mediators (the five permanent UN Security Council member states and Germany) on the Iranian nuclear program, which ended up in striking the JCPOA two years later.
Rouhani's second presidential term ends in the summer of 2021. Under the Iranian Constitution, he is not entitled for reelection. If the nuclear deal bites the dust before then, Rouhani risks entering Iran's history as a President who gave credence to the West and lost. The conservatives won't fail to accuse him of betraying the country's national interests and to call him a man whose concessions have slowed down Iranian nuclear program development and deprived Iran of free access to world markets. Therefore, the Iranian Cabinet head will work for preserving the JCPOA.
Discord between the conservatives and moderates does also point to the kind of card hardliners will play in next year's presidential election campaign.
Rouhani is obviously counting on Joseph Biden to fulfill his campaign promises and get back to the nuclear deal. "Enemies sought to turn the sanctions into a full-blown economic war, but at the same time, we believe that by the failure of the US maximum pressure campaign against Iran, the situation will be different in the next Iranian calendar year (starting March 2021)," the Mehr news agency quoted Hassan Rouhani as saying at a Cabinet meeting. Obviously counting on the removal of sanctions, he has already announced that next year, Iran plans to increase oil exports to 2 million barrels per day, i.e. more than twice.
However, Rouhani's hopes may be slim. First, it is not necessarily the case that new US President Joseph Biden will get a craving for inherently returning to the agreement. He has previously stated the following: "If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations." The key word in this phrase is "if". In other words, we are once again talking about unprecedented pressure on Iran by the new Washington administration. After all, Iran began winding down its JCPOA obligations only two years later, in response to Trump's withdrawal from the deal and the renewal of the toughest anti-Iranian sanctions. So, who should make a conciliatory gesture now? The subject of "follow-on negotiations" is entirely rejected by Iran, as it has repeatedly warned.
Even within the Democratic Party, Biden may face those advancing extra demands for Washington's return to the deal. Thus, Senator from Delaware Chris Coons said he would be unable to support a return to the JCPOA unless it includes the clause on limiting both Iran's missile program and its influence on a number of military and political organizations allied to it in the Middle East. That is, he virtually supports the current demands by Republican President Trump, that are unacceptable for politicians of all hues in Iran.
However, there is another danger, a long-term one. Let's suppose Biden will be back in the JCPOA. But how sure can one be that four years later, the White House is not going to be once again occupied by Donald Trump or his hard-line follower willing to withdraw from the agreement and use "its Majesty the dollar" as a global police baton? And this "American seesaw" with its change in course and sentiment, not only makes the Iranian-American relations unpredictable, but also destabilize the entire foreign policy pattern. How do you build up relationship with a state lacking continuity of foreign policy obligations, and where each successive administration overrules decisions by the previous one?