Hopes rise that Iran hardliner will rejuvenate nuclear deal

Iran nuclear deal updates

Four months ago, Hossein Amirabdollahian berated European states and accused them of having “1,000 faces” after the EU imposed sanctions on eight Iranians and three entities over human rights abuses.

Taking to social media to rail against the decision at a time when the UK, France and Germany were also brokering talks between Iran and the US to revive the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers, the Iranian diplomat said the White House and Europe could not be trusted.

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“They are part of the problem, not the solution,” he tweeted.

Now, Amirabdollahian, a hardliner close to Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, is set to become the main interlocutor with the west after he was nominated this week as the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister.

He takes over from Mohammad Javad Zarif, a veteran US-educated diplomat who used a mix of charm and skills honed over a decade as the face of Iranian diplomacy in his dealings with western powers.

Zarif was one of the main supporters of the nuclear deal, which he helped seal and then battled to keep alive as tensions with the west soared after Donald Trump, the then US president, abandoned the accord three years ago.

But Iranian analysts are optimistic that Amirabdollahian — a 57-year-old graduate of Iran’s universities who comes from a humble background — may be able to revive the deal and achieve more lasting diplomatic results. They say his connections to the powerful hardline factions at the heart of the regime will give him greater domestic influence than Zarif, who by his own admission was often undermined by the Revolutionary Guards.

“Under Amirabdollahian, we will not see more radicalism, rather more co-ordination between the diplomatic and military fields,” said a regime insider.

President Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric who took office this month after winning June’s election, has said his government will continue talks to revive the nuclear accord. But with hardliners in control of all the regime’s power centres, some in Tehran expect the new president to take a tougher stance than his predecessor Hassan Rouhani, another architect of the deal.

European officials considered Zarif an important counterpart in the regime and a diplomat with whom they could have meaningful discussions. But they also recognised that the nuclear talks and relationship with Iran were not dependent on individuals.

Ali Vaez, Iran director at the International Crisis Group, the think-tank, said Amirabdollahian’s appointment “represents the deep state on the international stage”. But he added that as foreign minister he could make “a more capable interlocutor” than Zarif.

“You no longer have the kind of friction between the government and the deep states that proved to be a serious impediment for his predecessor’s initiatives,” Vaez said.

Although Amirabdollahian has had little engagement with the west, a person in contact with US officials said the diplomat is known by senior figures in the administration of President Joe Biden. Rob Malley, Biden’s Iran envoy, and Jon Finer, US deputy national security adviser, both worked with him on Syria matters during the Obama administration.

Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment site. New president Ebrahim Raisi has said his government will continue talks to revive the nuclear accord with world powers © AP

A western diplomat in Tehran said securing an agreement to lift US sanctions was the priority for Raisi. The diplomat added that Raisi “has already toned down his aggressive rhetoric . . . so as not to jeopardise the process”.

“What is not clear is when Iran will be ready to resume negotiations, what will Iran’s new approach be and who will be the negotiators,” the diplomat said.

Amirabdollahian is no stranger to nuclear talks. In 2013 he was involved in secret discussions with Omani officials. These led to confidential meetings with Americans and Europeans that were the forebear to the 2015 accord.

He is also a known entity to Iran’s Arab rivals, having been a former deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs who also served as a diplomat in Iraq, Syria and Bahrain.

Both Raisi and Amirabdollahian have suggested they would pursue a foreign policy that prioritised regional issues and hinted that they could seek to repair relations with Arab adversaries, particularly Saudi Arabia.

Amirabdollahian said last month that given Raisi’s background, Iran’s foreign policy would be “balanced foreign relations, active, dynamic relationships” with the east and the west, with “particular attention to neighbouring states and Asia”.

The regime insider said Tehran had “no choice but to improve relations with regional states” as it was locked in a shadow war with Israel, with the two countries accusing each other of recent attacks on their shipping and other targets.

“The more hostile our relations with regional states, the more powerful Israel will be,” he said.

Mohammad Mohajeri, a conservative analyst, said choosing Amirabdollahian over more radical figures who opposed the nuclear deal signalled that Raisi wanted to avoid escalating tensions with its foes.

“We shall see no major shift in foreign policy,” he said. “The results — rather than approach — will be more or less the same under Amirabdollahian and Zarif.”

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