Election of Iranian ‘Moderate’ Seen as Chance for Islamic Republic To Reach Its Nuclear Goals

Iran’s supreme leader is erecting a facade of a reformed regime, which could conceal his goals from the outside world.

AP/Vahid Salemi
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, arrives to vote at Tehran, June 28, 2024. AP/Vahid Salemi

Will the Islamic Republic’s selection of a new president usher in a fresh round of diplomatic negotiations with what is widely described as a newly “moderated” regime? Will Iran’s supreme leader use endless talks to help his country break through in its push for a nuclear weapon?

With fewer than half of eligible voters participating in Friday’s second election round, a former heart surgeon and longtime legislator, Masoud Pezeshkian, won the Iranian presidency. His victory was widely described as triumph for the regime’s “moderates” over a hardline candidate, Saeed Jalili.

To brandish his credentials as a loyalist of the supreme leader, Mr. Pezeshkian chose Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, as his first communication with a foreign leader. “Our support for the resistance will continue with strength,” the new Iranian president said in a message. 

The regime’s ultimate decision maker, Ali Khamenei, has reasons to favor Mr. Pezeshkian and the political camp he represents over the self-professed hardliner, Mr. Jalili. Endless diplomacy with Americans, as well as with other Westerners who seek to negotiate with Iranian moderates, could help the regime reach its goal of becoming a full-fledged nuclear power. 

Satellite images show “major expansions at two key Iranian ballistic missile facilities,” Reuters reports Monday, raising concerns about increased cooperation between Tehran and Moscow.

As cooperation grows among members of a growing global anti-American bloc, which in addition to Iran and Russia includes Communist China and North Korea, the Islamic Republic may have concluded that time has come to change its nuclear stance.   

“We should have built an atomic bomb during Ahmadinejad’s presidency,” a former Iranian nuclear negotiator who now teaches at Princeton University even as he keeps close ties with the regime, Hossein Mousavian, told the Iranian Shargh newspaper last month. Such statements indicate a shift in the regime’s strategy. It now seems ready for a nuclear breakthrough.  

Facing relatively little international pressure during America’s election year, with the regime selling more oil than it could dream of, and with Israel embroiled in wars against Tehran’s proxies, “now is a great time for them to make that move,” a Washington-based Iran scholar, Alireza Nader, tells the Sun. 

To avoid squandering these favorable developments, though, Mr. Khamenei is erecting a facade of a reformed regime, which could conceal his goals from the outside world. A major figure in that effort is a former foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who for years has built a solid following at Washington, including among members of President Biden’s administration. 

In the recent election, Mr. Zarif emerged as “the face of Pezeshkian’s campaign,” Mr. Nader says. So “now they’re back,” he adds, referring to Mr. Biden’s would-be Iran negotiators.

The return of Mr. Zarif and the so-called reformists to Tehran politics could breathe new life into the 2015 nuclear deal. Negotiations became dormant after an insurrection broke out in the aftermath of the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini. 

Fears that in returning to the White House President Trump might renew his “maximum pressure” policies could have convinced Mr. Khamenei to orchestrate Mr. Pezeshkian’s election victory with Mr. Zarif as frontman. Signaling that Iran is ready to renegotiate with the West would help stave off renewed American pressure.

While in office, Mr. Trump imposed debilitating sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Yet, he has also long vowed to negotiate a deal that, unlike the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, would end the regime’s nuclear aspirations. 

Conversely, while Mr. Biden has chased a revival of the JCPOA in vain since 2021, he — or another Democrat — could toughen sanctions in a second term. Some Iran watchers even speculate that to end the nuclear threat, the next Democratic administration might prefer military action to diplomacy.    

“There’s a heightened possibility in a second Biden administration that there will be more considerable military pressure on Iran,” the Washington Institute executive director, Robert Satloff, told an anti-regime website, Iran International, last month.

That assessment appeared prior to Mr. Biden’s disastrous debate appearance. Yet, as Mr. Khamenei seems to be devising a new nuclear strategy, he must take such a possibility to account. To be better safe than sorry, his smart move would be to boost those at Washington who chase “that magical moderate who would emerge in Iran,” Mr. Nader says. 

One of those, Yale University’s Robert Malley, was suspended in 2023 from his post as the Department of State’s top Iran envoy, as the FBI investigates whether he leaked secrets to unauthorized parties. Mr. Malley, though, has solid followers inside the Biden administration.

The return of the sensibilities that Mr. Zarif instilled in willing members of the press could help Washington policymakers revive diplomacy, even as Iran builds a new enrichment site deep underground, and as it advances all aspects of its nuclear program.

No wonder, then, that America’s top press outlets cheered Friday’s victory of a “reformer” over a “hardliner” — even as Mr. Pezeshkian refers to himself as a “fundamentalist.”

The New York Sun

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