On 15 September, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian appointed Ali Bagheri Kani as Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs, a hardline diplomat and former liaison officer between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the newly-elected President Ebrahim Raisi.
The appointment of Bagheri could complicate negotiations between the United States, the P4+1, and Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Plans to resume nuclear talks between the parties have been halted due to the transition of power in Iran. This comes amid rising tensions between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), after the latter discovered traces of uranium at undeclared sites belonging to Iran.
A strong opponent of the nuclear deal and negotiations with Western powers, Bagheri is expected to influence the JCPOA negotiation track as follows:
1- Adopting more hardline stances: Bagheri’s appointment could directly and indirectly obstruct nuclear talks between Iran, the P4+1 and the US, as he strongly objects to the JCPOA and negotiations with Western powers. This is especially important, as the current US Administration of Joe Biden is facing mounting pressure from the US Congress, where Republicans, although a minority in both houses, constitute a substantial voting bloc. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on 8 September that the US is about to withdraw from the nuclear deal, as Iran refuses to rejoin the JCPOA.
2- Enhancing Iran’s regional role: This comes amid Iran’s relentless efforts to position itself and strengthen its room to maneuver with Washington when talks resume, by strengthening ties with neighboring countries and bolstering its armed presence in the region. Iran has resumed talks with Saudi Arabia in Baghdad, which had stopped during the transfer of power in Iran. The pro-Iranian Lebanese party Hezbollah announced on 15 September the delivery of the first Iranian fuel shipment to Beirut coming from Syria through Iraq. This highlights Iran’s efforts to regain its position prior to the intense economic sanctions imposed on it by the previous US Administration of Donald Trump. Hence, Iran is implying that it will have new strengths and negotiation terms when talks resume.
3- Escalating tensions with the IAEA: Bagheri’s appointment could intensify Iran’s hardline stance against the IAEA. Both parties reached an agreement on 15 September which allows the IAEA to continue monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, perform technical maintenance for monitoring devices and replace memory cards of surveillance cameras. However, Iran has not allowed the IAEA inspectors to view the camera recordings, citing failure to reach an understanding regarding the JCPOA and the fact that the economic sanctions against Tehran have not been lifted.
Moreover, Iran’s Ambassador to the IAEA Kazem Gharibabadi criticized the agency’s report, which discovered traces of uranium at old undeclared nuclear areas in Iran, describing it as fake and unprofessional. This scenario could resurface again with Bagheri’s appointment and lead to fruitless negotiations similar to the ones that took place under former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Those past negotiations were led by then-Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran Saeed Jalili, with Bagheri as his deputy. Several UN Council resolutions against Iran followed these negotiations.
4- Referring the nuclear issue to the National Security Council: Bagheri’s appointment as Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs raises intriguing questions regarding the status of his former counterpart and the leader of the Iranian negotiation team, Abbas Araghchi. Will he stay on to continue his role, or not? Accompanying this uncertainty are rumors that the nuclear deal issue has been referred back to the National Security Council. Western parties prefer keeping Araghchi as chair of the Iranian negotiation team, but Iran refuses to keep representatives from the former government.
5- Getting around US Sanctions: Appointing Bagheri implies Iran’s intention to get around US sanctions and ignore international pressures, which aligns with the anticipated conservative policy of the new government. However, the US economic sanctions are expected to challenge Bagheri’s influence on the negotiations track with the US and P4+1. This is in addition to the failure of informal methods to get around the sanctions. Meanwhile, Iran wants to deescalate tensions with the US to attain its full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Iran has been an observer in the SCO since 2005, since some members reject its full membership to avoid further US-Iran strife.
In conclusion, the replacement of Araghchi with Bagheri as chair of Iran’s nuclear talks team sets out new terms for negotiations and priorities. It indicates an alteration in the mindset between Araghchi, who adopted a political rationale, and Bagheri, who could adopt a rebellious approach. However, Bagheri is not expected to influence the start date for resuming nuclear talks, a position that Iran highlighted during the latest Board of Governors meeting from 13 to 17 September.