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Halle Morel, Sam Schilling, Historical Analysis (HA) Team

Week of Monday, July 19, 2021

Iranian President Elect, Ebrahim Raisi[1]


Western powers, including the United States (US), have struggled for decades with ensuring the Iranian nuclear program does not advance so that Iran can create and use nuclear weapons. They have imposed economic sanctions on Iran as a method of deterrence, hoping they would inhibit the funding needed for developing such a nuclear program. The US, European Union (EU), China, France, Russia, United Kingdom (UK), Germany, and Iran attempted to use the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as a means to limit Iran’s nuclear program and lift the economic sanctions, however, the US withdrew from the agreement and reverted to imposing further economic sanctions, which they still rely on today to prevent nuclear weapon construction.[2] If the US does not act quickly to reinstate a newly negotiated JCPOA and solely relies on imposing additional sanctions, they will likely face an Iran equipped with a nuclear weapon. Iranian president-elect Ebrahim Raisi is set to take office in August 2021.[3] The Biden administration will likely have the opportunity to work with Raisi to devise a new JCPOA as Raisi is interested in talks with the US to lift the economic sanctions and grow Iran’s economy.


Since taking office in January 2021, the Biden administration has made six attempts to meet with Iran and discuss re-entering the JCPOA to reduce Iran’s nuclear production facilities and lift US-imposed sanctions.[4] However, no progress has been made, and the US has maintained its sanctions while Iran continues its nuclear program. In June 2021, the US threatened to impose further sanctions on Iran’s oil sales to China after Iran announced it was increasing its uranium levels for nuclear weapons purposes.[5] The increased uranium level reduces the timeframe in which Iran is capable of producing a nuclear weapon from one year to several months, raising concern for the US and other powers in the JCPOA.[6] Iran will likely continue uranium production regardless of whether the US imposes new oil-based sanctions, as the sanctions in place since 2018 have not deterred Iran thus far. Additionally, if the US is unable to reach an agreement with Iran to re-enter the JCPOA in the coming months, Iran will likely move forward with the production of a nuclear weapon, posing an even larger threat for the US and Western powers than Iranian nuclear facilities.

Part of the problem is that Iran and the US both stated that their re-commitment to the original agreement of the 2015 JCPOA is contingent upon the other country fulfilling their end of the agreement first – Iran reducing their nuclear production and the US lifting their sanctions.[7] This leaves Iran and the US in a stalemate as each country waits for the other to comply before they will uphold their end of the deal. The US’ consideration of imposing further sanctions will likely send the wrong message to Iran – that the US is not willing to agree to the terms of the JCPOA –, therefore likely prolonging the stalemate. Additionally, Iran will likely be encouraged to advance its nuclear program in retaliation against the sanctions and fulfill its goal of growing its nuclear weapons program. The US will likely have to reconsider instituting the proposed oil sanctions if it hopes to attempt another meeting with Iran to begin discussing revitalizing the JCPOA.

Iranian president-elect, Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative with a more hardline approach to domestic and international affairs than his predecessor, is set to take office on August 5, 2021.[8] After attempts by the Biden administration to meet with Iran in July 2021, the Iranian government stated that the Biden administration would have to wait until after Raisi took power, further postponing the ability of the US to re-enter the JCPOA.[9] Raisi has stated he would like the US and Iran to rejoin the commitments of the JCPOA so the Iranian economy can begin to recover from the sanctions.[10] However, Raisi also stated he does not trust the US, leading to his encouragement of Iran to build a resistant economy to withstand the continued sanctions.[11] Raisi is also not willing to negotiate Iran’s missile program or their aid to Shia militia groups in the Middle East that counter US interests.[12] Raisi’s hardline approach will likely pose a significant challenge to the willingness of the US to back down on its sanctions if Raisi is not willing to negotiate on critical security concerns of the US. Additionally, the US will likely have to adjust its diplomatic approach with Raisi to rebuild the trust lost due to their withdrawal from the JCPOA and the continued impact of economic sanctions on Iran.

Historical Context:

The US has spent decades imposing sanctions on Iran to deter its nuclear program because Iran intends to use it to aid in terrorist activity and conflict in the Middle East, countering the security interests of the US and Western powers.[13] Although the US has been successful in weakening Iran’s economy, the sanctions have not been enough to prevent the advancement of Iranian nuclear capabilities. In 1996, the US passed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act to penalize entities that were investing in Iran and considered to be aiding in Iran’s development of weapons of mass destruction.[14] The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1747 in 2007, tightening sanctions on Iran after it refused to comply with their demands to suspend uranium enrichment.[15] Between 2007 and 2014, the US, EU, and UN-imposed additional sanctions on Iran to heighten economic pressure on its nuclear capabilities, however, Iran maintained its nuclear production. It is likely that Iran’s drive for a sovereign power in the Middle East and resistance to Western influence helped to ensure that the damaging economic impact of the sanctions did not interfere with the growth in their nuclear program.

In 2015, the EU, China, France, Russia, UK, US, Germany, and Iran agreed to the JCPOA, which lifted sanctions on Iran, and in return Iran decreased their uranium enrichment levels, reduced the number of centrifuges in their nuclear facilities, and agreed to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure it complied.[16] Iran entered the agreement because the then newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani wished to better Iran’s relationship with Western powers and strengthen the Iranian economy. However, in 2018 former US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA to reinstate prior sanctions and impose new ones on Iran and its nuclear program.[17] This was due to the Trump administration’s belief that the JCPOA was not strict enough and that end dates should not be given regarding when Iran would be allowed to increase its uranium levels and the number of centrifuges for nuclear purposes, but rather they should be indefinite.[18] The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and its belief in the need to impose sanctions likely gave Iran the impression that the US could not be trusted to uphold their end of an agreement, resulting in a deterioration of trust.

In May 2019, Iran announced it was no longer adhering to the limits set within the JCPOA due to continued sanctions.[19] With this announcement, Iran stated that it would start upping uranium enrichment for nuclear production and encouraged European members of the JCPOA to work with the US to lift the sanctions.[20] In March of 2020, Iran tripled its original stock of enriched uranium from 2015 and the IAEA stated that they found 3 locations where Iran was storing undeclared nuclear material.[21] It is likely that Iran has justified the advancement of its nuclear program with theUS reluctance to discontinue the imposition of sanctions on Iran. The IAEA’s discovery of underground Iranian nuclear facilities likely means that Iran will continue its nuclear program underground to ensure its advancement while avoiding criticism or new sanctions by the US or Western powers. This will likely decrease the US’s trust that Iran will adhere to any newly negotiated JCPOA terms, therefore likely encouraging the US to uphold sanctions on Iran as an alternative.

The JCPOA Downfall

In order for the US to produce an effective, sustainable nuclear deal that would appeal to Iranian President-elect Raisi, it is essential for the US to analyze the lifetime of the JCPOA since its 2015 inception. After the JCPOA was put into place, critics pointed out that the JCPOA lacked specific features which would enable the deal to be sustainable.[22] To start, the JCPOA was signed by the EU, China, France, Russia, UK, US, Germany, and Iran, but lacked the approval of Middle East regional actors such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States. Israel and Saudi Arabia not only are key strategic allies to the US in the Middle East, but they also are Iran’s rivals. Leaders from both countries expressed their disapproval of the JCPOA, seeing the agreement’s removal of economic sanctions as an opportunity for Iran to strengthen its economic and military capacities.[23] By including such regional actors in the original JCPOA diplomatic talks, the agreement could likely have addressed the security interests of all Middle East regional actors. This would have simultaneously alleviated foreign pressure, which very likely was a contributing factor in the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the deal in 2018.

This decision to unilaterally abandon the JCPOA and re-impose economic sanctions suspended the possibility of brokering a new nuclear arrangement that would address the US’ security concerns. The Trump administration was apprehensive of the JCPOA’s sunset clause which was set to end in October 2025, despite Iran’s compliance with nuclear-related provisions and the IAEA.[24] It is highly likely that the Trump administration’s decision to leave the agreement and re-impose economic sanctions created a high degree of distrust within Iran. If the Trump administration had not withdrawn the US from the JCPOA and had addressed its concerns over the nuclear deal’s 2025 expiration date through diplomatic efforts, it is a roughly even chance that Iran and the US could have extended the nuclear deal. It can also be asserted with medium-to-high confidence that the Trump administration’s unilateral decision in 2018 is a notable factor to the current level of distrust between Iran and the US, evident in the continued stalling of diplomatic talks between the two nations since US President Joseph Biden took office.

A Route for a New Nuclear Deal:

With less than one month before President-elect Raisi’s swearing-in, Raisi claims one of his chief political goals is to tackle Iran’s paralyzed economy.[25] Despite Raisi’s hardline and anti-West stance, his administration will likely be attracted to a nuclear agreement with the US if the US were to drop the current economic sanctions. The International Monetary Fund found that since 2018, overall Iranian gross domestic product (GDP) dropped significantly, yet has risen 3% in 2021 from its lowest point in 2019.[26] While Iran’s economy and export capabilities have been impacted by US sanctions, Iran’s 3% GDP growth signals a slight domestic economic stability despite foreign pressure, a concept known as “resistance economy” that Raisi wants to expand upon.[27] As Iran’s economy may become increasingly impenetrable, the US should alleviate economic sanctions on Iran if it wants to pursue a new nuclear deal. The removal of economic sanctions would likely lead to greater trust between the two countries, necessary to resume diplomatic negotiations while appealing to President-elect Raisi’s policy goals of reviving Iran’s economy, and also demonstrating US willingness to take an initiative on the issue.

The 2015 JCPOA could likely be a guiding force in Iran and the US’ new nuclear deal, but should not dictate what to include in the plan. According to the IAEA’s monitoring, the JCPOA succeeded in deterring Iran's nuclear program by dismantling key centrifuges, limiting uranium levels, and lowering uranium enrichment levels to 3.67%, a point in which Iran could pursue nuclear energy, but not construct a nuclear bomb.[28] If the US and Iran struck a new nuclear deal, it is highly likely that it would contain similar nuclear provisions while also being facilitated by the IAEA. To create a sustainable, long-lasting nuclear treaty with Iran, the US may wish to abandon the expiration date of the deal. As mentioned, a primary reason why the Trump administration abandoned the JCPOA is related to its concern that Iran leveraged its sanction-free economy to accelerate its nuclear program following the JCPOA’s end date in October 2025. Without estimated knowledge of the next US presidential candidate and complete knowledge of Iran’s long-term nuclear ambitions, a proposal to either extend the new nuclear agreement’s expiration date or remove the sunset clause concept altogether may be necessary. It is likely that Iranian leaders may be skeptical of this proposal, as Iran’s reported compliance with the JCPOA failed to sway the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw in 2018. A new deal without looming expiration dates may give the appearance that Iran will not resume a nuclear program and in return, will discourage future US leaders from abandoning a nuclear deal and re-imposing economic sanctions.

CTG recommends that the US include key Middle East actors, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, in the next round of nuclear diplomatic talks. Iran’s President-elect Raisi, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and the hardline faction who backs both, all have a fundamental realist approach towards foreign policy, believing that enhancing the country’s hard power is the best method to promote national security.[29] More specifically, Raisi has stated that “Iran’s regional power is more important than its defense and missile capabilities.”[30] Israel and Saudi Arabia’s exclusion from the 2015 JCPOA fueled the regional power struggle as Iran was able to re-develop its economy and expand its influence throughout the Middle East. In the years following 2015, Israel and Saudi Arabia were more likely to test Iran’s newfound regional power, whether that be indirectly through Iran’s proxy forces, or via a direct conflict. If the Biden administration were to include Israel and Saudi Arabia in nuclear diplomatic negotiations with Iran, it can be assessed with a roughly even chance that the Middle East nations would appeal to a plan of future regional stability. It can be assessed with high confidence that the US would likely experience a strengthening of relations with its Middle East allies.

________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[2] Biden administration eyeing new sanctions on Iran oil sales if nuclear talks fail: report, The Hill, July 2021,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Biden Promised to Restore the Iran Nuclear Deal. Now It Risks Derailment, The New York Times, July 2021,

[5] Biden administration eyeing new sanctions on Iran oil sales if nuclear talks fail: report, The Hill, July 2021,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Iran and U.S. Agree on Path Back to Nuclear Deal, New York Times, April 2021,

[8] With a Raisi presidency, would the Iran nuclear deal remain on the table?, The Atlantic Council, June 2021,

[10] With a Raisi presidency, would the Iran nuclear deal remain on the table?, The Atlantic Council, June 2021,

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] A Brief History of Sanctions on Iran, The Atlantic Council, May 2018,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Understanding the Iran deal: What, why and the next steps, Al Jazeera, May 2019,

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Iran Announces Countermoves on Nuclear Deal | P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert, Arms Control, May 2019,

[20] Iran scraps 'some commitments' to nuclear deal, Deutsche Welle, May 2019,

[21] Iran triples stockpile of enriched uranium in breach of nuclear deal, The Guardian, March 2020,

[22] Debating the Iran nuclear deal: A former American negotiator outlines the battleground issues, Brookings Institute, August 2015

[23] Iran nuclear crisis: Six key points, BBC News, July 2015,

[24] The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) at a Glance, Arms Control Association, July 2021,

[25] Iran’s New Leader Faces An Existential Economic Crisis, Bloomberg, July 2021,

[26] These 6 charts show how sanctions are crushing Iran’s economy, CNBC, March 2021,

[27] With a Raisi presidency, would the Iran nuclear deal remain on the table?, Atlantic Council, June 2021,

[28] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.



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