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Biden Administration May Have To Fight To Repair Iran's Nuclear Program Deal

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now let's look at the politics playing out in Iran over the idea of returning to the 2015 nuclear deal. The Biden administration says it wants to revive the deal but won't be rushed into it. But Iran has elections in June that could make the current standoff even harder to resolve. The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, is leaving office. And voters see the deal he made as a disappointment. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Morvarid is a 35-year-old in the northern city of Rasht. Like all those contacted via WhatsApp for this story, she asked that her family name be withheld. She's worried about possible retaliation for talking to an American reporter. She says yes, she's heard the new U.S. president is interested in returning to the nuclear agreement, but she doesn't see how that will make any difference to the lives of anyone she knows.

MORVARID: No. No (laughter). No, not at all.

KENYON: For most Iranians, the key to the 2015 deal was the lifting of international sanctions. Morvarid says, when Donald Trump pulled out of the deal and reimposed sanctions, people realized the limits of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's power to fulfill his promises.

MORVARID: (Through interpreter) The government doesn't have much power anyway, so it doesn't matter who is the head of it. People who voted for Rouhani eight years ago so eagerly are disappointed now they have seen that things have gotten even worse than before.

KENYON: That kind of disillusionment sounds familiar to Elnaz, a marketing specialist in Tehran, she says no one she knows believes that international diplomacy can change things for the better in Iran.

ELNAZ: (Through interpreter) I was happy that Biden won mostly for the sake of the Americans themselves. But I was sure that this is not going to make any changes in our lives because the next government of Iran is not going to be a government which is possible to negotiate with.

KENYON: Elnaz, like many Iranians, expects moderate and reform voters to largely stay away from the polls this June, paving the way for hard-liners who have always been skeptical about dealing with the outside world to capture the presidency to go along with their current dominance of the parliament and other centers of power.

Iran analyst Ali Vaez with the International Crisis Group says hard-liners in Tehran will be absolutely determined to make sure Rouhani gets no further benefits from the nuclear deal. He also says Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, now in his 80s, may see Iran's next president as the final one elected on his watch. And he'll want someone whose loyalty he can count on, such as a contractor linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps who recently announced he would run for president.

ALI VAEZ: You know, my sense is that he probably prefers someone like Saeed Mohammad, a young person with acceptable revolutionary credentials and someone he would probably be able to work with but is not as much of a household name in Iranian politics.

KENYON: Vaez as the weeks and months before the June election will be crucial as the Biden team seeks to get both the U.S. and Iran back in compliance with the nuclear deal and then tries to move on to other issues, such as Iran's ballistic missile program. Vaez sees two possible outcomes.

VAEZ: One is that diplomacy would make progress while Rouhani is still in office and that the next Iranian president would be in a position to negotiate a follow-on deal with the Biden administration. But if diplomacy is deadlocked, I think the tone is set for a confrontation that is likely to continue well into the next Iranian administration.

KENYON: At the moment, diplomacy does appear to be deadlocked. And the next president could be even less inclined to sit down and negotiate concessions. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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