Hassan Rouhani Keeps Iran Nuclear Deal Open to Joe Biden Despite Pressure From Hardliners

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is facing intense domestic pressure over his government's last-minute agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to maintain inspector access to Iranian nuclear facilities, undercutting Iranian lawmakers who last year voted to end access unless American sanctions were lifted.

Iran will follow through on its threat to withdraw from the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which affords IAEA inspectors access to nuclear facilities. However, Rouhani's government reached a "temporary bilateral technical understanding" with IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi to retain access for the next three months.

The number of IAEA inspectors allowed in the country will not change, but inspections will be more limited. Iran will also stop sharing video recorded by cameras at some nuclear facilities for the next three months. This footage will be destroyed if American sanctions are not lifted by the end of the three months, or handed over to the IAEA if they are.

The U.S. welcomed the compromise, but Iranian lawmakers were furious and have opened litigation against Rouhani's administration, the state-run Fars News Agency reported.

The IAEA block was part of a package of measures approved by the conservative-dominated Iranian parliament after the assassination—reportedly by Israel—of top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November.

The parliament has repeatedly criticized Rouhani and his top ministers for their perceived appeasement of the U.S. during former President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign after withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.

Fars said 221 or 290 lawmakers voted to approve the legal complaint, calling for the punishment of those responsible for the agreement with the IAEA.

The government-parliament split was serious enough for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to urge resolution. "Today's dispute between parliament and government must be resolved," Khamenei wrote on Twitter.

"The administration is committed to acting in accordance with the law," Khamenei added. "Therefore, this law, which is good, should be executed precisely."

Rouhani, a moderate who agreed the JCPOA with President Barack Obama, has been clear in his willingness to revive the deal. The president has repeatedly said Iran will return to full compliance with the agreement if the U.S. does the same, and only after Trump-era sanctions are lifted by the Biden administration.

But Rouhani's time is running out. His term ends this summer, when he will most likely be replaced by a conservative candidate, possibly one from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Combined with a conservative-led parliament, this might make it more difficult for Biden to revive the JCPOA.

It will certainly make it more difficult for the president to achieve his desired "longer and stronger" agreement with Iran that will cover Tehran's ballistic missile program and its regional network of proxy militias, both of which are key grievances of conservatives in the U.S. and allies including Israel and Saudi Arabia.

As in Iran, conservatives in the U.S. have been mobilizing to try and stop the deal. They argue that, even if Iran could be trusted to adhere to the agreement, its failure to address missiles and proxies plus the expiry of nuclear restrictions in 2025 make the accord unfit for purpose.

Though Biden and Rouhani remain at loggerheads as to who will make the first move back towards the JCPOA, the U.S. said last week it was now willing to meet with the other JCPOA signatories and discuss the best way forward.

Iran has already suggested that the European signatories—Germany, France and the U.K., the so-called E3 nations—could serve as referees for a simultaneous step-by-step U.S.-Iranian return to full compliance.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Monday the administration is "concerned" at Iran's move to break with the Additional Protocol, though said "we do commend the professionalism that the IAEA has shown in its efforts to engage Iran on maintaining the necessary cooperation to verify Iran's nuclear program."

Price added, "We fully support the IAEA director general's efforts to this end while also reiterating the call on Iran to fully meet its verification and other nuclear non-proliferation commitments.

"Iran will never obtain a nuclear weapon. President Biden has been unequivocal on that." If the talks with other JCPOA signatories do occur, he explained, "we will be there to undertake the hard diplomacy, the discussions that can lead us to that point where Iran can resume full compliance and the United States would be prepared to do the same."

Hassan Rouhani addresses Iran parliament
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech during the inaugural session of the new parliament following February elections, in Tehran on May 27, 2020. -/AFP via Getty Images/Getty