A major consideration ahead of Iran's June 14 election is the impact of a new presidency on the country's future nuclear negotiations. While the president in Iran lacks the power to decide on the strategy guiding nuclear talks, he has a substantial role in determining the style and tactics of negotiations.
Iran's Supreme Leader has the final say on both foreign policy and national security issues. The nuclear dossier has been handled by the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), an indication that the Supreme Leader views the nuclear issue as one of national security, and that national security and energy policy are interlinked. But while the president has a seat on the SNSC, and therefore has an influential voice in policy formulation, he holds neither command over the country’s armed forces, nor the capacity to 'securitize' an issue as a threat against the Islamic Republic. As Ayatollah Khamenei has long regarded sanctions and political pressure to be driven by regime change and not physics, the notion that current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was ever the crucial variable driving Tehran to insist on its right to enrichment is a fallacy.
Yet while the Supreme Leader might set the agenda of negotiations, Iran's next president and negotiation team will be expected to decide on the tone and ultimately 'sell' a deal to Ayatollah Khamenei. Two of the presidential candidates have served as secretary of the SNSC: Hassan Rouhani (1989-2005) and Saeed Jalili (2007-13). Both Rouhani and Jalili have played crucial roles during nuclear negotiations with the West under the administrations of Mohammad Khatami (2003-05) and Ahmadinejad (2007-13) respectively, maintaining distinctive styles. While it is often wrongly assumed that it was a 'hardline' Ahmadinejad who resumed uranium enrichment in 2005, this decision was in fact taken near the end of Khatami's second administration, when Rouhani was secretary of the SNSC.
The concessions of Khatami and Rouhani, as well as the resumption of enrichment, indicates that the Supreme Leader's strategic posture is based on fluid calculations of Iran's national interest and security. In 2003, Ayatollah Khamenei considered the suspension of uranium enrichment as consistent with Iran's national security objectives. But once he recognized that this was not the case, Khatami was given the authority to resume enrichment, and the defiant posture of Ahmadinejad was later fully endorsed.
The ability to effectively mediate between the Supreme Leader and the West is a key variable when considering a new president's impact. Presidential candidate Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf is the current Mayor of Tehran and has served as a commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). While stating that foreign policy would not be in his remit as president, he has also said that his foreign policy style would be based on prudence rather than rhetoric; a reference to the more bellicose incumbent. His reputation as mayor suggests that a Qalibaf presidency would adopt a more technocratic approach to nuclear negotiations.
Ali Akbar Velayati was Iran's minister for foreign affairs from 1981-97. As his foreign policy advisor for many years, Velayati is regarded as perhaps Khamenei's most trusted candidate. Naturally, he has pledged to maintain the right to uranium enrichment under Article IV of the NPT, but he has criticized what he regards as unnecessary sanctions due to the foreign policy approach of successive Ahmadinejad administrations. His past experience dealing with Europe suggests that a Velayati presidency would seek to improve relations with London, Paris and Berlin, at a time when their credentials as balanced brokers with the US in nuclear negotiations are seriously questioned in Tehran.
The role of the next president is less to convince the Supreme Leader to pursue noble defiance or consolidate gains, than it is to assure him that his negotiating team will resist the option of surrendering. While the Supreme Leader might have the final say, Iran's next president is sure to have an impact on future negotiations.