WASHINGTON -- Days before a new hard-line president is set to be inaugurated in Iran, Biden administration officials have turned sharply pessimistic about their chances of quickly restoring the nuclear deal that former President Donald Trump dismantled, fearing that the new government in Tehran is speeding ahead on nuclear research and production and preparing new demands for the U.S.
The concerns are a reversal from recent talks, when U.S. negotiators, based in part on assurances from the departing Iranian government, believed they were on the cusp of reaching a deal before Ebrahim Raisi, 60, a deeply conservative former head of the judiciary, takes office Thursday. In June, they were so confident that another round of talks was imminent that a leading U.S. negotiator left his clothes in storage at a hotel in Vienna, where the talks took place through European intermediaries for the past four months.
That session never happened. International inspectors have been virtually blinded. At Iran's major enrichment site at Natanz, centrifuges are spinning at supersonic speeds, beginning to enrich small amounts of nuclear fuel at near bomb-grade. Elsewhere, some uranium is being turned to metallic form -- for medical purposes, the Iranians insist, although the technology is also useful for forming warheads.
It is unclear whether Raisi will retain the existing Iranian negotiating team or replace them with his own loyalists, who will presumably be determined to show they can drive a harder bargain, getting more sanctions relief in return for temporary limits on Iran's nuclear activities.
"There's a real risk here that they come back with unrealistic demands about what they can achieve in these talks," Robert Malley, the lead U.S. negotiator, said in an interview.
Both sides have much to lose if the diplomacy fails. For President Joe Biden, getting the 2015 nuclear accord back on track is a top goal, in hopes of containing, once more, a nuclear program that has resumed with a vengeance three years after Trump withdrew from it. It is also critical to Biden's effort to restore damaged relations with European allies, who negotiated the original deal, along with the U.S., Russia and China.
Biden's aides make no secret of their concerns that the Iranians are learning so much from the work now underway that in the near future, perhaps as early as this fall, it may be impossible to return to the old accord. "At that point, we will have to reassess the way forward," Malley said.
For years, Raisi was an advocate of what Iranians call the "resistance economy," based on the argument that Iran does not need to trade with the world and has no need to open up. But during the campaign, he seemed to endorse restoring the deal, perhaps because he was under pressure to show that, unlike his predecessors, he has the skill and toughness to get rid of the American-led sanctions that have ravaged his country's economy.
Now, the economic burdens -- worsened by a fifth wave of the coronavirus and water shortages that are partly the result of government mismanagement -- have set off violent protests.
The new president will not be the final word on whether the deal is restored. That judgment still belongs to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is believed to have lined up the support for Raisi's election. And Wednesday, Khamenei echoed a key demand: that the U.S. provide a guarantee that it can never again walk away from the pact the way Trump did.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Malley have said that in a democracy, there is no way to tie the hands of a future president and that the best way to preserve the deal is to show that it is working for both sides.
But the Iranians have found some sympathy -- even among America's European allies -- for their argument.
"If it happened once, it could happen again," one senior European diplomat involved in the negotiations said.