Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Araqchi replaced

Iran's foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has named senior conservative diplomat Ali Baqeri-Kani as his new deputy, replacing the more pragmatic Abbas Araqchi.

Araqchi — who had been at the forefront of Iran's nuclear negotiations since late in 2015, after the signing of the nuclear deal that Iran agreed with world powers in mid-2015 — becomes Amir-Abdollahian's personal adviser.

Baqeri-Kani's appointment as deputy minister for political affairs was announced late yesterday as part of a reshuffle at the ministry. The decision has raised concerns that it could signal a further hardening of Iran's stance in the ongoing talks to revive the JCPOA, and in turn lift the crippling US sanctions that were re-imposed on Tehran following former US president Donald Trump's decision to unilaterally exit the agreement in mid-2018.

Baqeri-Kani was a senior member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team during former hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's final five years in office, working alongside Iran's chief nuclear negotiator at the time, the ultra-hardline Saeed Jalili who is known to have close ties with Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But Baqeri-Kani's team failed to achieve much by way of a deal with the west in those years, instead overseeing the imposition of harsh US, EU and UN sanctions in 2012 that hit Iran's economy and most critically its crude oil and oil product exports — a key source of foreign exchange for the country.

Iran's crude oil production fell to around 2.6mn b/d by the middle of 2013, from around 3.6mn b/d a year earlier, as a result of the sanctions. It did not recover fully until August 2016 — more than half a year after the lifting of sanctions that came with the implementation of the nuclear deal in January of that year.

Like Jalili, Baqeri-Kani has long been a staunch critic of the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and more widely, policies that encourage engagement with the west.

But Amir-Abdollahian's decision to retain Araqchi as a personal adviser, could see his involvement in the talks to bring Iran and the US back into compliance with their commitments continue. Discussions began in April under Tehran's previous government but were suspended soon after the 18 June Iranian election after which Ebrahim Raisi became the country's new president.

The negotiations hit a deadlock over several key points, among them a US request that Iran commits to follow-up talks on other contentious issues, and an Iranian request that the US guarantees it will not unilaterally exit the deal again in the future.

The new government in Iran has said repeatedly that it does plan to return to the talks, but only after it settles in. Amir-Abdollahian said late last month that it could talks "two or three months for the new government to be established and be able to plan."

Iran's foreign ministry spokesman again reiterated that message this week, saying the talks "will resume in the near future."

As part of the ministry reshuffle, Mehdi Safari also becomes the new deputy for economic affairs and Mohammad Fathali is now the deputy for administrative and financial affairs.