As conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi begins his presidency, what direction is Iran’s foreign policy likely to take?
There are multiple ways to try to answer this fundamental question. One could, for instance, take a look at the individuals who are likely to advise Raisi on foreign policy issues. Judging by their political orientation, it is evident that the former chief justice’s worldview is conservative. Having said that, the idea that Iran’s conservatives are intractably opposed to any engagement with the West has long been a myth. It is worth recalling that the first Iran–US dialogue did not occur over the Iranian nuclear programme; rather, the talks – held in Baghdad in 2007 under the conservative former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–13) – focused on Iraq. Equally importantly, despite his criticism of the 2015 deal on the country’s nuclear programme – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei signed off on it.
Looking at things from an institutional point of view, it is worth nothing that while Iran has only one ultimate decision-maker, there are many ‘decision-shapers’. The president can be a key decision-shaper, chiefly via the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), which he heads. The SNSC is the highest decision-making council on major national security and foreign policy issues. It brings together the civilian and military leadership of the country, and reports directly to the supreme leader, who holds a rarely exercised veto over council votes. Any president’s key allies on the SNSC are the defence, foreign, intelligence and interior ministers.
In other words, decision-making on foreign policy is highly institutionalised in Iran, and the bureaucracy keeps evolving. For instance, during outgoing moderate president Hassan Rouhani’s two terms in office (2013–21), Khamenei ordered the establishment of the Supreme Economic Coordination Council, which brings together the heads of the three branches of government – namely the chief justice, parliament speaker and president. More recently, the SNSC’s secretariat has set up a nuclear deal ‘implementation committee’ upon Khamenei’s instructions, which brings together representatives from the Rouhani administration, parliament, the SNSC and – in recent weeks – representatives of Raisi. The committee is tasked with coming up with recommendations for next steps on the nuclear issue as diplomatic talks with world powers in Vienna have stalled.
These efforts are designed to both balance power within the Iranian political system and to delegate power. Khamenei is 82 years old, and much of what is unfolding in Iran today – including in connection with the 18 June presidential elections, which saw all moderate and reformist rivals of Raisi disqualified from the race – is about the succession for the position of supreme leader. Hardliners are manoeuvring for pole position.
Against this backdrop, Iran’s participation in the JCPOA is likely still a systemic preference in Tehran. Having endured over two years of direct assaults on the nuclear deal under former US president Donald Trump, who unilaterally left the Barack Obama-era accord in 2018, Iran understands and values the difference between US secondary sanctions and United Nations Security Council sanctions.
Khamenei has made clear that the US must re-enter the JCPOA, guarantee that it will not exit the accord once again, and steer clear of any modifications that refer to follow-on talks on Iran’s ballistic missile programme or its role in the region.
Criticising Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, Joe Biden charged back in 2019, ‘[Trump] promised that walking away would somehow lead to a better deal – instead, the predictable has happened: Iran is building back up its nuclear capability’. During the US presidential election campaign, Biden stated on repeated occasions that ‘if Tehran returns to compliance with the deal, I would rejoin the agreement and work with our allies to strengthen and extend it’. Yet, he entered office in January 2021 with the JCPOA seemingly low on his agenda.
Focused on the coronavirus pandemic and associated politics at home, it took months for the Biden administration to set up indirect talks with Iran in Vienna. Progress halted after six rounds of talks as campaigning for the Iranian presidential elections approached.
All the while, Biden has maintained the comprehensive US sanctions regime – amid the pandemic – perhaps in hopes of using the sanctions pressure as ‘leverage’. The outcome so far has been the squandering of an opportunity to work together with the deal’s original co-signatories in Tehran to revive it. Now, with Raisi as president, Biden is faced with the prospect of attempting to resuscitate the JCPOA with an Iranian administration that is likely to include many critics of the deal.
For instance, Raisi’s liaison to the foreign ministry, conservative diplomat Ali Baqeri-Kani, has for years lambasted the JCPOA as a capitulation of Iran’s rights and as the outcome of the Rouhani administration violating Khamenei’s ‘red lines’.
In an extensive interview in August 2018, Baqeri-Kani – reflecting the sentiments of many within Raisi’s inner circle – thundered that ‘at least 100 nuclear rights of the Iranian people were destroyed’ in the JCPOA, referring to the timelines of various restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme under the accord. He also argued that ‘no unconventional method of inspections that makes Iran a special country in terms of oversight is acceptable at all’, pointing to the heightened UN inspections under the nuclear deal.
Importantly, Baqeri-Kani also drew a clear line of distinction between US sanctions being lifted and them being suspended, as is the case with many sanctions for a number of years under the JCPOA. Citing Khamenei, he insisted that the sanctions should be lifted immediately upon a deal being agreed, emphasising that ‘we do not [agree to] “stop sanctions”, we do not accept “suspension of sanctions”’.
Change or Continuity?
As for the future of the region, the withdrawal of the US along with other regional power shifts has resulted in the ever-starker emergence of distinct axes among regional players. Against this backdrop, Raisi may come to represent more continuity than change, even if he and his allies may be tempted to jumpstart his presidency with outward signalling of assertiveness on the international stage. Indeed, the regional files are already dominated by Iranian conservative and security organs. As such, continuity in Iranian foreign policy is likely to entail an emphasis on good relations with all neighbours, an expansion of ties with Russia and China, and a continued appetite for trade with Europe.
Notably, in his first press conference after the 18 June election, Raisi expressed an openness to engaging in dialogue with Saudi Arabia in order to end tensions. Riyadh cut ties with Tehran in 2016 after the storming of its diplomatic facilities in Iran in the aftermath of the execution of dissident Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr. The prospect of talks with Saudi Arabia in particular would be highly instructive for any attempt at forging an understanding of the new Iranian president’s foreign policy, as well as the strengths and limitations of Iranian power.
Indeed, while much has been written about the nature of Tehran’s relationships with its regional partners, ‘black swan’ events may lie ahead. For instance, if one accepts portrayals of groups such as Yemen’s Houthis and Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units as Iranian proxies, what happens if and when Raisi attempts a reset with Saudi Arabia, but the Houthis refuse to go along with it? How will the Biden administration respond if Iran’s Iraqi allies decide to take anti-US actions that they deem to be in their own interests, but which are contrary to those of Tehran?
As Raisi takes office, there are a multitude of questions and very few answers, largely as a result of the fact that the conservative cleric himself appears to still be formulating his foreign policy vision. Until the precise composition of the new president’s national security and foreign policy team is clear, alongside more detailed messaging of policy priorities, it will be difficult to discern precisely which direction the Islamic Republic is headed in.