While the election of Ebrahim Raisi to the Iranian presidency and the appointment of Hossein Amir-Abdollahian as foreign minister signal a clear victory for the hard-liners in the country, it is unlikely to presage a foreign policy “revolution” under the umbrella of a united regime. As they consolidate power, Iran’s leaders will adjust to emerging challenges and opportunities while defending contending agendas and constituencies. As a result, Iran’s foreign policy will manifest the striking mix of pragmatism, ruthlessness, insecurity, bravado, controlled risk taking, and calculated hedging, a diversified approach that has always marked the Islamic Republic’s regional and global relations.
Still, if Iranian foreign policy will exhibit a strong measure of continuity, this does not mean that it will present any less of a concern for those powers, near and far, that are now grappling with an emboldened regime. The hard-liners are not only well positioned to reap the benefit of Iran’s military and political clout in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq: to their surprise, the Biden Administration is struggling to keep its foreign policy ship afloat. This development has presented openings for Iran’s leaders to exploit growing concerns about US credibility in the Arab world and well beyond. They are doing so by projecting a proactive preference for regional diplomacy, even as Tehran continues to signal its readiness to use force.
Having recast himself as a populist who has promised to end the people’s suffering under the weight of rampant inflation and unemployment, Raisi has to sustain Iran’s engagement with the Arab world.
The success of this dual approach will play no small role in Raisi’s political future. Having recast himself as a populist who has promised to end the people’s suffering under the weight of rampant inflation and unemployment, he has to sustain Iran’s engagement with the Arab world. Moreover, he cannot walk away from the stalled if indirect US-Iran talks in Vienna on renewing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) without undercutting his economic agenda. The ideological exigencies of time-honored resistance must give way to making difficult choices on the home and regional fronts. Raisi and his allies will leverage Iran’s regional gains to manage these tensions while wagering that Joe Biden’s foreign policy travails will play to Tehran’s advantage. But beyond tactical maneuvering, the hard-liners’ modified resistance strategy will emerge in fits and starts as Raisi’s government settles in.
Iran Consolidates Its Regional Clout
The efforts of Iran’s hard-line leaders to consolidate power are unfolding against the backdrop of a regional map whose key strategic, military, and political contours favor Tehran. Iran’s gains in the region, of course, have not come without their own costs and attendant dilemmas. Thus, in Lebanon, Iran’s relationship with Hezbollah is stronger than ever, even as Tehran has played a major role that exacerbated the economic, social, and political crises now shaking the very foundations of a state whose existence Tehran needs, even as it has done so much to weaken it. But in neighboring Syria and further east in Iraq, Iran has forged military, political, and social relationships that could enhance its diplomatic reach in both the regional and wider global contexts.
The Syrian Arena
In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad and allies control more than two thirds of the country and all the key cities (Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, Tartous, Daraa, and Deir Ezzor). He has secured this victory on the backs of his own people, nearly seven million of whom are refugees, constituting a whopping 34 percent of the total prewar population. While initiated by Assad’s troops and intensified by Hezbollah and Iranian and Shia Afghan forces, Russian troops—and air power—played the decisive role in the reign of terror inflicted on the Syrian people.
Russia’s role in saving Assad ensures that Tehran’s efforts to consolidate its gains in Syria must take into account Moscow’s dominant position there. Iran’s participation in the Astana negotiations, created and led by Russia, suggests that Tehran is ready and even eager to let Moscow take the lead in a diplomatic process that, thus far, has not revealed any significant practical differences in how the two countries view the ultimate political fate of the Assad regime. Moreover, Iran and Russia appear resolved to work together in any postwar reconstruction effort, a point that Assad and Raisi reportedly emphasized in a phone conversation following the latter’s election in June. In practical terms, as one analyst notes, this means dividing the spoils of war, particularly when it comes to business ventures. Not surprisingly, Russia has taken the lead in securing opportunites in Syria’s real estate, phosphate mining, and oil sector, thus apparently ruffling feathers in Tehran.
Russia has taken the lead in securing opportunites in Syria’s real estate, phosphate mining, and oil sector, thus apparently ruffling feathers in Tehran.
Russia’s motives may reflect not only its pecuniary interests but also a wider strategic desire to limit the size of the Iranian footprint in Syria. But such considerations have not stopped Moscow and Tehran from cooperating in northeastern Syria. Indeed, Russian contractors as well as Russian warplanes have helped protect Shia militias and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces. Moscow’s backing has also provided cover for Iran’s efforts to secure the support of local tribes in the Deir Ezzor region, which reportedly have been offered financial inducements in return for converting to Twelver Shiism. While bringing mixed results—and even prompting a backlash among some Sunni tribes—these efforts underscore the opportunities flowing to Tehran from Iranian-Russian cooperation. This has extended to Russia’s and Iran’s attempts to use inducements to secure the support of local leaders in the lead-up to the May 2021 presidential election. Although rigged to ensure Assad’s victory, the vote could provide one more pretext for Russia—and Iran—to reject any postwar political settlement that would exclude the Syrian incumbent.
The Iraqi Arena
In April, May, and late August 2021, Baghdad hosted Iranian-Saudi talks, the likes of which had not occurred since the two countries broke off relations in 2016. Attended by officials from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, the European Union, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, and Iran, the “Baghdad Conference for Co-operation and Partnership” last August provided Iraqi leaders a chance to highlight Iraq’s role as a regional peacemaker rather than as an arena of US-Iranian conflict. In addition, Iraqi officials emphasized their hope that “our friends” (i.e., the United States and Iran) would help Baghdad address the resurgence of Islamic State forces in Iraq, a development that was of equal concern to Washington and Tehran.
For Saudi Arabia, the talks offered an opening to test Tehran’s readiness to press its Houthi allies to return to the negotiating table after the collapse of talks in late June 2021. Eager to back away from a conflict that Riyadh could not win, Saudi Arabia’s presence in Baghdad effectively underscored Tehran’s growing influence in the region. But beyond highlighting Tehran’s regional influence, Saudi-Iranian talks provided Iran’s hard-liners with an opportunity to put their distinctive stamp on Tehran’s approach to global issues, not least of which was the fate of the nuclear talks in Vienna. Indeed, in contrast to former President Hassan Rouhani—who apparently hoped that a revived nuclear agreement might then serve as a stepping-stone to reconciliation with Riyadh—Raisi and his allies not only signaled their intent to pursue a more ambitious engagement strategy but to do so independently of the nuclear track.
Raisi’s variation of what might be called “pragmatic resistance” hinges on projecting Iran’s readiness to forgo diplomacy with the United States (and Europe) in favor of pursuing an “Eastern” approach.
Yet in reality, the linkage between Iran’s regional and global diplomacy remains strong. Tehran’s dual approach has the potential value of coaxing Arab states to put distance between themselves and the United States in ways that might reduce American leverage in negotiating a deal on renewing the JCPOA. Indeed, Raisi’s variation of what might be called “pragmatic resistance” hinges on projecting Iran’s readiness to forgo diplomacy with the United States (and Europe) in favor of pursuing an “Eastern” approach, one that would also encompass the Arab world in ways that might open up opportunities to mitigate the effect of global sanctions. At the same time, this approach could serve him well if and when Raisi decides to send his new chief negotiator, the veteran hard-line diplomat Ali Bagheri Kani, back to Vienna to secure a deal. Raisi is trying to position the hard-liners to reap benefits whether or not Tehran pursues indirect diplomacy with the United States and the European Union. And if need be, Tehran could still rely on pro-Iranian Iraqi militias to turn up the heat if Washington decides not to pull out its remaining troops from Iraq. In short, Iran’s leaders are sustaining a well-established trait of Iranian foreign policy: they are hedging their bets to gain maximum clout.
Raisi Bets on Pragmatic Resistance
Raisi’s political fortunes may very well depend on the efficacy of this hedging strategy and, by implication, his ability to create a governing team that will back it with the full and crucial support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. That this team will be constituted by hard-liners is true, but this term obscures their multiple agendas and priorities. Raisi cut his teeth in the judiciary where, as a prosecutor and then chief justice, he earned his reputation as a ruthless opponent of the reformists. But in the lead-up to the presidential elections and thereafter, he cast himself as an economic populist who will champion the social rights of the people rather than advance any particular political vision. To this end, his challenge is to navigate between the multiple currents of a hard-line faction that includes veteran political conservatives, former military commanders, and the ideologically committed “true believers” of the ultraconservative Steadfastness Front.
Raisi’s appointment of Amir-Abdollahian as foreign minister might limit the Front’s leverage. While the new foreign minister is certainly a hard-liner compared to his predecessor and his allies in the reformist camp, he is a career diplomat who has focused on regional affairs and relations with the Arab world in particular. And if, in contrast to Mohammad Javad Zarif, Amir-Abdollahian is not an advocate of the JCPOA, he will surely play a key role in advancing Raisi’s pledge to make relations with Iran’s Arab neighbors a priority. In short, Amir-Abdollahian seems well poised to serve as the tip of Raisi’s hedging spear; in that context, he might even play an important role if and when Raisi’s government sends its negotiators to Vienna.
The ultimate impetus for returning to the JCPOA talks will be economic because Raisi’s promise to relieve the suffering of his people will face significant hurdles without sanctions relief.
The ultimate impetus for returning to the JCPOA talks will be economic because Raisi’s promise to relieve the suffering of his people will face significant hurdles without sanctions relief. But his ability to deliver will also require assembling an economic team that can manage the necessary and difficult choices to mitigate the imposing internal obstacles to reviving the economy and tackling the crucial issue of corruption. Consequently, Raisi has turned to several veterans of previous governments, including newly appointed vice president, Mohammed Mokhber, and Masoud Mikazemi, who is heading up the Budget and Planning Organization and is a former minister of petroleum. Mikazemi’s promise to tackle the budget deficit and inflationary monetary policies echoes many of the key components of a classic economic reform strategy. But as several experts have noted, Raisi has also appointed a younger and less experienced group of “revolutionary experts” who might limit or even oppose the push for market-oriented reforms.
In short, Raisi will have to manage a government of rivals. If this will prove challenging, for now he has the support of Khamenei, who in a speech on September 2nd gave Raisi a qualified vote of confidence together with a warning that Raisi should “be careful” not to make promises that could be hard to fulfill. This admonition suggests that Iran’s new president has his work cut out for him.
The Biden Effect
During his September 2nd speech, Khamenei reiterated his view that President Joe Biden is simply another version of Donald Trump; he then added salt to the wound by ridiculing the “disgraceful” exit of the United States from Afghanistan. That the Supreme Leader took another opportunity to deride Biden is not surprising. But what should certainly merit the concern of American officials and Washington’s friends in the Middle East and beyond is that many western allies have concluded that Biden is offering his own version of Trump’s “America First.” If this seems like a sharp or premature judgment, the striking thing about Biden’s foreign policy is that the White House has struggled to translate its promise of multilateral engagement with American friends into a coherent and effective policy.
Indeed, the Biden Administration’s approach to the Middle East and other regions offers ample incentive for states to chart their own course independently of the United States. Thus, as regards the Middle East and the Syrian question in particular, Jordan’s King Abdullah II visited Washington in July to pitch a plan for the international community to re-catalyze diplomacy on Syria. Commenting on this proposal, a former US official noted in a recent report that “King Abdullah has just traveled to Moscow to push the idea with Putin. If pursued intelligently, the King’s initiative could help stabilize the Syrian conflict without an overly central American role, but will require clear support from the White House.” Whatever one thinks of this formula, it underscores a shifting global order for which the administration seems surprisingly unprepared. Biden’s foreign policy travails may give Tehran reason to celebrate, but King Abdullah and other US allies are probably still hoping that the White House can put the difficulties of the past few months (not least of which was the US exit from Afghanistan) behind it while seeking to establish its voice on the international stage.