Iran’s Change of Guard Faces an Uncertain Future at Home and Abroad

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Medlir Mema, PhD
Fellow, Middle East Policy Council

July 25, 2021

The election of a conservative candidate last month in Iran’s presidential elections has raised important questions about the future of Iran’s domestic and foreign policy. Ebrahim Raisi, the newly elected hardline cleric, finds a country weighed down economically by the US sanctions, only worsened by the ravishing effects of the global health pandemic. Meanwhile, Iran’s regional hold is more tenuous than it has ever been, with new challenges likely to put further pressure on the Iranian regime. It goes without saying that the removal of the US sanctions would go a long way towards the alleviation of much of that pressure, which is why the nuclear talks are likely to go forward at perhaps an even faster pace.

Iran has been able, in the past, to set aside its domestic economic concerns in pursuit of its regional and international objectives. While that is unlikely to change anytime soon, the incoming Iranian administration is likely to make the economy one of its main priorities, not least because, as Nikolay Kozhanov—a research associate professor at the Gulf Studies Center of Qatar University—points out in a recent Al Jazeera op-ed, Iranian president “Raisi will be motivated to tackle Iran’s economic problems head on as president because of political reasons… [A]s president, Raisi will face immense pressure to deliver not only economic growth but also better living standards. If he fails to do so, the Iranian people may lose the remaining trust they have not only in the conservative establishment, but in the entire political system. Furthermore, ensuring economic success is also important for Raisi’s own political future, as he is currently the first in line to become Iran’s next supreme leader. If he delivers successful economic results as president, he can present this as proof that he will be a successful supreme leader.”

The urgency of the task ahead is made even more evident by the recent labor strikes which are taking place throughout Iran, which, at least for Asharq Alawsat’s Abdulrahman Al-Rashed constitute only “the tip of the chaos iceberg in Iran…. the first challenge of Raisi’s government has manifested itself through strikes that erupted less than a month ago and was organized by workers in petroleum refineries and other petroleum-related sectors across Iranian cities, such as Esfahan, Behbahan, and Tehran, not to mention the strikes staged by truckers. If these strikes were to maintain their impetus in the few coming months, they are likely to cause widespread chaos and clashes in the streets…. Raisi seems to have chosen his approach for preventing the collapse, which is to face dissidents with the use of force. This cannot be easy in a large, multi-racial, densely populated country, which inevitably makes one wonder how things will go down in the few coming months.”

But it is on the international front that the new Raisi administration will find its most daunting challenges. That explains, in part, Iran’s ongoing regional charm offensive. Writing for Israel Yahom, Dean Shmuel Elmas notes with some concern Turkey’s apparent rapprochement with Iran. Reporting on a recent telephone call between the Turkish and Iranian presidents, Elmas adds that in his conversation with the outgoing president Rouhani, “Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan… discuss[ed] the ‘various regional and international issues’ the two countries have in common…. The Turkish president emphasized the need for future cooperation and vowed to ‘continue to work together to resolve the crises, including in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan’. Rouhani, who is slated to leave office on Aug. 5, also emphasized Turkey and Iran’s critical role in resolving problems in the region.”

Taking advantage of the Eid al-Adha greetings, the Iranian president held a series of conversations with other regional leaders. Of particular importance from the perspective of Iran’s ambitions in the region is the relationship with Iraq. President Rouhani’s insistence then on deepening the security cooperation between the two countries, as this Tehran Times report indicates, should come as no surprise: Rouhani congratulated the government and people of Iraq on Eid al-Adha, adding, “For the Islamic Republic of Iran, supporting stability and security, independence and territorial integrity of Iraq has a special importance, and we consider the security and stability of Iraq as our own security, and we support the presence of this neighboring Muslim country in regional interactions,” according to a statement by the Iranian presidency. … Rouhani referred to the high capacity of cooperation between Tehran and Baghdad in economic and trade fields, and stressed the need to implement and operationalize previous agreements, including the important Shalamcheh-Basra railway project, as well as defining the economic cooperation roadmap and developing an economic strategy.”

Maintaining its influence in Iraq will require more than holiday greetings from Iran, as other regional actors believe they can also woo Iraq. In fact, in an op-ed for Al Arabiya, Rami Rayess laments the fact that even as “Israel seeks to develop relationships with Arab neighbors around the region, one country that is often overlooked by commentators is Iraq. It’s likely that the unstable war-torn country is high on Israel’s radar to cement closer ties. If a proper relationship built on goodwill were to happen it would benefit both in their respective battles with Iran. It would become an enormous step in efforts to counter Iran’s presence in the country…. One needs to remember that Iraq’s popular perception of Israel is as an enemy, not a friend. Public sentiment entrenched in Iraq pushes towards Arab Nationalism. This view hasn’t changed over several decades, and remains a stumbling block to relationship building, for now.”

And yet, notwithstanding possible Israeli overtures towards Iraq, Iran’s greater challenges lie elsewhere. In the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iran will have to deal with a lengthy period of instability and unpredictability. Comments made by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, later reported by The Tehran Times, show that Iran takes the threat seriously: “Khatibzadeh said insecurity in Afghanistan is not tolerable for the Islamic Republic. The comments by the Foreign Ministry spokesman come as the war between the Afghan government and the Taliban has intensified in recent weeks. The clashes between the sides entered a new phase as the United States started withdrawing its troops from the Central Asian country after 20 years. The Taliban have captured more parts of Afghanistan, including part of the country’s territory bordering Iran…. Khatibzadeh said that Afghanistan’s only way is through dialogue, and lasting peace must be achieved through dialogue.”

Recognizing the delicate situation in which it finds itself, the Iranian regime has tried to also cultivate deeper ties with China and Russia. But, as Iran Focus contributor Jubin Katiraie tells the story, “In the Real World, China and Russia are turning away from Iran…. At a time when there is no clear prospect of talks between Iran and the United States, some of Iran’s political figures say that Iran is turning to the Eastern powers and claim that the problem of sanctions will be solved by signing 25-year cooperation documents between Iran, Russia, and China…. But China not only blocked a significant amount of Iranian assets, but also took advantage of sanctions to buy Iranian oil at below world prices and at high discounts, and even, according to petrochemical industry activists, brokered some Iranian oil products, such as urea, and bought it at a cheap price from Iran and exported it to India.”

The ultimate prize for the Iranian government still remains the lifting of the US sanctions, which is why the incoming administration has already signaled that it intends to resume nuclear talks with the US. Some feared that the hardline cleric may be pull the plug on the talks, but as Albawaba reports, the Iranian government “ending weeks of speculation, …said Monday that the Vienna talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal will resume under the new government in Tehran. Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Tehran has informed the P4+1 group (Russia, China, France, UK plus Germany) that the next round of talks will be held after the transition of power in Iran…. According to observers, the new conservative government’s approach to the talks is likely to be different and uncompromising from the incumbent government, which might put more hurdles in the path toward peace and reconciliation.”

Clearly, the talks are unlikely to get any easier given the nature of the new Iranian government and the acrimonious atmosphere that accompanies the negotiations. The tense atmosphere accompanying the talks between the US and Iran are captured well by an exchange between the two countries, which according to The National, centered on “Iran’s charge that [the US] is delaying a proposed prisoner swap by linking the fate of four Americans held in Iran to talks on a nuclear deal…. Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister and lead negotiator, took to Twitter on Saturday to demand the US and the UK ‘stop linking a humanitarian exchange’ with the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He held out hope of a prisoner release if the US and the UK ‘fulfil their part of the deal’…. The comments by Mr. Price in Washington and Mr. Araghchi in Tehran are the latest evidence of an impasse in negotiations on a possible US return to the agreement abandoned by former president Donald Trump.”

Dania Koleilat Khatib, in an op-ed for Arab News, argues that despite the heated rhetoric, the existence of the nuclear agreement negotiations keeps alive the possibility of finding a more comprehensive and longer-lasting solution, especially if all parties agree to expand the scope of the talks: “The negotiations in Vienna have not included other issues, such as Yemen, Lebanon, Syria or Iraq, as Iran has insisted on keeping the nuclear issue separate. Tehran has also refused to include the Arab Gulf states in the process, while rejecting calls to expand the talks’ scope to include its ballistic missile program. However, it is in Iran’s interest to include the regional actors to ensure the safety of its nuclear facilities, which have been targeted in the past…. It is in Iran’s interest to be bound by a deal that covers the entire region, including Israel, in order to protect its own facilities. A separate, parallel agreement can be agreed under the UN’s auspices to bind the various countries not to target any nuclear facility.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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