Ibrahim Raisi in Power: Will Tehran's Foreign Policy Change?

The following article seeks to highlight the future of Iranian foreign policy under the new Iranian president, Ibrahim Raisi, after taking into account the factors that control Iran's foreign political scene and its interactions with domestic affairs on the one hand and with the distribution of power regionally and internationally on the other.

  • Publisher – STRATEGIECS
  • Release Date – Jul 5, 2021

As expected, conservative candidate Ibrahim Raisi has won Iran’s presidential elections on June, 18th 2021 with a majority of 62%. Iran's legislative and executive institutions have thus become consistent in domestic and foreign political choices, with the fundamentalist current holding 221 of the 290 seats in the Shura Council after the February 2020 parliamentary elections. Given Tehran's regional weight and influence on many regional issues, it is expected that there will be a more stringent handling of foreign files, particularly in countries where Iranian influence is part of political and security problems.

Raisi, who is close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and to the Revolutionary Guard Foundation, noted in his first media appearance on June 21, 2021 after his election victory that his government will continue negotiations with the parties concerned in Vienna, but will not make the country's fate dependent on it, meaning that Tehran is interested in reaching a nuclear deal, but not to the extent that it builds its foreign policy on such basis, as Raisi believes that it was the United States that withdrew from the deal in 2018, not Iran, and therefore it is the US that has to make the effort to return to it or reach a new formula.

This rivalry is different from what appeared to be the Rouhani’s government great reliance on the return to the deal and the possibility of restoring relations with the Western world at all levels. However, the Iranian foreign policy has leaned toward intransigence toward the West in general after the withdrawal of the United States from the deal, when Rouhani's moderate government lost its popular weight and the Supreme Leader was encouraged to move east toward a comprehensive strategic partnership with China for a quarter of a century. The two sides then agreed on this on March, 27th 2021, as China has pledged to inject $400 billion into various sectors of Iran’s economy over 25 years, as well as military and intelligence cooperation.

It can be said, therefore, that Iran's reliance on the relationship with Western countries to solve domestic economic problems has decreased significantly; Here, Raisi’s victory in the presidential elections and fundamentalists in general in the Shura Council elections can be understood as a fruition of foreign policy redirection that began under former President Hassan Rouhani.

If a nuclear deal is reached, the flow of capital to Iran may not be within the framework of the privatization of economic institutions as has been the case since the era of former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. This is because Raisi’s economic policy calls for equal distribution of social wealth, not to mention that Iran’s economic trends will be discussed in the next phase with Chinese partners in various fields, after Iran's ruling elite — one of its institutional representations appear in the National Security Council, which includes delegates from the judicial and legislative institutions as well as the presidency — realized that it would have no better international economic and political support than China, which is engaged in an escalating international conflict with Western capitals, particularly Washington, over its rapidly growing influence in the world.

Regardless of the democracy of Iran's electoral mechanisms, Ibrahim Raisi represents the traditional right in Iran, which adopts an anti-American vision of adhering to the values of the Iranian Revolution; thus, reaching a nuclear agreement will be a ceiling rather than a beginning to the relationship between Washington and Tehran. Raisi will focus on "strengthening" the home front and fighting corruption, according to what is stated in his electoral program, the latter for a figure like Raisi not only means eliminating illegal financial and administrative dealings, but also extends to the exclusion of figures who espouse beliefs inconsistent with the spirit of Revolution, as he did when he was appointed Head of judiciary after 2017.

Raisi will have a challenge before Iranian society to fulfill his promises of institutional reform, in light of leaks that there are sensitive institutions in Iran that have been heavily infiltrated by the Israeli Mossad for 10 years, according to statements made on June 29 by  Ali Younisi, former Minister of Intelligence and National Security in the government of former President Mohammad Khatami who also added that the scale of the Israeli intelligence breach makes Iranian officials fear for their lives. Prior to this statement, there were statements in mid-June of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad , who was excluded by the Guardian Council from the last presidential race,   that  "the Israeli counterintelligence official in the Iranian Intelligence Ministry was an agent of Tel Aviv", which caused a stir inside and outside Iran, but also gave an explanation of the assassinations of scientists, most notably the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November 2020, and the previous bombing of the centrifuge production center at the Natanz nuclear facility in July of the same year.

The possibility that Raisi will "cleanse" state institutions of any suspicious elements with the aim of creating general consistency between the various branches of the state security, including the military, and working hard to combat Israeli "espionage", would possibly raise tensions in the region. If Tel Aviv had previously carried out an act of sabotage here or assassinated a nuclear scientist there, it would be difficult for it to do so if control over the work of Iranian institutions increased, and Israel's knowledge of the developments of Iran's nuclear program would therefore be almost non-existent,  opening the door   to direct military actions between the two countries or indirectly against Iranian influence in Arab countries, since Israel could no longer obstruct the nuclear program.

As for the neighboring countries, the new president's speech was no different from its predecessors, as Raisi expressed his willingness to restore diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia provided that the war in Yemen ends, and therefore Tehran's vision towards the countries of the region and Saudi Arabia in particular will be conditioned by its regional interests, in exchange for establishing diplomatic relations and controlling the armed organizations loyal to them in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

But the United States under Trump and then Biden does not bless Iran's effort to normalize relations with neighboring countries. The biggest proof of this is the continued targeting of Iranian military bases, Iranian troops or their loyalists in the region, the most recent of which took place on June 27, when the US Department of Defense announced that it had targeted the installations of Iranian factions in Iraq and Syria by drones which were later identified as being managed by the Iraqi Popular Mobilization — an attack that was the second of its kind under the administration of Joe Biden after the limited US  attacks on Syrian territory in February.

US military behavior does not help Iran establish calm relations with neighboring countries, because it will have to respond directly or through its arms in the region, which is not favored by the Gulf states that see Iran’s response as a threat in general or could pose a threat to their vital interests in particular.

Despite expectations that Raisi will be Iran’s most consistent president with the Supreme Leader under Ali Khamenei, he is facing significant domestic challenges, such as the deteriorating living conditions of Iranian society, which have been one of the causes of popular reluctance   to participate in the presidential election, since the turnout did not exceed 42%, the matter which will lead to a debate about the legitimacy of the system of government if these conditions do not improve.

The traditional Iranian right represented by Raisi will be tested by Iranian society if it is not able to manage the next phase at home and abroad in light of the growing populist right and the possibility of reforming the reformist current. To this end, Raisi will not repeat the mistake of the Rouhani government by betting on the completion of the nuclear deal, for example, but will place it as the second, perhaps third or fourth item on the top of his priorities list in exchange for strengthening relations with Russia and understanding with it about its influence in Syria, and with China and the shape of their economic relationship, in addition to taking a harder stance in the region by defending the behavior of its political and military organizations, which appears to be a new battle with new conditions for "breaking the bone" between Washington and Tehran.




Policy Analysis Team