What the rise of Raisi means for regional security and nuclear bargains

Introduction 

The triumph of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi in the recently-held Iranian Presidential election is likely to pose a challenge with regard to the renewal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA/Iran Nuclear Agreement (in 2019, US had imposed sanctions on him for human rights violations). Raisi, who has been serving as Iran’s Chief Justice since March 2019, will take over as President in August 2021 and will be replacing Hassan Rouhani, a moderate.

While he has not opposed the JCPOA in principle, Raisi is likely to be a tougher negotiator than his predecessor. This was evident from his first news conference, where he said that Iran will not kowtow to the West by limiting its missile capabilities or addressing concerns with regard to Iran’s role in the region’s security. In the news conference, he also stated that he will not be meeting US President Joe Biden.

The US has been guarded in its response to the election result. Commenting on the verdict and its likely impact on the Iran nuclear deal, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated: 

The ultimate decision for whether or not to go back into the deal lies with Iran’s supreme leader, and he was the same person before this election as he is after the election

Iran-China relations in recent years  

Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Raisi on his triumph, describing Iran and China as ‘comprehensive strategic partners.’ The Chinese President said that he was willing to work with Iran on a host of issues. Only last year, Iran and China had signed a 25-year strategic comprehensive agreement which sought to give a strong boost not just to economic ties between Tehran and Beijing, but security ties as well. One of the reasons cited for Tehran moving closer to Beijing has been the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran-P5+1 agreement/JCPOA in 2018 and its lack of flexibility. From Beijing’s point of view, the deal was important not just for fulfilling its oil needs (according to the agreement, China would receive Iranian oil at a cheaper price). 

While there is no doubt that the Biden administration has made attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal in recent months and the Vienna negotiations in which US has been indirectly involved, a solution does not seem in sight in the short run given that Raisi will replace Rouhani only in August. Also, if both sides stick to their stated position things are likely to get tougher. Interestingly, a senior Iranian official, presidential chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi, indicated that the US had agreed to move over one thousand Trump-era sanctions, including those on insurance, oil, and shipping. 

The JCPOA has taken a break at the Vienna talks for some days and, commenting on this, Mikhail Ulyanov, permanent representative to Russia, said:

The task is to make full use of this break to ensure that all participants get final political instructions on the remaining controversial issues

Obstacles  

While many Democrats and strategic analysts had been arguing that the Biden administration needed to show greater urgency and move away from stated positions with regard to a return to the JCPOA, opposition from not just Republicans but hawks within his party made any such agreement impossible.  

Apart from domestic opposition, Biden will also need to deal with pressure from Israel. While it is true that GCC countries, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, earlier opposed to the deal have been seeking to improve ties with Iran and have also softened their opposition to the deal, Israel has been opposed to JCPOA. The recently-elected Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s stand vis-à-vis JCPOA is the same as Benjamin Netanyahu’s. After the Iranian election, the Israeli PM said: 

Raisi’s election is, I would say, the last chance for world powers to wake up before returning to the nuclear agreement, and understand who they are doing business with

Role of China and Russia  

It would be pertinent to point out that, days before the election, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had stated that the US should remove sanctions vis-à-vis Iran. Given the fact that Raisi is anti-West, it is likely that China and Russia could play an important role in the revival of JCPOA.  

While there is merit in the Biden administration’s approach of removing sanctions against Iran in a stage-wise manner, since this may be politically more feasible, Washington needs to think innovatively and bear in mind that a rigid approach vis-à-vis Tehran will only make anti-Western sentiment in Iran more pronounced, and leave it with no choice but to move closer to China. GCC countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which have been working towards resolving tensions with Iran, could also play an important role in talks between the Biden administration and a dispensation headed by Raisi.

In conclusion, the Biden Administration clearly has its task cut out. While negotiating with Raisi may not be easy, the fact that he has support of the supreme leader could be favourable, and the US could also use some of its allies to engage with the new administration.

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