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.

Nightcap

  1. The missing backlash against finance Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  2. A contrarian take on the Trump tariffs Scott Sumner, MoneyIllusion
  3. Brave Nuclear World Emma Ashford, InkStick
  4. A classic in Persian literature is relevant again Joobin Bekhrad, Los Angeles Review of Books

Undercover Occupants

[Editor’s note: the following is a short essay by Payam Ghorbanian. Payam was born in Tehran, Iran. He got his bachelor of science in Engineering from Zanjan University in Zanjan, Iran. He has been participating in liberal political activities and he was involved with some think tanks in Iran. He is doing research in the field of international relations and Iran’s foreign policy as an independent activist. He is now living in San Jose, California.

I am excited to post his thoughts because of their potential as a conduit for intercultural dialogue and exchange. I have left his essay largely intact, but did break up some of his longer paragraphs for clarity’s sake. Thanks to Payam for taking the time to write this.]

One of the worst Persian attitudes, which really makes me upset, is that we really like make everyone feel pleased and at the same time we are trying to make our friends, our families member, and finally ourselves feel proud. This seems to be just wasting of time and even sometime more than wasting. It really holds us back from being flexible and being more focused just on our life.

The fatal mistake in terms of power games is taking one step back because of pacifying your enemies. I remember these fatal mistakes occurred during Mr. Khatami presidency (1997 – 2005) and it seems that it is going to happen again. During that time reformists tried to please everyone. Liberals, communists, and extremists could fit in themselves in what they portrayed for future of Iran. The goal of “let’s get together” is just useful for the specific action and in a limited time not for unstable country like Iran. We are not taking the issues for the country like Switzerland. In fact, you cannot just chant when your enemies are ready to die for their sinister goals.

Mr. Rohani and his consultants during last month just tried to convince the middle class people that they are so preoccupied about what he has promised during his presidency campaign.  Rohani also said: “… I have never forgotten what I had said to my people but you should understand; there would be a prolonged way with unforeseen obstacles that we have to pass it through together…”. However, this is not the way that people of Iran are thinking and believing at this time. The fact is that the imprisonment of leaders of green movement has been lasting up until now and there are still so many political prisoners in prison. In fact the pace of executions is still through the roof and opposition can be called easily sedition.

All of these issues just mean that the new government and the new goals of basis changes have not been acknowledged by the powerful organizations that live in the parallel world of responsibility. These groups of extremists can take any action whenever they want without taking any obligation and no one has the authority to prosecute them. They are not supposed to be questioned and on the other hand, no one knows who they really are. I call them “Undercover Occupants” which means obviously they are connected to somewhere but where exactly this department of power is remains the question that no one has the answer of. There are always lots of rumors which they are the members of Basij militia or some religious departments but it is still in denial.

Four years age, in 2008, during the rebellious days of Tehran, these undercover occupants attacked The University of Tehran. So many students were injured and finally the supreme leader commanded the “Supreme National Security Council” to get involved and back them off. They also tried to condemn in public during the chairman of Islamic parliament (Ali Larijani) speech. In fact Ali Larijani is so close to the supreme leader! These undercover occupants were also involved in occupation of the embassy of the Great Britain in Tehran, which caused the big collapse of foreign policy for Iran. I can count thousands of these nonsense and non-logical movements which sometimes caused the supreme leader’s reactions. Occupants recently confronted president Rohani and actually went up against him after he got back home from New York. They criticized him that he was not authorized to talk to president Obama and that he put country down.

They are just like the people who think the mission of possessing of sacred goal is on their shoulders, no matter what would be the responsibility. When they think there is a threat they just interfere. I heard some of them are the presidents of the industries who occupied the manufacturing companies of Iran after the revolution and also the business men who could take advantage of governmental economic rent during these 35 years; therefore, they should be concerned about their positions when the wind of change flows.The undercover occupant groups really remind me of the Nomenklatura category inside the Soviet Union

Obviously President Rohani has decided to discard his goals about his domestic policy for a while until the nuclear issue and sanctions are still on the table. He really thinks being triumphant in talks between Iran and 5+1 can help him precede his domestic policy inside the country. However and on the flip side, the extremist members of the Islamic Parliaments and some members of the Revolutionary Guard put their total vigor to not let him proceed. The upcoming parliament’s election and economical situations will be so important for the players of this poker table. The supreme leader has not taken a side yet which is so meaningful in Islamic Republic of Iran. As I have heard, during this year the economic situations in Iran are getting better. The hope of better future has still long way to be cultivated but people are still hopeful to upcoming talks. These are all proofs that show us having better relations with powerful countries will help you to have better chances. We are not living in the separate worlds and our planet is so combined that being isolated just deprives you not anyone else.

Last month, foreign ministers of European countries and especially Mrs. Ashton had several meetings with foreign minister Zarif. Mrs. Ashton recently went to Iran and talked in person with Mr. Rohani. She had also a meeting with some political prisoners and their family members, which dragged the undercover occupants to the front of the Austria Embassy where that meeting had occurred. They were claiming who let her to talk to the “Fitna” followers, the name which they have been using for naming oppositions in Iran during election in 2008. After while the extremists in parliaments called up Mr. Zarif and the Minister of Intelligence and Security. They asked the same question that undercover occupants had asked before.

One of the recent issues which might partially help the extremists inside Iran for improving their positions is the issue of Ukraine. The commander of IAF (Iranian Armed Forces), Hassan Firuzabadi, clearly shows respect to what Russia has done inside the Ukraine and Crimea. He also said the vandals just pulled off the coup and it was not the process of legitimate transactional and transformational leadership. Now they believe the most newest powerful country just pops up and subsequently the consolidation of 5+1 is fragile right now so there is no need for retreating at this time which I think it could be somehow the fact that the United States and the NATO don’t want to respond literally to the Russia and president Putin in order to force them back. Finally the internal battle inside Iran would go on and this battle would demonstrate the balance of political groups, the supreme leader and the Revolutionary guard. It could be one of the effective occurrence for Iranians.