Damascus: There was little surprise in the election of Ebrahim Raisi as the new president of Iran. Raisi is a hardline cleric, judge and now the eighth President of the Islamic Republic. Iran-watchers were almost certain he would win, given the support he received from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Many wondered, however, what his election would mean for the plethora of Iran-related issues open across the region and on the world stage.
Some believe that being a hardliner, he will be reluctant to offer any compromise. Others claim, however, that he has no say on foreign policy, and that domain will continue to be handled exclusively by Ayatollah Khamenei.
High on the list of pending issues are the nuclear talks underway in Vienna, aimed at returning to the 2015 nuclear deal from which former US President Donald Trump famously withdrew in 2018.
That withdrawal only further radicalised Iran, however, and contributed to the muzzling of reformists throughout the country. It also seems to have had a direct effect on the election of Raisi as president this week.
The sixth round of talks took place on Sunday, attended by Russia, China, Germany, France, the UK, and Iran. EU Coordinator Enrique Mora spoke to reporters saying: “We are close to a deal, but we are not still there.”
Diplomatic sources said that another round will be held within the next 10 days, and an agreement could be finalised by mid-to-late July.
The crux of the Vienna talks are sanctions, timetables, and what to do with the knowledge that Iran acquired during the months in which the nuclear talk were suspended (including its enrichment of uranium to 60 per cent purity).
Raisi says he supports returning to deal, only if US sanctions are fully lifted, both those on the Iranian state and on government officials (himself included, since he was sanctioned by the US in 2019).
The Biden Administration is saying that sanctions on the IRGC will stand, however, since they are related to terrorism and not to nuclear non-proliferation, claiming that they predate the 2015 nuclear deal.
The President-elect is saying that sanctions on the Supreme Leader have to be removed, since they were imposed by the US in 2019. Otherwise, there will be no deal. He is also seeking guarantees that the US will not walk out on the deal, like it did in 2015.
For its part, the Biden Administration remains worried about what Iran will do with the knowledge, and technology, it acquired from 2015 to 2021.
“Raisi’s election will not affect the nuclear negotiations” said Elijah Magnier, a veteran Iran commentator. Speaking to Gulf News, he explained that the benchmark for those talks had been previously set by Khamenei, and Raisi will not concede “an inch on what had been decided upon by the Supreme Leader.”
Many believe Raisi has been chosen by 81-year-old Khamenei to replace him as Supreme Leader one day.
Khamenei’s health is one of the most tightly guarded secrets in Iran, however, and so is the name of who will succeed him. Many have erroneously predicted his demise, although he has outlived men who are younger and healthier than him.
The president of Iran has no say on whether the deal is restored or aborted, since this is fully in the hands of the Supreme Leader. In this regard, many believe that he will simply sign off legislation and approve higher state policy dictated by Khamenei. The bottom line, says Magnier, is: “Lift all sanctions, or no deal.”
At a regional level, Raisi’s election means continued Iranian support for non-state players across the region, like Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in the Occupied Territories, Al Houthis in Yemen, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) in Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Biden Administration wants a follow-up to the nuclear agreement, when/if it is signed, or an annex related to Tehran’s missile programme and regional ambitions, leading to the clipping of these military groups and reducing their influence in places like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Gaza.
Raisi’s victory is a “gift to President Bashar Al Assad,” said Ebrahim Hamidi, senior diplomatic editor at the Saudi daily Alsharq Alawsat. “With Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran, whether as president or Supreme Leader, this will only empower the Syrian-Russian-Iranian axis,” added Hamidi.
“Undoubtedly there will be a clause in the nuclear agreement related to Iran’s military presence in Syria. We are yet to see how that will play out with Raisi as president although a decision of such magnitude — Iranian presence in Syria — is handled by the Supreme Leader.”
If a deal is struck and Raisi is forced to offer something in Yemen, the Houthis will be asked — or forced — to return to the negotiating table and reach an agreement with President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, with threats of ending military support if they do not. Yemen was never a priority for Iran, as many wrote and said since 2015. It was far more important for Saudi Arabia, which sees it as its own backyard. Raisi knows that only too well.
Saudi-Iranian talks, which began via Iraqi mediation last May, can greatly reduce tension in Yemen. Raisi is yet to comment on this matter, although he will likely support this track, which is being led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
What makes these talks all the more important is that they were initiated by the regional powers themselves and not imposed on them by any outside party, whether it’s the Russians, Americans, or the United Nations. That gives them a far greater chance of success, since they are borne out of necessity and pragmatism.
Raisi will have to swallow his pride and turn a page with Saudi Arabia, if not now then in the not-too-distant future. The fact that he is a hardliner with a history of stern positions on Saudi Arabia is actually a plus not a minus. He already has his credentials pinned on his uniform and attached to his CV. He has nothing to prove and will not be accused of being too weak or conciliatory towards the Saudis.
It’s always been easier for hardliners to make tough decisions, especially those with a long history of no-compromise that shelters them from criticism.
The Iranians only used the Houthis to advance their leverage over Saudi Arabia in other countries like Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. In exchange for abandoning Yemen, Raisi would expect reward elsewhere, like a power-sharing formula in Lebanon, similar to the one of the 1990s, where his country co-shared influence in the tiny Mediterranean state with Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Meanwhile in Lebanon “Hezbollah is ecstatic about Raisi’s victory,” said Hilal Khashan, political science professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB). This enthusiasm, he said to Gulf News, “will put it on an inevitable collision course with Israel, whose next war will not be with Hamas, but with Hezbollah. The only thing that can keep Israel’s new shaky coalition together is war, and Raisi’s election will expedite its inception.”
There is little appetite for war in Lebanon, however, as the country slips into economic meltdown and a cabinet formation crisis that has dragged on since October 2019. That can change, however, if Israel were to provoke one or, according to Khashan “should Raisi order Hezbollah to respond to an Israeli attack on Iran.”
The counter argument
A war with Israel, nudged by Raisi, runs the high risk of tearing the country apart, although it would certainly solidify Hezbollah ranks and increase its support within the Shiite community. Beyond that, it would be a nightmare for Hezbollah.
Not many agree with that argument, like Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Programme at the Middle East Institute. Speaking to Gulf News, he explained: “Raisi has nothing to offer in terms of regional policies. This is not his field. His entire 42-year career in the Islamic Republic has been in the judicial branch. He is much more experienced in dealing with sentencing and imprisoning and in some cases ordering the execution of local political prisoners. He has not much to offer in shaping Tehran’s regional policy, at least, not in the short term. He will simply support the vision of Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards.”
Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes the same, writing in The Atlantic: “Although the malaise of the modern Middle East has many fathers, as long as Iran, one of the region’s largest and wealthiest nations, is ruled by a theocracy that actively uses its sizable energy revenue to fund and train armed militias that espouse its intolerant revolutionary ideology, a more stable, tolerant, prosperous region will remain a distant dream.”