Is There Room for Pragmatism in Raisi's Foreign Policy?
Updated: Mar 16
Bourse & Bazaar Foundation
June 22, 2021
With Ebrahim Raisi’s engineered victory in Iran’s presidential election, the country’s foreign policy approach is bound to change. The Rouhani administration ardently pursued engagement with the international community and the inauguration of Raisi on August 3 will mark the end of the Rouhani administration’s eight-year “charm offensive” and the beginning of a more assertive and uncompromising diplomatic approach. Nonetheless, even as manner and tone of Iran’s foreign policy changes, the overall trajectory of that policy will remain the same.
As stipulated in the constitution of the Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader is in charge of charting the overall trajectory of Iran’s foreign policy, among the “general policies of the regime.” The details of that policy are largely decided within the Supreme National Security Council, where the president and the foreign minister are merely two members. The foreign policy objectives of the Islamic Republic will continue to be decided by consensus. Even if he had a vastly different vision for Iran’s foreign policy, Raisi and his team will not be able to deviate away from the established priorities, goals, and redlines of the wider establishment.
Today, Iran’s foreign policy doctrine prioritises relations with neighbouring and regional countries as well as with countries in Asia. The overall outlook is realist, as Iran participates in regional power competition and also responds to competition among the great powers. Within this approach, relations with Europe and the United States are governed by strict redlines that the president cannot unilaterally override.
One commonly cited justification for the evident engineering in Iran’s election is that Raisi’s victory is intended to align all organs of power, especially the three branches of government, with the ideology, approach, and objectives of the state. Rouhani’s political rivals sought to undermine the success of his administration. Now, these rivals will be the ones in power—Raisi will not face the obstacles that hobbled his predecessor.
Of course, Raisi has no diplomatic experience and has made few remarks regarding foreign policy. We can assume that his cabinet ministers and advisers will craft his foreign policy approach. Chief among those expected advisers is Saeed Jalili, an ultraconservative counselor to the Supreme Leader, former nuclear negotiator under Ahmadinejad, head of a self-proclaimed shadow government during Rouhani’s presidency, and a candidate for president who dropped out in Raisi’s favor. Jalili’s hardline approach to nuclear negotiations with the West between 2005-2013 led, in part, to the imposition of multilateral sanctions on the country.
Raisi and his supporters were adamantly opposed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, he has softened his stance in recent months and pledged to remain committed to the agreement, but not much else. In his first post-election press conference, Raisi rejected the idea of meeting with President Biden, declared that Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional issues are non-negotiable, and called on the United States to abide by its obligations and “lift all oppressive sanctions against Iran.” Statements by all parties to the nuclear negotiations indicate that an agreement to revive the JCPOA will most likely be reached before Hassan Rouhani’s term expires, with July 15, the sixth anniversary of the signing of the agreement, set as a possible target date.
Moreover, Raisi had previously portrayed himself as a champion for Iranian production, questioning the Rouhani administration’s focus on engagement with the global economy. During the presidential debates, Abdolnaser Hemmati, the former head of the Central Bank and Raisi’s only moderate rival, argued he was running to prevent Raisi and his advisers from turning Iran’s economy into something like that of North Korea. But during the election campaign, Raisi worked to shed the perception that he was seeking to close Iran’s economy by promising voters that he would reduce the barriers to foreign trade.
During the debates, Raisi pointed to the 15-country regional market of 500 million people with which Iran should be trading, and in which Iran has just a tiny market share. He vowed to prioritize economic diplomacy in the foreign ministry with the objective of increasing Iran’s export share in the regional markets. The lifting of US secondary sanctions will be critical to achieving such a goal. If the JCPOA is revived in the coming weeks, Raisi will inherit the Rouhani administrations major foreign policy achievement, bringing much-needed economic relief for the country. Raisi’s approach toward the deal’s implementation as well as follow on agreements, however, will determine the extent of that economic relief.
Looking to regional diplomacy, the opportunity seems ripe for Iran to expand its dialogue with its regional rivals. While the Rouhani administration had tried to engage in such dialogue in earnest, Arab leaders perceived that Rouhani lacked the necessary support and backing from the principal circles of power in Tehran. This perception prevented Iran’s Arab neighbours from taking advantage of the openings presented by the Rouhani administration, including initiatives like the Hormuz Peace Endeavor. A more unified approach from Tehran will be welcomed by the Arab states, whose own power structures are highly consolidated. Moreover, in the same press conference, Raisi called for constructive relations and engagements with all countries, especially Iran’s neighbours, and expressed support for the reopening of Iranian and Saudi Arabian embassies in Riyadh and Tehran, respectively.
Raisi has big ambitions—becoming president is a means to an end. For Raisi to ensure that he succeeds Ayatollah Khamenei as Iran’s Supreme Leader, he needs to fulfil his promises, particularly those with regard to revamping the country’s economy. Moreover, having been elected in a contest marred by low-turnout, Raisi will need to burnish his popularity. As such, the new administration will attempt to balance between internal risks and foreign opportunities, and the administration will only prove successful if it manages to put pragmatism first, especially in the arena of foreign policy.
Photo Credit: IRNA