Iran Rethinks its Foreign Policy

As its new president, Ebrahim Raisi takes office, Iran has begun to question the guidelines of its foreign policy, especially in regard to its relations with its Arab neighbours. It is a matter of striking a balance between the defence of national interests and the regime’s radical ideology.

Tehran, August 21 2021. President Ebrahim Raissi in Parliament during the session devoted to the selection of his cabinet
Atta Kenare/AFP

The nuclear agreement, since its conclusion on 14 July 2015, has been a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a military de-escalation in the Middle East. Of course the US withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018 was a significant factor in the breakdown of the normalisation of the Islamic Republic’s relations with the rest of the world, but the fact remains that the ramping-up of Tehran’s security sector since 2009 and the crisis of legitimacy affecting the Iranian regime stand in the way of any improvement of the country’s relations with its Arab neighbours on the Persian Gulf.

For there exists a tension in Iran between those who defend country’s national interests (the stability of its borders and the defence of Shi’ia minorities) and those in charge of the security apparatus who advocate a militant anti-Americanism. It is for example difficult for Tehran to implement a coherent Afghan policy without betraying the regime’s ideological options. To put it differently, the alliance with the Hazara community, previously an oppressed minority but which benefited from the US intervention in 2001, is in contradiction with the rapprochement with the Talibans in recent months, explicable both in terms of realpolitik and the Islamic Republic’s ideological anti-American stance.

Tehran speaks with a single voice

The ascension to the presidency of Ebrahim Raisi on 5 August 2021 certainly marks the beginning of a new era in the relations between Iran and its neighbours. Indeed, the shadow state, often designated in the Western media under the umbrella term of “conservatives” is now officially in power and the elected institutions are completely subordinate to the security apparatus.

This could enable Iran’s neighbours to deal with a single diplomatic partner and no longer have to cope with Tehran’s traditionally multi-voiced diplomacy.

On the other hand, the direct involvement of security officials in the country’s governance might also increase the Islamic Republic’s mistrust of what it perceives as a US hegemonic order in the Middle East. The new Iranian president’s stated commitment to prioritise the improvement of relations with the country’s Persian Gulf neighbours is likely to place Riyadh and Abu Dhabi before a difficult choice: either normalise their relations with Tehran or maintain their alliances with Washington. For the countries on the Arab shore of the Gulf this dilemma is, moreover, one of the reasons for the failure of the diplomatic efforts to construct a regional security system.

The idea of including regional and ballistic issues in the nuclear negotiations comes up against several obstacles. First of all, there is Tehran’s refusal to negotiate with the major powers the matter of its relations with its regional neighbours. One solution might be found in a formula involving only the regional powers, but for this to be possible, Riyadh, and to a lesser extent Abu Dhabi, would have to be convinced that Tehran was prepared to use its regional influence constructively and not merely for its nuisance value. Then too, Tehran’s decision to base its military doctrine on the use of ballistic missiles to compensate for its vulnerability in the area of modern military aviation rules out any prospect of an agreement including those issues … apart perhaps from an informal dialogue dealing with the range of Iranian missiles, which might be limited to 2,000 kilometres.

Finally, Tehran refuses to associate its Arab neighbours with the nuclear negotiations, when the Biden administration is committed, on the contrary, to consulting Washington’s Middle East allies on that very question in order to reach an “extended agreement,” more effective than the one obtained in 2015 by the Obama administration.

Fourteen mysterious explosions

From Israel’s point of view, the most important thing is to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold country, i.e., a country with the capacity to produce nuclear weapons as soon as it has taken the political decision to do so; this explains the multiplication of covert operations and the Israeli “hawks’ ” determination to put the military option back on the table. During the year 2020 alone, Iran was targeted by no less than fourteen mysterious explosions and unexplained fires on its nuclear sites, military bases, industrial capacities, pipelines, power plants and other strategic installations. Similarly, according to Iranian sources, during that same year, eleven of the country’s freighters were attacked by the Israelis. From the point of view of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, the priority should go to regional and ballistic issues and to the Iranian drone program which constitutes a direct threat to their national security. Despite tactical differences, these three countries agree on the need to confront a multidimensional, “Iranian menace.”

In a sense, the increased power of the security apparatus and the promotion of the ultraconservatives to the head of the Islamic Republic help to clarify the nature of the regime and of the transnational ideology which, according to Iran’s regional rivals, has always presided over its institutional system. The fall of the “moderate” government weakens the hand of those who favour a dialogue with the West and with their neighbours while laying bare Tehran’s ideological ambitions for the Middle East. This is especially true for Iraq where the military confrontation with Washington is still very much alive. This dossier is under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the increasing involvement of Hossein Taeb, head of intelligence for the Pasdarans, is significant of its importance for Tehran. It also shows that the institutional fragmentation expected by the US hawks after the murder of Qasem Soleimani did not take place and that institutional continuity prevailed in the handling of Iran’s influence in Iraq.

Moreover, the return of the conservatives to the presidency puts paid to the “moderates’ ” plans for an international negotiation of regional issues, which President Hassan Rohani had hoped to organise in 2015. The new Iranian president, who campaigned in favour of a “strong Iran,” must now handle some thorny contradictions. On the one hand, Iran wields a powerful impact in the region, based on its networks of ideological, economic and security influence. On the other hand, the country is faced with a deep economic crisis after a decade of zero growth from 2010 to 2020.

In this tense context, President Raisi’s chief objective will be to improve the situation of the economy by strengthening economic ties between the Islamic Republic and its neighbours. The goal is to build an economic model which will protect the Iranian economy from the effects of US political decisions. In other words, the lifting of the sanctions remains a priority—in particular to win back the oil market shares lost on account of the aggressive policies of the Trump administration—but also to improve the economy qualitatively and increase the volume of trade with Iran’s neighbours, as well as with countries like Russia and China.

Overtures to Riyadh

The postponement of the nuclear negotiations until September 2021 can be explained by the need to form a new team of Iranian negotiators in the wake of the change of government; it is also meant to show that Tehran is in no hurry. By dragging out the talks, Iran’s leaders can also raise the ante on nuclear matters in order to make this dossier a matter of urgency for the West and thus avoid having to negotiate a broader agreement, which would include those ballistic and regional issues. And finally, there is a difference of method with respect to the previous government, especially as concerns the lifting of the sanctions.

For President Raisi and the Supreme Leader, in order to return to the agreement it must be possible to “verify” the lifting of the sanctions and this process must last several weeks or even months, whereas the Rohani government had agreed to a delay of only a few days. A longer delay for verification will also give Iran more time to bring its nuclear program in line with its 2015 commitments.

There is also an issue of domestic politics at stake since the new conservative government wants to prove it can get a better deal than its predecessor. This dimension of the talks will provide a further obstacle to reaching a compromise in the near future.

Tehran’s determination to negotiate only the nuclear issues with the major powers goes hand in hand with a new diplomatic rhetoric, emphasising Iran’s readiness to normalise diplomatic relations with Riyadh. Such an agreement would be a major diplomatic breakthrough and would facilitate a rapid rapprochement with all the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). At stake here is the recognition of Iran’s role as a regional power that cannot be ignored.

This strategy is also aimed at strengthening Iran’s economic ties in order to limit the impact of the US sanctions. However, as far as oil is concerned, Irano-Saudi relations are rather positive and remain unaffected by geopolitical issues. One difference with the previous government revolves around Rohani’s idea of using the nuclear agreement as a first stage in Iran’s reconciliation with its Saudi rival. The new regional strategy is defined independently of the nuclear talks. A nuclear agreement will certainly be a necessary condition (reducing the military tension with Washington), but will not suffice to reduce military tensions in the Persian Gulf.