Iran under new management: what could make or break Raisi’s presidency
10 Aug 2021|

Ebrahim Raisi took on multiple challenges when he became Iran’s new president on 5 August. How he copes with four of them could make or break his presidency—and determine Iran’s level of stability for the foreseeable future.

The four challenges are to resuscitate Iran’s economy and relieve the severe hardship affecting all citizens, to seek pragmatic foreign policy solutions to regional tensions and instability, to respect the rights of all citizens, and to demonstrate the qualities necessary to be a credible successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader.

All four challenges are interdependent. And they are ultimately dependent on the outcome of the US–Iran negotiations aimed at bringing Washington back into the Iran nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA). After months of ‘progressive’ bilateral talks in Vienna this year, the negotiations have now stalled.

According to publicly available information, the major, if not sole, reason the talks have stalled is a US insistence that the new agreement include a sentence that obligates Iran to hold further negotiations that limit its missile development and cease support to (adversarial) militant groups in the Middle East. Whether Washington also wants to include a condition that the US’s ongoing JCPOA membership depends on satisfactory progress being made on both of those issues is not known.

But if Washington has made such a call, that might have triggered Iran’s own opportunistic, albeit rejected, proposal that the US agree that it won’t again unilaterally withdraw from the agreement.

The exclusion of the matters involving missiles and militant groups from the JCPOA when it was signed in 2015 was a major reason why President Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and slapped on multiple economic and other sanctions to force Iran to renegotiate. Iran refused, causing Trump to embark on a ‘maximum pressure’ campaign to precipitate regime change.

Why President Joe Biden has again pushed Trump’s proposed amendments, which Iran predictably rejected outright, is open to speculation. Biden would have anticipated this rejection, which was accompanied by an outburst from Khamenei about distrust of the West. Most likely, Biden pushed them again for domestic political reasons, and to at least partially appease Israel, which strongly opposes the JCPOA.

The rejection of the amendments by Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, would have convinced Biden that the only way to negotiate with Raisi’s conservative government was to make the US rejoining the JCPOA a stand-alone issue, separate from missiles and other ‘malign’ regional activities.

A compelling reason for Biden to take this path is to lock Iran quickly into a UN-endorsed commitment not to develop nuclear weapons, that’s subject to verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the agreement’s fundamental purpose. Notwithstanding the agreement’s perceived weaknesses, Biden believes it’s better to have Iran in, rather than outside, the tent.

The most compelling reason for Raisi (no doubt with Khamenei’s approval) to encourage the US to quickly rejoin the JCPOA is to relieve the nation’s extreme economic hardship through the restoration of a functional economy by obligating the US to lift all, or at least most, unilateral sanctions, especially those relating to oil exports and international financial transactions. Lifting these, and removing the related punitive measures against other countries that might breach them, would enable Iran to return to near-normal international trade, attract much-needed foreign investment, recreate related employment opportunities and, potentially, commence rebuilding public optimism in Iran’s economic, and political, future. A number of countries are keen to expand their trade and investment with Iran, including China under the terms of the bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership signed this year.

Given the great distrust between Iran and the US, one Iranian goodwill initiative to convey intent, trust and reliability would be to immediately return to the uranium enrichment and stockpile levels, and full verification procedures, provided for in the agreement. This would also reassure other JCPOA signatories about Tehran’s peaceful nuclear intentions without any loss of face or dignity for Iran.

What about Iran’s missiles and regional activities? Iran has stood firm about missiles being non-negotiable. It has previously dismissed any formal limitations, citing the formidable weaponry of neighbouring states and at major US regional military bases in Qatar and Bahrain. However, Iran has already limited the range of its missiles to 2,000 kilometres to erase fears of developing intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Iran also claims that its commitment in the JCPOA preamble to never acquire nuclear weapons removes any need for an undertaking that it won’t develop nuclear-capable missiles.

An early statement by Raisi committing his government to contributing constructively to regional peace and stability, and announcing initiatives to demonstrate that commitment, would be timely. He has already flagged his intent to forge closer relations with Saudi Arabia, which would be a shrewd starting point.

Issues that could be addressed jointly to test both sides’ commitment include finding a transparent political solution to the war in Yemen and implementing a joint strategy against the mutual threat posed by al-Qaeda and Islamic State. These could be the springboard for wider cooperation with the Gulf states, including the lessening of Shia–Sunni tensions, especially in Iraq and Lebanon. The stability of Afghanistan is an issue for broader regional outreach.

However, this logic is not guaranteed to succeed. If Iran or the US plays the zero-sum game—all or nothing—the consequences could be tragic. There are multiple scenarios. One is that the US, deterred by the new Raisi government, doesn’t rejoin the JCPOA or lift its sanctions. Maximum pressure is reinstated and Iran’s crippled economy worsens, precipitating widespread public dissent and demonstrations that are met by brutal repressive measures, attributed to Raisi. This situation morphs into massive civil discord and the breakdown of functional government. The military takes over, probably led by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to restore order. The whole regime is dismissed, including Khamenei and Raisi. A new regime is installed.

That’s a not-unfamiliar scenario regionally, and elsewhere. But is it possible in Iran? In 1925 Brigadier General Reza Pahlavi mounted a coup against the ruling Shah and installed himself as monarch. In 1979 the ‘revolution’ displaced the government and monarchy. In both cases, the trigger was a breakdown of government and civil order. If that happens again, what would it do to regional stability?

Khamenei’s manipulation of the electoral process to ensure Raisi’s election was a major gamble given the many doubts about his suitability for the job. However, the multiple challenges he faces also pose opportunities. Time should quickly identify winners and losers.