Raisi to clarify, but also complicate West's dealings with Iran

The election of a loyal acolyte of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as Iranian president could ease the West’s dealings with the Islamic Republic due to a streamlined power structure in Tehran but Ebrahim Raisi’s hardline stance could also spell trouble, analysts say.

Under pressure to boost an economy crippled by US sanctions, Raisi is not expected to block EU efforts to revive a 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear ambitions by bringing the US back into the accord.

But, according to analysts, his hostility towards the United States means  Raisi is unlikely to respond to Western demands for a wider deal covering Iran’s ballistic programme, meddling in neighbouring countries and its detention of Western nationals.

Khamenei has ruled Iran since the death of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 and has the final say on all foreign policy matters as long as he lives.

“Raisi, like Khamenei, is suspicious and sceptical of Western intentions vis-a-vis Iran and will be cautious about future Western engagement,” said Sanam Vakil, senior research fellow at the London-based Chatham House think tank.

“This foreshadows a continued pattern of anti-American resistance, economic nationalism and internal repression, punctuated by moments of pragmatism,” she added.

– ‘More monolithic’ Iran  –

Raisi’s June 18 election victory, achieved on the back of record low turnout and disqualification of key rivals, means Iran will have a president in complete harmony with Khamenei for the first time.

This should help clarify Western policymaking on Iran which had been muddied by domestic disputes between the team under outgoing President Hassan Rouhani — including English-speaking Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif — and hardliners loyal to Khamenei. 

This infighting was exemplified by an audio recording attributed to Zarif that emerged in April and stunned Iran, in which the foreign minister complained bitterly about interference by the elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) who answer to Khamenei.

“A more monolithic power structure will be less bogged down by infighting, which often impeded Rouhani’s agenda and that of his envoys,” said International Crisis Group analysts Ali Vaez and Naysan Rafati in a note on the election.

They said Raisi is set to be the first president under Khamenei whose views have “mirrored” those of the supreme leader.

Before Raisi, Khamenei has worked with four presidents — all served the maximum two consecutive terms and none saw completely eye-to-eye with the supreme leader.

Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) was a longstanding political rival of Khamenei, Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) a reformist, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) a maverick who fell out with Khamenei in his second term and Rouhani, an advocate of better ties with the West.

– Under US sanctions –

Raisi also enters office as the first Iranian president to be personally sanctioned by the US under a November 2019 executive order that cited his record on human rights.

He is also accused of playing a key role as a prosecutor on a “death commission” that sent thousands of prisoners to their deaths in 1988, killings Amnesty International has described as a crime against humanity.

And as judiciary chief for the last two years he is also charged by rights groups with presiding over a system that allows the execution of child offenders as well as the holding of Western nationals as de-facto hostages.

“This dynamic is sure to complicate dialogue between Iran and the West in the years ahead, even if his administration is likely to support the restoration of the nuclear deal for now,” said Ali Reza Eshraghi in a report on the elections for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).  

– Seeking economic boost –

Painstaking talks in Vienna to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal have made progress in recent days, raising the prospect that an accord could be reached before Raisi takes office.

Sanctions would be gradually lifted if the US, which quit the accord under Donald Trump, re-enters the agreement, allowing the energy-rich nation to begin realising its economic potential.

“It is a feasible vision but it will require the lifting of sanctions. That is why the implementation of the JCPOA will be important, even for Raisi, even for the IRGC,” said Bijan Khajehpour, managing partner at Vienna-based consulting firm Eurasian Nexus Partners.

But any hope of a entirely new nuclear deal, let alone one that covers wider issues, does not appear realistic for now.

“I see no prospect of serious talks about (a) longer and stronger” deal, said Suzanne Maloney, director of the foreign policy program at the US think tank the Brookings Institution, adding there could be “selective opportunities” on issues like the detention of foreign nationals.

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