On June 18, Iran held one of the most predictable presidential elections in the Islamic Republic’s history to determine the successor to moderate President Hassan Rouhani. As the widespread disqualification of reformist and moderate candidates led more than half of the eligible population to decide not to vote, it was no surprise that conservative cleric and Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi won the election by an overwhelming majority.
Many observers rightly believe that Raisi’s victory and the complete exclusion of the moderates from key governmental institutions herald the beginning of significant changes in Iranian politics. But when it comes to Iran’s foreign policy, and especially its Middle East strategy, one should expect neither substantial policy changes nor a surprising shift in approach.
Hassan Rouhani’s eight-year presidency was marked by a fundamental difference in the approaches to regional policy between the administration and its foreign ministry on the one hand, and the hardline faction – specifically the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its affiliates – on the other. Fundamentally, the moderate camp holds a liberal view of Iranian regional policy, one based on dialogue and diplomacy. From this perspective, there is a direct link between Iran’s national interests and security and those of its neighbors. For this reason, senior officials in the Rouhani administration, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, have repeatedly referred directly or indirectly to the idea of establishing a collective security system in the region, proposing initiatives like the Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE) or a Persian Gulf Security Forum to this end.
In contrast, the hardline faction’s approach toward the Middle East is based on a fundamentally realist view that considers enhancing the country’s hard power the most important tool for maximizing national security. This approach does not rule out dialogue with other states in the region, but its proponents believe that dialogue is possible only from a position of power. Among other elements of this view is a defiant and uncompromising stance toward the United States.
At the beginning of his presidency, Rouhani sought to apply the former, liberal view to Iran’s regional policy. However, the hardliners dealt the first major blow to Rouhani’s approach by storming Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad in January 2016. In the following years, the US withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA) – Rouhani’s most important political achievement – further weakened the position of the moderate faction in Iran’s foreign policy, especially in the region. In an interview in January 2021, Zarif acknowledged that the role of the Foreign Ministry in Iran’s regional policy had been “close to zero.” Moreover, in a controversial interview leaked to the media in April, Zarif noted that the IRGC had completely marginalized the Foreign Ministry in regional policy.
Thus, it is safe to argue that when it comes to the region, the hardline faction had been dominating both policy formation and policy implementation long before the June 18 election. If there was any doubt in this regard, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei clarified in a speech before the election that foreign policy is determined not at the Foreign Ministry but at a higher level.
A look at the positions taken by Ebrahim Raisi and political figures close to him – including the two other hardline candidates who withdrew from the race to support him – reveals that he firmly believes in the second, realist approach to Iran’s regional policy. Raisi explicitly defends Iran’s influence and involvement in the region, considering it the most important element of Iran’s power. “Iran’s regional power is more important than its defense and missile capabilities,” he says, adding that “the United States and Israel know that Iran has a high operational capacity [in the region] and that Iran has the upper hand.” Raisi also states that “today no equation [at the regional level] is formed in the region without the Islamic Republic’s consent.” Saeed Jalili and Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, two hardline politicians who are being mentioned as potential foreign ministers in Raisi’s cabinet, take an even more radical approach.
What is usually referred to as the hardline camp in Iran’s political sphere is certainly not a unified entity, and there are clear differences between different groups and figures on a variety of issues. But when it comes to foreign policy, they all seem to agree on those basic realist principles mentioned earlier. As such, Ebrahim Raisi’s victory in the presidential election will likely lead to a convergence between the administration’s foreign policy stance and those of other governmental institutions that were already controlled by the hardline faction, especially the IRGC. Indeed, given that the role of the administration and the Foreign Ministry is already limited to the implementation of policies, this means there will be continuity in Iran’s general foreign policy orientation and strategies in the region and beyond. At the same time, this fundamental consensus will cause the non-elected state institutions, specifically the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and the IRGC, to have more trust in the Foreign Ministry when it comes to implementing certain regional policies.
This, in turn, reduces the potential for friction between the administration and those institutions. In the same vein, one could expect that any regional initiatives that the administration may propose will not be hampered or sabotaged by the hardline faction – as occurred with regard to a possible rapprochement with Saudi Arabia in 2016.
At the practical level, this new trend will have several major implications. First, given that the hardline faction considers Iran’s regional involvement to be a key element of its national power, Tehran will continue to actively support the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as the Islamic Republic’s allied and proxy groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. This, in turn, means that Tehran will in no way be willing to supplement the nuclear agreement – the JCPOA is expected to be revived – with a regional agreement with Washington.
In other words, Iran will continue to see nuclear and regional issues as two completely separate files: for Iran, the former case is basically an issue between Iran and the United States in which other countries in the region – despite their expressed desire – play no role, while the latter must be addressed via direct talks between Tehran and its neighbors.
In fact, this process of regional dialogue has already begun: Iran and the United Arab Emirates initiated a rapprochement a few months ago. Interestingly, UAE Vice-President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum was among the first high-ranking regional figures to congratulate Raisi for winning the election. At the same time, the Iraqi-mediated talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia are expected to continue under Raisi. According to Zarif, Saudi officials preferred to wait for the outcome of the Iranian election to continue negotiations, but they were assured that Tehran’s desire to defuse tensions with Riyadh would not diminish under the next administration. After all, it was the SNSC, not the Foreign Ministry, that directed negotiations with the Saudis from the outset.
That said, it is important to bear in mind that according to the hardline faction’s logic, negotiation is meaningful only from a position of power. As such, the fact that Iran has recently started to show interest in deescalating tensions with Saudi Arabia stems primarily from the Iranian perception that Riyadh is increasingly under pressure from Tehran and its Yemeni Houthi allies and thus has no choice but to reach some kind of agreement with the Islamic Republic. As a result, although Tehran is serious about pursuing diplomacy with Riyadh, any potential future shift in the regional balance of power to Iran’s detriment could bring the two sides back to the era of tensions.
All in all, Iran’s regional policy under Raisi will be a combination of continuing efforts to expand regional influence and a desire to defuse tensions with the Arab neighbors. However, the inherent contradiction in this approach between security logic and diplomatic tools could cause Iran’s strategy to fail in practice.
Dr Hamidreza Azizi is an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.
On Twitter: @HamidRezaAz