Iran’s Foreign Policy under Raisi
What will be the future of JCPOA?
Ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi was inaugurated on August 05 as the eighth President of Iran, a country whose hopes of shaking off a dire economic crisis hinge on reviving a nuclear deal with world powers. In his inaugural speech, the 60-year-old Raisi said Iranians want him to maintain the country’s independence and resist foreign bullying. But he also promised to pursue “diplomacy and constructive and extensive engagement with the world,” reiterating his stance that boosting relations with regional neighbours would be at the top of his foreign policy agenda. He told some 260 local and foreign officials present at the chamber that regional crises need to be resolved through dialogue, and the presence of foreign forces only encourages more instability.
Raisi has entered office at a crucial juncture in his country’s history as Iran and the West are engaged in ongoing technical negotiations aimed at reviving the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). So, from the outset, he will have to tackle negotiations aimed at reviving the nuclear deal from which the US unilaterally withdrew, imposing sweeping sanctions on Iran.
The 60-year-old also faces warnings to Iran from the United States, Britain and Israel over a recent tanker attack for which Tehran denies responsibility.
Raisi, in his inauguration speech, said the new government would seek to lift “oppressive” US sanctions, but would “not tie the nation’s standard of living to the will of foreigners”.
“We believe the people’s economic position is unfavourable both because of the hostility of our enemies and because of the shortcomings and problems inside the country,” he said.
Raisi has replaced a moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, whose landmark achievement was the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers.
New Direction in Foreign Policy
Raisi has indicated that he will first seek to set the house in order. Primarily, he will look for solutions inside, rather than outside, the country. That means he will need to fight corruption and mismanagement, and utilise internal capacities, much more than the outgoing Rouhani administration did, and work to reactivate Iran’s domestic capabilities to the maximum.
Rouhani and his camp were optimists. They pinned a lot of hope on the JCPOA and the lifting of sanctions. But that was a humiliating experience. The unilateral decision of Donald Trump to withdraw from the JCPOA in 2018 not only damaged diplomacy but also harmed Iran’s economy and discredited Rouhani as well. It also deepened the level of mistrust between Tehran and Washington.
Rouhani’s foreign policy team had been influenced by the liberalism school of thought in international relations but Raisi’s team is expected to be guided by a combination of realism and pragmatism.
The Raisi administration will not share Rouhani’s optimism. On the contrary, it will be very sceptical of Washington’s intentions. Raisi’s inauguration marks the start of a more assertive and uncompromising approach in Iran’s foreign policy while the overall course of Iran’s strategy will remain the same. That is because Iran’s foreign policy objectives are usually decided by consensus at the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) where five of its ten members are represented by the President and his Cabinet members. Almost all decisions by the SNSC are approved by Khamenei. So, while the Raisi administration will choose its own tactics, it will operate within the goals, priorities and redlines set by the SNSC, Iran’s highest security decision-making body.
There is no doubt that getting the sanctions lifted will be a priority of the Raisi administration, but it will not keep Iran waiting. Simultaneously, it is widely believed the Raisi administration will seek to defeat the sanctions first. So, the change of government will bring change in priorities. That means making the sanctions ineffective will be a more important priority than getting them lifted.
Thus, improving relations with Iran’s neighbours and promoting non-oil exports will be at the forefront of Raisi’s agenda.
President Raisi said in his first press conference after winning the election, “Our foreign policy will not be limited to the nuclear deal. We will have interaction with the world. We will not tie the Iranian people’s interests to the nuclear deal … We support the negotiations that guarantee our national interests. … America should immediately return to the deal and fulfil its obligations under the deal.” In addition, he has promised to form a “strong” government that will be able to steer the talks in the “right direction”.
Even back in 2017, a year before the United States pulled out of the JCPOA, Raisi had said during his first failed presidential campaign, “Any administration that comes to power should be committed to the JCPOA. The nuclear deal, despite its shortcomings, is a national document.”
Raisi has demonstrated his interest in containing tensions with Riyadh, saying Iran would have “no problem” with the reopening of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and that the “restoration of relations faces no barrier.” “There are no obstacles from Iran’s side to re-opening embassies … there are no obstacles to ties with Saudi Arabia,” he said recently. But Saudi officials have so far been cool, saying Riyadh would judge Raisi’s government by “the reality on the ground.”
The failure of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and Saudi Arabia’s adventurist foreign policy engineered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman together with a unified approach from Tehran is expected to encourage Riyadh to change course from hostility to negotiation.
Raisi has asserted that he would not meet Biden even if the opportunity arose and that Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its backing of its allies in the Middle East were non-negotiable.
Iran considers its missile programme and its influence in the Middle East as two pillars of its strategy of deterrence. Even a reformist-dominated administration would find it hard to negotiate over any of them. The JCPOA is restricted to the nuclear issue and raising non-nuclear issues would lead to stalled talks for years without agreement.
“Pivot to Asia” and “Resistance Economy”
Raisi’s allies have repeatedly argued that the Rouhani administration looked to the West to solve Iran’s economic problems and achieve economic growth but instead got “broken promises” and “unprecedented sanctions.” The Raisi administration, however, would explore opportunities for trade with the entire globe, not just the West.
“Foreign policy does not mean keeping the country waiting for (the decision of) a few states, but turning the potential of trade and cooperation opportunities with more than 200 countries into reality,” according to Saeed Jalili, a presidential candidate and an ally of Raisi. “We can make the enemy regret its sanctions.”
Raisi is believed to be a big supporter of a 25-year framework agreement with China. The deal was signed in March 2021 and aims to chart the course of Iranian-Chinese relations for the next quarter of the 21st century. The agreement includes Chinese investments in sectors such as energy, petrochemicals and infrastructure as well as maritime projects to promote Iran’s role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. So, it is expected that Raisi’s government will seek to improve Iran’s relations with Eurasia in general, China and Russia in particular.
The views of Raisi are closely aligned with those of Khamenei in key domains. Raisi, like Khamenei, believes that the answer to Iran’s economic problems does not primarily lie in the removal of sanctions but in expanding the policy of “resistance economy,” a strategy aimed at reducing Iran’s vulnerability to external sanctions. This policy is one of economic protectionism. It seeks to boost domestic production, achieve relative self-sufficiency, increase exports and curtail imports in order to achieve economic growth. While it will make efforts to get the sanctions lifted, the Raisi administration will simultaneously work hard to defeat the sanctions and reduce Iran’s economic vulnerability through expanding a policy of ‘resistance economy’ (supported by Khamenei). So, the Raisi administration will not leave the negotiating table, but will prioritise the nullification of sanctions over negotiations and the lifting of sanctions.
To that end, it is likely that the Raisi administration will look at the unilateral inhuman US sanctions as an opportunity to stop selling crude oil – which is easy to sanction – and export added-value commodities such as gasoline, engine oil, tar and other by-oil products that are in high demand and difficult to sanction.
In televised presidential election debates, Raisi vowed to give “economic diplomacy” a top priority with the goal of increasing Iran’s exports. He repeatedly pointed to Iran’s 15 neighbours and their market of 500 million people with which Iran should promote trade and of which Iran currently only has a tiny share.
Raisi has also promised to reduce taxes for producers, obtain taxes from wealthy businessmen evading taxation by creating a new smart taxation system, fight commodity smuggling, and make production attractive through economic reforms.
During his presidential campaign speeches, Raisi declared that he will look at coastal and ocean economy as a sustainable source of economic growth. Iran has more than 3,000 kilometres of sea borders; and he vowed that his administration would be determined to make the best use of this huge capacity to create jobs and eradicate poverty. How he is going to fulfil those promises is yet to be seen.
What Happens Next?
Iranian strategists are convinced that America’s strategic direction towards Iran remains unchanged. Weakening Iran economically and preventing its prosperity and economic development has been a key goal of both Republican and Democratic administrations. Their calculation is that a weak country has to make concessions and finally toe America’s line.
The JCPOA is the only win-win agreement in the bitter 42-year history of relations between Iran and the United States that could have shortened the wall of mistrust between the two foes. But Trump’s withdrawal from the deal further poisoned the relations. The Vienna talks are a test of America’s will to see whether Biden will remain loyal to his election campaign promises of re-joining the JCPOA and lifting the sanctions against Iran.
Barriers to salvaging the JCPOA are complicated but not insurmountable. If Washington agrees to lifting the sanctions, then Iran would likely return into full compliance with the deal. Without the lifting of sanctions, the JCPOA is going to die a permanent death.
Biden could have issued executive orders to lift at least some of the sanctions against Iran the day he took office on 20 January. More than seven months have passed and the United States has not re-joined the JCPOA. This has strengthened the suspicion in Tehran that Biden’s goal is to create consensus against Iran and that the White House is not in a hurry to lift the sanctions. This opportunistic approach would make it difficult to salvage the deal if the talks are not finalised soon.
Iran cannot buy the idea of easing some of the sanctions. At best, a partial lifting of sanctions can be met by Iran’s partial return to the nuclear deal.
It is clear that the Biden administration cannot keep Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy against Iran and save the JCPOA at the same time. It cannot have it both ways. Biden’s failure to lift the sanctions is already creating a consensus in Iran that Tehran has to go its own way.
Iranian leaders had calculated that uranium-enrichment technology would create “virtual deterrence.” That means Iran would possess nuclear fuel cycle technology and take its nuclear programme to an advanced stage, short of weaponisation. It would be a “virtual nuclear power” without building an atomic bomb and without violating Iran’s obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They concluded that it would be better and wiser for the Islamic Republic to offer nuclear concessions in return for the lifting of economic sanctions. They chose to accept unprecedented restrictions on Iran’s nuclear programme to become integrated into the global economic system and enjoy life without sanctions. The JCPOA was the result.
That is exactly why Iran gave up all its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium and 97 percent of its stockpile of low-enriched (3.6 percent) uranium. That is also why Iran stopped using its advanced centrifuges, poured cement into its Arak heavy water reactor, and accepted many other restrictions, including the unprecedented monitoring of its nuclear facilities.
All of these restrictions, unprecedented for any nation in history, were just for one reason: a life without sanctions. If the United States fails to lift the sanctions, then why should Iran set any red lines for its nuclear programme?
The fact that Iran insists that the United States re-join the JCPOA and lift the sanctions means the Islamic Republic prefers to be part of the global economy. It also means that Iran has no intention or political will to weaponise its nuclear programme.
So, what happens next will largely depend on the Biden administration. Lifting sanctions will help cool tensions and get Iran back to the JCPOA fully. But US failure to remove the sanctions is likely to prompt Iranian leaders to reconsider their strategic direction.
Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi should have been taken seriously when he warned that Iran could be forced to build a nuclear weapon if sanctions are not lifted. He said in February, “If you corner a cat, it might behave differently than a cat roaming free. If they push Iran in that direction, it would not be Iran’s fault but the fault of those who pushed Iran.”
If that happens, it would be a direct consequence of the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and the United States’ stubborn refusal to lift the inhuman sanctions. Denying Iran of the benefits of the JCPOA would prompt Iranian strategists to conclude that Iran, a country of 83 million people, will be under sanctions under any circumstances no matter what it does and regardless of whether it complies fully with the JCPOA. It is not wise to push Iran in that direction.
The writer is a member of staff.