Crisis Response Council spoke to experts to examine the implications of Ebrahim Raisi's victory in Iran's controversial presidential election.
Iran's Regional Policies Will Not Change
Randa Slim, Director, Conflict Resolution & Track II Dialogues Program, Middle East Institute
Iran’s regional policies will not change under its new president, Ebrahim Raisi. These policies were primarily driven by the hardliner faction in the Rouhani government and that will remain the case under a hardliner president. Iranian funding of partners and proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen will continue unabated. Sanctions re-imposed on Iran by the Trump administration reduced but did not stop Tehran’s financial support for these actors. If a nuclear deal were to be reached between Iran and the P5 +1 countries, we should expect Iranian funding of its regional partners and proxies to return to pre-2018 levels. This will not come too soon for Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad, both of whom urgently need funding to mitigate the impact of the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions in Lebanon and Syria.
During the Trump administration, the policies of Arab countries toward Iran, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were driven by two assessments:
1. Iran’s regional policies are dictated by the Supreme Leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Therefore, engaging with President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was a waste of time and effort.
2. Donald Trump’s maximum pressure strategy would force Tehran to change its regional posture.
When this strategy failed and emboldened, rather than weakened, Tehran’s aggressive behavior in the region, they changed tactics. In 2019 the UAE led the way in opening talks with Tehran. An incoming Biden administration that is not favorably predisposed toward Saudi domestic and regional policies persuaded Riyadh to join the “talking with Iran” train.
Regionally, Raisi’s election will not stop this train. He has already declared his priority is to pursue negotiations with Iran’s neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia. Other Iranian officials have argued that the bilateral track, similar to the one established in Baghdad between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is the model of engagement they favor. For Tehran, such a bilateral track serves two purposes: it undermines the argument for a multilateral forum to address issues of concern with respect to Iran, including ballistic missiles and regional proxies, and it denies the U.S. a seat at the negotiation table.
Arab countries, including those in the GCC, will remain incentivized to talk with Tehran. The consolidation of power by hardliners means that their Iranian counterparts in these talks will no longer be limited to the IRGC and intelligence officials and will include the presidency and foreign ministry as well.
It is too early to speculate whether the ongoing talks between Iran and GCC countries will be expanded to include other Arab countries, and whether they have the potential to lay the groundwork for a new modus vivendi between Iran and its Arab neighbors. This will to a great extent depend on what happens in Yemen. The Saudi-Iranian talks convened in Baghdad, which have so far focused on the war in Yemen, are going to be an early test case for Raisi and his regional policies. These talks have yet to provide answers to three questions: Does Tehran want to end the war in Yemen? Can Tehran deliver the Houthis to the negotiation table? And what does Tehran want in return for its assistance?
For Turkey, Raisi will be a more credible & genuine negotiating counterpart
Osman Sert, Director, Ankara Institute; Former Advisor to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu
Though Turkey and Iran have the most stable borders in the region that does not mean the two countries have deep cooperation. The relationship is based on competition, more than it is cooperation. This dynamic will not change under Ebrahim Raisi and, if anything, the competition will deepen.
Iran’s previous reformists presidents did not view relations with Turkey through the prism of cooperation or a common vision in the region. The nature of Iran’s relationship with Russia, the US and China constitutes a more crucial priority for the Iranian regime and contrary to general expectations, the religious ideological leanings of the governments in Ankara and Tehran has created obstacles, rather than cooperation. Iran as the leader of Shiite dynamics in the region pushed Turkey to be a defender of Sunni groups, despite Turkey’s secular foundation and hesitance to be included in sectarian conflicts. This will not change under President Raisi. Ironically, President Biden’s term will widen the distance between Iran and Turkey, which is in contrast to how the relationship evolved under Trump. The anti-Iran and anti-Turkey political dynamics under Trump actually pushed Iran and Turkey closer together but Biden’s engagement with Iran has the potential to give Raisi a free hand in the region so that he can push forward a hardline agenda, which will antagonise Turkey.
If Iran and the US revive the JCPOA, this will trigger a shift in the nature of alliances in the region and have enable Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria. From Turkey’s perspective, the emergence of a hardline leader in Raisi will at least provide it with a negotiating counterpart whose views and foreign policy outlook is aligned with the main decision-making authority in Iran, namely Ayatollah Khamenei. That provides Turkey’s decision-makers and negotiators with the confidence that there is unlikely to be any major divergence between Iran’s President and Iran’s Supreme Leader, which was not necessarily the case with President Rouhani. This may not result in positive outcomes but it does mean Turkey will be engaging a President whose alignment with the Supreme Leader makes him a more genuine and credible negotiating counterpart.
Iran's Agenda will remain Status Quo; Raisi will be a yes-man of the Supreme Council
Caroline Rose, Senior Analyst, NewLines Institute
The election of Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline, career judiciary operative, to the Iranian presidency turns a new page in the trajectory of the Iranian regime. The election represents Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s numbered days as Supreme Leader and his desire to groom Raisi as next in line, using the presidency as an opportunity for Raisi to build power networks and inherit Iran’s conservative base. It is notable that this election witnessed not only the lowest-recorded turnout in Iranian electoral history—48.8%—but also the Guardian Council’s disqualification of candidates that fell squarely within the conservative camp to secure Raisi’s seat od power.
Raisi is an unconventional presidential candidate, not only given that he is neither a career politician or cleric, but also that he lacks the political dynamism and charisma required to build a durable, long-term base of power. Given the Supreme Leader’s existing influence over Iran’s proxy strategy and the JCPOA negotiations, Iran’s agenda will remain largely status quo, only with an increased likelihood that Tehran will not budge on any negotiating efforts with the US and its allies to address Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal or Iran’s network of militias that operate in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere. With Raisi, a yes-man of the Supreme Council, in power, Ayatollah Khamenei will have more leverage to minimize opposition voices, consolidate power against reformists and moderates, and double down on signs of resistance at home.
However, while Raisi’s election will allow Iran’s hardliner camp to wield greater, short-term power, Raisi’s lack of independence and political leverage may undermine them in the long term, particularly as the presidency loses its former role as a balancing force between Iran’s clerics, the IRGC, and reformists. This positions Iran at a crossroads, where the death of the Supreme Leader could open up a large power vacuum, filled with erupting rivalries, acts of resistance, and an escalation of violence.
Israel May Push for Tighter Sanctions & Pre-Emptive Measures
Yaniv Voller, Senior Lecturer, University of Kent
The election of Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s new president has been accepted with some pessimism by Israel, Iran’s Arab neighbours and its Western partners to the negotiations over its nuclear programme. Raisi is considered a conservative on domestic affairs and was backed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. His statements before and after the elections about Iran’s right to continue developing its ballistic missiles and nuclear energy programmes have led hawkish circles in Israel and the US to suggest that the negotiations are unlikely to lead Iran to give up on its aspirations to achieve nuclear weapon capabilities.
To prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state, these circles may push for tighter sanctions or even pre-emptive measures. Israel’s newly-elected Prime Minister, Naftali Bennet, has warned that Israel reserves the right to protect itself in any scenario. Nevertheless, other scenarios suggest that due to Raisi’s close ties to Khamenei and right-wing stance on foreign affairs, it may provide Raisi legitimacy to reach an agreement with the US and its European partners. The negotiations, in any case, are, at least at the time of writing, are still underway. More consensus exists around Raisi’s position on Iran’s intervention in neighbouring countries’ affairs, particularly Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Raisi was an ally of Qassem Soleimani, the assassinated commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and a proponent of Iran’s involvement in Iraq to support the pro-Iranian militias and their allies in parliament.
Hence, it is unlikely that we see Iran withdrawing its influence from Iraq. Similarly, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, warmly welcomed Raisi’s election as a ‘shield against Israel’. From Nasrallah’s perspective, Raisi’s election indicates a coalescing of Iran’s and Hezbollah’s interests in the region, particularly toward. Raisi’s rise to power, then, has marked, for both Iran’s allies and rivals, the resurgence of Iranian hard-line foreign policy on all fronts. Raisi’s and Khamenei’s statements buttress this assumption. Unless he takes a surprise turn in the forthcoming negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme, Raisi’s rise to power indeed indicates an Iranian turn to a more confrontational position toward its neighbours and the international community.