The Raisi government will start work this week facing an enormous wave of problems. He is arriving to the presidency as the fourth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has spread over the country and made the situation the worst since two years, and at the same time, the social-economic situation of the country cannot tolerate serious restrictive policies. Furthermore, the budget deficit, severe inflation rate and the increasing devaluation of the national currency are other major problems he is coping with in the domestic arena. In response to this situation, Raisi made his first presidential order in his first official working day about a seven days deadline to the National Committee to Combat Covid-19 pandemic to provide a comprehensive strategy to control the new wave of infection.
All these internal problems are taking place the same time the nuclear dilemma continues and the Vienna talks are practically suspended. All the parties in front and even the Iranian negotiating team are waiting for the new diplomatic team to take over power and implement its new policies.
The Vienna talks, as the first major step on Iran’s new foreign policy toward the West and the US, have become one of the key diplomatic issues of the Raisi administration. Hence, he has to make a major and strategic decision without delay.
It seems that President Raisi has defined several important missions in foreign policy in the first few months of his tenure:
1. Maximizing the achievements of the previous nuclear negotiation team: despite all the criticism of the JCPOA and the type of negotiations between Iran and the West, Raisi has mentioned in all his statements the need to use the positive aspects of the agreement. He is trying to keep Rouhani’s attitudes to the desired result without any need to implement a new platform in the negotiations. In other words, instead of starting a new game, he would prefer to continue the same old game by providing new cards.
2. Making efforts to lift the sanctions. If a negotiation platform leads to the lifting of sanctions, it will of course be very useful for Raisi, and if it does not lead to the lifting of all or a significant part of the sanctions, he believes that there is no reason to continue. Raisi is well aware that the lack of financial resources in the country, importing new technologies, attracting foreign direct investment and the need to import the country’s essentials are all the result of US sanctions. For his first term to be able to show its high potential for improvement in the internal situation of the country, it undoubtedly depends on lifting the sanctions. Accordingly, it is predictable that all of Iran’s relations with the West over the next four years will depend on the behavior of the US and the EU in the coming months. If the West is willing to green light the new administration and allow it to maneuver in domestic politics, it will also strengthen these relations. Otherwise, the eight-years of behavior toward the Rouhani administration and the lack of cooperation with the government will be a bitter experience for the West for the future of Iranian politics.
3. Pivot to East: Regardless of how he would move toward the West in his policy, Raisi will certainly be looking to the East. In fact, cooperation with the East is not just a tactical move, but rather a key strategy in his foreign policy. Mehdi Safari, who is now one of the key members of the administration’s main foreign policy team, has been Iran’s former ambassador to China and Russia. Keeping Safari on top of the new diplomatic team means that President Raisi is trying to take firm and practical steps toward the Eastern strategy.
The strategy of pivoting to the East has become one of the main strategies of Iran’s foreign policy in recent years. However, Tehran’s main problem in the meantime is the lack of confidence in the way the eastern parties look toward Iran. Some opponents of this strategy in Tehran believe that Russia and China consider Iran a means of compromise and leverage against the West, hence, they will not be willing to resist the problems raised in strategic cooperation with Iran.
The risk of Raisi government for supra-state institutions in foreign policy
Raisi shares important common values, in terms of ideology and political priorities, with an important part of the main body of governing power in Iran, namely the leader of the Islamic revolution and the military. These common values and similarities in perspectives will provide him more coordination, coherent behavior towards foreign parties, faster decision making in actions and reactions, and the ability to avoid wasting energy in behind-the-scenes encounters in foreign policy. But the issue that should not be neglected is that, unlike the Rouhani government, whose failures were attributed to its liberal or pro-Western policies and whose core major governing power was free from the consequences of the government’s behavior, in the Raisi administration, there is no such chance.
In other words, the leader of the Islamic revolution and the main supra-state institutions of power, which have a significant impact on the country’s policies, will then have more responsibility for the state of the country’s foreign policy. As a result, the successes and failures in the field of foreign policy will be written not only in the name of the Raisi administration, but also in the name of all the pillars of power in the country. This situation, despite the advantages mentioned above, is considered a high risk for the main pillars of power in Iran and will force them to behave cautiously.
It seems that the Raisi presidency will be a strategic period in the future of Iran’s foreign policy. If the experience of relations with the West and cooperation with the East make a positive outcome and constructive experience in this era, Iran will move in this direction for a considerable time. This is because the main player in this experience will not be just a 4-year-old government, but the core of the power structure in Iran. But if it fails, Iran will move further toward a breakdown with foreign policy and an uncertain approach to all major international actors. This situation will hinder Iran’s long-term cooperation with various foreign parties and the possibility of using Iran’s regional influence to resolve the Middle East crisis via supra-regional powers.