Iran’s Foreign Policy Under Ebrahim Raisi: General Directions and New Faces

EPC | 01 Sep 2021

The composition of the foreign policy team in the government of new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi indicates that conservatives will have an almost total control over decision-making in Iran. Hossein Amirabdollahian was appointed as foreign minister, Mahdi Safari as deputy foreign minister, while Ali Shamkhani remained as secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council.

This paper sheds light on Iran's foreign policy under President Ebrahim Raisi, and the implications of Hossein Amirabdollahian's appointment as foreign minister.  

Iran's foreign policy under Ebrahim Raisi

On the home front, the foreign minister job is very important in Iran. This position has a significant impact on the balance of power and the competition between the various conservative blocs for ministerial portfolios. In the two terms of former President Hassan Rouhani, it was clear that the foreign minister post was of paramount importance, especially if an influential figure took this job. The impact of diplomacy on the economy is most evident in Iran as a result of sanctions. Everyone in Iran views the composition of the diplomatic team as an indicator of the government's agenda and foreign policy priorities.

On the external level, deferring the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group until after the transfer of power in the country, along with the freezing of various other plans, such as attempts to rapprochement with neighbors, and the move towards implementing the strategic agreement with China, show that the international community has been closely monitoring the formation of Iran's new diplomatic corps to ascertain the path that outstanding issues with the country will possibly take in the future. 

General indications of Iranian foreign policy over the next four years can be deduced from what the following figures have hinted at so far: President Ebrahim Raisi, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, his advisors, and other influential figures in the government, so that:

  • It has become quite clear that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will remain as it is, meaning that it will not be the spearhead in shaping the Iranian foreign policy. It seems that this situation will not change under President Ebrahim Raisi. After a leaked interview with former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Khamenei clearly indicated that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from his point of view, is nothing more than a tool for implementing policies set by higher sovereign circles. Recent developments confirm this reality. Reports indicate that Iranian sovereign institutions decided, in the last weeks of the Rouhani government, to transfer responsibility for the nuclear program as the most important foreign policy issue to the Supreme Council for National Security, which also oversees some of the most important regional issues for the Iranian policy. This undoubtedly means that many issues related to foreign policy will remain within the purview of other institutions outside the normal structure of the government. It is important to note here that the issue of expanding Iran's relations with China is also outside the powers of the government in Tehran. Thus, this leaves the foreign ministry with little influence on key issues, without necessarily implying that it has absolutely no influence on the formulation of diplomatic decisions.
  • The new government will proceed on paths other than those taken by the Rouhani government on one of the most important foreign policy issues, namely the nuclear program. Hossein Amirabdollahian, the new foreign minister, criticized the policies of the former diplomatic team led by Zarif regarding negotiations with the West. Accordingly, it is very likely that there will be a radical change in Iran's policy regarding its nuclear program. However, this in no way means that the Iranians will necessarily leave the negotiating table. In fact, the new Iranian president has hinted that he does not intend to close the door to negotiations. His government also hinted to the Europeans that it was considering continuing the negotiations, probably encouraged by its eastern partners, who urged it not to leave the negotiating table. Still, the overwhelming impression among Iranian decision-making circles remains that Tehran will return to negotiations with a new team that differs from its predecessor in terms of its agenda and premises. This would certainly bring the negotiations back to ground zero because the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will have greater dominance over the agenda of the negotiating team, or at least there will be greater harmony between the agendas of the two sides.
  • The actual implementation of the strategy of heading East will be a major milestone in Iran's diplomatic agenda in the next stage. Further, the new Iranian president said that his government will press ahead with activating the strategic partnership agreement with China. Senior adviser to the Supreme Leader for diplomatic affairs Ali Akbar Velayati also stressed that the new government should make strengthening relations with China, and activating the strategic agreement with it, a priority. This can be seen as an indication that heading towards China as an alternative to the West is a strategic choice agreed upon by sovereign centers that have the upper hand in formulating the diplomatic decision in Iran. Certainly, this strategy will have repercussions on other issues, including Iran's openness to nuclear negotiations in order to relieve itself of part of the sanctions imposed on it, and thus facilitate cooperation between Tehran and Beijing.
  • With regard to relations with the countries of the region, more than one official in the new government, including the new president himself, stressed that Iran is keen on rapprochement with its neighbors and finding ways to resolve differences. This can be put in the context of separating regional relations from the flashpoint issue of the Iranian nuclear program, and in the context of emphasizing the policy of openness to neighbors and expanding relations with them. However, it appears that Raisi's government does not have a clear plan to move forward on this path other than the one proposed by the Rouhani government as part of the Hormuz Peace Initiative. The team of the new Iranian president and those close to him have taken several steps indicating that the priority will be given to the ideological aspects of the Iranian regional policy, which will surely be more consistent with the priorities of the IRGC and its regional policies. In addition to Raisi saying that his government's policy in the region would be to support "resistance movements", Shiite militia leaders from Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq were invited to the swearing-in ceremony in Parliament. Moreover, not only were these militia leaders invited, but they were seated at the forefront of the audience in the place of heads of government, and they were given seats ahead of the seats allocated to foreign delegations.

New Top Diplomats

While the foregoing will shape the main features of Iran's foreign policy under the conservatives, the nomination of Hossein Amirabdollahian for the post of foreign minister, Mehdi Safari for the post of deputy foreign minister, and the retention of Ali Shamkhani as secretary of the National Security Council, will have major repercussions on Iranian diplomacy for years to come:  

  • The Amirabdollahian/Safari duo has excellent relations with the IRGC. For several years, Safari has been the Secretary-General of one of the largest affiliated companies of the IRGC. For Amirabdollahian, who is known for his close relationship with former Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, during his tenure as Assistant Foreign Minister, he was considered a channel of communication between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Quds Force, according to Mohammad Javad Zarif. The IRGC also relied on Abdollahian for diplomatic management of regional issues that were the subject of competition with the diplomatic apparatus. Moreover, Amirabdollahian enjoys good relations with the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, and with the Secretary General of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, in addition to heading the Permanent Secretariat to Support Palestinian Intifada. All these connections indicate that during the coming period, the IRGC will have a broader influence across the Iranian diplomatic hierarchy. There will also be greater harmony between the diplomatic apparatus on the one hand, and the IRGC institutions on the other hand, with regard to managing Iran's regional policy. This, of course, will have an impact on how Iranian diplomacy will handle outstanding issues with the Arab neighbors.
  • The presence of Amirabdollahian at the head of Iranian diplomacy will shake the relationship between Iran and the Arab Gulf states, which Abdollahian sees as the reason behind his removal from the position of assistant foreign minister in 2016. At the time, media close to the IRGC described this step as “revolutionary diplomat removed to satisfy Arab sheikhs and princes” after reports claimed that the man's dismissal came after a request from the leaders of some Gulf countries. It is quite clear from Amirabdollahian's positions on the Gulf Arab countries that his view of dealing with these countries will not be as flexible as his predecessor, Muhammad Javad Zarif, despite his reference to the necessity of adopting the Hormuz Peace Initiative. Amirabdollahian's tone is supposed to turn more diplomatic. Previously, his statements were driven by ideology and a negative attitude against a new generation of Arab rulers in the Gulf without quickly engaging in trying to manage the problems with these countries. 
  • It is expected that the relationship between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Amirabdollahian and the Iranian-backed militias will deepen after the relationship of those militias with the ministry was limited, and concentrated in the hands of the IRGC. This would give further thrust to the approach of "cooperating with militias as an alternative to dealing with governments", even at the level of the Iranian government. Consequently, the Iranian diplomacy will appear more committed to the IRGC's path and its ideologically based regional policies. It may be possible for Iranian policy to return to focusing on the "Shiite crescent" and supporting the "axis of resistance" as the core literature of the new diplomatic apparatus. As a result, additional obstacles will be placed on the way to engage in constructive interaction with Iran’s Arab neighbors. 
  • Both Amirabdollahian and Mehdi Safari are known for their opposition to the nuclear negotiations path taken by the Rouhani government. Safari, who was a member of the negotiating team during Saeed Jalili's tenure as head of the team, had said a month after the conclusion of the 2015 nuclear agreement, that the deal as such did not serve Iran's interests and that some of its conditions should be changed. Amirabdollahian also criticized the agreement in several statements, stressing that it was a mistake to sign it in that formula. Accordingly, the new diplomatic team will likely have a different agenda than their predecessors, not prioritizing return to the nuclear deal negotiations, and sticking to a tougher engagement with the West, even though they remain committed to staying on the table. The team will be able to make decisions more in line with the sovereign institutions and the deep state, making any agreement - if it happens - stronger than the agreement with the Rouhani government, although it is very difficult to nail down such an agreement in the first place.
  • It is likely that the new diplomatic team will start a quick move towards rapprochement with the Eastern bloc in general, specifically activating the agreement with China. This is driven by the sovereign institutions' will to move towards the Eastern alternative to counter Western pressures. It is also motivated by the presence of Mehdi Safari - who is being nominated by the government for the position of Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, a position that had no precedent in the ministry's structure, which suggests that the man will have the freedom to manage specific issues - who previously held the position of Iran's ambassador to China. During his tenure in Beijing, Iran signed a controversial comprehensive contract with China to circumvent international sanctions. The trade exchange between the two countries then reached about 58 billion dollars at its peak. Mehdi Safari is a major advocate for implementing the agreement with China as an alternative to opening up to the West. He is also supportive of the idea that implementing the agreement with China does not require lifting sanctions or complying with the terms of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Ultimately, this means that any discussion of FAFT-related laws long-standing in the Expediency Council may be postponed until further notice. It can be understood that the insistence that Mehdi Safari be on the team of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as Deputy Minister comes within the efforts aimed at implementing the partnership agreement with China as soon as possible. 
  • The presence of Mehdi Safari in the diplomatic team suggests the possibility of moving forward towards activating the "economic diplomacy" strategy, along with local alternatives, in order to find sources and markets alternative to traditional ones represented by Europe and the Arab world. Mehdi Safari stresses the need for pursuing what he brands as domestic economic diplomacy. It is clear from his statements over the past five years that what he means by local alternatives falls within an overarching plan of heading towards the East and Central Asian markets. 

Finally, it can be expected that the coming period will bring general changes to Iranian diplomatic behavior. One of the most important features will be the attempt to open up to China, through the implementation of the partnership agreement between the two countries. It is also possible that there will be greater coherence between the diplomatic apparatus on the one hand and the IRGC on the other. It is also expected that the Iranian diplomatic discourse will re-adopt previous ideological rhetoric, such as emphasizing support for pro-Iranian movements in the context of supporting the axis of resistance, and reluctance to communicate with the Arab neighbors to solve existing problems. Iran may also return to the nuclear negotiations with a new agenda that makes reaching a compromise difficult to achieve. However, it should be noted that any agreement with the new Iranian negotiating team will be more solid than previous agreements. 

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