By James M. Dorsey
The rise of hardline President-elect Ebrahim Raisi has prompted some analysts to counterintuitively suggest that it could pave the way for reduced regional tensions and potential talks on a rejiggered Middle Eastern security architecture but getting from A to B is likely to prove easier said than done.
Hopes that a hardline endorsement of a return to the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program will pave the way to wider security arrangements are grounded in a belief that Iranian domestic politics give Tehran a vested interest in a dialing down of tension. They also are rooted in a regional track record of hawks rather than doves taking the painful decisions that in the past have paved the way to an end of hostilities and the signing of agreements.
The analysts that see a silver lining in Iran’s hardline electoral power grab compare the rise of Mr Raisi to the late 1980s when Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini accepted a ceasefire in his county’s eight-year-long war with Iraq at a time that then-President Ali Khamenei was preparing to succeed the ayatollah as Iran’s supreme leader.
It was then that Mr. Raisi, a frontrunner in an undeclared race to succeed 82-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei, stands accused of his worst abuses of human rights, sparking fears that he will preside over a renewed period of transition marked by a brutal purge of perceived opponents.
By the same token, hardliners in Israel were the leaders that concluded peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan and peace initiatives like the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestinians. They included Prime Ministers Menahem Begin, a leader of the right-wing Likud party and Yitzhak Rabin, who was often described as the voice of the Likud in the left-wing Labor Party.
Speaking in his first news conference after his victory in what was widely seen as an engineered election, Mr. Raisi insisted that Iran was “determined to strengthen relations with all the countries of the world and especially neighbouring countries. Our priority will be firming up relations with our neighbours.”
Echoing his predecessor, outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, Mr. Raisi advocated a restoration of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, broken off when protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran in 2016 in the wake of the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric. “We are ready to dialogue and strengthen relations with the Kingdom once again,” Mr. Raisi said.
Iran said prior to the election that talks between the Islamic republic and the kingdom mediated by Iraq, the first since the rupture in diplomatic relations, were being conducted “in a good atmosphere.”
Mr. Raisi needs a lifting of US sanctions and regional calm to shore up his credentials by making good on his electoral promise to boost the economy – the primary concern of ordinary Iranians.
Iranian state media this week quoted Mahmoud Vaezi, Mr. Rouhani’s chief of staff, as saying that the United States had agreed to lift “all insurance, oil and shipping sanctions,” imposed by former President Donald J. Trump’s administration, as part of an agreement to revive the nuclear accord.
Mr. Raisi’s remarks followed a conciliatory note in April sounded by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. "We do not want for Iran to be in a difficult situation, on the contrary, we want Iran to prosper and grow. We have interests in Iran, and they have interests in the Kingdom to propel the region and the world to growth and prosperity," Prince Mohammed said.
Dialing back belligerent rhetoric and engaging in dialogue that helps frame issues is one thing. Another is agreeing on sustainable regional security arrangements that will enable the parties to manage their disputes, even if they cannot resolve them.
That will ultimately require a paradigm shift in thinking that addresses deep-seated distrust, fears, and perceptions on both sides of the divide.
Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen and for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, seen by Tehran as a defense strategy in a perceived four decades-long overt and covert war, is viewed by Saudi Arabia and its allies as an effort to interfere in the internal affairs of others and export the Iranian revolution.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud suggested as much in his first response to Mr. Raisi’s election. Prince Faisal insisted that “outstanding issues be addressed and be addressed seriously and that we hold Iran accountable for its activities and hold it to its commitments under the non-proliferation treaty and its commitments to the IAEA,’ the International Atomic Energy Agency, as part of ongoing multilateral talks aimed at reviving the nuclear agreement.
The Trump administration’s abandonment of the nuclear deal in 2018 and policy of “maximum pressure” was the latest failed attempt in the past four decades to pressure Iran to change its policies. Iran proved to be more resilient than expected even if it paid a steep political, economic, and social price that most recently included the election of a leader, Mr. Raisi, who lacks popular legitimacy.
To be sure, Iran initially invited international isolation and sanctions with the 444-day occupation of the US embassy in 1979 and the Islamic republic’s initial revolutionary zeal aimed at exporting its revolution to countries in the Gulf.
The Iran-Iraq war with Iraq’s war effort funded by Gulf states and eventually supported by the United States turned revolutionary zeal into a battle for survival and a defence strategy that relied on proxies in Arab countries and sought to shift the battlefield away from Iran’s borders. It cemented the belief that Iran had no friends and that its enemies sought regime change.
The perception of US and Saudi intentions was cemented by Saudi Arabia’s massive investment since 1979 in the global promotion of Wahhabi ideology with its prejudiced and discriminatory attitude towards Shiite Muslims.
Saudi moves since the rise of Prince Mohammed to curb the sharp ends of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam that has long shaped the kingdom and improve the social and economic conditions of its long-disenfranchised Shiite minority have done little to convince Iranians that Saudi attitudes have changed.
Neither have anti-Shiite incidents in other Gulf states. Human Rights Watch this week accused authorities in the United Arab Emirates of forcibly disappearing at least four Pakistani Shiites since October 2020 and deporting six others without explanation, “apparently based solely on their religious background.”
Conflict resolution expert Ibrahim Fraihat argues that Saudi Arabia and Iran need to recognize the real issues fueling their conflict rather than focus on narratives designed to justify their entrenched positions. “What both parties refuse to acknowledge is that this conflict is…at least in part, about regime survival, legitimacy, and the desire of governments of both states to take a leading role in the Muslim world” – all of which make institutionalizing conflict management mechanisms a sine qua non.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute as well as an Honorary Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Eye on ISIS.