By James Hoyt
Although Iran elected its newest president nearly four months ago, the international community is still discovering the ramifications and implications of the recent election. The conservative cleric, Ebrahim Raisi, bested a handful of more moderate candidates. His candidacy and actions following the election, indicate a more confrontational posture towards Iran’s rivals in the Middle East and around the world. Raisi has also insinuated that he will prioritize the development of Iran’s nuclear program over mending US-Iranian relations.1
Raisi’s anti-Western stance marks a significant departure from the policy of engagement preferred by his predecessor Hassan Rouhani, who negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement with Western leaders. The JCPOA limited the development of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from punishing economic sanctions that were imposed on the Islamic Republic. However, the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the deal and reinstatement of sanctions prompted Iran to return to their nuclear efforts, much to the chagrin of European powers and Israel and Saudi Arabia.
While early statements from the Biden Administration suggested an opportunity for JCPOA re-negotiations, Raisi’s election and consolidation of power over the Iranian Foreign Ministry dissolved hopes for the reinstatement of the agreement. Raisi and his appointed officials share the belief that the JCPOA signatories (namely the United States) are unreliable negotiating partners. In September, Raisi removed seasoned diplomat, Abbas Araghchi, from Lead Negotiator with former JCPOA signatories in Vienna, Austria.2 Araghchi served under President Rouhani in the original JCPOA negotiations and in the recent attempts to persuade initial signatories to rejoin the deal. Araghchi’s willingness to work with American and European representatives directly opposes Raisi’s preference for disengagement. Araghchi’s removal is yet another demonstration of Iran’s unwillingness to pursue a negotiated solution to its standoff with the West.
While both Rouhani and Raisi were faced with a struggling economy as a result of American sanctions, Rouhani saw one solution: a negotiated removal of the sanctions, as briefly achieved by the JCPOA. However, the Raisi administration may not be interested in negotiating at all. Following his nomination for Foreign Minister, Amir-Abdollahian addressed the Iranian parliament, “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will not be the Ministry of JCPOA during my term in office.” 3 Evidently, Raisi believes he can keep Iran’s economy afloat through economic ties to China and other neighboring Asian countries without sacrificing Iran’s nuclear program. To this end, Iran has formally joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which will strengthen Iran’s economic ties to several important Asian economies including China, India, and Russia.4 However, it is currently unclear whether the benefits of regional economic integration will outweigh the costs incurred by continued U.S. sanctions.
While the economic success of Raisi’s wager remains indeterminate for the moment, the status of the Iranian nuclear program could change very quickly. In September, the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that Iran could have the materials required to create a single nuclear weapon in as little as one month.5 Although, this is one of several hypothetical timelines generated by atomic experts, these developments raised concerns among Iran’s rivals in the region. Israel and Saudi Arabia have historically followed America’s approach to Iran, but the failure of American sanctions left both states scrambling to respond to an Iranian regime that is on the threshold of becoming a nuclear power.
Israeli Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, vocalized Israel’s preference to return to the JCPOA while emphasizing that Israel would be prepared to go to war with Iran if the Islamic Republic successfully creates a nuclear weapon.6 Israel may remain true to this response as the last decade has shown Israel coming close to a declaration of war over Iran’s nuclear program. It is widely assumed that Israel is partially responsible for operations such as the Stuxnet cyber-attack on Iranian nuclear facilities and the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist in 2020.7 Although Israel’s ability to wage a full-scale war against Iran is questionable, it is reasonable to assume they would conduct more frequent forms of this small-scale sabotage and violence.
While Saudi Arabia is less vocal about their future response to an achieved Iranian nuclear weapon, they have diligently tracked the situation. The Saudis themselves have not committed to any declaration of war, due to their current war with the Houthi rebels of Yemen. The Saudi commitment to the war in Yemen is reflective of their concern over the growth of Iranian proxies across the Middle East. In addition to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran supports Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and many Iraqi militias. Saudi Arabia has wanted to pressure Iran into halting support for these groups for some time. Saudi Arabia has refused to diplomatically engage Iran because it feared that any settlement formed with Iran would only legitimize Iran’s connections to the proxies, further entrenching Iranian influence in the region. If the Saudis do not view conventional warfare or diplomatic engagement as viable options for dealing with Iran, few options remain. Saudi Arabia may opt to engage in small-scale targeted violence against the Iranian state, following in Israel’s footsteps. More troublingly, it is also possible that Saudi Arabia will attempt to procure its own nuclear weapon to restore the balance of power with Iran.
The continued development of Iran’s nuclear program under the Raisi administration has upset the status quo that had balanced the Middle East in recent years. Raisi’s bet that China can stabilize the Iranian economy has allowed Iran to continue its pursuit of a nuclear weapon without being forced to the negotiating table by American sanctions. According to nuclear experts, Iran could finish its first nuclear weapon in the next few months. If this occurs before a negotiated return to the JCPOA is reached, the Middle East will be jolted into a new direction. This new direction is difficult to forecast, but it is unlikely to result in greater stability across the region.
- Fassihi, Farnaz. “A Roadblock for Iran’s President Elect: He’s on the U.S. Sanctions List.” The New York Times. June 19, 2021.
- “Iran Replaces Deputy Foreign Minister Araqchi who led nuclear talks.” Reuters. September 2021.
- Sadeghi, Saheb. “Iran Deal Negotiations: What the Raisi Administration Wants from JCPOA Talks.” Foreign Policy. Oct 7, 2021.
- Motamedi, Maziar. “What Iran’s Membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Means.” Al Jazeera. Sep 19, 2021.
- Sanger, David and William Broad. “Iran nears and Atomic Milestone.” New York Times. Sep 13, 2021.
- Safaei, Sajjan. “Israel Isn’t Strong Enough to Attack Iran.” Foreign Policy. Sep 17, 2021.
- Sanger et al. “Gunmen Assassinate Iran’s Top Nuclear Scientist in Ambush, Provoking New Crisis.” New York Times. Nov 27, 2020.