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What Iranian Foreign Policy Could Look Like Under President Raisi

Ebrahim Raisi, the head of Iran's judiciary registers as a candidate for the June 18 presidential elections in Tehran last month.

Under Ebrahim Raisi, the front-runner in Iran's June 18 presidential election, Tehran's tone toward the West could harden, though it will likely continue to seek a deal to revive the 2015 landmark nuclear deal, analysts say.

While the president sets the tone on domestic issues and foreign policy, he is not the sole decision-maker on foreign policy matters.

A big role is played by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has given the green light for a negotiated return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed with world powers due to Iran's desperate need for sanctions relief in order to rescue its devastated economy.

Major decisions in Iran are made within the Supreme National Security Council -- which is presided over by the president -- and approved by Khamenei, who has the ultimate say in the country.

Tehran's nuclear policies are not expected to change if Raisi -- whose path to the presidency appears to have been paved by a strict disqualification of potential rivals by the Guardians Council -- becomes president.

Vague Foreign Policy Stances

Raisi, who has made only a few sketchy foreign policy announcements, is likely to fully yield to Khamenei, who is deeply suspicious of the United States and the West. Raisi is also likely to listen closely to the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which controls regional activities in neighboring countries.

A hard-line cleric who heads the judiciary and is blacklisted by the U.S. for human rights violations, Raisi has said that interacting with the world, particularly with neighboring countries, would be his priority.

"We will put national interests first," he said in an interview with state TV, adding that "We believe that the oppressive sanctions must be lifted and no effort should be spared [in that regard.]"

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei (left) with Ebrahim Raisi (file photo)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei (left) with Ebrahim Raisi (file photo)

Sanam Vakil, the deputy director of the Middle East North Africa program at Chatham House, believes Raisi is likely to follow "a foreign policy of expediency."

"An expediency policy will have an ideological tone but could be punctuated with pragmatism," she told RFE/RL.

Raisi made it clear during a presidential debate that, if elected, he would implement the JCPOA, which U.S. President Joe Biden has promised to rejoin if Iran returns to full compliance.

In past weeks, Iran and the U.S. have been engaged in indirect talks in Vienna aimed at resuscitating the deal, which then-U.S. President Donald Trump exited in 2018 as he also reimposed tough sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. In response, Tehran has backtracked on its commitments under the deal.

No Nuclear Stance Shift Expected

"We will be committed to the JCPOA as an agreement that was approved by the supreme leader," Raisi said during a debate on June 12.

"The nuclear deal should be implemented by a strong government, you cannot execute it," he added, addressing his moderate rival Abdolnaser Hemmati, who served as central bank chief under outgoing President Hassan Rohani, a relative moderate who negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal. Terms of the agreement gave Tehran relief from economic sanctions in exchange for significant restrictions put on its nuclear activities.

Rohani has in recent months accused his hard-line rivals of attempting to prevent a breakthrough in the nuclear talks before the presidential vote.

Raisi, whose potential presidency would complete the hard-line takeover of elected institutions in the country, could reap the benefits of the nuclear deal if an agreement is reached by August, when Rohani leaves office.

Henry Rome, a senior Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group in Washington, says a revival of the deal would give Raisi "a substantial cushion in his first year or two in office."

No Cheerleader For Western Investment

But Rome added that unlike Rohani, Raisi is not likely to be open to major Western investment in the country.

"Raisi will not be a cheerleader for sizable investments from Western multinational firms, which do not have a place in Khamenei's vision of a resistance economy."

Depending on who will lead the nuclear negotiations, talks could become more difficult than they have been thus far.

Raisi could decide to change the nuclear negotiating team, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, a respected diplomat who was involved in the talks that resulted in the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal.

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Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group think tank, says if a deal is not reached by August, the JCPOA's revival could become moot as Iran's nuclear advancements will become "nearly irreversible."

"It is hard to imagine that Raisi would be willing to make compromises right out of the gate that even Rohani shied away from. But if the deal is restored during the transition period, he will reap the economic dividends while blaming Rohani for any potential shortcomings," Vaez told RFE/RL.

"In theory, having ideological conformity across Iran's various centers of power could result in a less fractious environment better placed to deliver on what the system chooses to do, whether in domestic or foreign policy," Vaez told RFE/RL.

"But while hard-liners may be better placed to follow through, they are often worse at the negotiating process that necessarily comes first," he added.

Who Will Be Foreign Minister?

All eyes will be on Raisi's choice for foreign minister and the 60-year-old cleric has not offered any clues as to who could succeed the U.S.-educated Mohammad Javad Zarif, who came under fire recently over a leaked interview in which he complained about the interference of the IRGC in Tehran's foreign policy.

Vaez noted that two former diplomats who he said advise Raisi on foreign policy have "hawkish" views.

They include Ali Bagheri, who was appointed by Raisi as the head of the judiciary's Human Rights Council, and Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a former deputy foreign minister for Middle East affairs who currently serves as an aide to the parliament speaker.

Saeed Jalili (file photo)
Saeed Jalili (file photo)

One name that has come up as a potential foreign minister is former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, an ultraconservative who dropped out of the presidential race in support of Raisi.

Jalili has been critical of the nuclear talks in Vienna and his appointment could make any diplomatic outreach between Iran and Western countries more difficult.

"[Raisi] might be forced by the deep state to keep some of the incumbent officials, at least temporarily, to ensure a smooth transition on some of the key dossiers, including the nuclear issue," Vaez said.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.