Ascending to power in August 2021 amidst social and political turbulence, Ibrahim Raisi found himself in a challenging position as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. His checkered past as head of Iran’s judiciary sparked human rights concerns, and he inherited a nation grappling with economic distress and strained ties with its neighbors. Nevertheless, contrary to many predictions, Raisi’s tenure has been marked by a revitalization of Iran’s regional relations and improved ties with China and Russia.
Building on the foreign policy groundwork laid by previous leaders, Raisi adeptly handled both internal and external hurdles to transform Iran’s diplomatic stance. Capitalizing on the growing rivalry between global superpowers, Tehran has strategically realigned itself, drawing closer to Russia and China and distancing from the United States and Europe.. While unresolved issues, particularly nuclear negotiations with the United States, persist, the evolving narrative portrays a nation navigating through challenges to fortify its international role, with significant implications for regional dynamics and the broader spectrum of international relations.
An Uncertain Beginning
Mahsa Amini’s tragic death in morality police custody on September 16, 2022, ignited sociopolitical upheaval, leading to a brutal crackdown on protestors across the country and a spike in the executions of dissidents. The nationwide protest spawned myriad speculations about the immediate trajectory of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its regional stance. President Ibrahim Raisi, then only a year into his term and under intense scrutiny for his human rights record faced a future rife with uncertainty and predictable challenges. Raisi secured the presidency in an election marked by historically low participation (48.8%), and after a previous loss to Hassan Rouhani in 2017, making him the president with the slimmest popular support since 1997 with just 18 million votes. This political landscape was further complicated by a crippling economic crisis, which was exacerbated by the “maximum pressure” campaign launched by former U.S. President Donald Trump following Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in November 2018.
The COVID-19 pandemic intensified Iran’s prevailing economic and social struggles, fueling discontent that had previously manifested in widespread protests during Rouhani’s presidency, in November 2017 and December 2018. Despite Iran’s pivot towards China and Asia, international and regional isolation persisted, contributing to a pervasive uncertainty even among the political elite who had hoped for restored economic and trade ties with the West through dialogue. Faced with this multifaceted socioeconomic, political, and international challenge, the Iranian populace sought immediate and effective solutions, which the president seemed an unlikely figure to provide.
Improving Regional Relations
Contrary to pessimistic predictions, Raisi’s second year in office sees him and the country in a stronger position due to an enhancement of Iran’s regional standing. Foreign policy, a traditional tool used by Iranian governments to restore internal legitimacy and secure electoral gains since the pre-revolutionary era, marks the greatest victory for Raisi. It is certain that Raisi hopes his successful foreign policy record will influence both his potential re-election in 2025 and possible aspirations to eventually become the next Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic.
Eschewing the flashy or novel diplomatic strategies adopted by his predecessors, Raisi has garnered considerable victories regionally, initiating a rehabilitation of Iran’s image and diplomatic ties, especially within the Gulf region. The most striking development is the swift and significant, albeit anticipated, détente with regional archrival Saudi Arabia—a pact brokered by Iraq and Oman and formally inked in Beijing on March 10, 2023. This primarily revived an agreement from the era of reformist President Mohamad Khatami in 2001. While questions remain about the tangible outcomes and substance of the agreement, the rapid reopening of respective embassies in Riyadh and Tehran—on June 6 in Riyadh and August 11 in Tehran—marks a historic turn toward deescalation for the region.
The complete restoration of diplomatic ties, cut after the attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad in 2016, followed the renewal of the Islamic Republic’s relations with the United Arab Emirates. Initiating dialogue with two other regional entities, Bahrain and Egypt, also directly stemmed from this détente with Tehran’s erstwhile rivals. Perhaps the most vivid illustration of the swift shift in bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia is the recent visit of Saudi soccer team Al Nassr, including star player Cristiano Ronaldo, to Tehran for an Asian Champions League match on September 19. The media buzz and the enthusiastic public reception towards not just Ronaldo, but the entire team, were scenarios hard to imagine just a year ago.
Relying on Predecessors Legacy
Iran’s diplomatic strides have extended beyond ameliorating relations with neighboring nations—they have also allowed Tehran to secure a standing in the international arena. This progress is marked by its ascension to full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2022 and a subsequent invitation to join the BRICS economic grouping in August 2023. Moreover, Iran has remained a pivotal ally for Syria, championing its reacceptance into the Arab League and thus endorsing regional acknowledgment following a protracted decade of exclusion from Arab circles.
While considerable progress is discernible at a regional scale, the longstanding nuclear issue with the United States remains unresolved, exhibiting no substantial advancement since Joe Biden’s inauguration despite a recent exchange of prisoners for the release of frozen Iranian assets. Nevertheless, this impasse hasn’t stymied other pillars of Raisi’s foreign policy. Rather, the president has astutely leveraged tried and true diplomatic strategies from previous administrations, including asymmetric deterrence, regionalism, and the “look the East.” These tactics, ingrained since the tenures of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) and Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021) or even earlier, have proven instrumental in mitigating international isolation and re-establishing Iran’s pivotal role in both the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East.
Indeed, a thorough examination of Raisi’s foreign policy reveals a strategic reliance on the established diplomatic groundwork laid by his predecessors, rather than pioneering a new era of external strategy. Raisi’s government has capitalized on the political and diplomatic foundations meticulously crafted by those who came before him, embodying strategies with long-term objectives to fortify Iran’s international stature. Raisi’s tenure has seen a revival of the “good neighbor” philosophy in the Persian Gulf, a concept initially introduced by President Hashemi Rafsanjani in the 90s, and a rejuvenation of the Latin American initiative, chiefly propelled by Ahmadinejad. This signifies a continuation of established policies, rather than a deviation or a complete overhaul of previous initiatives. Even the recent outreach to the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council aligns with the trajectory set by the Hormuz Peace Initiative (HOPE), initiated by President Rouhani in December 2019.
The pressing task for Raisi lies in converting recent international political victories into economic prosperity, guiding Iran toward an enduring stability amid a multifaceted and evolving global landscape. This journey will require more than diplomatic finesse; it requires a balance between tradition and innovation in a region characterized by deep-seated rivalries and novel challenges.
Delving into the political waters that Ibrahim Raisi navigates within Iran’s intricate conservative landscape is crucial. Despite the exclusion of reformist and pragmatic opposition from the electoral scene and the firm grip of hardliners over influential institutions, it would be naive to presume internal harmony within the hardline camp. Rather, the conservatives face significant internal divisions, culminating in ongoing public disputes that surpass mere superficial disagreements and induce tensions across various state entities, even in an era dominated by a form of political uniformity. This discord is evident through frequent demands for ministerial accountability in the Majlis (parliament) and recurring threats of political trials.
In such a scenario, Raisi faces a twofold challenge that will test the mettle of his leadership. He must navigate a conservative landscape riven by internal squabbles while addressing the lingering issue of popular illegitimacy of his election and the Islamic Republic. The latter has been exacerbated by brutal crackdown on nationwide protests that ignited a year ago. While the fervor of these demonstrations has notably subsided, primarily due to state repression, a sense of unrest persists both within the nation and beyond, evidenced by intermittent protests in various Iranian cities and internationally against the Iranian government.
At a time when many anticipated the Raisi administration to struggle with international isolation and economic and political stagnation, Iranian oil sales increased, and Tehran restored relations with regional rivals, not by crafting a novel strategy, but by capitalizing on the groundwork laid by his predecessors. The recent exchange of prisoners between Iran and the United States, along with the release of $6 billion previously frozen in South Korea due to American sanctions, denotes a widening of Raisi’s diplomatic leverage against Biden. This development could mark a start of talks between Tehran and Washington and unveils new possibilities for the prospect of establishing a more comprehensive “JCPOA 2.0,” proven by the recent alleged approval to start direct nuclear negotiations with the US granted by the Leader Khamenei This agreement would include considerations like modifications to Iran’s regional role, which Tehran had been unwilling to entertain previously. While unresolved matters and substantial challenges—primarily in the economic and social realms—remain, Raisi’s approach depicts an Iran that is not only secure regionally but is also resolute in redefining its influence further afield.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.