After years of international isolation, Iran sees a window of opportunity for the consolidation of its regional outreach. The ability of the Islamic Republic to project power regionally in a covert fashion – through militias, terrorist operations, assassinations, oil smuggling and cooperation with organised crime, and sabotage – is well documented. It now seeks a security approach balancing the alleviation of short term economic pressure with long-long regional powerhouse ambitions
Although Iran can project covert power, it is not always plausibly deniable. And the appetite for diplomatic engagement remains strong, though not at all costs. As Iran has kept its side of the bargain, broadly adhering to the 2015 JCPOA terms, Tehran expects its counterparts to change their direction of travel and reengage diplomatically. The main expectation is vis-à-vis Washington.
Iranians elected Ebrahim Raisi as the next President of the Islamic Republic, a legitimate choice despite the record low 48% turnout. Reformists failed to get out the vote and mobilise their constituents, as well as the disenchanted, those who do not invest their energies in the Iranian political process.
Therefore, Raisi can implement his conservative political agenda claiming to have a clear mandate, underscored by public support of Khamenei, and popular support, but will no doubt be mindful of political disenchantment stemming particularly from socioeconomic pressure. The victors cannot overplay the significance of their victory as the Islamic Republic, as a regime, is under pressure.
Proxy Wars in the Middle East with a touch of Gulf
Given socioeconomic pressure, Tehran will seek validation abroad, bolstering a claim to regional power. Iran evokes its role as the leader of Shia Muslim communities vis-à-vis Sunni oppression, raising the spectre of the Sunni oppression, feeding into religious antagonism with Saudi Arabia.
In Syria, the government currently appears to be unchallenged, traditionally relying on Iranian support. Assad is an international pariah, but that makes him more dependent on his few regional allies, particularly Iran and Russia. Tehran has permanently based Revolutionary Guards in Syria and has a special relationship with Lebanon’s Hezbollah. In the North, Kurds and Turks are continuing a fight that is ravaging the country. In the East, ISIS is using its hidden network to revive its spark. The rest of the country is an open field of instability. That instability presents the regime with opportunity, leverage, and access to the sea.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has been globally condemned for its role, with a long list of international violations that include foreign fighters, starvation of populations, and bombardments of civilians. The Tehran-backed Houthis have launched repeated missile and drone attacks against Saudi cities committed atrocities and isolated the northern part of Yemen. But on a tactical level, time works in their favour, as the moral, political and economic cost of the war is taking a toll on Riyadh.
In the UAE, there is a powerful Iranian economic lobby that is helping Tehran survive.
Despite Washington and Riyad’s objections, Dubai needs its instrumentality to Tehran to avoid its wrath, as its financial, real estate and tourism economy would not survive a major security threat. Therefore, Iran habitually launders oil as Iraqi, often with the assistance of Emirati-listed companies, which gives it a limited window of access to the global oil market. But that does not mean that Iran will not threaten the Emiratis when its vital interests are at stake, particularly after their diplomatic breakthrough with Tel Aviv. Israel’s National Security Agency has “advised tourists against travel to the United Arab Emirates and other countries across the region, citing the threat of attack by arch-enemy Iran.”
Foreign power is an extension of internal power
Following its electoral victory, Iran’s conservative political faction will seek to cement its domestic hold on power. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his French counterparts are now brokering a new post-Trump understanding of coordination and perhaps limited cooperation in the region a focal point of the first significant Biden Administration official visit to Paris, which included an assessment of the state of play for the Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015.
In Iran, reengaging with the West is as difficult as the West re-engaging with Iran. The Iranians feel that for six years the US, in principle, and Europe, in effect, have failed to meet their end of the bargain. Limiting their regional outreach and placing items such as ballistic missiles on the table is not likely to encourage a spirit of cooperation, as Tehran adhered to the agreement while its partners did not.
This fact also imbues Iran’s presence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the UAE with a certain degree of legitimacy. The recent U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups might force the subject onto the negotiating agenda. But tactical targets rarely achieve objectives of strategic significance, as Iran’s power lies in its influence over a mass movement entrenched in local Shia populations. The burden of the first move probably lies with Washington but it is not certain that the Biden Administration is invested in restoring traditional influence over the region. The Biden administration is not disrupting a withdrawal initiated by President Trump. And Iran sees an opportunity to fill the vacuum by gaining more diplomatic leverage.
It’s not about the President but the Supreme Leader
The United States and France warned Iran that time was running out to return to a nuclear deal, in a last stand for the maximum pressure doctrine. Iran’s diplomats on the other hand insist on the lifting of sanctions. The pressure is on Tehran during Covid-19 has maybe given a final blow to the economy.
President Raisi faces several daunting challenges over and beyond US pressure. He may have to oversee the succession of 82-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — Iran’s first real power change in over 30 years. That means consolidating his domestic position in a crumbling socio-economic context.
For Khamenei, the revolution which began in 1979 never ended. Ebrahim Raisi is largely on the same page and the fight against the West makes ideological and political sense, but taken too far it could be seld-defeating. Succeeding Khamenei requires a long-term perspective and an awareness of wider political dynamics. While the priority is to ensure he remains the heir apparent, the day after is also a consideration.
Khamenei had used his control of the Guardian Council, which oversees the election process, to eliminate any aspirant competitors in his camps. But in the long run, he needs to negotiate his balance between theocratic autocracy and a realpolitik fitting for the 21st century.