Raisi sends mixed signals to Gulf Arabs, reiterates hardline credentials

Toeing Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s line, the new president said Iran’s “regional activities and ballistic missile programme” were non-negotiable.
Tuesday 22/06/2021
Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi gestures at a news conference in Tehran, Iran June 21, 2021. (REUTERS)
Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi gestures at a news conference in Tehran, Iran June 21, 2021. (REUTERS)

TEHRAN - In his first news conference Monday Iran’s new hardline president did not object to resuming diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia but refused any widening of international negotiations about Iran’s nuclear programme to other issues of concern to Arab Gulf capitals such as Tehran’s ballistic missile development and deployment of armed proxies in the region.

Ebrahim Raisi brushed aside US calls for Iran to agree to follow-on discussions on expanding the initial nuclear deal to include its ballistic missile programme or its support for regional groups that the US designates terrorist organisations.

Gulf Arab states have said it would be dangerous to separate the nuclear pact from Iran’s missile programme and “destabilising” behaviour in the Middle East. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken seemed to echo that concern in January.

— Toeing the line —

Toeing Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s line, Raisi said Iran’s “regional activities and ballistic missile programme” were non-negotiable.

A Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 after Iran-backed Houthi forces drove its internationally-recognised government out of the capital, Sana’a.

Raisi also said his administration would be open to restoring ties with Iran’s regional foe Saudi Arabia.

“There are no obstacles from Iran’s side to re-opening embassies … there are no obstacles to ties with Saudi Arabia,” he said.

The embassy shut down in 2016 as relations deteriorated.

Raisi said his foreign policy priority would be improving ties with Iran’s Gulf Arab neighbours. But instead of signaling any interest in containing the Houthis aggressive behaviour,  he called on Saudi Arabia to immediately halt its intervention in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister discussed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief “the importance of imposing the necessary mechanisms for a rapid and comprehensive inspection of all Iranian nuclear sites,” the foreign ministry wrote in a tweet on Monday.

Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, who is on an official visit to Vienna, also discussed with IAEA’s Rafael Grossi “stopping Iranian policies and violations of international laws and norms that destabilise the security and stability of the region and the world,” the ministry added

Iran experts agree it will be a tough, if not impossible, for Biden to get Iran to go beyond the nuclear agreement.

“I’m very sceptical that once we’ve lifted the sanctions to get them to return they’ll feel any incentive to come back and negotiate more concessions,” said Karim Sadjapour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “And, if we coerce them with sanctions to come back to the table, they’ll argue that we’ve abrogated our end of the nuclear deal. Again.”

Critics of the nuclear deal maintain that the administration has already given away too much in exchange for too little by signalling its desire to repudiate Trump’s repudiation of the nuclear deal. And, they say that even if Iran agrees to some sort of additional talks, the pledge will be meaningless.

Iranian and Western officials alike say Raisi’s rise is unlikely to alter Iran’s negotiating stance in talks to revive the nuclear deal. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on all major policy.

“We support the negotiations that guarantee our national interests … America should immediately return to the deal and fulfil its obligations under the deal,” said Raisi, who is himself under US sanctions.

Raisi said Iran’s foreign policy would not be limited to the nuclear deal, adding that “all US sanctions must be lifted and verified by Tehran”.

— Closing doors —

From day one, Raisi seemed busy closing doors with the US to reassure Iran’s ultraconservatives.

Despite Washington’s overtures, Iran’s president-elect staked out a hard-line position towards the US, rejecting the possibility of meeting President Joe Biden.

Asked if he would meet Biden if those sanctions were lifted, Raisi answered: “No.”

“We don’t currently have any diplomatic relations with Iran or any plans to meet at the leader level,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “Our view is that the decision-maker here is the supreme leader.”

It remains to be seen to what degree Washington will pressure Iran on human rights and democracy as part of Biden’s Middle East agenda even though the US State Department said it regarded the process that elected Raisi as “pretty manufactured”.

Raisi will become the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the US government even before entering office, in part over his time as the head of Iran’s internationally criticised judiciary, a situation that could complicate state visits and speeches at international forums such as the United Nations.

The circumstances of last election in Iran could also be an eye-opener for most accommodationist US politicians. “This election was rather a selection, as it precluded any competitive race,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, an analyst and author of Iran in an Emerging New World Order.

“… the true nature of the Islamic Republic has been revealed, in that the theocratic institutions are omnipotent and the so-called republican one is just an impotent facade.”