Iran’s newly elected president, Ebrahim Raisi, will be inaugurated on August 5. Raisi, the country’s conservative former head of the judiciary, won office last month in what is believed to be one of the least competitive and contrived presidential elections in the forty-two-year history of the Islamic Republic. The election had the lowest voter turnout of around 49 percent with more than 30 million eligible Iranians not showing up at the polls entirely and close to 4 million voiding their ballots (either accidentally or intentionally). The unprecedented level of voter apathy was mainly the result of the early disqualification of well-known reformist and centrist figures by the country’s powerful Guardian Council coupled with increasing economic discontent in recent years caused by U.S. sanctions and internal mismanagement.
Unlike previous elections, foreign policy did not dominate the presidential debates among the candidates. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had already steered the candidates to prioritize the economy as the main focus of their campaign platforms. Despite limited discussion on foreign policy, all candidates, including Ebrahim Raisi, pledged their support for the ongoing negotiations in Vienna to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal, which promises to end economic sanctions against the country. This endorsement was again reiterated by Raisi in his first news conference as the president-elect, where he indicated that his government would preserve the JCPOA while emphasizing that his priority will remain improving the economic conditions at home. Moreover, he also made it clear that Tehran will not deviate from the current course on its regional policies. He stressed his administration’s openness to restoring full diplomatic ties with Riyadh and to reopening embassies in both countries, signaling his full support for the ongoing security dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia headed by the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC).
With the Biden administration committed to resuscitating the JCPOA and the U.S. pivot away from the Middle East to East Asia, Islamic Republic elites appear to believe that now is the best time for Iran to use its hard-earned leverage—gained with the defeat of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign—to not only secure tangible benefits from the revival of the deal but also to reshape the regional security architecture to its advantage through negotiations with Saudi Arabia. Thus, it is not surprising that Raisi and his allies have, to a great extent, toned down their harsh rhetoric against the deal, quietly aligning themselves with the two-pronged diplomacy that is led by Hassan Rouhani’s government in Vienna and the SNSC through multiple rounds of talks in Baghdad and Muscat.
Even as Raisi’s position on the nuclear agreement is likely to receive the bulk of international and media attention, especially considering his administration’s central role in the implementation of the deal in Iran, the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and national security strategy have been remarkably consistent and systematic across many different administrations. Iran’s national security establishment, led by Ayatollah Khamenei himself, has seemingly settled on a two-sided strategy of regional de-escalation with neighbors and achieving predictability (if not stability) in its relations with the “West.” As Raisi’s government will at best only represent the public face of this developing consensus, understanding Iran’s strategic posture requires examining the reasons (historical, structural, and strategic) behind such a rare consensus among the Islamic Republic’s top leadership.
The Hardening of a Strategic Mindset
In many regards, the Islamic Republic today finds itself at a similar historical juncture to the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988)—an eight-year bloody conflict in which nearly a million Iranians lost their lives, and, in response to which, the regime’s establishment came to formulate its grand strategy. In surviving what it conceived of as an existential war led by the then-powerful Arab leader Saddam Hussein, who had the backing of regional and world powers, the nascent regime in Tehran determined that its future survival and Iran’s territorial integrity will depend on its ability to develop various forms of deterrence to defend its inchoate revolutionary system from foreign aggression.
In line with this objective, the establishment capitalized on the passing of Iran’s first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, to usher in transformative top-down reorganization of the political system beginning with amending key parts of the Islamic Republic’s constitution through the 1989 Constitutional Referendum. Together with the selection of Ali Khamenei as the new leader, these moves produced sweeping legal, political, and security changes that had the cumulative effect of further centralizing and securitizing the Iranian state, while empowering the newly-chosen supreme leader with greater control over the levers of that state.
For Ali Khamenei, the new supreme leader, who as Iran’s wartime president had assumed the role of the Chair of the Supreme Defense Council and was a founding member of the Irregular Warfare Headquarters, the experience of war was both formative and reinforcing of his belief in the importance of resistance, deterrence, and asymmetric tactics. As head of state, he thus became the leading advocate for developing an indigenous ballistic missile program, establishing a complex network of militias and proxies across the region, and building a controversial nuclear program with high enrichment capability.
Establishing Credible Deterrence
Today, thirty-two years into Khamenei’s reign, the Islamic Republic has largely succeeded in establishing a forward geostrategic posture in the region through both conventional and asymmetric means to serve as an effective and credible deterrence against any foreign powers, including the United States.
Iran boasts an advanced nuclear program with an enrichment capability that is largely protected across scattered and hardened underground facilities, making it extremely difficult for Iran’s adversaries to completely destroy the program through preemptive airstrikes. While the JCPOA will significantly limit Iran’s nuclear activities and prolong its break-out time to over a year, it will not completely dismantle these enrichment facilities and, more importantly, can never undo the technical know-how the country has amassed over decades. Iran is thus knocking at the door of becoming a threshold nuclear state.
Militarily, the Iranians have developed a diverse missile arsenal capable of precision attacks against targets within a 2,000 km range. In recent years, the country’s armed forces have also demonstrated their willingness and operational capability to launch missile and drone strikes against targets in Iraq, Syria, and even against Saudi oil and gas facilities.
Perhaps most significant of all, Iran has capitalized on instabilities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen (largely the result of failed U.S. interventions) as well as the continued Israel-Palestine conflict to grow and cement its influence across the Middle East, creating an “axis of resistance” through a vast network of militia forces and their political affiliates in these countries. Although many of these groups do not operate under Iran’s direct or complete control, the combination of Iranian support and a perception of mutual interests and shared ideology have turned them into a formidable forward deterrence for Iran beyond its borders.
Demographics and Shifting Priorities
Having largely achieved its long-awaited strategic goal of deterrence with its “security-first” approach, the Islamic Republic appears prepared to also prioritize its economy. The Iranian leadership understands that the most pressing national security threat for the regime today stems from the country’s poor economic conditions caused by years of U.S. sanctions and exasperated by government dysfunction, corruption, and mismanagement producing mass popular reactions domestically.
Although Iran was able to avoid a total collapse of its economy in the face of Washington’s maximum pressure campaign, the increased poverty rate, shrinking middle class, and rising unemployment exacerbated by the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic have created unprecedented resentment and distrust among the Iranian people toward the system. While the Islamic Republic has displayed little qualms about brutally suppressing dissent in the past, the establishment seems to be well-aware of the situation’s long-term unsustainability and is concerned about its severe security implications.
With U.S.-driven international sanctions limiting Iran’s oil exports and blocking its access to foreign reserves, regime insiders, including Raisi, have identified the sanctions as the major obstacle to economic recovery and industrial growth for the country. Furthermore, demographic trends in terms of an aging population mean that Iran’s window of opportunity for economic development is also rapidly closing. According to population experts, Iran entered into a favorable demographic window of opportunity in 2005. A demographic window of opportunity exists when the working-age population in a country far exceeds the dependent population of adolescents and the elderly. While earlier assessments had estimated that Iran’s demographic window of opportunity would close by 2040, more recent estimates suggest that such population decline may occur as early as 2027. In addition to increasing popular discontent about Iran’s dire economic situation, the prospect of a fundamental demographic shift is creating a sense of urgency for the Islamic Republic to prioritize economic growth and development now.
Heeding Strategic Continuity and Cultural Realism in Dealing with Iran
Led by Khamenei, Iran’s political establishment has coalesced around these new realities. While the centrist faction (led by the current president Rouhani) had seemingly convinced Iran’s leadership to pursue rapprochement with the West through the JCPOA in hopes of incorporating Iran into the international financial system, attracting foreign investments, and creating a level of economic interdependence with the West, Donald Trump’s election and Washington’s subsequent withdrawal from the nuclear agreement in 2018 spoiled Rouhani’s plan. In the eyes of many in the Iranian establishment, this outcome proved the futility (if not the delusion) of Iran’s accommodationist approach toward the West.