Despite a relatively fixed outline defining the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy regardless of its president’s political leanings since the Islamic Revolution, there are nonetheless fundamental observable differences across the successive eight political administrations in that regards.
When Rouhani initially assumed power, he threw all his political weight into consolidating relations with the West, a priority for his administration and political moderates in Iran, who were largely of the opinion that the answer to Iran’s problems would come from a strong relationship with the West, some even asserting that Iran’s economic problems could not be solved without first resolving the quagmire of relations with the United States of America (USA). However, moderates took a devastating blow with Trump’s reinstatement of sanctions, forcing the Rouhani administration to take a more cautious approach in engaging with the region. Several neighboring countries even coordinated with and reinforced Trump’s antagonistic policies towards Iran as a means of addressing their issues with their regional neighbor of differing political orientations and widely known regional ambitions.
Despite Rouhani’s proposed “Amal” security alliance with Gulf countries, relations with the region did not improve as these were not a priority for his administration. This highlights one of the key differences between the foreign policies of Rouhani and Raisi who clearly expressed in his election campaign that Iran’s regional neighbors are a priority. Any enduring reserve in his positive overtures towards Riyadh can be explained by fundamental policy differences, political competition, and proxy-wars, chief of which is Yemen.
An immediate obstacle facing serious discussions on a strong relationship with the region is Raisi’s stated commitment to strengthening Iran’s regional influence as an uncompromisable issue of power. The question of Iran’s regional influence in its political discourse in this regard is a major obstacle facing this relationship.
Features of Raisi’s Foreign Policy
There are no notable differences between statements made in Raisi’s electoral debates and post-election statements for his 2021 and 2017 election campaigns. His foreign policy suggestions throughout both election campaigns were only general statements alluding to principles drawn up by the Supreme Leader.
Ebrahim Raisi’s position on the issue of Iran’s regional influence can be summarized into the following points:
- Iran’s regional influence is a reflection of the Islamic revolution ideals
- Iran’s regional influence helps to strengthen its national security
- Iran’s regional influence guarantees Iran’s security and prosperity and protects its people from the prospect of war
- Iran’s power of deterrence (including missiles) is non-negotiable
- Iran’s power of deterrence is what brings the West and the US to negotiating tables
- Iran’s power and influence in the region supports regional stability
- Iran’s power and influence is the most important factor in countering “takfiri terrorism”
- Iran welcomes any offer of friendship in the name of regional cooperation and collective security
In light of this, the fundamental differences between Iran and the Gulf countries in their discourse on and analysis of Iran’s regional influence become increasingly apparent. What Iran considers an important element of stability and security, the Arab, Gulf and international parties see as an element of tension and escalation. In response, the aim of Bin Salman’s policy has been to create collective deterrence against Iran and to contain it geopolitically even if it means outsourcing to Israel, despite Saudi Arabia’s hesitancy and the internal discord within its central leadership regarding the normalization of relations.
Rouhani’s administration believed a nuclear deal with the West would lead to reduced tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Instead, Saudi Arabia threatened to move the battle inside Iran, which was also increasing its investment in its Houthi allies in Yemen. In a 2018 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mohammed Bin Salman called for escalating pressure and sanctions on Iran which he justified as a means to avoid war, saying “We must achieve this in order to avoid a military conflict, if we fail to do this, we will probably have a war with Iran in 10-15 years.”
Saudi Arabia rushed into Yemen to achieve a number of aims, the most prominent of which was “eliminating Iranian influence.” However, none of the aims of “Operation Decisive Storm” were achieved, especially those related to Iran and the “Ansar Allah” Houthi group. This situation served to create more tension in Iranian-Saudi relations as Riyadh found itself drowning in the Yemeni conflict and facing an escalating Houthi threat. Perhaps it is was in response to this that after six years of severed diplomatic ties, Bin Salman called to build close relations with its Iranian neighbor.
This perhaps indicates that mutual economic and security interests and challenges can bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to sit at a negotiating table in search for a solution, if only partially.
Can the American factor be neutralized?
In a call with the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the Iranian president-elect Ebrahim Raisi stated that “collective security” forms the essential part of his administration’s “doctrine of regional foreign policy.” He further mentioned that he considered this “doctrine of collective security” to be capable for brining “peace and stability” to the region as well as “harmony and prosperity” to its peoples.
Collective security, however, is neither a new proposal in the Gulf region, nor the only one. Numerous other models, all featuring security as a central factor revolve around the collective security model, which suggests that all the nations involved can obtain partial security by upholding a number of pledges despite a lack of trust between the parties.
Collective security in Ebrahim Raisi’s opinion however, can only be guaranteed when “the intervention of foreign powers in Iran and her neighbors’ relations is reduced to zero.” This stance is not limited to only Raisi, but has been a constant in Iranian foreign policy. Rouhani had previously called on Gulf countries to take up their security individually without “foreign intervention.” The possibility of this is unlikely given the region holding the second highest US military concentration after America itself. Moreover, unlike the strained relations between Washington and Tehran, other governments in the region maintain strong relations with Washington.
That crisis is fundamentally related to Iran’s declared intent to push US forces out of the region following Qasem Solemaini’s assassination at the beginning of 2020. This stance further complicates stability and security as preconditions of Raisi’s efforts for strong relations with Iran’s neighbors.
What about Israel?
Iran’s security concerns are further reinforced by Israeli access to the Gulf via normalized relations with several countries, chiefly the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This normalization prompts Iran to view these Gulf nations as an emerging and growing security threat likely to displace the model of “collective security” if Israeli presence in the region grows.
The UAE is Iran’s largest economic partner in the Gulf region, and a bypass to mitigate the economic effects of sanctions. Emirati ties with Israel could potentially affect these relations and particularly Iran’s economic interests. In light of this, Khamenei affirmed clearly that economic interests could no longer by any means take priority over Iran’s larger strategic interests. This raises doubts as to whether economic pressure could make Iran turn a blind eye to the growing Israeli presence in the Gulf. The escalating threat could support and strengthen the status of Iran’s regional influence, strengthening the Quds Brigade’s arsenal and unify the political sentiments of different governmental bodies on the issue.
Nonetheless, good neighborly relations in the region are both possible and necessary, whether for the economically devastated Iran or its Gulf neighbors given their security threats.
As for Ebrahim Raisi and his declared intentions to improve Gulf relations, a bold initiative is required to reach a settlement in Yemen with Saudi Arabia. This may necessitate Iran moving away from its divergent discourses and policies towards a greater internal consensus with regards to its regional policy. Despite the unlikelihood of Iran giving up its regional aspirations at once, this influence must be guided and revised from several angles. As for the Gulf countries, it is no longer to their advantage to continue treating Iran as a rogue state in the region. It may just be the biggest strategic mistake to outsource to a rogue state like Israel while confronting a country of historic and geographic significance such as Iran.