Editor's Note: Below is a complimentary research note written by National Security analyst LTG Dan Christman. To access our Macro Policy research please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the election two weeks ago of Ibrahim Raisi, Iran has taken a significant step into an ever-deeper marriage of government and religion that solidifies what Iranians themselves call “governance of the jurist” (Velayat-e Faqih).
Apologies to historian Steven Ambrose, who titled his book on the Transcontinental Railroad “Nothing Like it in the World.”
Even before this month’s Iranian election, analysts had been highlighting the global uniqueness of Iran’s governing model since its 1979 revolution.
With a new president-elect widely assumed to be the likely successor to the Supreme Leader and expected to wield unprecedented judicial power by virtue of his previous career, Iran will mirror the title of Ambrose’s American classic and as one expert wrote, “sink deeper into the mire of authoritarian tendencies.” There will in fact be “nothing like it in the world.”
This is the disturbing bottom line for Iranian politics. But what does the election mean for U.S. foreign policy, and for our friends in the region?
As Tehran moves forward in the coming months before the August inauguration of Raisi, at least three issues seem likely to dominate near-term discussions on security policy:
First, will Iran, with Raisi waiting in the wings, continue to try to negotiate a return to the nuclear deal (JCPOA)? If so, is the deal likely to be consummated before Raisi’s August inauguration?
The answer to both is a likely “Yes!”
There have been a half-dozen negotiating rounds this year between Iran and the JCPOA partners (with the U.S. in an indirect role); apparently, substantial progress on the basic outline of the “deal” has been made: relief from the Trump-imposed sanctions in exchange for Iran’s return to the original JCPOA constraints.
Raisi’s public comments before the elections underscored support for this basic compromise. It seems counter-intuitive, but hard-liner Raisi wants a deal. Why? Part of the explanation is that Iran’s economy needs sanctions relief.
But the deeper explanation was provided a week ago by Johns Hopkins professor Vali Nasr, who said that Iran’s June 18th elections represented “no shift to proponents of reform.”
Nasr continued, “The fortunes of conservatives are now tied to securing a nuclear deal,” one advocated by the Supreme Leader.
If the deal is concluded, the best guess is that it will be done with old team; easier to blame the current president if it all falls apart. And IF there is a deal, it will not be “JCPOA-plus,” i.e., expanded to correct deficiencies in the 2015 pact. Both Raisi and the Supreme Leader have made that clear. But this Is not Biden’s game plan!
Hence, the second issue: how hard should President Biden press on broadening the original JCPOA’s terms – to include clear limits on Iranian ballistic missile testing and constraints on Iran’s regional behavior?
The president and his senior national security team have made no secret of their wishes to move beyond the basic nuclear agreement struck in 2015.
But this was always going to be a stretch even before the Iranian election campaigning got underway and even before the previous administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy against Tehran; it now looks like an impossible negotiating hurdle.
Biden’s biggest challenge is likely to be domestic U.S. politics as he tries to sidle up to an Iranian regime that’s increasingly on a path to gross human rights violations, particularly under a new president widely credited with ordering the execution of thousands of political prisoners in the late 1980’s.
The president has already received partisan blow-back for allegedly backing away from the Trump/Pompeo pressure campaign against Tehran – a campaign by the way that has brought Tehran closer to nuclear weapons capability, not more distant.
In the end, Biden will not be deterred from continued outreach to Iran, even under Raisi; and if he can’t cobble together an improved deal, one senses he’ll take a return to the original 2015 nuclear terms despite the political firestorm.
Finally, what about reports in May of a possible rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh? Will this potential game-changing outreach by the two sides prove ephemeral? In a word, yes.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince MBS was evidently the moving force behind the Iran-Saudi meetings, usefully brokered by Iraq’s President Barham Salih.
Analysts had postulated that fear over the U.S. withdrawal from the region under a Biden administration may have motivated MBS to look for any political opening that might emerge from this summer’s Iranian leadership transition.
But as eyes turned to the June elections and the sharp winnowing by Iran’s Guardian Council of virtually any “moderate” presidential candidate who might have furthered a dialogue with the Saudis, hopes for a Sunni-Shia (Riyadh-Tehran) rapprochement quickly faded.
In short, expect Raisi to deepen, not modulate, Iran’s extensive network of regional proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Gaza; there will be no further outreach to the Kingdom.
CONCLUSION: There seems little doubt that Raisi’s pledge to maintain Iran’s regional activities and to keep missile testing unfettered will put Iran at odds with U.S. strategic interests, as well as Israel’s.
But there is an opportunity afforded by Raisi’s public support for the basic deal. Vali Nasr’s insights again seem telling here: an urge for Biden not to push for a grandiose deal with Iran - one unlikely in any event given the suddenness of the U.S. withdrawal under former-President Trump and the uncertainty it created in minds of allies as well as Tehran about the reliability of U.S. pledges.
The Nasr advice? “Get a durable nuclear agreement and reduce regional tensions, so the U.S. can shift its focus to contending with China.”
This may not reflect the president’s and national security advisor Jake Sullivan’s ideal end-state with Tehran; but it avoids distracting from THE security priority that has broad public and political support: diplomatically countering XI Jingping, blocking China’s goals of hegemony in the western Pacific, and undercutting the PRC’s drive for global economic dominance.
* * *
ABOUT LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAN CHRISTMAN
LTG Dan Christman, USA, Ret. serves as Hedgeye Potomac Research’s Senior National Security Analyst, providing deep insight into international affairs and national security. Most recently, Dan provided strategic leadership on international issues affecting the business community for organizations such as the US Chamber of Commerce. Dan’s long history of leadership includes his service as a United States Army lieutenant general and former Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. He served in highly visible and strategically important positions and four times was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the nation's highest peacetime service award.
He also served for two years as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during which time he traveled with and advised Secretary of State Warren Christopher. He was centrally involved during this period with negotiations between Israel and Syria as a member of the Secretary's Middle East Peace Team. Further, Christman represented the United States as a member of NATO's Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium.
Graduating first in his class from West Point, Christman also received MPA and MSE degrees in public affairs and civil engineering from Princeton University and graduated with honors from The George Washington University Law School. He is a decorated combat veteran of Southeast Asia, where he commanded a company in the 101st Airborne Division in 1969.