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Source: The Guardian

May 20, 2024

Iran’s supreme leader sets its hardline foreign policies: expect more of the same

Experts say shift in direction, including on nuclear issue, is unlikely after death of president and foreign minister

By Peter Beaumont

In the immediate aftermath of the death of the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, and foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in a helicopter crash on Sunday, Iran’s regional proxies lined up to offer their condolences.

Hamas mourned Raisi as an “honourable supporter” of the Gaza-based group. Hezbollah praised him as “a strong supporter, and a staunch defender of our causes … and a protector of the resistance movements”. Mohammed Abdulsalam, a spokesperson for Yemen’s Houthi rebels, said on X that Raisi’s death was a loss “for the entire Islamic world and Palestine and Gaza”.

Foreign policy in Iran – including on the key nuclear issue – is set by the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the supreme national security council. Raisi and Abdollahian represented, in different ways, the enactment of the hardline policies that have come to the fore since Raisi was manoeuvred into the president’s office in 2021 with substantial assistance from Khamenei and the council of guardians, a powerful decision-making body.

Over that period, Iran – while maintaining its stance of ambiguity on the purpose of its nuclear programme – has edged closer to the west’s red lines with higher levels of nuclear enrichment and a more public discussion over whether a decades-long religious edict (or fatwa) against nuclear weapons is still appropriate.

On the regional front, too, Iran has become a far more overt actor via the “axis of resistance”, its network of regional proxies, bringing direct conflict, not least with Israel, far closer. Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, has been engaged in a low-level border conflict with Israel since the Gaza war began in October. Last month Iran directly attacked Israel with missiles for the first time.

Beyond the immediate region, there is the question of Tehran’s support for Russia in the war in Ukraine, not least its shipments of cheap and deadly drones to Moscow.

“I personally don’t anticipate a change or shift in direction of Iran’s foreign policy,” Dr Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and north Africa programme at Chatham House, told the Guardian.

“Foreign policy is made in the supreme national security council, where Raisi had some degree of influence. I expect the same approach to continue: maintaining bilateral ties across the region; continuing to support and build the capacity of the axis of resistance, and developing economic opportunities with Russia and China while playing divisive politics with Europe and the US.”

Vakil also sees Tehran maintaining a similar approach to the nuclear portfolio, maintaining ambiguity while working to build “capacity and capability”, which can be then deployed as part of the international negotiating process.

On the regional front the loss of Abdollahian, however, has practical significance in terms of Iranian diplomacy and influence.

Abdollahian, regarded as close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, whose own interest in an aggressive foreign policy has shaped Khamenei, was a key outreach figure among Gulf states and helped manage relationships with key figures such as Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s chief.

One indication of the likely trajectory is that the figures appointed to replace Raisi and Abdollahian in the interim as elections are prepared have similar backgrounds: Mohammad Mokhber, a Khamenei loyalist from the conservative camp, will become interim president, and Ali Bagheri Kani will step up from acting foreign minister and is already acting in back-channel talks with the US on nuclear issues.

A statement from the Iran’s strategic council on foreign relations on Monday, in the immediate aftermath of the deaths, also indicated a desire for continuity in the current policies.

“Without a doubt, the path of Iran’s foreign policy will continue with strength and power, under the guidance of the supreme leader,” the statement said. “With their active presence in foreign policy arenas, [Raisi and Abdollahian] did what they could to realise the national interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

All of which makes any question of a new direction in Tehran’s foreign policy a longer-term issue, and one that is ultimately tied to who succeeds Khamenei as supreme leader – not least after the death of Raisi, who, along with Khamenei’s son Mojtaba, was seen as a potential leader.

Afshon Ostovar, the author of the forthcoming Wars of Ambition: The United States, Iran, and the Struggle for the Middle East, wrote in an essay earlier this month that the key determinants were likely to be a combination of Khamenei’s succession and the “outsized influence” of the IRGC, which together “have come to define the Islamic Republic and its place in the world”.

“Although Khamenei has been the IRGC’s foremost benefactor, he has at times acted to constrain its ambitions,” wrote Ostovar. “This is especially so regarding foreign policy, where Khamenei has generally favoured a gradualist approach, one that has sought to balance Iran’s assertiveness with a desire to limit escalation.

“The IRGC’s top brass regularly praise Khamenei for his wisdom in strategic matters, but are also decidedly less patient, and would likely adopt a more aggressive posture – and employ military force more readily – were the leader amenable.”

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