August 18, 2021
IntelBrief: New Iranian President Puts United States and Region on Edge
Ibrahim Raisi, a close ally of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was sworn in as Iran’s president on August 5 amid stalled negotiations with the United States and partners on a mutual return to full compliance with the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal. American and French officials, including during a phone call by Raisi to French President Emmanuel Macron, are encouraging Raisi to agree to a seventh round of talks in Vienna to try to overcome remaining obstacles to a revival of the Iran nuclear agreement. However, Raisi subscribes to the Supreme Leader’s vision of economic self-sufficiency and skepticism of U.S. intentions, rendering him less eager for sanctions relief than his predecessor, moderate reformist Hassan Rouhani.
Countries in the region, particularly the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, interpret some of Raisi’s ministerial appointments as signals that he plans to pursue an assertive foreign policy relying on ample support to regional pro-Iranian governments and armed factions. He has named as his foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, an avowed anti-Westerner who has expressed reverence for the late Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) commander Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani, the architect of Iran’s regional strategy to nurture pro-Iranian movements in the region into powerful factions in the countries where they operate, was killed by an air strike in January 2020. During 2007-2010 Amir-Abdollahian was ambassador to Bahrain, where the Qods Force has backed underground Shia groups opposed to the Sunni, pro-Saudi regime of the Al Khalifa family. The foreign minister nominee has indicated that Iran wants to achieve a settlement in the Vienna talks, but his influence over the course of the negotiations might be constrained by the Supreme Leader, Raisi, other hardliners, and the IRGC.
Raisi appointed one of his close allies, Esmail Khatib, as Intelligence Minister, a move that is likely to ensure full coordination between the Qods Force and Intelligence Ministry personnel in promoting Iran’s regional and global objectives. Iran’s Intelligence Ministry works domestically against the regime’s opponents, and its personnel posted abroad support Qods Force operations. Khatib had been head of the security department of a large cleric-controlled foundation—the Astan Quds Razavi, based in the northeast city of Mashhad—when Raisi headed the institution from 2016 to 2019.
Raisi has also sought to ensure that the Ministry of Defense will remain subordinate to the IRGC and IRGC-QF in national security affairs by naming General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, a former deputy chief of staff of the armed forces, as defense minister. Ashtiani spent the bulk of his career in Iran’s regular Army, making him the second consecutive defense minister to hail from the regular Army since 1989. Ashtiani is unlikely to try to compete with IRGC commander Hossein Salami or Qods Force commander Esmail Qaani for influence over national security decision making, particularly pertaining to the Near East region. There is no indication that Raisi plans to replace either IRGC commander. Qaani has been widely viewed as lacking the late Soleimani’s charisma and effectiveness, but his extensive background in Afghan and Central Asian affairs positions him well to help Iran deal with the Taliban regaining power in neighboring Afghanistan. When the Taliban was in power from 1996 to 2001, its repression of Afghan Shias and killing of ten Iranian diplomats in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998 nearly led to armed conflict between Iran and the Taliban.
Raisi’s appointment of General Ahmad Vahidi as Interior Minister—even though that position focuses on internal security and not foreign policy—is certain to escalate the “shadow war” between Iran and Israel. Vahidi was head of the Qods Force at the time of the bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in Buenos Aires in July 1994. American government reports on international terrorism cite Iran for supporting the Buenos Aires attack, which was carried out by operatives of Iran’s main ally, Lebanese Hezbollah. Vahidi’s name appeared on an Interpol “red notice” list regarding the attack. Israel’s leaders, who assert their right to act unilaterally against Iran if they deem it necessary, are reading the Vahidi appointment as an Iranian message that it will respond to further attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities, scientists, shipments to Syria, and on its key proxies such as Lebanese Hezbollah. Vahidi’s appointment also casts doubt on Iran’s claims that it does not support acts of international terrorism. Whereas the Biden administration might restrain Israel from undertaking precipitous military action, Raisi’s new cabinet is certain to narrow the opportunities for any breakthrough in talks between Iran and several Gulf states aimed at lowering regional tensions.