Ebrahim Raisi’s Limited Capabilities to Foreign Policy & IRGC’s Role
There are various ways to assess and predict the developments in Iran's foreseeable future through the victory of Ebrahim Raisi in Iran's Presidential Elections of 2021. To begin with, the integrity of the Iranian electoral process in itself lacks little trust and acknowledgment by the international community, regional media, specialized observers, and the exiled Iranian diaspora. Moreover, the alleged 48.8% turnout according to many sources is the lowest participation rate ever in Iranian Presidential Elections, a number that is rejected by many Iranian-state affiliated agencies. The Guardian Council (a body of 12 jurists) disqualified several other candidates from running, a move that was considered paving the way for the immoderate candidates to dominate the elections, and eventually achieve Raisi’s victory even before the election. In other words, it demolished the reformist camp.
Raisi held many sensitive positions throughout his political and religious career. He was a judge who oversaw the execution of many opponents to the regime, a reason that led him sanctioned by the US.
Biden's administration will also have to reconsider its evaluations during the nuclear talks as Raisi’s background shows no leniency towards risking Tehran’s missile program and regional ambitions.
In other words, Raisi’s electoral victory is an indicator of the regime’s unwillingness to make reforms or lessen its theocratic and revolutionary way of governance in a country with heavy economic crises due to the US economic sanctions. The way to change seems possible only through the bloody way of dissidence or to go in exile. Iran’s brain drain costs it $150 billion annually, which is more than its oil revenue.
“Given Raisi’s track record as a loyal and even pliant official of the Islamic Republic, it is unlikely that it will be him who will leave a distinct mark on Tehran’s domestic politics as well as foreign policy, despite a possible radicalization in the Iranian administration’s discourse. The latter will continue to be dominated by the very circles whose support was instrumental in his rise to the presidency, i.e. the Office of the Supreme Leader and the IRGC. Such continuity is witnessed through Raisi’s vows to keep supporting the Tehran-led “axis of resistance” throughout the Middle East but also through his willingness to see the revival of the JCPOA. After all, the revival of the Deal is considered to be in line with vital regime interests because of the heavy costs of US sanctions,” says Ali Fathollah-Nejad, author of the much-acclaimed ‘Iran in an Emerging New World Order: From Ahmadinejad to Rouhani’ and the weekly newsletter “Iran 1400 Brief: Beyond the Headlines”.
The Islamic Republic has different faces such as the dominant theocratic one, the revolutionary geopolitical one, the whitewashed reformist one, and many others depending on the context and strategy. To some countries in the region and the countries that are known as Iran's axis of resistance such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, it is the revolutionary military force of the Republic that determines Iran's role in those countries. That is, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps initially established to protect the Islamic system of the country, and now has the ultimate influence on its economic, social, and political aspects.
Iran’s foreign policy is determined by the interests of its regional battlefield according to a recently leaked recording of remarks given by former Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif during a confidential meeting, in reference to Qasem Soleimani’s continuous interferences. Zarif is not the first Iranian official complaining about the IRGC’s consistent involvement in Iran’s foreign policy and negotiations. Former Presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hassan Rouhani have also shared similar views.
Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq are not countries dealing with Iran’s less-revolutionary and reformist diplomats such as Zarif. They are dealing with the core revolutionary actors such as Soleimani prior to his assassination, and now his successor, Esmail Qaani.
IRGC’s first days in Lebanon started when it sent troops to train fighters against the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. IRGC’s presence eventually led to the formation of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most powerful political and military force, and the region’s most powerful Shia Arab military force.
Syrian-Iranian relations were heavily driven by agreements and diplomacies because of the long-standing relationship between the two countries since the regime of Syria’s former President, Hafez al-Assad and it continued with his successor and son, Bashar. However, given the sectarianization of the Syrian conflict, Iran’s approach to Syria became fully dominated by the IRGC as it began forming and deploying militias from across the region: Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to fight a war in the name of the ‘sect.’
Iran’s approach to Iraq would be more diverse and multilateral than the above due to the deeper geographical and historical commonalities and closeness. Nonetheless, the formation of the Popular Mobilization Forces under the call of the Fatwa by Iraq’s Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in response to the DAESH in 2014 was IRGC’s opportunity to further militarize Iran’s foreign policy strategies in Iraq.
Ahmed Al-Yasiry, the director and founder of the Arab Australian Centre for Strategic Studies and an expert on Iranian affairs told İRAM, “Iran’s interference in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and even Yemen are intelligence- and military-oriented, therefore, it cannot be changed through a new presidency only. Iran’s network in those countries has established itself to make those countries’ security situations determined by Iran. Therefore, they are used as pressure cards against the West. The Iranian President has almost no monitoring or overseeing methods over the IRGC’s work, therefore he would not even be able to raise any particular issues with them from the first place.”
Al-Yasiry also emphasized the possibility of a gradual change in the IRGC’s attitude if the Raisi era will witness a successful revival of the JCPOA and a clear improvement in Iran’s relations with the West. “Raisi is the son of the [wilayet al fiqh] establishment, which is governed by Khamenei, therefore, if Raisi requires better engagement with the West, then the IRGC will most probably abide by the rules. In fact, Khamenei might allow Raisi to have more engaging autonomy from the IRGC, unlike his predecessors, to prepare him as a future Supreme Leader,” he said.
The current president and soon to be Raisi’s predecessor, President Rouhani is considered to be a part of the Islamic Republic’s reformist camp. His approach to Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad was overshadowed by the agenda of the IRGC’s interest and active strategies in those countries. Thus, either an ultra-conservative or a reformist will be able to de-revolutionize Iran's attitude towards its camps in the region. Moreover, Iran's Khomeinist theocracy will not be limited by a new president, and it will certainly not disappear under the reign of Raisi, whose victory was engineered by the Guardian Council. Therefore, civil society actors in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon will have to stop waiting on a less IRGC-oriented engagement with Iran, and continue finding grassroots solutions to challenge the network of religious, political, and economic entities benefiting from Iran's spheres of influence in their countries, while ensuring to prevent any political sectarian attempts of mobilization by other extremist groups in opposition to Iran’s Shia theocracy.