Raisi and the Narrowing Regional Space of Iran
When Hassan Rouhani was elected as the seventh President of Iran eight years ago, he had a quite clear vision concerning the main path of foreign policy which he would follow. The Iran-USA negotiations initiated by his predecessor Ahmadinejad through Oman had made significant progress, and all that remained for Rouhani to do was to determine some technical details and sign a deal, which is now known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the Nuclear Deal). Moreover, since the relevant secret negotiations took place with the knowledge and permission of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, there was no reason for Rouhani to hesitate from the reactions of the opposition in the country. Indeed, the process proceeded as planned, and the Parliament, which was dominated by the opponents at the time, approved the deal within hours after the personal intervention of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran secretary Ali Shamkhani through his meeting with Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani. The negotiation and reconciliation with the USA, which had been taboo for decades have been normalized through the concept of “heroic flexibility”, and this bilateral deal has become a milestone for the Islamic Republic of Iran. The deal was well-received both inside the country and on the international stage. While the government and the effective figures had been experiencing a rise in power, the Iranian economy had witnessed the most positive indicators of the last 40 years. Nevertheless, the happy story did not last long and the dark days have started for Rouhani with the election of Trump as the President of the USA in 2016. Recently, the ambiguous situation of Rouhani in the country remains. Considering the several allegations and lawsuits against him, along with the fact that he was not appointed as the advisor of the Expediency Discernment Council of the System despite the custom and expectations, the former president may go down in history as the person who paid the most price for his disputes with the Supreme Leader after Abolhassan Banisadr who passed away in the last days. Rouhani, who has been accused of Gorbachevism like some of his predecessors since he wanted to make a fresh start with the world and especially with the USA and wanted to make fundamental reforms in the domestic politics by taking advantage of the political atmosphere of the deal, has become one of the most unfortunate presidents.
The foreign policy discourses in the campaign of Ebrahim Raisi, whose candidacy for presidency was agreed upon several months before the election by the most effective segments of the country and was a subject of election engineering of these segments, have been shaped as a response to the disappointments mentioned above. The reconciliation and agreement with the USA were pointless and even if Iran fulfilled all of its obligations, the USA would not give Iran its deserved acquisitions due to some excuses. Therefore, in contrast to the Rouhani government, there should be no expectation from the West and especially the USA, and the relations with the neighboring countries should be developed by putting Iran’s regional relations forward. This discourse has been the most used foreign policy argument of Raisi during and after his election campaign. According to Raisi and his team, it is not an issue to resume the JCPOA negotiations, but it can take place only for the return of the USA to its obligations, and any discussion concerning the ballistic missiles or regional policies is inconceivable. Hence, the negotiations have not started in Vienna yet, it is still unknown that how the gap between the expectations of the parties will reduce or how the negotiations with the USA will result. Due to the fact that the discourses of the new government regarding this issue have already been apparent, it has not been a surprise or disappointment for anybody. However, the developments in the past weeks concerning the regional policies and the relations with the neighboring countries have been evolved in a way that Raisi and his supporters did not expect.
The first regional problem has arisen from Afghanistan for the brand new Raisi government. The Taliban’s unexpected capture of Kabul following its increasing influence over the country after the 2001 US invasion and the emergence of the Haqqani group, which is known for its rigid attitude towards Iran as a consequence of intra-group power struggle, have created discomfort for Iran. Despite having held several meetings with the Taliban in recent years, hosting Taliban representatives in the country, and instructing the press to use a soft tone on the issue, Iranian authorities have adopted a harsher discourse regarding the Taliban. Following this, the tone of the media in the country has changed so much so that mercenary Hazara militias consisting of Afghans were suggested to be sent to the country to support the “Panjshir resistance.” The nationalist-reformist segments of society which have been excluded from domestic politics in the last years have developed a “Tajik resistance” discourse. It should be noted that the relevant Persian/Tajik nationalism wave should be interpreted as a reaction to people of Kurdish and Turkish origin in the country who have developed a solidarity discourse with their race outside of the country, which has become more visible in recent years. Islamabad has also been affected by this epic anti-Taliban atmosphere and slogans such as “Down with Pakistan and Taliban” started to be heard in Tehran and Qom frequently. Although the effective conservative figures told the Persian nationalist reformist masses that "if you wish, you can establish a Reformist Brigade and fight”, these campaigns in social media did not last long and came to an end. “The interview of Ahmad Naghibzadeh as an effective person in the nationalist-reformist wing which targeted Turkey and Qatar also drew attention. By arguing that Turkey and Qatar are the true enemies of Iran and more dangerous than Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since they do not reveal this fact, the academic has incited a new anti-Turkey campaign.
What Does “For Free Karabakh” Mean?
On the anniversary of the Karabakh War, which resulted in the cleansing of the Armenian forces from the majority of occupied land of Karabakh, the Iran-Taliban/Pakistan tension gave its place to Iran-Azarbeijan tension. The hysteria and tantrum in Iran, which we get used to seeing in recent years and saw the latest example of it in the Aras poem crisis, have spread in a wide range of society from deputies to clerics and academics to journalists. Several Iranian figures repeated that Israel settled on the northern border of the country and Turkey-backed “takfiri terrorists” were brought to the region. Outrageous caricatures and implications regarding the leaders of the neighboring countries were published as usual in the country’s media and social media.
After the arrest of Iranian truck drivers for insisting on using Azerbaijani land to reach the occupied Hankendi field despite the Pashinyan government's compromise signals, the visit of Iran's ambassador to Yerevan for Armenian soldiers and his sharing of pictures from the front, and the accusations of some clerical officials, tensions between the two countries reached a peak within 30 years, which overlapped with the same time of joint drill of Turkish, Azarbeyjani, and Pakistani armies. President Ilham Aliyev directly responded to the allegations by saying that he found the timing of Iran’s counter-drill meaningful and this is not only his problem but the problem of Azerbaijanis all over the world and these statements increased the level of tension. The news concerning the fact that Iran's air space is closed to Azerbaijan’s planes, transit of Iranian trucks is prohibited by Georgia, and Ojaghnejad was expelled from Baku has been widely reported in the media. While Baku’s reaction to the developments was clear yet moderate, the campaigns in Iran has lasted for a couple of weeks. Turkey has also been targeted by these negative campaigns and discourses.
The question that arises at this point is why the reaction of Iran has been increased on this level one year after the war’s ending. For a short answer, it may be said that the status-quo as a result of the 30 years occupation had made Armenia a proxy power for Iran in practice. In other words, through its conflicting attitude and creating a physical and political void between the two Turkish states, the Yerevan administration had been instrumentalized as a useful apparatus for Russia and Iran by preventing natural cooperation and economic integration in the Southern Caucasus. Iran thinks that the new geopolitical balance in the post-occupation period does not only strengthen both Turkey and Azerbaijan but also defeats its long-term political and logistic plans by the cooperation between two countries and domination of this cooperation in the Southern Caucasus. Furthermore, Iran has concerns regarding the Turkish nationalism, which emerged during the war period, will affect its social balance within the country along with the maps of its northern border. Therefore, the fact that Iran has reacted against the freedom of Karabakh more than Armenia or Pashinyan dismissed the Armenian ambassador for Tehran proves that the long-lasting occupation was actually a part of a bigger picture than the Armenia-Azerbaijan issue.
While Iran has been concerned about the ending of the occupation in the South Caucasus and the possibility of Armenia normalizing its relations with the states of the region, some developments which Iran dislikes have come to the agenda as a third front. The parliamentary election was held in Iraq following the early election decision of the government, which had been the target of mega-street protests. As a result, Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr who is known for his opposition against Iranian intervention, has achieved to gain the majority of the votes. Despite the fact that the independent candidates who are close to the protestors have also made an important success in the elections in which the turnout was low, the pro-Iran Fatah Alliance gained only 17 seats. While the pro-Iran commanders of Badr organizations such as Hadi al-Amiri have been arguing that the election was corrupt, Quds Force Commander Ismail Qaani evaluated the results by going to Baghdad and tried to develop a road map for pro-Tehran groups. However, Muqtada al-Sadr’s harsh warning towards these groups who call themselves “Resistance Forces” by stating that the weapons should only belong to the state drew attention. The fact that the relevant paramilitary groups lost the parliament, which is the most important source of power after the Shiite Marja in Najaf led by Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the Shiite streets, show that the difficult days are ahead of Tehran in Iraq as a country on which it has the most influence. As a matter of fact, there is nothing surprising about the results of the election because, according to the recent surveys of several research institutes, perspectives towards Iran have been negative even in the Shiite communities. The main reason behind these negative perspectives was the general opinion that there was an Iranian influence behind all crises which occurred in the last ten years. Any of the names which Sadr, the winner of the election, announced as the potential alternative prime minister does not seem acceptable for Iran. In this situation, it is possible for Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is known as the moderate man, to remain as the prime minister. Nevertheless, if the process is completed without any problem, al-Kadhimi is expected to adopt a strict stance and take serious steps, including the deactivation of the Badr Organization. The reason is that these groups who launch adrift operations against the targets of the USA, Saudi Arabia, and even Turkey are completely out of the government’s control. These groups which some of which are associated with the PKK, are known to execute several Iraqi activists in the protests against corruption in the last years.
In conclusion, Tehran, which has problems with the West led by the USA and could not get its expected support from the Eastern states, has been caught unprepared to the recent regional developments and showed exaggerated reactions. The function and the meaning of the increasing nationalist wave for domestic politics are clear as it is seen in Raisi’s Persepolis (Takht-e Jamshid) visit despite his dislike, which is acknowledged as half sacred by the Persian nationalist circles. Nevertheless, the possibility of the relation between Iran’s enhanced nuclear activities and the artificial threat invention, which refers to the discourse that “we are being surrounded by the enemies”, should not be disregarded. Furthermore, the Chief of Staff of Iran's Armed Forces, Mohammad Bagheri's visit to Pakistan and the Deputy Foreign Minister Bagheri Kani's visit to Turkey, as well as telephone communication with Baku, demonstrate that diplomacy is the sole option for issue resolution. The regional normalization and cooperation will provide the most suitable atmosphere for Iran, like any other country, to assure its national interests and bring its concerns to the table.