Raisi’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ and Reviving Relations With Saudi Arabia

Iran’s presidential election was held on June 18, 2021, and Ebrahim Raisi was elected the eighth president of Iran. The president is a prominent and conservative revolutionary judge who is ideologically close to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Hence, he is considered a hardliner and anti-Western president. In Raisi’s administration, Iran’s foreign policy is expected to turn to its neighbors, especially its southern Arab neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia, contrary to President Rouhani’s policies, which emphasize ties with the international community and Western countries. In this regard, Raisi announced in his first news conference before taking office that Iran would have “no problem” with a possible reopening of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the “restoration of relations faces no barrier.”

This decision is due to the factors and necessities that have forced Iran and Saudi Arabia to need each other and start their relations with each other after five years of severance.

Raisi, the trusted representative of Khamenei

After Raisi’s news conference, “Saudi Arabia will judge the government of Iranian President-elect Raisi on the reality on the ground” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said, adding that “From our point of view, foreign policy in Iran is run by the Supreme Leader anyway.”

Raisi is likely to address the Saudi foreign minister’s concerns. In fact, the Supreme Leader saw the continuity of the Iranian regime in danger and was looking for someone who would revive the original slogans of the revolution and return the revolution to its original line. Therefore, he prepared the conditions in such a way as to prevent the entry of important rivals of Raisi, such as Ali Larijani, who was the longest-serving speaker of the country’s parliament.

Khamenei himself was president between 1981-89 but since becoming supreme leader in 1989, he has been trying relations with each of his successors. Hashemi Rafsanjani, the reformist Muhammad Khatami and even the populist Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad, all had fraying ties with Khamenei. Each of them, as well as Rouhani, have butted heads over factional tensions, international relations and, ultimately, the lack of independent presidential authority.

Khamenei even disagreed with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was considered a revolutionary and hardliner president, over the appointment of vice president and intelligence minister, which resulted in Ahmadinejad’s 10-day resentment and refusal to attend office during that time.

The similarity and lack of differences between the views of the Supreme Leader and the President will help Raisi to formulate his foreign policy with maximum power and support of the Supreme Leader of Iran, and Saudi Arabia can rely more on Raisi in this regard because his views with the Supreme Leader does not contradict and bilateral agreements between Iran and Saudi Arabia will not be a problem in the future.

Foreign policy

Raisi’s foreign policy priorities are to strengthen regional policies rather than international policies, and he focuses on the political and economic aspects of Iran in the region and uses them to influence international positions, so the possibility of a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia is very likely. Iran-Saudi relations were severed in January 2016 after a number of angry Iranians attacked the Saudi embassy in Iran protesting the execution of a Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. 

In the past, the moderate and reformist governments in Iran tended to the West, but the revolutionary and extremist generation object to this one-sided view. They believe that dialogue with Europe and the United States has not benefited the country’s economy and national interests. 

To solve this problem, Raisi seeks to balance Iran’s foreign relations. While deciding to maintain relations and manage tensions with the West, he seeks to pursue foreign policy in the “Asian axis” and, most importantly, in Iran’s “Muslim neighbors,” especially Saudi Arabia. For this reason, before the inauguration ceremony on Aug. 5, Raisi had a telephone conversation with Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, King of Oman, to improve relations with Oman and through this country with other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

Due to his closeness to the Supreme Leader, Raisi enjoys the power of a more complete political consensus in the country, so he can do better in pursuing foreign policy than President Rouhani. He has a lot of influence in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC is a powerful military institution that owns large economic projects in the country and is one of the determining elements of the country’s foreign policy. IRGC commanders look at Raisi as a revolutionary saint and trust him. 

Unlike Raisi, Rouhani had many problems with the IRGC and wanted to limit the IRGC’s involvements in political affairs. In an interview that was not to be made public, Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, criticized General Qassem Soleimani, a senior IRGC commander, claiming that Soleimani was seeking to escalate military tensions and that he wanted to advance the country’s affairs with diplomacy. The unintentional publication of this interview caused a wave of dissatisfaction with Javad Zarif among members of the IRGC and revolutionary extremists, and some even called for his impeachment in parliament.

This means that Saudi Arabia can engage an Iranian president with more credibility than Rouhani, whose presidency and foreign policy agenda the IRGC sought to undermine in many ways, when talking about Tehran making concessions to the Saudis.

Improving Iran’s ailing economy

The economy is Raisi’s greatest challenge and most important priority. Because Raisi remembers the bitter memory of Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal on May 8, 2018, unlike Rouhani, he tries to prioritize self-reliance and use of the region’s economic potential instead of trusting the West. That is why the first priority is to neutralize the sanctions rather than lifting them.

Raisi sees Saudi Arabia and the UAE as an important opportunity to reduce US sanctions, so he prioritizes de-escalation with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh also welcomes the decision, as it also needs foreign direct investment for its vision 2030, and it is clear that the first priority for foreign investment is to stabilize and reduce regional tensions. A strategy whose most important step is to reduce regional tensions with Iran.

Raisi depends on regional capabilities to pursue his less dependent foreign policy on the West. Saudi Arabia is the most important Arab country in the region, with which the beginning of de-escalation will improve relations with the GCC countries and the Arab world. However, the two countries have many conflicting interests in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which will be seen in the future.

Dr. Mohammad Salami holds a Ph.D. in International Relations. He is a specialist in Middle Eastern policy, particularly in Syria, Iran, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf region. His areas of expertise include politics and governance, security, and counterterrorism. He writes as an analyst and columnist in various media outlets. Twitter  handle: @moh_salami. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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