- Ebrahim Raisi was inaugurated as Iran's president yesterday.
- Iran is already repositioning itself as a less pliable power in hopes of eliciting a sense of urgency to meet Iranian demands.
- Recent, aggressive behavior may be part of a recalibration in Iran's relationship to the rest of the world and a push for additional concessions.
Hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was inaugurated yesterday, and Iran's intentions for its US relationship have grown increasingly murky. Raisi's skepticism of US motives is clear, but it is unclear where he intends to take the bilateral relationship. His predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, believed that the US was unalterably hostile to Iran, but he argued that the level of hostility that emerged during the Ahmadinejad presidency undermined Iranian interests. He received clearance from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to explore a reduction in tensions. That plan seemed promising with the striking of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, but the widespread feeling that the deal failed to deliver the promised sanctions relief and resultant economic boost undermined Rouhani's credibility. When the Trump administration doubled down on sanctions and instituted a “maximum pressure” campaign, hardliners in Iran argued that they had been right all along and efforts to conciliate the US were doomed to end in failure.
Most experts agree that Ayatollah Khamenei had given Rouhani a green light to negotiate because he understood that the only thing that could save Iran's limping economy was some sort of rapprochement with the United States. Yet, the Iranian negotiators have stayed away from nuclear talks in Vienna for more than a month, and the new negotiating team has not been named. Meanwhile, the US, UK, and Israel all blame Iranian forces for a deadly drone attack last week on a ship with ties to Israel, and there are reports that a tanker carrying asphalt was hijacked near the Strait of Hormuz yesterday and sailed into Iranian waters.
The security incidents in the Gulf are just one factor creating a sense of insecurity around Iran. The other is a concern that Iran's increasingly bold departure from the terms of the JCPOA–which Iranians argue are justified because the US abrogated the agreement when it reimposed sanctions–will provide it with permanent advances in knowledge that will make Iran far more dangerous in the future. Not only is Iran enriching more uranium, but it is enriching uranium to 60% now, far above the previous 20% threshold, and perilously close to the 90% threshold for weapons-grade material. In addition, Iran has barred UN inspectors access to areas at the Natanz nuclear site and is producing metallic forms of uranium that have uses in nuclear warheads.
One way to see Iran's actions is as a way to create urgency for Western powers, and especially the United States, to make concessions to Iran in the nuclear negotiations. The Vienna talks were deadlocked over Iranian demands for broader sanctions relief and more reliable guarantees that sanctions will not be reimposed. As the Iranian economy flounders under sanctions, the effects of the Covid pandemic, water and electricity shortages, and other problems, Iran may be seeking to force Western powers to deliver a better offer to Iran at the nuclear talks in order to head off a regional escalation. Iran's approach to negotiations is often to act aggressively just beforehand, and then to make an agreement to no longer act aggressively as its first concession. In this way, Iran sees itself as getting something for nothing.
Yet, Iran's aggressive behavior may also be part of a recalibration of its relationship to the rest of the world. Convinced that others are determined to keep Iran down, Iran may be seeking to punish others for their treatment of Iran and intimidate them into giving Iran more concessions. Saudi Arabia's initial response to an Iranian attack on its oil facilities in September 2019 was to seek quiet talks with the Iranians to reduce tensions, and the Trump administration intervened to block them. Iran has held quiet talks with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in recent months, with the encouragement of the United States. Iran may be seeking to intimidate regional powers in order to draw more concessions from them rather than improve the terms of the nuclear deal. Were this the case, the Iranians would be depending on a calculus that the United States is determined to diminish its footprint in the Middle East and is unlikely to respond strongly to Iranian actions.
In the near term, we should expect some increased volatility in oil markets as the new government takes shape and Raisi and Khamenei explore their forthcoming approach to the nuclear talks. It is likely that there are further Iranian actions, and it is likely that the United States will respond in some way.
In the longer term, some sort of accommodation with the United States is highly likely, because sanctions create so much pressure on Iran, and because the Biden administration is clearly willing to relieve them. The Iranians are left with the problem they often have, which is how to play a weak hand when they are so badly outmatched by their adversaries. Their instinct has been consistent: to fear that good behavior means others will take advantage of Iran's weakness, but bad behavior generates concessions. Raisi appears to believe that the Rouhani experience validates the first part of this equation. How he intends to explore the latter part, and how the Biden administration responds, is likely to grab headlines periodically in the months to come.