May 20, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

How Ebrahim Raisi transformed Iran’s role in the region

Regardless of what Western analysts think about Iran's international relations, Iran has secured close ties throughout the Middle East and Asia under President Raisi.
May 20, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

How Ebrahim Raisi transformed Iran’s role in the region

Regardless of what Western analysts think about Iran's international relations, Iran has secured close ties throughout the Middle East and Asia under President Raisi.

When news broke that Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi had vanished during a helicopter ride in a remote mountainous region of Iran near the border with Azerbaijan, I was surprised. Raisi had appeared entrenched in office and ready to continue his rule, in one form or another. However, his journey in the helicopter also symbolized the contradictions of the state he was involved in captaining.

Raisi had flown to the border to meet with the president of Azerbaijan and inaugurate a dam on the border of the two countries. In one reading of the story about Iran and Azerbaijan, the two countries are rivals. Iran is supposedly an ally of Armenia. However, the real story is that Raisi was up on the border to meet the Azerbaijan leader to showcase Iran’s interests and also showcase the cooperation that could take place between the nations.

On the one hand, Raisi was on the border to showcase Iranian strength. But on the other, he was there because Iran doesn’t want any troubles with its northern neighbors. Iran wants close ties with Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, and further away, Russia. Regardless of what Western analysts think about the destiny of Iran to clash with Turkey or whomever, under Raisi Iran has pursued a pragmatic project designed to secure for Iran close ties throughout Asia.

However, in the pursuit of these ties, Iran never was able to live up to its own expectations of itself. What that means is that Iran puts on a brave face about its abilities, such as its ballistic missile and drone program. But its helicopter fleet is aging and many aspects of Iran are still trapped in the past in terms of capabilities.

The rescue effort to find the president and his downed helicopter showcased this. It simply was not the effort one might expect from a powerful country. This is because at its base, Iran survives primarily on the potential of its people, more than it does on the technology that it boasts about.

Raisi was a believer in Iran’s ability to create indigenous industries to build most of the products that Iran needed. This meant not only drones and missiles but also aerospace systems. Back in April 2021, before he became president, Raisi had articulated a policy that supported Iran focusing inward on its own capabilities. He wanted a shift towards Asia, particularly China. He didn’t believe that Iran could find any favors in the West and he was keen to abandon various talks in Vienna and elsewhere geared toward coercing the Europeans to be friends with Iran.

When Raisi came to power he was portrayed in Western media as a “hardliner.” This was mostly a talking point because Iran under Raisi has continued down many of the roads it was already on. However, he also sought to energize or reinvigorate other aspects of Iran’s policy. He came to power after Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani had been killed. Therefore, he didn’t have any outsized personalities who would eclipse his leadership. As such, he could help build an apparatus in charge of Iran that would reflect his own views. This meant that the IRGC would continue to make foreign and military policy for Iran, but in general, its actions would be in line with what Raisi also wanted.

For instance, it was clear when he came to power in August 2021 that he wanted to see increased investment by Iran in the Houthis in Yemen and the Palestinian cause. I wrote about this at the time and noted that these would be his policy goals. We know this came true because on October 7 Hamas launched a massive attack on Israel, killing more Jews in one day than at any time since the Holocaust.

Whether Raisi knew the date of the attack probably is not important. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was in constant contact with the Hamas leadership before and after the attack. Iran’s hand was clearly involved. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian died in the helicopter with Raisi.

By 2022, Raisi’s main goal was to secure an Iran-China agreement and also to increase ties with Russia. In January 2022 he went to Russia to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the time, I noted that he was seeking to capitalize on Moscow’s drive to reshape the world order and that Iran believed this could aid its own push for a “new Middle East.” After Russia invaded Ukraine the Russia-Iran relationship grew exponentially more important. Iran exported its Shahed 136 drones to Russia. These have now become a staple of Iran’s military power in the region.

Raisi faced some challenges at home in 2022. Protests swept Iran after morality police murdered Mahsa Jina Amini in September 2022. She had been arrested allegedly due to deviating from the strict observance of laws requiring women to wear hijabs to cover their hair. The protests continued for months.

Raisi learned through many years of being at the center of Iran’s murderous regime apparatus, that the regime would prevail over time. The regime had dealt with protests in the past. It would wait for them to abate and then crack down. This is exactly what Raisi did.

Raisi’s foreign policy 

One interesting aspect of the Raisi regime was that it sought to dial back its use of Iran lobbyists in the West. Iran had an extensive network of commentators and experts in the West it had worked with over the years prior to Raisi. This was particularly true when Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was at the helm of policy. However, under Raisi and his foreign minister, the Iranian lobbyists in the West were mostly kept at arm’s length. They no longer served much of a purpose. This was because Raisi had calculated that the West no longer mattered.

Raisi’s drive for an eastern policy paid off. China helped Iran reconcile with Saudi Arabia in 2023. The Gulf states also helped Iran bring the Syrian regime back to the Arab League. The Russian need for drones helped cement those ties. Iran, Russia, and China began to increase naval cooperation. Iran also increased outreach to India and also to Central Asia. When the US left Afghanistan, the Iranians could pat themselves on the back for having outlasted the Americans once again.

With the Americans gone, the Western presence between Iran and China was now gone as well. Doha, which had hosted the Taliban and was a friend of Iran, helped bring the Taliban to power in Kabul. In addition, Hamas was hosted in Doha, and through meetings with Hamas, Iran was able to help push for the October 7 attack.

While Raisi may not have masterminded the policy of “uniting the arenas,” it is clear that under his guidance Iran increased its cooperation with various proxies around Israel. Iran was able to get Hezbollah, the Houthis, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas to cooperate more closely. In addition, Iran brought on board militias in Iraq and Syria. Iran had begun increasing the militias attacks in 2019, and Raisi and the IRGC began to use them again in 2023.

In working to unite the arenas it is clear that Iran laid a trap for Israel. Israel was told that Hamas was “deterred” while Iran sought to lay the groundwork for a massive war. While Israel believed it was involved in a “campaign between the wars” in Syria and confronting Iran far from Israel’s borders, Iran brought the war to the heart of Israel. Whether Raisi sat up at night and planned all this is not so important; his foreign minister and the IRGC paved the way for this massive war.

Raisi’s efforts to reconcile with Riyadh and to shift the Middle East toward China and Russia, paved the way for October 7. When Hamas attacked, it was Raisi’s new Middle East that lined up behind Hamas. Russia, and China-backed Hamas. The Iranian proxies brought the war to Israel on seven fronts. As Raisi and his foreign minister hurtled toward that mountainside in northern Iran in the fog, they could rightly take credit for this unprecedented shift in the region. 

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Issues:

China Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Politics and Economy Russia