What we Know and Should Expect from Iran’s New President

By Kenneth Dekleva

Dr. Kenneth Dekleva is a former physician-diplomat with the U.S. State Dept. and Professor of Psychiatry and Director, Psychiatry-Medicine Integration, UT Southwestern Medical Center and senior Fellow, George HW Bush Foundation for US-China Relations.  He is the author of two novels, The Negotiator's Cross and The Last ViolinistThe views expressed are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government, State Dept., or UT Southwestern Medical Center.

Dr. Kenneth Dekleva served as a Regional Medical Officer/Psychiatrist (including 5 years at the U.S. Embassy Moscow, Russian Federation and 2 years at the U.S. Embassy New Delhi, India) with the U.S. Dept. of State during 2002-2016, and is currently Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Director, Psychiatry-Medicine Integration, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX.

OPINION — The recent election and inauguration of Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s newest President has cast a spotlight on both him and Iran, as he manages multiple leadership challenges during his transition.  These include Iran’s regional adventurism, state sponsorship of terrorism, aggression in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and most recently, the drone attack on an Israeli oil tanker in the Gulf; economic setbacks due to sanctions and corruption; the government’s laggard response to COVID-19; and Iran’s negotiations in Vienna, Austria, regarding the JCPOA.

Raisi is a long-time hardliner, former prosecutor, Attorney General, and Chief Justice who has amassed a brutal, ruthless human-rights record for his roles in the mass executions of dissidents in 1988 and the purge of protesters in Iran’s green protests of 2009.  In 2019, he was sanctioned by the Trump administration.  Raisi has been, and remains, close to Iran’s IRGC leadership, and is the heir apparent and protégé of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who at age 82, struggles with late-stage prostate cancer.  Despite Raisi’s public posture, he has held no prior executive leadership positions, and little is known about how he will govern Iran, as it transitions from a civilizational [Islamic] state to a modern nation state.  While his past judicial actions suggest an authoritarian decision-making style, and one totally in line with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Rule of the Jurist (Velayat-e Faqih), recent events highlight a possible pragmatism and adaptability in Raisi’s leadership style.  This appears to align with Iran’s ongoing shift towards regional and Great Power politics in central Asia, now likely accelerated given the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan after 20 years of war.

Raisi’s road to power was, like many leaders, shaped by tragedy and revolution.  He lost his father (who was a cleric, and descendant of the Prophet) at the age of 6, but later followed in his footsteps, enrolling in seminary in Qom as an adolescent.  He took part in anti-Shah protests and joined the young, conservative clerics who made up Ayatollah Khomeni’s base of power in 1979.  Little is known about his family, except that his wife (who holds a PhD in philosophy) is an associate professor at Shahid Beheshti University; they have 2 daughters, one with a Phd in sociology and other with a BSc in physics.  His father-in-law (also an Ayatollah) leads the Friday prayers in Mashad.  Raisi rose quickly through the ranks as a prosecutor, becoming deputy prosecutor in Teheran at age 25, where he sat on the notorious tribunal known as the ‘Death Committee,’ which sentenced thousands of dissidents and activists to death.  Raisi has subsequently publicly defended these actions and those of the tribunal.

In 2016, Supreme Leader Khamenei named Raisi the custodian of one of Iran’s largest religious foundations, the Astan-e Quds-e Razavi, which manages shrines, and has holdings in the construction, energy, agriculture, real estate, and telecommunications.  Of note, these are the same industries in which Iran’s IRGC – its deep state within a state – has vast holdings and immense patronage.  In this sense, given his earlier roles and his new role as President, Raisi is the face of Iran, both of its deep state and its legitimate state, in addition to his close links to the Supreme Leader.

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While observers focused on attribution regarding the IRGC’s purported drone attack on an Israeli oil tanker, they failed to notice Raisi’s first diplomatic meeting, with India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.  Jaishankar, who had previously served as a diplomat and Ambassador to America, Russia, and China, as well as serving as the key negotiator in the 2006 US-India civilian nuclear deal, is the perfect man for such a delicate mission.  In addition, Jaishankar brought greetings from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to newly inaugurated President Raisi.  Jaishankar spoke of India’s desire to strengthen bilateral relations with Iran (as a counterweight to Pakistan), as well as mentioning the convergence in their region al interests.  It would be convenient and easy to dismiss this as diplomatic politesse.  But Raisi’s meeting with Jaishankar highlights Iran’s nuanced approach and willingness to expand its diplomatic footprint beyond the ‘Shia Crescent,’ and to establish itself as a regional player in south and central Asia.

If Raisi plays his hand well, Iran can become a key participant in the 21st-century version of the Great Game, but now involving India, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and China.  And Iran – under President Raisi – has taken its latest tentative steps in this game, its own version of a peripheral doctrine, looking to the east, to diplomatically counter a waning American presence in the Middle East and central Asia.  Iran has shown such abilities before, especially during the Bosnian war, when it shipped arms to Bosnia’s Muslim-led government, as well as supplying intelligence, material, logistical support, and social/healthcare support through various charities.  This too, is part of Iran’s soft power, embedded in its more tactical and strategic asymmetric warfare, highlighted by the IRGC’s muscular role in the Shia Crescent.

The Jaishankar-Raisi meeting – his first official meeting as President – showcases a different side of Raisi.  There may be more to Raisi than first appearances.  The fact that he would meet with the foreign minister of one of America’s closest allies speaks volumes about his outlook, worldview, and confidence.  Obviously, such a meeting had the Supreme Leader’s blessing.  It may represent an important signal, even an opening, possibly hinting at Iran’s desire to shift to diplomacy, realizing that its gray zone tactics have failed to lift sanction or to better the daily lives of the Iranian people.  Raisi is now President, but he’s also a likely successor as Supreme Leader.  And so other leaders and high-level diplomats will now court Raisi, seeking their opening moves in the Great Game.  But the Raisi-Jaishankar meeting highlights the possible re-emergence of India – and its powerful Prime Minister Narendra Modi – as a powerful regional player in a multipolar world, as expressed in Jaishankar’s fascinating new book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World. But that is another tale, for another time.

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