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07/09/2024 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 07/09/2024 08:31

Can Iran’s New President Change the Regime’s Confrontational Foreign Policy

Can Iran's New President Change the Regime's Confrontational Foreign Policy?

Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Commentary by Daniel BymanandKatherine Trauger

Published July 9, 2024

The election of Masoud Pezeshkian as the president of Iran creates an opportunity, albeit only a limited one, for Iran to move away from its absolutist anti-Western foreign policy. Pezeshkian, a cardiologist, former health minister, and member of the Iranian parliament, defeated the ultraconservative former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in the July 5 runoff election to replace President Ebrahim Raisi following his fatal helicopter crash in late May. Amid an economic downturn and political disenchantment, Pezeshkian's win signals the Iranian public's desire for change. In addition to social and economic promises, Pezeshkian's campaign focused in part on a new foreign policy for Iran, prioritizing the removal of sanctions, which in turn means cutting a deal with the United States. Overtures from Iran's new president should not be rejected even though expectations should be limited given the president's continued subjugation to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has long seen the United States as hostile to Iran and mostly favored a hardline stance.

Foreign Policy Continuity

Iran's system empowers the supreme leader, and this is especially true in foreign policy. The president's official powers are largely confined to domestic issues, with the supreme leader maintaining control over key foreign policy decisions. In addition, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) veterans occupy numerous defense, security, and foreign policy positions, pushing policy in an anti-U.S. and anti-Israel direction.

The April back-and-forth with Israel, the first time the two countries directly and openly attacked each other despite 35 years of enmity, suggests that the regime is more confrontational than in the past. However, under Raisi, Iran was also trying to ease its diplomatic isolation and improve ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. This move, certainly blessed by the supreme leader, will probably continue under President-Elect Pezeshkian.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Pezeshkian emphasized the importance of reviving the Iranian nuclear deal, in part to bolster Iran's flagging economy. However, Khamenei's comments from election week attempted to undercut Pezeshkian's calls for cooperation with the United States on nuclear issues. Offering a thinly veiled warning to Pezeshkian ahead of the first round of elections, Khamenei stated that anyone who believes "all ways to progress" come from the United States should not be supported. Khamenei's rhetoric tempers expectations of renewed cooperation between Iran and the West, despite Pezeshkian's best efforts.

One important shift in Iran's foreign policy over recent years is its improved cooperation with Russia and China following the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Iran has provided military support to Russia, and Russia and Iran have moved closer to each other politically and militarily. Tehran also joined a free trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. Iran is likely counting on greater Russian, and perhaps Chinese, military and economic support as well as diplomatic backing in the future.

Impact of Sanctions on Iran

Iran has been under a wide variety of sanctions due to its nuclear program, support for terrorism, and human rights record. Iran's leaders have long stressed autarky, and it is difficult to disentangle the impact of sanctions versus corruption and general economic mismanagement. When the Trump administration reimposed many sanctions in 2018, Iran's economy cratered, and its oil exports plummeted. The Biden administration has eased some sanctions, but Iran's economy suffers from high inflation (reaching 40 percent in February 2024), even though it has been able to restore most of its oil production. One of the bigger effects of sanctions is indirect: discouraging foreign direct investment in Iran.

Because of the pain of sanctions, removing them has been a priority of Iranian leaders. Khamenei's rhetoric is defiant, but he has allowed other officials to explore opportunities for sanctions relief. As Pezeshkian's election makes clear, the Iranian people also favor efforts to pursue the lifting of sanctions, blaming them for some of Iran's economic pain.

Although sanctions have hurt Iran, there are trade-offs for the United States. Western sanctions have increased incentives for Iran to trade with and otherwise rely on Russia and China. In addition, former U.S. government official Vali Nasr has argued that sanctions have weakened the independent private sector and middle class and enabled the regime to reward its supporters with access to foreign currency and economic opportunities, thus increasing the regime's power vis-à-vis society.

Impact of the U.S. Presidential Election

The 2024 U.S. presidential election may have a greater impact on Iran's foreign policy than Iran's own presidential election. If President Biden is reelected (or if another Democratic leader wins, should Biden step aside), the administration would be likely to pursue a nuclear deal with Iran and try to reduce Iran's destabilization efforts in the Middle East. Politically, however, the Biden administration has found it difficult to move forward with a renewal of the Iran nuclear agreement or other serious negotiations, as this would lead to criticism that the administration is rewarding Iran despite its support for terrorism. Biden might be more willing to expend political capital in a second term to make concessions to Iran, but in general this is unlikely given the overall difficulty of negotiations and his prioritization of Europe and especially Asia over the Middle East.

President Trump and his advisers in the past favored a "maximum pressure" campaign that, as its name suggests, opposes negotiations and favors economic pressure in particular. Trump may also improve U.S.-Russia ties, which would in turn decrease Moscow's incentives to work with Tehran.

Trump, however, may be less likely to provide military support to U.S. Arab allies against Iran. The Biden administration worked closely with Israel, Jordan, and Gulf states to shoot down Iranian drones and missiles when Iran attacked Israel in April 2024. In contrast, Iran attacked Saudi Arabian oil processing facilities in 2019, a target long considered a "red line" for multiple American administrations, and the Trump administration did nothing, infuriating Saudi leaders, who had previously been supportive of Trump. Overall, Trump in his first administration was more skeptical of the use of military force and of involvement in the Middle East outside of support for Israel.

Further restrictions on Iranian oil sales have complications for any U.S. administration. Successful restrictions would increase the overall price of oil at a time when the United States and other countries are sensitive to inflation. In addition, higher oil prices increase revenues for Russia, which is more of a priority under President Biden than is Iran.

Pezeshkian's election is a step in the right direction for Iran, and it is worth testing the waters to see if he is permitted to try to improve relations with the United States and its allies. The new president's power is limited, however, and uncertain U.S. politics also make any significant change in relations less likely.

Daniel Byman is a senior fellow with the Warfare, Irregular Threats, and Terrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Katherine Trauger is an intern with the CSIS Warfare, Irregular Threats, and Terrorism Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2024 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Senior Fellow, Warfare, Irregular Threats, and Terrorism Program

Katherine Trauger

Intern, Warfare, Irregular Threats, and Terrorism Program