Dealing with Iran under Raisi

Aug 7, 2021 | AIJAC staff

Ebrahim Raisi, the ultra-hardliner inaugurated as Iran's new President on Thursday (Wikimedia Commons).
Ebrahim Raisi, the ultra-hardliner inaugurated as Iran's new President on Thursday (Wikimedia Commons).

Update from AIJAC

08/21 #01


Hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, known as the “butcher of Teheran” for his role in the mass execution of dissidents in 1988, was inaugurated as Iran’s new President on Thursday, following an election in June which appeared rigged to guarantee his selection. This Update looks at the policy implications of Raisi’s ascension for Western nations dealing with Iran.

We lead with US Iran scholars Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh, who argue that Raisi’s rise to the presidency destroys the belief in Western capitals over the past two decades that the Iranian regime was likely to gradually moderate. They argue that the current US arms control-oriented approach, based around the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal, makes no sense except as part of a larger process which now looks impossible. Given this, they urge the US especially to adopt a different approach focusing on human rights and democracy for Iranians. For their argument in full, CLICK HERE.

Next up is another US scholar who has written extensively about Iran, Dr. Michael Rubin. He argues that Raisi’s election is a signal to end wishful thinking in Western capitals about bolstering Iranian regime moderates against hardliners – which is actually no more than an elaborate game of “good cop-bad cop,” he says. Rubin notes that the only strategy that has worked to restrain the Iranian regime is setting “red lines” and then inflicting serious consequences when they are violated – such as “Operation Praying Mantis” in 1988, when the Iranian navy was hit hard in response to its attacks in the Persian Gulf. For Rubin’s complete discussion,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, Michael Hirsch of Foreign Policy magazine interviews several US policy experts on the implications of the escalating Iranian aggression in the region,  along with Raisi’s inauguration – among them Dennis Ross, Aaron David Miller, Benham Ben Taleblu, and Reuel Marc Gerecht (reprinted in the first piece above). A particular focus of the piece is the attacks on shipping near the Persian Gulf over recent weeks. All the experts agree that aggressive Iranian behaviour is greatly complicating the US Biden Administration’s hopes to pull back from the Middle East – especially as hopes for a renewed JCPOA nuclear deal now appear grim. For the detailed views of all the experts consulted,  CLICK HERE.

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A Breakout Moment for a New Approach to Iran


Neither arms control nor military force is realistic. What would a more practical policy look like?

By Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh

Wall Street Journal, Aug. 4, 2021

Raisi Ascendant: The rise of this new hardliner President shows that the current “arms control” oriented US strategy on Iran is not working, and suggests a new bipartisan policy focusing on human rights and democracy (Photo: Farzad Frames / Shutterstock.com)

Mohammad Khatami, an affable, intellectual cleric who believed in the Islamic revolution but wanted more humanity and democracy in government, unexpectedly won the Iranian presidential election on May 23, 1997. His victory marked the beginning of the Western left’s conviction that the clerical regime was evolving into a less religious and oppressive system.

But that isn’t panning out. Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric renowned for his ruthlessness, became president this week and is the apparent successor to Ali Khamenei as supreme leader. Joe Biden may be forced to answer a question presidents have preferred to avoid: Would Washington use force to stop the development of Iranian nuclear weapons? American presidents since 2002, when the Islamic Republic’s clandestine atomic program was revealed, have declared that Iran’s possessing such arms is unacceptable.

President Biden appears unprepared to unleash the U.S. Air Force, and the administration can’t plausibly argue that opening up more trade hurts the theocracy’s aggressive, Islamist ambitions. This leaves few options beyond economic penalties. The White House probably doesn’t appreciate the irony of its now reportedly contemplating leveling more sanctions on Tehran to coerce Mr. Khamenei to re-enter the nuclear deal, after Mr. Biden and his Iran team derided the sanctions diplomacy of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, with its sunset clauses and nonchalance about aggressive inspections, made sense as an arms-control agreement if the accord was merely one step in a process. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has, in his own way, stated exactly this, endorsing the need to make the agreement “longer, stronger, broader.” That wouldn’t be necessary if the JCPOA actually stopped, as former Secretary of State John Kerry put it, “all pathways” to the bomb and did something about the theocracy’s ballistic missiles and imperialism.

Messrs. Raisi and Khamenei have made it crystal clear, however, there will be no follow-on talks. By rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, Washington would at best be giving tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief to the clerical regime for a short-term fix. Iran has already started building advanced centrifuges; with the JCPOA, Tehran can build 400 advanced machines in two years and put rotors into them in four. Even as a mechanism to kick the can down the road, the nuclear deal no longer makes much sense.

Mohammad Khatami, the affable, intellectual cleric who was elected as Iran’s President in 1997, and helped create a Western belief since then that the Iranian regime was moving in a more moderate direction. Raisi’s ascension shows this has not happened. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons). 

It would be less strategically damning, and probably more intellectually honest, for Mr. Biden and his senior advisers to admit, at least to themselves, that the White House isn’t going to stop Tehran from getting the bomb—barring an outrageous Iranian misstep that provokes the U.S. to attack. Admitting that neither diplomacy nor war is an option for this administration would free Washington from being extorted. It would allow Mr. Biden to advance a far more moral and practical foreign policy against an egregious human-rights-violating regime that has spread sectarian conflict throughout the Middle East.

Letting go of arms control won’t be easy for a Democratic president, but it wouldn’t necessarily be politically dangerous. In 2015, when President Obama lambasted those who opposed the deal as warmongers, many Republicans dodged the issue of using force, preferring to stress the need for coercive diplomacy and a “good” deal. Today, many on the right appear to want to pass responsibility for militarily thwarting Tehran’s atomic aspirations to the Israelis, who surely would prefer that Washington retain that burden.

If the Biden administration walked away from counterproductive diplomacy and challenged the GOP to do something beyond the sanctions the White House would keep, it would force Republicans to debate what they really are prepared to do to stop nuclear proliferation in the Persian Gulf.

Without arms control dictating policy, a new bipartisan consensus—focused on human rights and support to the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people—might develop. Republicans who tried to argue against such moralistic interventionism or who said, à la Mr. Trump, that they could deliver a better deal would seem short-sighted and naive—a nice jujitsu move for Democrats. The left could play to history: As the Soviet Union discovered, possessing nuclear weapons doesn’t stop dictatorial rot or the allure of freedom.

The president could handle the progressive left, which is deeply uncomfortable with most measures against Iran. Keeping sanctions on a theocracy that is directly complicit in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands and the dislocation of millions of civilians in Syria surely isn’t a political loser. Since sanctions became serious in 2018, Iran has seen major demonstrations without protesters venting against America. The clerical regime views these protests as potential rebellions; we should, too.

The Biden administration says it wants to amp up the U.S. commitment to democratic values abroad. The biggest potential return on investment is in Iran. Mr. Khamenei’s selection of Mr. Raisi should tell the White House it has nothing now to lose by trying.

Mr. Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Mr. Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Last Shah: America, Iran and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty.”

If Biden doesn’t define a red line on Iran, Americans will die

by Michael Rubin

Washington Examiner, August 05, 2021 05:55 AM

Raisi has “blood on his hands” from the 1988 massacre of thousands of Iranian dissidents – and remains an uncompromising revolutionary, according to Rubin (Photo: Amnesty International). 

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei inaugurated Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s new president on Tuesday. On Thursday, Raisi takes office.

This is not good news.

Raisi is an uncompromising revolutionary with blood on his hands: In 1988, he was among those who orchestrated the mass murder of thousands of political dissidents. Those who heard him speak during his February 2021 visit to Baghdad describe a firebrand whose rhetoric and worldview remain firmly ensconced in the early days when revolutionary death squads patrolled Iranian streets — days when dozens went to the gallows or stood before the firing squads each night.

Raisi may lack polish, but his disdain for America is consistent with those who came before him. The only real difference between the Islamic Republic’s reformers and hard-liners is of style and not substance.

The late President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations viewed as a moderate, was the father of post-revolutionary Iran’s nuclear program. While former President Mohammad Khatami publicly spoke about a “Dialogue of Civilizations,” his administration privately presided over nuclear warhead work and the covert construction of enrichment plants. While an assistant to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Jake Sullivan began the nuclear negotiations. Sullivan believed that with sanctions relief and financial reward, he could not only win nuclear concessions but bolster reformers over hard-liners. In reality, the Iranians duped him and later Secretary of State John Kerry with an elaborate game of good cop-bad cop.

Their wishful thinking was costly.

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear accord was a bad deal that reversed decades of nonproliferation precedent such as the agreements that ended South Africa’s and Libya’s nuclear deals. Iranian negotiators understood Kerry to be desperate for a deal. Never once during negotiations did he define the best alternative to a negotiated agreement nor signal a real willingness to walk away from the table. Kerry’s weakness convinced the Iranian leadership that America had no red lines. This emboldened Iranian negotiators to up their demands and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps simultaneously to increase its efforts to destabilize the region.

History shows that success against Iran requires red lines.

For almost a decade, Iranian revolutionaries rode high on their humiliation of the United States. They overran the U.S. Embassy, and President Jimmy Carter rewarded them for it with both financial and diplomatic concessions. President Ronald Reagan initially was not much better. Not only did his withdrawal of Marines from Lebanon after the 1983 barracks bombing demonstrate to Iran, and a young Osama Bin Laden, that terrorism worked, but his arms-for-hostages scheme incentivized more kidnappings. It was only in 1988 when Reagan launched Operation Praying Mantis, and sank much of the Iranian navy, that Iranian leaders reconsidered their aggression.

Iranian leaders have long forgotten the lessons of 1988. For all his tough rhetoric, George W. Bush let Iran quite literally get away with murder in Iraq. Quds Force Chief Qassem Soleimani killed Americans with impunity and grew arrogant: His photographs from Syria and Iraq circulated widely on Twitter. He taunted America with not only words but also deeds. Former President Donald Trump ended all that with a January 2020 drone strike. Iran blustered but ultimately understood it could do little.

That has changed under President Joe Biden. Iraqi officials tell me that Tehran calculates that Biden will never respond like Trump. He might order symbolic strikes on peripheral targets, but it’s nothing they cannot weather. In effect, it is open season on Americans. It is just a matter of time before Iran or its proxies land a lucky shot and kill a dozen Americans or snatch new American hostages off the streets of Baghdad, Erbil, or Sulaymani. The same lack of fear encourages Iran’s recent assaults on shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

As dangerous as the region is now, it is about to become more so.

US scholar and author  Dr. Michael Rubin: “History shows that success against Iran requires red lines” (Photo: AEI)

Raisi is Iran’s unrepentant bad cop. He does not care about image, and his revolutionary rhetoric is not for show. Meanwhile, both White House press secretary Jen Psaki and Iran envoy Rob Malley signal that nothing can distract Biden’s team from misguided diplomacy. No outrage will lead it to take its eyes off the false prize.

Wars in the Middle East are caused not by oil or water but by overconfidence. Biden’s refusal to define red lines will condemn his diplomacy to failure. It will encourage Iran to adopt more extreme positions and Iran’s belief that it faces no accountability for any provocation. It will thus encourage more provocations.

Until Biden takes a page from Reagan and Trump, defines a red line, and hits the Iranian regime where it hurts, it will be inevitable that more Americans die.

Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Raisi Will Yank Biden Back Into the Middle East


Iran’s new president is ruthless and seems set on putting the United States back on a trajectory of mutual escalation.

By Michael Hirsh

Foreign Policy. AUGUST 4, 2021

US President Joe Biden (r) and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken (l): Their efforts to minimise US involvement in the Middle East are being challenged by a growing Iranian willingness to escalate (Photo:  Flickr | License details)

Even before Thursday’s swearing-in of Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s incoming, hard-line president, the Islamic Republic was escalating hostilities on several fronts in the Middle East. Now Tehran is only likely to get more aggressive, experts say, and that means U.S. President Joe Biden—like so many of his predecessors—may not get his wish to downgrade the region’s strategic importance.

In recent weeks, Iran has walked away from the nuclear bargaining table in Vienna, making impossible demands as it left the room; launched drone attacks on U.S targets and a ship in the Persian Gulf; and, some analysts suspect, engaged in piracy. On Tuesday, an armed group the United States, United Kingdom, and Israel suspected worked for Iran briefly hijacked a Panama-flagged ship in the Gulf of Oman, and then apparently abandoned the effort. (Iran denied responsibility.)

Less than a week before, Israeli officials said an oil tanker operated by an Israeli-owned company was attacked by what appeared to be several Iranian drones off Oman, killing two security guards, one of them British and the other Romanian.

Tehran’s aggressive behavior is part of a pattern that may have begun in 2019, with then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision not to attack Iran for shooting down an U.S. surveillance drone. It is also likely a response to Biden’s strong signals that he wants a return to the 2015 nuclear pact, partly to clear the way for a greater strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific and the threat from China.

“Over the past year or so, Iran has signaled an increasing comfort with escalation and conflict, a comfort fed in part by the perception that America is a waning power in the Middle East with no appetite for conflict,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a right-leaning think tank.

Despite launching a second set of airstrikes last month, Biden has indicated he wants to de-escalate in Iraq as well as Afghanistan. In a meeting last week, Biden told Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi that U.S. combat troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by the year’s end, although U.S. forces serving in noncombat roles—like trainers, advisors, and providers of intelligence to Iraq’s security forces—would remain. Also this week, Biden administration officials argued in favor of repealing the 2002 authorization for the Iraq War.

But Biden’s efforts to minimize involvement recall an old irony in U.S. diplomacy: Just about every U.S. administration for decades has sought to avoid the Middle East mire and focus on more manageable threats elsewhere, but that tends to make things worse as aggressors in the region grow more aggressive.

“You may think you can ignore the Middle East, but it doesn’t ignore you,” said longtime Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross. “So isn’t it better for you to shape your involvement rather than have the region shape involvement for you?” Or as Ross’s former U.S. State Department colleague Aaron David Miller is fond of saying, the Middle East can be summed up by a line from the Eagles song “Hotel California”: “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

In May, Biden said he was removing two batteries of Patriot missiles and fighter aircraft from Saudi Arabia, and the administration is also reportedly pulling Patriots as well as hundreds of troops from Kuwait and Jordan—all part of a Trump-era buildup to counter Iran. But diplomats familiar with the Biden team’s thinking say the administration has begun to reassure worried allies, such as the Saudis and Israelis, that despite the U.S. desire for withdrawal, they will remain engaged and respond to Iran forcefully. “There is more of a readiness to impose a price on the Iranians for their behavior in the region,” said Ross, who is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Twice already, Biden has ordered airstrikes on sites used by Iran-backed militias. Early last month, U.S. diplomats and troops in Iraq and Syria were targeted in three rocket and drone attacks in an apparent Iranian response.

An administration official did not immediately return a call asking for comment.

Many Middle East experts are in agreement that despite Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s desire to escape U.S. and international sanctions by returning to some version of the 2015 nuclear deal, his greater need is to strengthen the regime. And for Tehran, anti-U.S. hostility has always worked as the best ideological glue. Khamenei has installed a brutal protégé in Raisi who, as a judge, presided over the executions of thousands of dissidents in the late 1980s and was raised to the presidency in a rigged election. The 60-year-old Raisi is seen as the optimal enforcer who will seek to crush dissent at home with more aggression over the border.

“The ascension of Raisi is likely to mean more than a few sleepless nights for the Biden Administration,” said Miller, who is now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “While the prospects of a major war between Israel and Iran remain low—for now, the prospects of serious clashes in any number of fronts via proxies and directly will increase substantially.”

Taleblu said the new regime in Tehran sees no more need for a “pretense of moderation” since “Khamenei already sees the West getting out of Iran’s way.” Raisi’s presidency “is a tool to cement Khamenei’s legacy: enmity with the West, proxy wars in the near abroad, and staying on the revolutionary path through force at home.”

Longtime Middle East mediator Dennis Ross: “You may think you can ignore the Middle East, but it doesn’t ignore you. So isn’t it better for you to shape your involvement rather than have the region shape involvement for you?” ( Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Those attitudes, in turn, are likely to make any return to the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, even harder. The Khamenei and Raisi team is “prone to the kind of overreach that would put Iran and the U.S. back on a trajectory of mutual escalation, reminiscent of the early years of [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s presidency,” said Ali Vaez, a former close associate of the U.S. lead nuclear negotiator, Robert Malley, at the International Crisis Group.

Indeed the greatest concern, perhaps, is that the hawkish Raisi, considered the heir apparent to Khamenei, will take matters back a decade or more to square one, when Iran began dramatically upgrading its nuclear program under Ahmadinejad in the late 2000s. Only now, Tehran has a much faster “breakout” time to build a bomb.

“Raisi wasn’t selected to open Iran to the world or slow down the nuclear program; Khamenei picked him to fortify the theocracy and stamp out nefarious Western influences,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer and an expert on Iran who takes a hawkish view. “They don’t want a serious accord with the West.” Despite the devastating effect of the sanctions, he added, the regime’s leaders “see themselves as much stronger now than they were in 2015, 2017, or 2019. They are ready for a fight. We are not. Advantage: Khamenei.”

Biden officials are still holding out hope that a seventh round of nuclear negotiations will begin under Raisi, who, in a speech earlier this week, said he would seek to get sanctions lifted to address Iran’s 47.6 percent inflation rate and high unemployment problem. But ominously, he added he won’t “tie” his policy “to the will of foreigners.”

Prospects for the deal’s restoration “look grimmer by the day,” Vaez said. U.N. inspectors no longer can see what Tehran is doing, and the regime is increasing its breakout time by months with new enrichment and updated technologies. Tehran is also asking the impossible of Washington: that the Americans guarantee no future U.S. president will withdraw from the pact as Trump did.

“Iran seems confident that time is on its side and it can secure wider concessions from the U.S. on the assumption that Iran’s leverage can be increased more quickly than the West’s capacity for additional financial pain or appetite for military action,” Vaez said.

Iran has tempered a bit by launching talks with Saudi Arabia over the two sides’ proxy war in Yemen, but Riyadh doesn’t believe they will bear much fruit, said Ross, who just returned from a weeklong trip to Saudi Arabia. “They have no expectations about dialogue with the Iranians. They don’t see any real change in Iran’s behavior.”

Hard-liners like Gerecht say the Biden administration should abandon any illusions about the Raisi era and refocus attention on regime change. According to Tehran’s own official figures, turnout in the June 18 election was 48.8 percent, the lowest in any presidential race since the 1979 revolution. Iran is also experiencing popular protests that are wider in geographic and demographic scale and scope than years past.

“We know for a fact that the level of internal discontent—anger toward the theocracy—is sky high,” Gerecht said. “The White House says it wants to amp up democratic values abroad. There is no better place to try than in the Islamic Republic. What does it have to lose now?”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.



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