Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei speaking at a ceremony marking the 35th anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death, who was the founder of the Islamic Republic, Tehran, June 3, 2024

Khamenei's Presidential Roulette: Iran's Future Foreign Policy Wager

Wednesday, 06/05/2024

The prevailing consensus among Iranian analysts abroad is that President Ebrahim Raisi's death is unlikely to impact Tehran’s political and economic policies, as these are ultimately directed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Previous administrations, including those of Presidents Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Khatami, have achieved some advancements in foreign policy, suggesting a slight potential for change in this area.

During Rouhani's tenure, Supreme Leader Khamenei demonstrated flexibility by agreeing to the JCPOA. Similarly, during Khatami’s era (1997-2005), his de-escalation policy resulted in a reduction of the regime's terror activities in Europe, a move that Khamenei did not oppose.

Although elections in Iran are widely known to be engineered, some still speculate whether the next presidential administration might create an opportunity for change in foreign policy and revitalize the stagnant nuclear negotiations.

Several candidates who have registered for the election have addressed this issue, presenting foreign policy stances that differ somewhat from those of President Raisi and his hard-line Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who also died in the May 19 helicopter crash.

Ali Larijani, a close associate of Rouhani's previous administration and the Parliamentary Speaker who approved the JCPOA in just 20 minutes, has expressed the need for a shift in Iran's foreign policy direction. Should he be able to pass the Guardian Council's “filtering process”, he may be able to expedite negotiations and reduce tensions between the Biden administration and Tehran.

When Larijani registered for the presidential election, he stated that "to cross the obstacles, we have to rise above the outdated methods." Kayhan, the most hardline newspaper in Tehran, interpreted this as a critique of the Raisi administration's foreign policy. In response, Kayhan criticized the JCPOA and the influence of the US and UK, calling the agreement and the process of aligning with it "the height of humiliation; the lowest height." While Larijani was advocating for a new approach to foreign policy, Kayhan defended the current administration's hardline stance and dismissed any return to the JCPOA as degrading.

The other candidate in the upcoming election, Saeed Jalili, has previously confronted Ali Larijani over nuclear negotiations. Unofficial reports from a 2022 special meeting of the Expediency Council, which have not been denied, indicate that Jalili proposed Iran's withdrawal from the NPT. This proposal was opposed by Ali Larijani, Sadegh Larijani, and Ali Shamkhani.

Recently, nuclear negotiations have reportedly been entrusted to Ali Shamkhani, based on unofficial reports that have not been refuted. This would suggest that Saeed Jalili is not a suitable candidate to advance the state of Iran’s current foreign policy.

Should Ali Khamenei seek to continue negotiations with the 5+1, albeit not in the same manner as Saeed Jalili during his tenure as Secretary of the National Security Council, it could enhance the likelihood of Ali Larijani's qualification being confirmed by the Guardian Council. This development could also affect the council's credibility, considering its prior rejection of Larijani's candidacy in 2021. Such scenarios underscore the intricate interplay between foreign policy and domestic politics.

Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also registered to run again. Given his prior disqualifications, however, it is likely that the Guardian Council will disqualify him once more – rendering any shifts in his previous stances less impactful. Historically, Ahmadinejad opposed negotiations aimed at a nuclear deal with the United States, which led to his exclusion from discussions held by Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, with American officials in Oman in 2012.

Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who registered as a presidential candidate shortly after assuming the position of Speaker of the Parliament, has made numerous statements about the nuclear negotiations and the JCPOA that are inconsistent and unclear. Therefore, it is unlikely that his administration would bring about significant changes in Iran's nuclear policy.

For instance, After the Majles' general approval of the "Strategic Action to Cancel Sanctions and Protect the Interests of the Iranian Nation" Act, he stated, "The parliament gave this message to the enemies of Islamic Iran that the one-sided game is over.” However, he later changed his position, saying, "Every fair person considers the success of the diplomatic system as the basis of the country's pride," following the approval of the JCPOA.

When Es'haq Jahangiri registered as a presidential candidate, he promised to lift the sanctions on Iran. Achieving that goal, however, would require accelerating nuclear negotiations.

Jahangiri's preferred policy approach was similar to that of former Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and President Rouhani during the first and second years of Biden's presidency, which aimed at engaging in diplomatic efforts to ease sanctions. Despite their efforts, this approach faced strong opposition from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and ultimately did not succeed in lifting the sanctions or achieving significant results.

Regarding Iran’s now-deceased President Ebrahim Raisi, the Supreme Leader’s decision in 2021 was straightforward: Raisi was a loyal follower whose allegiance was unquestioned. That confidence led to the ultimate disqualification of several other presidential candidates, ensuring Raisi's selection.

In the current political landscape, Khamenei confronts a more intricate scenario in selecting the next suitable president. He can no longer simply support a single, loyal candidate without risking significant pushback or future complications.

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