Report

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 , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
Iranian president-elect attends his first press conference.
Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi is pictured during his first press conference in Tehran on June 21. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

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. 

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.” 

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 at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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