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HomeMiddle EastFACTSHEET—Foreign Policy Views of Iran’s Presidential Candidates

FACTSHEET—Foreign Policy Views of Iran’s Presidential Candidates

Iran’s presidential elections will be held on Friday June 18th, 2021. Disqualification of several reformist and centrist candidates by the country’s Guardian Council provoked strong reactions within public opinion. The final list of candidates includes five conservatives (referred to as the Principlist Faction) and two lesser-known centrist and reformist figures.

Iran’s foreign policy and national defense strategy are crafted and reviewed by the country’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and require ultimate approval from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Per the Islamic Republic’s constitution, the Supreme Leader is both the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and retains final say over national security. Nevertheless, Iran’s President serves as the head of the SNSC, while playing a key role in translating Iran’s grand strategic priorities into workable policies and overseeing their implementation through the foreign and defense ministries. Historically, elected entities and their appointed officials have influenced the decision-making process within the SNSC and other higher decision making bodies of the Islamic Republic as demonstrated by President Rouhani’s significant influence in the nuclear negotiations.  

Therefore, the foreign policy positions of Iran’s next president will have implications for the national security strategy of the Islamic Republic which cannot be dismissed. This IPD factsheet briefly explains and contextualizes the foreign policy views of all the Iranian presidential candidates based on their stated policy positions, their track record, and political affiliations.

Ebrahim Raisi

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s head of judiciary, is the front-runner in Iran’s presidential election. He has endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Despite his past criticism of Iran’s negotiating approach during the 2013-2015 nuclear talks, in his 2017 presidential election campaign, Raisi said that “Barjam (JCPOA) is a national document and must be respected by all.” He also argued that the nuclear agreement “is a blank check that needs to be cashed” and criticized the government of Hassan Rouhani for what he claimed to be JCPOA shortcomings in bringing economic benefits for the country.

A leader of the Principlist faction, Raisi is expected to employ a more assertive rhetoric vis-a-vis the United States and its European and Middle Eastern partners. Nevertheless, it is likely that he will continue Iran’s overarching policy of preserving the nuclear deal in exchange for sanctions relief as this is the stated position of the Supreme Leader.

More recently, the candidate has stated that once in office, he will continue the ongoing nuclear talks with the West. Alireza Afshar, a senior member of Ebrahim Raisi’s presidential campaign, noted that the conservative candidate believes in continuing the nuclear agreement, while approaching it as a “marginal matter that mustn’t be tied to national problems.” In other words, while Raisi will welcome the lifting of sanctions, his rhetoric will be more inward-oriented, focusing on reviving “domestic production”, a key slogan of Ayatollah Khamenei’s “resistance” doctrine. Moreover, instead of primarily focusing on relations with the West, Raisi has pledged to prioritize relations with Iran’s regional partners. From a broader perspective, in order to counterbalance Iran’s damaged relations with the West, Raisi favors deeper military, economic, and political engagement with Iran’s non-Western counterparts, particularly China and Russia.

On regional dialogue, it is believed that Raisi will also endorse the ongoing security talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as negotiations have been headed by the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), the country’s highest national security authority. On other contentious issues, Raisi will be less inclined to negotiate on a follow-on agreement, as Iran’s political establishment has so far been reluctant to endorse a JCPOA 2.0 agreement. However, the final decision about follow-on negotiations is expected to be made in the SNSC and by Ayatollah Khamenei himself, and it may largely depend on the success of current nuclear negotiations and the economic dividends Iran expects to see from sanctions removal.

Another contentious issue for Iran’s national security establishment has been on compliance with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) standards, which has garnered vigorous debate in Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council. As an ex officio member of the Council, Raisi voted for Iran to delay the full implementation of FATF protocols. However, it is likely that after the revival of the JCPOA and subsequent lifting of sanctions, his administration will comply with FATF terms to ease Iran’s access to the international banking system. Moreover, the Raisi administration is expected to oppose limits on the country’s missile program and assert that it is a major component of Iran’s defensive capability.

If elected, a Raisi administration will spearhead a different national security and foreign policy team in future potential negotiations with the West. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a seasoned career diplomat, is the most likely candidate for assuming a key role in the new administration’s foreign policy and geopolitical decision-making. Amir-Abdollahian was the lead negotiator in the 2005 U.S.-Iran talks over Iraq’s political stability, which included three rounds of intense discussions. Amir-Abdollahian has extensive experience in regional diplomacy and has taken a leading role in developing the country’s regional policies. It was previously reported that Rouhani and Zarif pushed Amir-Abdollahian out of the Foreign Ministry, after he had served as Zarif’s deputy for Arab and African Affairs during Rouhani’s first term in office.

In addition, Mahdi Mohammadi—a former nuclear negotiator and current advisor to Iran’s conservative speaker of Parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; and Ali Bagheri Kani—former top diplomat in the nuclear talks and current deputy of the judiciary’s international affairs department, are both candidates for senior positions within Raisi’s foreign policy and national security team.

Abdol-Naser Hemmati

Abdolnaser Hemmati, the former head of the Iranian Central Bank during the Rouhani administration, is the leading centrist candidate in Iran’s presidential election. Hemmati has fully endorsed the JCPOA, while praising the efforts of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s current Minister of Foreign Affairs, who negotiated the agreement with the P5+1.

He has pledged to fully implement the JCPOA and use its economic dividends to boost the country’s development. He has also intimated that the overarching policy of his administration will be “de-escalation” with the West.

Recently, Hemmati went so far as to express his willingness to meet with President Biden, conditional on the United States sending “better and stronger signals” to the Islamic Republic. He believes that Biden has not made a serious effort to revive the nuclear agreement, stating that once the nuclear agreement (i.e., JCPOA) is revived and confidence building measures are adopted, there will be room to discuss other issues with Washington. However, as stated earlier, the ultimate decision-maker on the future of negotiations with the West is the SNSC and the Supreme Leader of Islamic Republic.

Moreover, Hemmati has stated that he aims to forge strategic relations with the three major non-Western powers: China, Russia, and India. It is worth noting that prior to being appointed as Iran’s top banking official, Hemmati briefly served as Iran’s ambassador to China. Hemmati has also prioritized regional dialogue and fully endorsed Saudi-Iran security talks, expressing his hopes for stronger and warmer relations with Riyadh. He noted that his government will not view Saudi Arabia and UAE as enemies and has previously strongly criticized those responsible for attacking the Saudi embassy in 2016.

The one area that Hemmati has clearly broken with Raisi is with respect to the FATF debate, where Hemmati has criticized the Expediency Council for failing to approve the international protocols. Instead, he contends that complying with FATF terms will be critical for the country’s economic well-being, arguing that as long as Tehran remains under FATF blacklist, even China and Iraq (that are considered close partners of Iran) will be hesitant to engage in financial transactions with Iran. During the presidential debates, Hemmati accused his conservative opponents, who opposed the implementation of FATF, of playing into Trump’s hands. Lastly, Hemmati has also defended Iran’s missile program, maintaining that he too will refuse Western calls for placing limits on the country’s defensive capabilities.

If elected, a Hemmati administration is expected to retain the current foreign policy team. Most specifically, Hemmati has stated that he hopes to continue working with Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Saeed Jalili

Update: Saeed Jalili announced his decision to withdraw his candidacy on June 16.

Saeed Jalili, Ayatollah Khamenei’s representative to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, is a conservative candidate running for presidency. From 2007 to 2013, Jalili was Iran’s lead negotiator with the P5+1. During this period, Iran-West tensions escalated rapidly, when the Obama administration formed a multilateral sanctions regime at the UN Security Council (UNSC) against Iran’s nuclear program.

While conservatives praise his assertive approach in refusing Western demands, reformists blame Jalili and former President Ahmadinejad for the formation of a multilateral consensus at the UNSC against Iran. During the negotiations, Western diplomats who met Jalili, then the deputy foreign minister, alleged that he tended to voice “strongly held views and stuck firmly to his position” noting that he was more interested in “monologue” rather than debate. Jalili was a serious critic of President Rouhani’s more conciliatory approach to the West in the nuclear talks post-2013.

Following the conclusion of the nuclear talks and the signing of the JCPOA, Jalili criticized the agreement as weak and ineffective in lifting sanctions on Iran. However, in his recent remarks, Jalili has stated that he is not, in principle, opposed to negotiating with the West. He has argued for “neutralizing” the US-led sanctions regime by focusing on domestic capabilities and alternative trade mechanisms, such as utilizing the barter system. On FATF, Jalili has argued that complying with the organization’s terms will not bear economic fruits, thus opposing implementation of FATF protocols.

If elected, Jalili is expected to strongly oppose negotiations on a follow-on agreement and to adopt a tougher stance on regional matters. Prioritizing the national security significance of Iran’s missile program, he is expected to also rule out any compromise over Iran’s military capabilities in line with other Principlists.

Mohsen Rezaei

Mohsen Rezaei, the former Head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the current secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council, is another conservative politician running for presidency. He has stated that once he assumes office, the West will be inclined to return to the JCPOA. Boasting his economics degree, Rezaei has emphasized the importance of economic diplomacy, pledging to “activate” the economic sections of Iran’s embassies across the world to secure relief from U.S. sanctions.

Despite Rezaei’s decision to delay the implementation process of FATF protocols within the Expediency Council, his close advisor, Darvish-ali Karimi, has stated that Rezaei has no reservations against engaging the “entire world”, if mutual interests are respected and addressed. Moreover, Rezaei is expected to refuse any concessions over Iran’s ballistic missile program, and it is unlikely for him to support a follow-on agreement with the P5+1. Mohsen Rezaei has been widely criticized for his rhetorical posturing against the United States. During the first presidential debate, Hemmati criticized Rezaei for suggesting that Iran should take American soldiers hostage. Rezaei claimed that his remarks were taken out of context, and that they were meant in response to US military threats against Iran.

If elected, given Rezaei’s staunch criticism of the Rouhani administration’s negotiating strategy, it is likely that Rezaei will replace Mohammad Javad Zarif with a more conservative figure.

Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi

Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, Iran’s current deputy speaker of Parliament, is a conservative politician running for presidency. Similar to other Principlists, He too has expressed his willingness to implement the JCPOA and pursue ongoing nuclear talks with the P5+1. However, he has also argued for “neutralizing” sanctions, rather than solely focusing on lifting sanctions through negotiations with the West.

Ghazizadeh Hashemi has stated that an ideal foreign policy team needs to be educated in international law, and that an ideal foreign minister ought to be an “international businessman.” He has also pledged to prioritize engagement with the Iranian diaspora. He has emphasized pursuing closer relations, particularly economic ties, with Iran’s closest neighbors. In line with fellow Principlists, Ghazizadeh Hashemi has also opposed concessions over Iran’s ballistic missile program.

If elected, Ghazizadeh Hashemi is expected to replace Mohammad Javad Zarif with a more conservative foreign policy official.

Mohsen Mehr-Alizadeh

Mohsen Merhalizadeh, the former governor of Iran’s Isfahan Province and a former Vice President of the reformist Khatami administration, was the only reformist candidate running for the presidency. However, he was unable to attract popular support among voters including in the reformist camp and officially announced his decision to drop out of the race on June 16, 2021.

Alireza Zakani

Zakani, a conservative candidate, dropped out of the presidential race on June 14, 2021, endorsing the frontrunner Ebrahim Raisi.


Image credits:

Header: Iran’s presidential candidates, Rokna

Ebrahim Raise: Mehr News Agency, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Abdol-Naser Hemmati: Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Saeed Jalili: khamenei.ir, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mohsen Rezaei: Mahmood Hosseini, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi: Leila Ghodratollahi Fard, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mohsen Mehr-Alizadeh: Hosseinronaghi, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Alireza Zakani: Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  

Panelists:

Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security

 

Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.

Panelists:

Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.

 

Panelists:

Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 

Panelists:

Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 

 

Panelists:

Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.

Panelists:

Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.

 

Panelists:

Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor