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HomeMiddle EastEbrahim Raisi’s Foreign Policy Views

Ebrahim Raisi’s Foreign Policy Views

This Foreign Policy Brief is prepared by the IPD Middle East research team.

Nuclear Talks

In his first press conference since election day, Raisi backed the ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (five members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) and expressed the need for a quick conclusion to the talks, asserting that “we will not allow negotiations to be for negotiations’ sake. Negotiations should not be dragged out but each sitting should bear results. A result-oriented [negotiation] is important to us and it should have an outcome for the Iranian nation.” However, he ruled out a potential meeting with US President Joe Biden, following the revival of the nuclear agreement. 

Non-nuclear Issues

On regional issues, Raisi rejected the notion of compromising on Iran’s ballistic missile program and the country’s regional posture, describing them as “non-negotiable”. He added that “they [the United States] have failed to deliver on the previous issue [nuclear agreement]. How can they enter other discussions?”, arguing that U.S. abandonment of the nuclear deal serves as an obstacle to negotiations on non-nuclear issues. The ultimate decision regarding follow-on negotiations rests with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and it may largely depend on the success of current nuclear negotiations and the economic dividends Iran expects to see from sanctions removal. In April 2015, following the signing of the ‘Lausanne Framework’ and prior to the conclusion of the nuclear talks, Khamenei contended that the nuclear deal serves as a test, and that if the West implements its end of the bargain regarding the nuclear file, there can be discussion on other issues of concern. 

Nevertheless, while Raisi ruled out negotiations on regional issues with the West, Iran has been involved in direct security discussions with Saudi officials. The talks have been quietly facilitated by the United States, with reports suggesting that the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Ali Shamkhani has met with Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director William Burns in Iraq. In the press conference, Raisi discussed relations with Saudi Arabia and noted that, on principle, Iran sees no obstacle to restoring diplomatic ties and re-opening the embassies. During his campaign, Raisi had promised to improve Iran’s relations with its regional counterparts, including Saudi Arabia. Under Raisi, Iran is expected to continue to engage regional stakeholders directly, rather than discussing regional issues with the United States and its European partners. 

FATF 

Compliance with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) standards 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, the Raisi administration will comply with FATF terms to ease Iran’s access to the international banking system. At the time, FATF critics in Iran argued that while under sanctions, providing financial transparency could hinder Tehran’s sanctions-busting efforts.

Foreign Policy Team

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a seasoned career diplomat, is the most likely candidate for assuming a key role in Raisi’s foreign policy team and could become a major architect of Iran’s geopolitical posture moving forward. 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. The former diplomat reportedly has close relations with the moderate conservative figure and Rouhani-ally Ali Larijani, who himself could be another candidate for assuming a prominent role in Raisi’s foreign policy team. 

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 a recent CNN interview, Amir-Abdollahian described Raisi’s foreign policy as “dynamic and logical with a strong discourse; A discourse that can serve Iran’s interests in all areas.” In response to a question on US-Iran relations under the Raisi administration, Amir-Abdollahian added that the US “has always missed opportunities, and this depends more on the behavior of the American side, especially in deciding what relations with Iran should be.”

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 Iranian Judiciary’s international affairs department, are both candidates for senior positions within Raisi’s foreign policy and national security team. It has been reported that Ali Bagheri Kani has already been placed in the Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry to coordinate the transition process. 

Finally, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator and a conservative presidential candidate in this month’s election might also be considered for the role of the minister of foreign affairs. It is important to note, however, that the Iranian minister of foreign affairs is nominated in direct consultation and tacit approval of the Supreme Leader and his office.  

Iran-Canada Relations

On Iran-Canada relations, similar to previous Iranian governments, a Raisi administration will likely be open to restoring diplomatic ties with Canada. As previously mentioned, he has backed Iran’s return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, an agreement endorsed by the Trudeau government. The possible revival of the JCPOA and Iran’s compliance with FATF protocols will likely facilitate an expansion of financial dealings between the two countries. 

The downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, shot down by an IRGC air defense unit, which resulted in the death of 176 passengers and crew including 63 Canadians, remains a major challenge in Tehran-Ottawa relations. During his tenure as Iran’s head of Judiciary, Raisi promised to prosecute those responsible, asserting that “we have no red lines in addressing all scenarios and persons” regarding Flight 752. Meanwhile, Raisi has close relations with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and he is unlikely to take any measure that would undermine or negatively impact the IRGC. Following the downing of flight 752, Raisi noted that the “IRGC was the most dedicated institution in searching for the truth.” Iran has claimed that the IRGC air defense unit placed near Tehran’s airport shot down the airliner in an accident due to human error. Canadian officials have stated that Iran has not been transparent in its investigations.  

While there have been reports of some arrests, there has yet to be any public information on the judicial proceedings. During Riasi’s tenure, Iran’s Judiciary strongly criticized an Ontario court ruling that blamed Iran for intentionally shooting down Flight 752, holding Iran liable for what the court categorized as an intentional act of terrorism. Iran’s judiciary dismissed the verdict as “emotional, unscientific, and based on hearsay”, arguing that Iran’s Judiciary possesses sole jurisdiction over the issue. Going forward, Iran will likely persist with its current negotiating approach, as both countries disagree on accountability and compensation. 

Another obstacle in the path of Iran-Canada relations is the amendments to the State Immunity Act combined with the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act passed during the Harper government in 2012. The two acts combined have waived Iran’s state immunity and Canadian courts have seized Iranian assets in favor of victims of terror. Iran is unlikely to restore diplomatic relations with Canada without full state immunity. However, given the large Iranian diaspora community living in Canada (approximately 300,000-400,000) and the lack of access to consular services for Canadian citizens traveling to Iran, it is likely that both countries agree to facilitate consular services in third country’s embassies.    

From a broader perspective, under a Raisi administration, Iran’s priorities will be to improve relations with its regional counterparts, restoring the nuclear agreement to achieve sanctions relief, and counterbalancing relations with the West vis-a-vis closer ties with Russia and China. In this context, in contrast to the Rouhani administration, there will likely be less enthusiasm for restoring diplomatic relations with Canada. On the other hand, given the Raisi administration’s serious backing of the IRGC, a potential designation of the corps as a ‘terrorist organization’ by the federal government, as it is advocated by the Official Opposition, can seriously jeopardize relations between Tehran and Ottawa. 

After Trump’s decision to designate the IRGC as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization”, Iran immediately retaliated by designating the United States Central Command (Centcom) as a terrorist entity. Raisi’s administration or the country’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) is likely to take a similar stance against Canadian forces in the region in case of a terrorist designation against the IRGC by the Canadian government. It is unclear whether or not the Biden administration will remove the FTO designation as part of its negotiated return to the JCPOA.

Image Credit: Maryam Kamyab

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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