With about two weeks to go before Iran's presidential election, many observers believe that the outcome is already evident. Of the seven qualified candidates running in the election, five belong to the hardline or conservative camps opposed to incumbent President Hassan Rouhani. Meanwhile, with the key conservative factions and political figures unequivocally and strongly supporting Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, it is almost certain that he is going to be the next president. At a time when deteriorating economic conditions and growing authoritarianism in the political system have eroded the desire of the majority of Iranians to participate in the election, Raisi’s moderate and reformist rivals, Abdolnaser Hemmati and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, have no chance of winning.
As such, it is safe to argue that Iran’s domestic political scene is awaiting a decisive shift toward the complete dominance of the hardliners. This element of predictability also applies to Iran’s foreign policy. Paradoxically, however, the forthcoming shift in domestic policy is not expected to significantly impact the Islamic Republic’s general foreign policy orientation. Pessimism toward the West and a reluctance to improve relations with the United States, along with the steady development of ties with China and Russia, will continue to define Iran’s foreign policy in the years to come.
Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, the administration and its Ministry of Foreign Affairs have never been as irrelevant in the process of formulating and implementing Iran’s foreign policy as they are today. This is, in fact, the result of a trend that began about four years ago, in which the role of the administration in foreign policy has diminished in favor of parallel institutions. In 2013, the most important factor that helped Rouhani win the election was his promise to resolve Iran’s nuclear issue and normalize relations with the international community. In just two years, he managed to live up to that promise and reach an agreement with the world powers on the nuclear issue (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the JCPOA). However, before Rouhani could use the JCPOA’s economic benefits to improve the economy, the US withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018 undermined his most important political achievement.
The subsequent increase in tensions between Tehran and Washington gave the hardliners a golden opportunity to attack Rouhani’s diplomacy-oriented strategy and enhance their own role in foreign policy. For example, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) dominated Iran’s regional policy in a way that, according to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had an “almost zero” role in the region. Although Iran formally remained in the JCPOA, hardliners, as well as Khamenei himself, barred any new diplomatic engagement with the US, citing Washington’s non-compliance with its commitments. Indeed, regional policy and diplomacy with the US were not the only areas in which the Rouhani administration lost control. The new “Look to the East” policy, considered an alternative foreign policy strategy in Iran, has been formulated and implemented under the Supreme Leader’s direct supervision. Former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani is Khamenei’s special representative for strategic ties with China. He had a key role in reaching a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement with Beijing in 2020. Similarly, Khamenei has often relied on “special envoys” outside the Foreign Ministry to develop relations with Russia.
All these developments put the Rouhani administration in a state of complete paralysis in foreign policy. Therefore, since Rouhani and his Foreign Ministry have already lost control of foreign policy to the institutions affiliated with the Supreme Leader, a change of administration will have little impact on Iran’s overall foreign policy orientation. Khamenei even went so far as to directly urge the candidates to focus on presenting plans for economic growth and recovery and not to talk about foreign policy. As a result, in the first televised debate between the seven candidates on June 5, there was no talk of foreign policy.
In this situation, even regardless of who will be elected the next president, we should expect continuity in Iran’s foreign policy approaches. Regarding the JCPOA, Khamenei has repeatedly stated that Iran would abide by the agreement as long as the other parties fulfill their obligations. On the other hand, after a controversial interview with Zarif was leaked to the media in which he criticized the IRGC’s dominant role in foreign policy, the Foreign Minister’s role in the ongoing negotiations in Vienna to revive the JCPOA has been effectively sidelined. Although formally the same old team of Iranian diplomats is still negotiating with the world powers, coordination and decision-making appear to be taking place not in the Foreign Ministry, but at a higher level – most probably by the Supreme National Security Council. As such, if the talks for the revival of the JCPOA are successful,the next administration will abide by the revived agreement. However, given that Khamenei and the hardline faction hold a profoundly pessimistic view toward the West, one should not expect Iran to agree to any follow-up negotiations with the United States, either on regional or missile issues.
As for relations with China and Russia, with the foreign policy decision-making and implementation structures becoming further unified and homogeneous, Iran’s “Look to the East” strategy is expected to be pursued even more vigorously. Tehran will most probably use the anticipated lifting of sanctions as a result of the JCPOA revival to encourage more Chinese investment under the Strategic Partnership agreement. In general, it seems that the Islamic Republic has already chosen China as its long-term partner, and the change of presidents will not affect this strategic choice. It’s also worth mentioning that Raisi’s main rival, Hemmati, was to be sent to Beijing as Iran’s ambassador to China before being appointed head of the Central Bank in 2018. Also, in the case of Russia, cooperation between the two countries is expected to expand, especially in the military and defense fields. Thus, “Look to the East” will continue to be Iran’s main foreign policy strategy in the years to come.