With new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s official inauguration, all eyes have turned to his likely pick as foreign minister and the candidate’s view of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal that now hangs in the diplomatic balance.
The parliament, or Majlis, says the new cabinet line-up will be revealed early this week. It is widely anticipated that religious traditionalists and hardliners will sweep the board in filling the vacancies.
The early conjecture was that Ali Bagheri, a Raisi colleague at the judiciary as the Vice-Chief Justice for International Affairs and a former nuclear negotiator under hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would get the nod.
However, sources close to the new president and local media say Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a career diplomat and special aide to the Speaker of the Parliament, will be proposed as the nation’s top diplomat.
Amir-Abdollahian shouldn’t expect any major stumbling blocks in securing a unanimous vote of confidence at the Majlis, given his demonstrated fidelity to the Supreme Leader and credentials as a conservative diplomat with anti-Western views – qualifications the hardline-dominated Majlis relies on to measure the eligibility of new administration officials.
The former ambassador to Bahrain was deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs between 2011 and 2016, which means his career at the ministry straddles the Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani administrations.
In June 2016, and while his boss Javad Zarif was negotiating the JCPOA with the Obama administration, Amir-Abdollahian was sacked to the chagrin of parliament hardliners, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and some within the ministry.
All believed he was a “revolutionary” diplomat committed to the Islamic Republic’s extraterritorial ambitions in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and the cause of Palestine.
His dismissal was reportedly ordered by Rouhani, who was laboring to ease tensions with Saudi Arabia through intermediaries in the neighborhood but found Amir-Abdollahian’s orthodox and unbending regional stance a spanner in the works of rapprochement with Riyadh.
The 57-year-old diplomat received his doctorate in international relations from the University of Tehran.
From 1997 to 2001, he was an expert and deputy head of mission at Iran’s embassy in Baghdad. He was promoted to deputy director-general of Persian Gulf affairs at the ministry and in 2007 was assigned to the Bahrain post.
An outspoken detractor of Israel and an ardent advocate of Palestine, he chairs the permanent secretariat of the International Conference on Palestinian Intifada hosted by Iran’s parliament.
In a tweet on May 6 on his personal account, one day before “International Quds Day,” he wrote, “we only recognize one country whose name is Palestine, and its capital is called al-Quds. Indubitably, the fake Israeli regime does not have any place in the future of the region.”
Amir-Abdollahian is reputed to be intimately familiar with the politics of the Middle East and Arab world. His expected appointment signals that the Raisi administration will likely prioritize ties with Iran’s immediate neighbors and Arab states rather than investing in relations with Europe or giving a facelift to fraught relations with the United States, which the Rouhani administration sought.
However, it is far from clear if the Sunni Arab kingdoms will harmonize with him considering his track record of upholding militias in Iraq and Lebanon and his unequivocal endorsement of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a bete noire in many Arab capitals and eschewed by most of the world.
Raisi has already said he sees no impediment to restoring Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia and that Iran is geared up for the reopening of the two embassies, shuttered after a raid on the Saudi mission in Tehran in 2016 by a violent mob.
However, his presumptive appointee for foreign minister hasn’t been particularly soft on the Saudis and has lashed out against the Arab kingdom on several occasions.
On November 13, 2020, a day after Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud blamed Iran for interfering in the affairs of the Arab world and sponsoring terrorism, Amir-Abdollahian took to Twitter to disparage him.
“The king of Saudi Arabia invading Yemen, which has sided with the American ISIS terrorism in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, does not have a right to direct accusations at the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Amir-Abdollahian tweeted.
“Riyadh had better stop toadying to Israel and respect its neighbors.”
In September 2018, nearly three years after the assault on the Saudi embassy, Amir-Abdollahian accused “infiltrators” affiliated with the Saudi government of colluding to throw Molotov cocktails at diplomatic compounds and setting them on fire, ruling out that Iranian Basij militias perpetrated the incursion.
He even claimed Saudi authorities were informed in advance that such an attack would happen and had put embassy vehicles on sale several weeks earlier.
In fulminating against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Amir-Abdollahian has crafted an image as a rigid, doctrinaire diplomat opposed to regional dialogue.
Amir-Abdollahian has vehemently denounced the Abraham Accords and normalization of relations between Israel and a number of Arab states beginning in August 2020, berating these countries for being obsequious to an “occupying regime.”
He tweeted in August last year, shortly after the UAE and Israel initiated diplomatic relations, that the UAE’s approach “serves the ongoing crimes of the Zionists” and that the UAE would be engulfed in the “fire of Zionism.” In Islamic Republic parlance, Israel is often referred to as the “Zionist regime.”
To be sure, Iran’s foreign minister is often viewed as a ceremonial and frivolous position in the Islamic Republic hierarchy and that the lion’s share of significant foreign policy decisions are made by the Supreme Leader or simply dictated from above to the ministry.
But there is an alternative view that the top diplomat, despite lacking carte blanche to carve out diplomatic strategies, has a central role to play in setting the tone of Iran’s overseas agenda and coming up with initiatives that are not part of the establishment’s preferences.
Outgoing Foreign Minister Javad Zarif advanced Iran’s relations with many European Union states, but this was apparently not something the Supreme Leader had asked him to pursue.
“The position is not ceremonial because, for example, Zarif played an important role in sustaining a policy of pragmatic engagement,” said Daniel Brumberg, director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University.
“He had little to no effect on security issues and Syria, but he was crucial because he advocated for engagement and for the JCPOA agreement, and because he was in fact part of a pragmatic centrist elite in Iran that advocated for these positions and many of whose members had experiences in the West and ties to important Western and US networks of thinkers, former diplomats and policy experts,” he told Asia Times.
Brumberg, a former special adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, says although Amir-Abdollahian is a hardliner, he will probably embrace more pragmatism as foreign minister.
“Amir-Abdollahian was very critical of the Abraham Accords and his militant opposition to the agreements between Israel, Bahrain and UAE may complicate any Iran opening to Arab Gulf states, but he probably would not get in the way if the Raisi government, with the Supreme Leader’s support, pursued some kind of opening in the Gulf,” he added.
One of the major tasks on Amir-Abdollahian’s checklist will be to continue the stalled talks in Vienna to revive the JCPOA and bring Iran and the United States back into compliance with the international accord nixed by former US President Donald Trump in May 2018.
Some observers of Iran surmise even though there has been a transition of power there is still an appetite for resuscitating the deal because the alternatives could be catastrophic.
Bijan Ahmadi, executive director of the Toronto-based Institute for Peace and Diplomacy says: “Both Iran and the United States are interested in reaching a deal in Vienna to revive JCPOA. The alternative to a deal – escalation in tensions and even the possibility of military conflict – is highly costly for both countries.
“However, the main question at this stage is whether both sides are willing to provide enough concessions to reach an agreement. If negotiations fail, we should expect a significant escalation in tensions between Iran and the West.”
The overriding sentiment in Iran is that the JCPOA’s revival will not necessarily be a stepping stone to deeper collaboration between Iran and the United States.
Despite voices on both sides calling for dialogue on other matters of mutual concern, Raisi’s rise means the rivals shouldn’t envision structural reform in their strained relations other than to work solely on preserving the JCPOA.
“The long-term trend for Iran is that the Iranian political establishment as a whole has actually given up on the idea that there is much to be gained in terms of serious, meaningful dialogue and diplomacy with the United States and they are better off developing relations with China and other emerging powers,” said John Ghazvinian, an Iranian-American historian and the executive director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The long-term trend in the United States is pivoting away from the Middle East and allowing regional powers to work out their own issues, and the US foreign policy is also much more focused on China these days,” he told Asia Times.
“In a sense, it is true that members of the US administration who would like to have discussions with Iran about the JCPOA would probably prefer Javad Zarif because they know him, are familiar with him, are comfortable with him, he speaks excellent English, understands the United States very well and has a certain charming presence, but I think the long-term trends are going to be more important.”