How Ebrahim Raisi reshuffled Iran’s regional role

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Ebrahim Raisi, Raisi, Mahsa Amini, Mahsa Jina Amini, Houthis, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas

Under President Ebrahim Raisi, Iran has significantly strengthened its ties across the Middle East and Asia, forging new alliances and recalibrating its foreign policy. This shift has occurred irrespective of Western analysts’ perspectives and highlights Raisi’s pragmatic approach and strategic vision for Iran’s role in the region.

The startling news of President Ebrahim Raisi’s disappearance and then death during a helicopter ride in a remote mountainous region near the Azerbaijani border initially seemed to contradict his established presence and influence. Raisi had seemed firmly entrenched in power and poised to continue his leadership. His journey, however, symbolized the complex and often contradictory nature of Iran’s statecraft under his administration. Raisi had traveled to the border to meet with Azerbaijan’s president and inaugurate a dam, emphasizing the multifaceted relationship between the two nations. While Iran is often viewed as an ally of Armenia, his visit underscored Iran’s interest in fostering cooperation with Azerbaijan as well.

Ebrahim Raisi’s presence at the border served dual purposes: showcasing Iranian strength and emphasizing Iran’s desire to maintain peaceful relations with its northern neighbors. Iran seeks close ties not only with Azerbaijan but also with Armenia, Turkey, and Russia. Despite Western predictions of inevitable clashes, he has pursued a pragmatic foreign policy aimed at securing strong ties throughout Asia.

However, Iran’s aspirations often outpace its actual capabilities. While Iran boasts about its ballistic missile and drone programs, many aspects of its infrastructure, such as its helicopter fleet, remain outdated. The rescue operation for Raisi and his downed helicopter highlighted this disparity, revealing that Iran’s real strength lies more in the potential and resilience of its people than in its technological advancements.

Ebrahim Raisi has been a strong proponent of developing indigenous industries, including aerospace systems, drones, and missiles. Before becoming president, he articulated a policy focused on self-reliance and a pivot towards Asia, particularly China, believing that Iran could not rely on Western nations for support. This inward focus and rejection of diplomatic overtures to the West have been hallmarks of his administration.

Western media often labeled Raisi a “hardliner” while a large segment of Iranians accused him as “butcher of Tehran” – upon his rise to power in August 2021. However, according to pro-Khomeini analysts, his policies have largely continued Iran’s existing trajectory while reinvigorating certain aspects. Raisi’s tenure began after the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the influential head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force. This allowed Raisi to shape Iran’s leadership and policy direction without overshadowing figures. Consequently, the IRGC has continued to dictate foreign and military policy in alignment with Ebrahim Raisi’s vision.

Raisi’s agenda included bolstering support for the Houthis in Yemen and Palestinian mega-terror outfit Hamas as well as anti-Israel forces in Gaza, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). This strategy came to fruition on October 7, when Hamas launched a significant attack on Israel, resulting in unprecedented casualties. While Raisi may not have known the exact timing, Iranian involvement was evident through continuous communication between Iranian officials and Hamas kingpins.

By 2022, Raisi aimed to solidify an Iran-China agreement and strengthen ties with Russia. His January 2022 visit to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin marked a pivotal moment, aligning with Russia’s ambitions to reshape the global order. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Iran’s relationship with Russia deepened, exemplified by Iran’s supply of Shahed 136 drones to Russia, which have become integral to Iran’s military capabilities in the region.

Domestically, Raisi faced significant challenges in 2022, including widespread protests triggered by the death of Mahsa Jina Amini (also known as Mahsa Amini), a young female detained by Iran’s Morality Police. Despite the prolonged protests, Raisi’s regime employed familiar tactics of waiting for dissent to wane before implementing a crackdown, showcasing the regime’s resilience and control.

President Ebrahim Raisi’s foreign policy also marked a shift away from relying on Iranian lobbyists in the West, a strategy prevalent under previous administrations, particularly that of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Raisi’s administration calculated that the West’s significance had diminished, focusing instead on strengthening eastern alliances. This approach bore fruit when China facilitated Iran’s reconciliation with Saudi Arabia in 2023, and Gulf states supported Syria’s reintegration into the Arab League. The necessity for drones in Russia further solidified these ties.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan also played into Iran’s strategic narrative, with Iran and its allies like Qatar supporting the Taliban’s ascent to power in Kabul. Concurrently, Iran’s coordination with Hamas in Doha contributed to the orchestrated attack on Israel.

While Raisi may not have directly masterminded the policy of “uniting the arenas,” his administration significantly enhanced cooperation among Iranian proxies surrounding Israel, including Hezbollah, the Houthis, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hamas. These efforts culminated in a coordinated strategy that caught Israel off guard, transitioning from a “campaign between the wars” to direct conflict within Israel’s borders.

Raisi’s diplomatic maneuvers, particularly reconciliation with Riyadh and fostering ties with China and Russia, set the stage for the October 7 attack. As Raisi and his foreign minister embarked on their ill-fated helicopter journey, they left behind a region profoundly influenced by Iran’s strategic shifts, marking an unprecedented transformation under Raisi’s leadership.

Under Raisi, Iran’s foreign policy has seen a notable shift towards stronger alliances with non-Western powers. This has been exemplified by the bolstering of ties with China and Russia, who have become critical partners in Iran’s regional strategy. China’s role in mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been pivotal, showcasing Beijing’s growing influence in Middle Eastern geopolitics. Similarly, Iran’s provision of military support to Russia through drone technology has solidified a mutually beneficial relationship that underscores the shared strategic interests of both nations.

Raisi’s administration has also worked to consolidate Iran’s influence within the framework of regional organizations and multilateral forums. By actively engaging in platforms like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and seeking observer status in other regional bodies, Iran aims to counterbalance Western influence and create a supportive geopolitical environment for its interests.

The broader implications of Raisi’s policies extend beyond immediate regional gains. By fostering stronger ties with Eastern powers and regional neighbors, Iran is positioning itself as a pivotal player in the emerging multipolar world order. This strategic realignment not only challenges the traditional dominance of Western powers in the region but also offers Iran new avenues for economic and military collaboration.

Domestically, Raisi’s administration continued to face significant challenges, including economic sanctions and internal dissent. However, the regime’s ability to maintain control and suppress opposition through a combination of strategic patience and force has demonstrated its resilience. The protests following Mahsa Jina Amini’s death highlighted the persistent undercurrents of discontent within Iranian society, yet Raisi’s administration has thus far managed to weather these storms without substantial concessions.

Ebrahim Raisi has undeniably transformed Iran’s role in the region through a combination of strategic alliances, pragmatic policies, and resilient governance. His administration’s focused on self-reliance, coupled with a pivot towards Eastern alliances, has redefined Iran’s geopolitical landscape.

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