A hardline president has taken charge in Iran. An inexperienced government in Israel is threatening military action against Tehran. A lethal shadow war is being waged in the Gulf. Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, is firing missiles into Israel from chaotic Lebanon. Bitter words fly in London over hostage-taking. US fears grow, meanwhile, that the Vienna nuclear talks have failed. Deal or no deal, it’s suggested, Iran may soon be able to build an atomic weapon.
This is a perilous, darkly portentous moment in the Middle East and specifically for the multifaceted conflict between Iran and the west. Ebrahim Raisi, who was sworn in as president on Thursday after a rigged, boycotted election, offered scant ground for optimism. “Tyrannical” sanctions imposed by Donald Trump, which have ravaged the country since 2018, must be lifted, he said. But he offered no plan to achieve it and nothing in the way of concessions.
Raisi’s ascent marks a definitive triumph for the fiercely conservative, anti-western factions associated with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, like Mohammad Khatami before him, fought a long, ultimately losing internal battle for rapprochement with the US and Europe. Now, hardliners control all the Islamic republic’s main institutions, including the military, judiciary and parliament.
The implications of this clean sweep are ominous. Backed by the ever more influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Raisi, ironically, now has the clout to cut a deal in Vienna that Rouhani lacked. He may do so. Iran’s economy is in dire straits. Inflation and shortages are wreaking havoc. Official figures show the poverty rate doubled over two years, to 30% in 2019. It may be even worse now. A limited agreement on sanctions relief could ease the public’s pain.
But Raisi and the ageing, hawkish Khamenei remain ardent nationalists who believe strongly, on ideological and religious grounds, in the virtues of self-reliance. They argue that, in future, Iran’s centrally directed economy, increasingly dominated by IRGC interests, should not depend on private sector trade and business with a US-dominated west. They aim to eliminate forever the political leverage that sanctions afforded Washington. They don’t want to be friends with America.
Freed from the restraints previously exercised by the vanquished “moderate” opposition, Raisi’s insistence on increased self-reliance also presages an expansion of Iran’s regional sway, not least by reinforcing the “axis of resistance” with allies and proxies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. Likewise, closer strategic alliances with China and Russia are in prospect. Tehran recently signed a 25-year trade and military partnership with Beijing. Always quick to spot an opening, Vladimir Putin heartily congratulated Raisi on his election.
The Gulf drone attack on the Israel-linked tanker MV Mercer Street, which killed a Briton and a Romanian last week, augurs ill for the Raisi era. As always, Iran denies responsibility. Britain and the US say they can prove otherwise. Tehran’s suspension of talks on an international prisoner swap is another blow, as is the shocking 10-year jail sentence given to a British-Iranian, Mehran Raoof. Richard Ratcliffe, husband of unjustly imprisoned Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, is right to raise the alarm. Foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, must do more.
Alarming, too, is the sudden outbreak of hostilities across the Israel-Lebanon border and now with Hamas in Gaza. Hezbollah, unusually, has admitted launching missiles. This declaration looks like a message for Naftali Bennett, Israel’s untested prime minister, sent with Iran’s approval. After the tanker attack, Israel threatened direct military action. Such a contest between new guys Raisi and Bennett is something the Middle East cannot afford.
Concern grows in Washington, meanwhile, that smouldering conflicts involving Tehran and other regional actors, fanned by the changes of leadership in Iran and Israel, could ignite. Earlier this year, there was talk of an easing of tensions between Iran and its arch-rival, Saudi Arabia. Officials from the two sides met in Baghdad. All that has gone out of the window now. The Saudis snubbed an invitation to Raisi’s inauguration. Back to square one.
The Biden administration also has worries of its own. It pinned its hopes of defusing tensions with Iran on reviving the 2015 nuclear pact that was petulantly abandoned by Trump. It’s chastening to reflect that his foolish decision did as much as anything to assure the ascent of Raisi and the hardliners and the discrediting of Iran’s reformists. Now, US analysts suggest that, even if there’s a compromise and the pact is reinstated, it’s already too late. Iran, they suspect, has gained so much bomb-making know-how in the meantime that the nuclear cat, figuratively speaking, is out of the bag.
This thought understandably gives Israeli leaders nightmares. It should also worry the region and not-so-distant European neighbours. But further chest-beating, sabre-rattling and proxy war-fighting is not the way to respond. The EU sent a representative to Raisi’s inauguration. That was the right thing to do. At this perilous juncture, the US and Britain, too, must strive ever more urgently to keep the door open and advance dialogue with Tehran. For his part, Raisi should stop posturing and show a bit of statesmanship by immediately releasing all the western hostages.