Sanam Vakil: Iran's Trajectory after Raisi

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Jon Alterman: Dr. Sanam Vakil is the director of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and an expert on Iran-Gulf dynamics. Sanam, welcome to Babel. 

Sanam Vakil: Thanks for having me, Jon. 

Jon Alterman: After Ebrahim Raisi and Hossein Amir-Abdollahian died in a plane crash about a week ago, a lot of analysts suggested that it really wouldn't have any impact on Iranian policy, either domestically or internationally. Do you agree with that? 

Sanam Vakil: Well, yes and no. I think the truth is always somewhere in the middle, and that's because, on the one hand, the Islamic Republic is a system that is relatively cohesive. Historically, it's made up of various factions that have different policies and tactics, but together they're united in their loyalty to the Islamic Republic. Raisi himself was a very loyal insider man, not deeply charismatic or beloved by the Iranian population. He was also sort of Khamenei’s, the supreme leader, “yes man,” if you will. So those who thought that not much would change are sort of anticipating that another “yes man” will be elected to the job in the very carefully curated political process that exists in Iran. 

But the other side of the equation is that getting Raisi into the presidency hasn't been an easy or fluid process. Ebrahim Raisi has worked up and through the system. He has a very checkered and contested history. He was on a death trial in the 1980s that sent thousands of Iranians to jail. He's held close positions that indicate he is trusted within the system, but he wasn't very well known. He ran for the first time as president in 2017. Not many Iranians knew him. He didn't win, but that was sort of his first time to that sort of electoral party. 

Then he won in 2021 and became president. So, it was a process; it wasn't an immediate outcome where he was put into the job. I don’t think that there is a natural successor for Ebrahim Raisi, and that’s why we have to see his death as an opportunity for contenders and a challenge to the system.

Jon Alterman: Do you see trends already underway in Iran that really were slowed down or sped up by Raisi's death? 

Sanam Vakil: Not quite yet. I think it's still too early to say. It has been a long week, and the system has put on a lot of pomp and circumstance, really trying to commemorate his death through mourning ceremonies across the country. We saw a lot of Iranians coming out to celebrate and commemorate his life, as well as perhaps to show loyalty to the system. 

I think what we will see in the coming weeks is a carefully curated process where the system tries to show unity, as well as demonstrate it is business as usual. The next few weeks will be about candidates putting their names forward, the Guardian Council vetting those candidates, and elections to be held really quite quickly on June 28. 

Jon Alterman: You mentioned that Iran has complicated factional politics. There are a lot of contending schools often checking each other. What should we be looking for, especially in succession politics? 

Sanam Vakil: Over the past few years, Ali Khamenei has seen a conservative consolidation of power. He has overseen this process and that's what it looks like from the outside. Today, Iran’s elected and unelected institutions are all dominated by conservatives and hardline conservatives who are quite close and loyal to the supreme leader. This includes Iran’s parliament, but also, obviously, the presidency. 

How this has come about is that in previous elections, and particularly in the 2021 elections, pragmatic conservatives and reformist politicians did not pass Guardian Council vetting, and the Guardian Council vets candidates in advance of elections and makes sure they have the appropriate requirements. Loyalty to the regime and the supreme leader is among them. In that process, some key figures have been blocked from running, including longtime politicians or longtime advisors of the supreme leader, like Ali Larijani, for example.

This is how these elections are curated to determine outcomes. Going into this election, it will be interesting to see if reformists or moderates around, let's say former president Hassan Rouhani, try to run and if they're permitted to run. It’ll also be interesting to see what those from important families, like the Larijanis, or former politicians that have been marginalized or taken advisory roles, like former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will do. These are people that are rumored to be considering throwing their hat into the ring. 

Jon Alterman: Do you see any shift imminent in the relative power of the clerical establishment versus the Revolutionary Guard? There are some people who think that the clerical establishment is likely on its way out. The Revolutionary Guard is likely to accrue more power. Of course, both groups express their loyalty to Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. Do you see anything potentially happening here that might signal where that's headed, either because some groups make moves, some groups try to consolidate control, or some groups demonstrate their weakness? 

Sanam Vakil: I see the factions in Iran as more cohesive rather than independent, and they all are rather beholden to the Iranian supreme leader. I see the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) as very intimately connected to Ali Khamenei. They both came up, grew, and developed power and influence together. But the clergy and its hardline clerics have certainly hinged their wagons to Ali Khamenei's rise and remained influential. It's those who are reformists or pragmatists who are looking to transform the system or liberalize the system that have been marginalized. 

I don't see opportunities for those seeking transformational change to rise up in this process. But there have been suggestions from certain analysts, particularly those who would like to see a transformed or liberalized Iran, that if Ali Khamenei would like to build bridges with marginalized factions, with reformists, with former president Hassan Rouhani, this is the time to do it. 

We have to assess Ali Khamenei for his track record. He is not a compromising individual. He's quite stubborn to change, and I would be very surprised if he looks to build those kinds of bridges across the factions and with the population. Right now, this is a man who is focused on conservative consolidation and transition of the Islamic Republic, which is certainly going to be slow because he looks quite healthy. I watched a lot of videos of him over the course of the funeral, and he is quite agile and seems to be on top of his game. 

Jon Alterman: So let me ask about the foreign policy aspects of this. Iran's foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, was also in the helicopter with him. He was thought to have decent relationships with many of the Gulf leaders. He worked with them over the years, and he was an Arabic speaker. Do you see his departure from the scene having any impact on Iran's regional standing? Is Ali Bagheri Kani, the acting foreign minister, now different in some way? And is he likely to stay? 

Sanam Vakil: That's a really key point. Abdollahian wasn't well-loved across the region, but he did have that network that he has very deliberately cultivated, particularly since he became foreign minister. Those relationships, particularly in the Gulf, are important personal relationships, so he is a bigger loss for the foreign ministry. However, Ali Bagheri Kani is very ambitious. He was in charge of the nuclear negotiations and had more direct contact with American officials through the indirect negotiations taking place in Muscat. 

He won't be able to immediately build back those networks, although he will try, but he can step up and build that sort of continuity in Iran's regional dynamics, which have been the important developments for the Islamic Republic over the past few years. Ebrahim Raisi and Abdollahian have succeeded in breaking Iran out of maximum containment and for the Iranian state, those political and possible economic relationships are really important to keep the Iranian economy afloat and to build stronger political ties across the region. 

Jon Alterman: You've spent a lot of time talking to people in the Gulf about their perceptions of Iran. How do you think the Gulf states are likely to react? Are they likely to see this as more of an opportunity, more of a threat? And are there different likely reactions from different states? 

Sanam Vakil: They have different personal and interpretational views of the Islamic Republic, but most Gulf bureaucracies and leaders see the center of power and decision-making in the office of the supreme leader, so they know very well that Raisi and Abdollahian don't have that independent foreign policy dynamic. But going forward, most of them are going to continue to develop relationships across the Iranian system. It's quite difficult because there are protocols attached. 

They are going to continue to prioritize the bilateral relationships that are underway, looking to use these, sort of, nascent ties to build incremental trust. They will also use what limited leverage they have over Iran to try and temper risk and manage tension points in the relationships. These points are primarily regional and primarily over Iran's support for the axis of resistance groups, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and groups in Iraq and Syria. Gulf states see direct diplomacy with Iran as the better way forward. 

Jon Alterman: Almost exactly three years ago, you co-authored a paper that argued for the need for a regional security framework. Is that still your view? And if that is your view, how should we proceed on it? 

Sanam Vakil: It is still very much my view. The region remains one of the only areas of the world that doesn't have an architecture where countries can manage conflict and communicate all together. There are different forums that do exist. The Arab League is one, and the Gulf Cooperation Council is another. But obviously, because tensions across the Middle East have been so frayed for decades now, and the idea of bringing Iran and Israel together in a forum seems almost impossible, most of these discussions haven't resulted in any progress. 

What my co-author, Dalia Dassa Kaye, and I proposed after quite a bit of research and workshops and conversations was that regional states starting from the Gulf, as well as Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq, can begin to work together, setting out some basic principles of non-interference and respect for sovereignty. Since all of those states now have ties either with Iran and/or Israel, they can work to manage these tensions between these two countries and gradually involve them in processes that can lower the temperature of regional tensions. 

We also propose that through the creation of what we call a Middle East forum, they can develop working groups somewhat similar to the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) model, that focus on pragmatic areas, like climate change, emergency response, and economic ties, so these countries get to know each other, build trust, work collaboratively, and over time, perhaps find ways to include Iran and Israel. Over decades, this can bring down the temperature of tensions across the region. 

Jon Alterman: As you know, there was a perception that a lot of Arab states in the Gulf were pursuing closer ties with Israel in order to contain Iran. Certainly, the outbreak of the war in Gaza has tempered a lot of the enthusiasm for engaging with Israel. Do you think that a lot of these states are trying to maintain a balance? Do you think they still see a longer-term strategic opportunity with Israel? How do you think these states see their strategic needs going forward? And where does a perception of the United States’ future role in the region fit into that? 

Sanam Vakil: Well, it does look like there are two normalization tracks underway in the region. There's the outreach to Iran and the restoration of ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia that have been underway for a number of years now. They're progressing slowly but steadily. There are limits to the progress, obviously, because U.S. sanctions prevent both of these countries from investing heavily in the Iranian economy, but that's perhaps a leverage point for those Gulf states. Simultaneous to that, since 2020, we have seen the UAE and Bahraini normalization with Israel. That has, of course, gained momentum with the Biden administration's doubling down on this process. I think that's still very much in the cards, but probably can't be delivered in the timelines that the Biden administration seeks to achieve. 

Over a longer period of time, most of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have understood that regional stability requires a different tactic. Conflicts can't just be managed; conflicts now need to be addressed, if not solved, in order to allow the region to grow economically, particularly for countries like Saudi Arabia with Vision 2030 being so dependent on foreign direct investment. This isn't just the conflicts in Syria or Yemen, two conflicts that are just being managed and not addressed in any meaningful way, but clearly also the conflict in Palestine.

These are longer-term projects that can't quickly be addressed. However, the thinking has very much switched in the region, and that's a positive thing, but it requires a lot of investment at the leadership and bureaucratic level. The Israeli-Saudi normalization process is very much hinged to Washington, and it's from the Saudi side very much about securing guarantees from the United States. This is where it gets complex. From the Israeli side, there's a bit of overconfidence that the normalization track will always be available to them.

So, they can continue to prioritize their goals in Gaza, eliminating Hamas and addressing their security needs, without immediately biting on normalization. That's an underestimation of priorities in the Gulf, and that could slow things down over time. This was a very long-winded way of saying that these are very complex issues. But in short, what's important to note is that Israel should not estimate that Gulf states are willing to use normalization to constrain normalization on Iran. On the other hand, the Gulf States need to manage both simultaneously in order to address their economic needs.

Jon Alterman: I've heard an increasing number of Western ambassadors to Iran saying this is a regime that's in a death spiral. And the Western role should be just to make sure that when it collapses, their fingerprints aren't all over it; that this is seen as a collapse of the government rather than another external plot to control Iran's future. Do you agree with the idea that the best Western policy toward Iran right now is a policy of benign neglect? Do you think the United States should be working with allies to increase economic pressure on the government, or do you think it's better to just let this thing collapse of its own internal contradictions?

Sanam Vakil: I think the latter. I don't think that facilitating either directly or indirectly the collapse of the Iranian state is an American interest. That poses problems, particularly when there's uncertainty as to what comes next or who comes next. The United States, in my view, should prioritize constraining Iran's nuclear program, but not go out of its way to harm the state or the people. Instead, if the West subscribes to the premise that the system is going to collapse, it should give ordinary Iranians the space to try and manage what's coming next or insert themselves into what's coming next. 

I think the system is certainly going to evolve. Obviously, we just don't know when, where, and how, but this system is institutional, and so it'll be important to have key individuals in those institutions to help manage that process rather than perhaps to emulate what we saw in Iraq with a De-Ba'athification or a purge of institutions. That can be very dangerous.

Jon Alterman: How optimistic are you that acute pressure can change what the United States and its allies consider to be destabilizing Iranian actions in the region, and to what extent is it just what the Iranians will do because they are weak and see themselves as having very few tools, and the asymmetrical ones are the ones they're going to use to try to deter the United States and its allies from more extreme actions against Iran?

Sanam Vakil: The United States is in a unique moment where they have a lot of influence over Iran. What we've seen since October 7 is that Iran can be deterred. The Iranian state itself has messaged that it doesn't seek broader conflict, and it has under U.S. pressure complied with red lines coming from Washington. At the same time, it is also very clearly demonstrating through these backchannel negotiations that it wants to come to some new terms of engagement with the Biden administration, even for a few months. It is looking for some new arrangements that can be beneficial, be it monetarily or to prevent further conflict.

That strategy for the rest of 2024 should be the one on the table. Diplomacy, as well as deterrence, has long been an important balance in managing relations with adversaries. That is the way forward for now, particularly with the war in Gaza still very much underway and no real plan for what comes next. It's important not to press and trigger a broader regional conflict.

Jon Alterman: Sanam Vakil, thank you very much for joining us on Babel.

Sanam Vakil: Thank you, Jon, for having me.