Daunting security threats facing Raisi’s Iran
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s election win may have been a walk in the park, but his term in office is likely to be anything but easy. For post-revolution Iran’s eighth president, there are hazardous mountains to climb. From diplomacy to the economy, border security to domestic law and order, the trials awaiting Raisi will be difficult to navigate.
The elephant in the room is the stalled 2015 nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), abandoned by former US President Donald Trump amid back-to-back breaches by Iran.
Since April, parties to the JCPOA have met six times in Vienna, but crucial issues between Iran and the US remain unresolved. Will the Raisi government soften its position in order to clinch a breakthrough and end crushing economic sanctions? The answer is simple: Raisi will not be able to concede ground to Washington in the way his predecessor Hassan Rouhani did.
Tehran’s posturing so far validates this pessimistic forecast. Nonetheless, there are forecasts of JCPOA-minus, minus-plus or the total collapse of the accord. The term JCPOA-minus is used for a scenario in which Iran agrees to freeze its nuclear advances in exchange for certain sanctions to be lifted, and for talks on disputed issues to continue in a less tense atmosphere.
JCPOA-plus implies a more optimistic setting whereby Tehran agrees to limit its missile and drone programs. In the minus setting, the US softens its position in order to build trust, while in the positive setting, Iran makes significant concessions in exchange for regional and global acceptance.
With the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-led Raisi setup in control, JCPOA-minus is the most optimistic, but short-term, possibility.
Russia and China may not let talks to revive the deal collapse, even if the West refuses to give in to the Iranians. Nonetheless, a JCPOA-minus deal will not please the Gulf states and Israel among others. Raisi needs a partner or middleman cunning enough to articulate an impressive narrative for Iran outside the negotiating room. Without a radical change at home, Tehran’s position at the Vienna talks is unlikely to ease drastically.
The new Iranian government inherits uniquely insecure borders with Azerbaijan and Afghanistan. The unprecedented security dilemma in the Azeri-majority regions on its northwestern border also haunts the country. After Armenian forces capitulated and Azeris reclaimed their occupied territories in the 44-day war, jubilation on the Iranian side of the border was spontaneous and profound.
Since the 1979 revolution, Tehran has preferred Christian Armenia ahead of its fellow Shiite brethren living in Azerbaijan. Now that Armenia’s border has shrunk to a mere 32 km, Azeri nationalism and solidarity, a nightmarish prospect that Iran has always discouraged, are on the rise. Just last week, Iran’s Azerbaijan province witnessed protests in solidarity with the Ahwazi people demonstrating against water shortages.
After the Russia-brokered peace deal between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said: “The Nagorno-Karabakh crisis unfolding outside Iran’s northern borders had been a cause for serious concern for us, making it all the more necessary for the conflict to come to an end as soon as possible.”
Within weeks, the IRGC deployed its elite 25th Karbala Special Forces Division of the Mazandaran Corps and the 16th Armored Division of Qazvin in Jolfa, Khodafarin and Aslandooz. In addition, Iran activated its Ashura base on the border to not only monitor the situation but also house military reinforcements along with nearly 200 T-72M1 battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and “locally made” Mersad-16 and Russian-made air defense systems.
The real threat Raisi’s Iran faces is a sneak attack by Israel from Azeri soil, and for Baku and Tel Aviv to enjoy cordial ties. A more long-term concern for Raisi is Iran’s enemies stirring up ethno-nationalistic sentiments within the less developed northwestern Azeri regions. Although the Rouhani government tried to adjust its policy in line with new ground realities, it failed to impress Baku or to limit ties between Baku and Tel Aviv.
The failure to properly defend the Hazara community, as well other Shiite elements, means a fresh inflow of refugees to Iran and a further burden on the country’s deteriorating economy.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
On the eastern front with Afghanistan, the Taliban have taken over key trade and commerce terminals along with swathes of land in Herat and Nimroz provinces, whose officials as well as Afghan troops fled to Iran. Tehran had been appeasing the Afghan militia while the US-led coalition forces remained in Afghanistan. The victorious Taliban seem unimpressed with Iran’s appeasement and are determined to reimpose their rule. So far, Shiites have not been killed, but the risks are real.
Meanwhile, Iran has rebranded its Fatemiyoun militia, originally raised to defend Assad’s regime in Syria, as Hashd Al-Shi’i. The rebranding is an obvious signal to the Taliban that Afghan Shiites will not be easy prey as before. However, the lightly trained militia is unlikely to outfight the battle-hardened Taliban. The failure to properly defend the Hazara community, as well other Shiite elements, means a fresh inflow of refugees to Iran and a further burden on the country’s deteriorating economy.
Another concern is Iran’s heightened attacks on commercial shipping in the Sea of Oman and Arabian Gulf. The attacks, such as the one on the Mercer Street tanker, further risk the precarious balance of power in the already troubled waters. The notion of plausible deniability has become unsustainable given the numerous satellites monitoring the area. Another tanker war or Operation Praying Mantis will not only devastate Iran’s naval fleet but also further strain a global economy already stricken by the pandemic.
To resolve the direct and potential threats to Iran’s security, the new Tehran government must rethink its establishment’s confrontational policies. From the Gulf states to Azerbaijan, and from the US to the Taliban, Iran’s vicious arrogance remains its biggest problem.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami