Iranian cleric Ebrahim Raisi has been sworn in as the Islamic Republic’s new president against the backdrop of challenging negotiations with the West on the revival of its nuclear deal, domestic unrest, a ramp-up in local nuclear development and accusations of sabotage in Gulf waters.
Earlier this week, Raisi, who has long been vocally anti-Western and is under U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses, was given the final approval for the presidency by Iran’s all-powerful supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He was elected in June, in a vote many Iranians and Western advocacy groups say was rigged.
A Japanese-owned and Israeli-operated commercial tanker was hit by multiple drone strikes in international waters off the Omani coast over the weekend. The US, U.K. , and Israel have all blamed Iran. Two people aboard the ship, a Romanian national and a British national, were killed.
Tehran denies involvement, as it does with a separate seizure this week of a tanker off the coat of the United Arab Emirates. Iranian officials denied any role in the seizure, although the vessel was ordered to sail to Iran. “The key question is what type of retaliation is likely looming as the new hardline government led by Ebrahim Raisi prepares to take office in Tehran this week,” Helima Croft, head of global commodity strategy and MENA Research at RBC Capital Markets, wrote in a note this week. “Washington is reportedly preparing another round of economic sanctions in response to Friday’s attack, but a more kinetic response also remains on the table.
Raisi is seen as more hardline and anti-Western than his predecessor Hassan Rouhani, who oversaw the signing of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The deal, signed by several world powers including the U.S., lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs to its nuclear program. The U.S. unilaterally withdrew under the Trump administration in 2018, reimposing sweeping sanctions on Iran that have crippled its economy.
This as Tehran increases its uranium stockpiling and enrichment in gradual breaches of the 2015 accord, which it says is in response to U.S. sanctions. Iran announced in late May that it was enriching uranium at 60%, a dramatic departure from the 3.67% level permitted under the JCPOA.
Following the news, International Atomic Energy Agency Director Rafael Grossi sounded the alarm, saying: “A country enriching at 60% is a very serious thing — only countries making bombs are reaching this level.”
“Sixty percent is almost weapons grade, commercial enrichment is 2, 3 [percent],” Grossi said. Iranian officials contend that the enrichment is their country’s sovereign right, and that their nuclear activity remains for peaceful purposes and can be walked back if the U.S. lifts its sanctions.
The Biden administration has voiced its support for reviving the JCPOA as a pillar of its foreign policy, but is rejecting lifting sanctions as long as Iran does not dial back that nuclear activity.
Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington D.C., argues that Raisi and any attempts at making a deal with his government is bad news.
“No amount of spin or massage can cast the man hand-picked by the supreme leader to be the next president as a moderate,” Goldberg, who served on former President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, wrote in an op-ed in the National Review on Tuesday.
“The selection of Raisi is only one of many signals the supreme leader has sent Biden this year, making clear that Khamenei fully intends to pocket any sanctions relief he receives from Washington to fuel the Islamic Republic’s war on the United States and its allies.”
Raisi will also be facing fraught tensions at home, where since mid-July, Iranians in several provinces have been protesting deteriorating living conditions. Since then, rights groups have identified several people killed by state security forces.
“The Iranian political leaders’ primary response to widespread demands for basic rights has been unchecked repression,” wrote Tara Sepehri Far, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch.
And following the uptick in confrontational activity in Gulf waters, Israel has urged concerted action against Iran, declaring as it has many times in the past that it isn’t afraid to confront Iran aloneIsraeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Thursday that Israel is prepared to attack Iran.
“Whether the attacks over the past week herald an intensification of Iran’s naval campaigns is very difficult to discern, especially because the details surrounding Tuesday’s incident remain uncertain,” Henry Rome, director of global macro research at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, wrote in a client email Wednesday.
“The US will also likely accelerate pre-existing plans to levy new sanctions related to Iran’s drone and missile program. Ultimately, though,” Rome added, “this will likely prove too little for Israel, which will find its own way to retaliate—continuing the years-long shadow war between the two adversaries that hovers at the threshold of open conflict.”