Ebrahim Raisi speaking during a campaign meeting at the Mosalla mosque in Tehran in 2017. He won the 2021 Iran Presidential election held on June 18. (Photo: TIMA via Reuters)
Four at a time, the bodies of the enemies of the state were hung from cranes, grim pendants Iran’s revolution put up to adorn Tehran’s skyline. Ebrahim Raisi, a former seminary student who had gone on to become Tehran’s prosecutor, sat on the committee of three that tried and sentenced the victims: more than 3,000 Mujahideen-e-Khalq insurgents, who had fought the regime with the support of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein; Trotskyite revolutionaries; communists of the Tudeh party.
“I believe this is the greatest crime committed in the Islamic Republic since the revolution,” the theologian Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri said as the killings unfolded in 1988, “history will condemn us for it.”
The judgement of history has indeed been harsh, but it hasn’t been particularly effectual. This month, Raisi was elected President of Iran, the first figure directly involved in Iran’s post-revolutionary massacres to take office. The election results, it’s true, show there’s widespread resentment against the country’s theocratic establishment. Voter turnout was the lowest on record, and invalid ballots came in second. Yet, there’s little sign of an organised challenge to the Ayatollahs’ power.
In recent weeks, US President Joe Biden’s diplomats have been seeking to cool a witch’s brew that involves religion, geopolitical rivalries and nuclear weapons. New Delhi needs them to succeed. Escalation of the murderous tensions between Iran, its neighbours and the United States could threaten the Indian diaspora, drive up energy prices and disrupt global supplies.
Finding terms all the actors can live with, though, is far easier said than done.
The story dates back, in some senses, to the nuclear-weapons agreement Iran made in 2015 with the so-called P5+1 group of powers—the five permanent members of the United Nations, the United States, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France, along with Germany. In essence, Iran agreed to unwind its ability to rapidly assemble a nuclear weapon, in return for the lifting of nuclear weapons-related sanctions first imposed in 2006.
For critics, though, the agreement didn’t go far enough. Iran wasn’t, notably, compelled to end its research and development of missiles. Inside weeks of the agreement, Iran tested the Emad intermediate-range guided missile which can deliver a 1,750 kilogram payload—enough for a nuclear weapon—to targets up to 2,500 kilometres away. Israel was now in range of a future Iranian nuclear weapon.
The critics of the agreement pointed out Iran could evade international monitoring to build a bomb. Israel, notably, had done the same thing—first promising its Dimona plant would never be used to manufacture nuclear weapons and, when confronted, defeating inspections by bricking-off parts of the facility and providing fake reactor-operations data.
Israel, along with Saudi Arabia, also argued the P5+1 agreement hadn’t addressed what they saw as the core problem: Iran’s use of proxies, as well as terrorist groups, to pursue its regional interests. Lifting sanctions, they asserted, would enable Tehran to become more aggressive, miring the region in low-grade warfare.
To the ire of his P5+1 partners—and, of course, Iran—then US president Donald Trump’s administration listened to the critics, and withdrew from the agreement in 2018. Israel and Saudi Arabia were ecstatic; the world, less so, fearing this would set off regional tensions.
In some senses, both sides are prisoners of history. The relationship between the United States and Iran fractured in 1979, when revolutionary Islamists took hostage diplomats at the United States embassy in Tehran. The United States saw the revolution as a fundamental threat to the post-Second World War order it had built in the Persian Gulf, centred around Saudi Arabia. The United States backed Iraq’s war on Iran from 1980; Iran, in turn, struck at United States targets in the region, notably bombing a Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.
Following 9/11, signs of new pragmatism emerged from Tehran. Iran provided intelligence on the Taliban and al-Qaeda to the United States and, in 2003, conveyed conditions for peace talks, through Swiss diplomats.
Washington, though, gambled on its coercive options, believing it could overthrow the Ayatollahs. In 2002, then president George W. Bush had branded Iran part of an “Axis of Evil” that had to be overthrown. Tehran concluded that, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it would also be targeted for regime change. Iran-backed Shi’a insurgents in Iraq staged hundreds of attacks on American troops, tying them down in an unwinnable urban war. In addition, Iran allowed Al-Qaeda jihadists to transit to Syria.
In the course of the so-called Arab Spring rebellions of the 2010s, Iran expanded its regional influence, acting to save President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and undermining Saudi Arabia’s hopes of controlling Yemen’s future. Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanon-based client, also received enhanced support. Iran believed this exercise of power was critical to insulating its regime from the region-wide chaos.
The nuclear agreement hoped to cool down this brutal contestation, which claimed tens of thousands of lives across the region. The agreement didn’t, however, address the mistrust between the region’s powers—and was eventually blown apart by them.
For Tehran and Washington to now arrive at acceptable terms will need the two to arrive at a shared understanding of the legitimate influence and role of Iran in the region—one that states like Israel and Saudi Arabia can also live with. The deal will have to address the existential insecurities of Iran’s regime, but also the concerns regional states have about destabilisation and proxy war.
Lessons learned by both sides could provide a bedrock for agreement. Iran desperately needs access to Western markets if its moribund economy is to revive. In spite of its close relationship with China, Tehran has learned the partnership isn’t a substitute for genuine reintegration in the global economy. According to the China Global Investment Tracker, China’s investment in Iran from 2010 to 2020 amounted to $18.2 billion. In the same period, China invested $30.6 billion in Saudi Arabia and $29.5 billion in the UAE.
From bitter experience, Washington has also learned that coercion has its limits. Long-running sanctions crippled North Korea, but did not tip over its regime or impede its nuclear weapons and missile programmes. The occupation of Iraq engendered greater regional instability, and a humiliating military defeat. Iran’s theocratic regime, most importantly, remains intact. Iran could help contain the Taliban in Afghanistan, and stabilise the Persian Gulf—thus ensuring the security of energy resources the world’s pandemic-battered economies desperately need.
Elected with a fragile mandate, President Raisi knows a peace deal offers the Iranian regime its best hope of rebuilding its frayed legitimacy. Fragile and fearful for its continued survival, however, Iran’s regime has reason to resist concessions that could imperil its existence.
The two sides have, over decades, rarely missed a chance to miss a chance. The world will pay a high price if they fail yet again.