On September 2, 2021, the Iranian Studies Unit (ISU) of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, in cooperation with the Arab Center Washington DC (ACW), held a webinar titled “Prospects for US-Iran Relations under Raisi." The guest speaker was Vali Nasr, the Majid Khadduri Professor of International Affairs and Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. ACW Executive Director Khalil E. Jahshan and ISU Chair Mehran Kamrava co-hosted the event.

Vali Nasr began his presentation by highlighting the centrality of US-Iran negotiations regarding the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, saying that everyone is now watching how the Biden Administration will try to get back to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). To Nasr, what is interesting is that both the United States and Iran have new governments that have inherited two different legacies: a withdrawal from the JCPOA by the former Donald Trump Administration, and heavy involvement in negotiating the US-Iran nuclear deal by the Hassan Rouhani Administration. Although President Ebrahim Raisi is new and his foreign policy team was just sworn in, he seems to be committed to reaching a return to the 2015 agreement. Nasr said that Raisi’s domestic program depends on an accommodation with the Joe Biden Administration because Trump’s maximum pressure campaign devastated Iran’s economy. He added that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the conservatives believed that the United States’ aim was regime change; ironically, this is what occurred, though it was not what Washington envisioned: Iran is now squarely under the hard-liners’ control, with no political room left for moderates such as Rouhani. Further, Nasr stated that “maximum pressure was effective as much as a sharp knife is effective when you apply it to the skin.” The middle class was devastated, and the entire society faces high unemployment and inflation and serious impoverishment.

Commenting on the Trump Administration’s decision to assassinate the Quds Force’s commander, General Qassem Soleimani, Nasr said that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “came out of that experience very bullish.” That also helped the conservatives discredit the moderates in their quest to open relations with the United States and the West in general. In fact, former President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif admitted later that they were wrong to invest so much trust and confidence in the United States. Thus, Nasr stated, “the Supreme Leader saw this as an opportunity in order to eliminate … the moderates as a real political force in the presidential elections, the parliamentary elections, and even in the political discourse in the country.” Nasr expected that Raisi will be in strong contention for Khamenei’s position as Supreme Leader—after Khamenei himself makes sure that all authorities in the state (presidency, speakership of parliament, judiciary) are under the control of conservatives. According to Nasr, such an eventuality does not mean that the conservatives are a monolith; they have many factions but there is a common strand among them: their distrust of the United States and the West, and their preference—Raisi’s, too—for relations with the East.

As for Raisi himself, Nasr said that the new president does not have much foreign policy experience. But he can rely on his foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, who has a strong track record that he built over many years. What is certain, Nasr said, is that Raisi knows that Iran’s self-reliance and adherence to the so-called resistance economy are not enough for the country to surmount its problems. He stated that Raisi “understands that some kind of a deal with the United States is necessary for stabilizing the economy … and his success now depends on what he can do.” Nasr discussed the American experience with Afghanistan and said that the leaderships in Iran, the Gulf Arab countries, and Israel have taken note that Biden was firm on withdrawing from Afghanistan and has stuck with his decision, despite all the criticism of the US evacuation. He said that Iran is looking at Biden’s posture as reflecting a US position on negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program; further, Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is evaluating whether he can influence Biden’s decisions, like former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu influenced Trump’s. Lastly, Nasr said that in addition to Raisi’s wish to negotiate with the United States about the nuclear program—which will help him resolve Iran’s economic problems—the new president is very interested in his country’s regional environment and would like to focus on resolving issues with its neighbors.