Iran’s Foreign Policy After 2020 Election

On February 26, four experts discussed the victory by conservative factions in Iran’s parliamentary elections and the impact on its foreign policy. Speakers included:

•    Robin Wright (moderator) – Distinguished Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center 
•    Ali Vaez – Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group
•    Ariane Tabatabai – Associate Political Scientist, RAND Corporation 
•    Kenneth Katzman – Specialist, Middle East Affairs, Congressional Research Service

Related Analysis: Iran’s Political Future After 2020 Election

The following is an edited transcript from the second half of the event hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center. 


ROBIN WRIGHT: The Revolutionary Guards have now become the dominant power. How does that affect engagement with the United States and with the outside world, on a whole range of issues? Whether it's the nuclear issue, tensions with the Gulf, what happens next in the areas where Iran is projecting power—Iraq, Syria, Lebanon—do they feel more empowered to be more assertive? Or have the protests made them rethink, recalibrate, how they engage and how far they go? 

ALI VAEZ: On foreign policy, obviously people matter in politics, people matter in diplomacy. In the parliament, there are always debates about foreign policy. I agree that the parliament does not play a major role in deciding Iran's foreign policy direction or even influencing the trajectory. But it can impeach the members of the cabinet, it can put much more pressure on Foreign Minister [Mohammad Javad] Zarif, and it can limit the maneuvering space of the government. For instance, some of the things that Zarif suggested last year as potential compromises with the U.S.—for instance, ratification of the additional protocol in the parliament—I think would no longer be possible after June, after this parliament sets in. So that's one element.

Second element, the Speaker of the Parliament sits at the Supreme National Security Council when the state's policies are designed and devised. And it will be quite ironic, now the Rouhani administration has to deal with two rivals from the 2017 presidential election and 2013 presidential election as the head of the Judiciary (Ebrahim Raisi) and of the head of the parliament (likely to be Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf), who sit at the Supreme National Security Council and have a vote on foreign policy directions. And as Ariane alluded to, Ali Larijani (the outgoing Speaker of Parliament) used to be the swing vote, and in a lot of instances he actually helped the Rouhani administration. Now they've lost that vote.

So, it will be much more difficult, and I think it would push Rouhani to become much more of a lame duck for the remainder of his term. But does that mean that diplomacy with the U.S. is more difficult? I've heard both interpretations in the past few days. It will be easier because the system is more unified and consolidated, or it will be harder because these are hardliners. I think both interpretations are misguided because, again, it really depends on the situation. This is a system that has proven again and again to decide based on what it sees as expedient in its strategic interest.

The secret negotiations with the U.S. in Oman started in 2011, when the parliament was fully controlled by the hardliners and an ultraconservative president was in place. But if you ask former U.S. negotiators, and this is where I get that people matter in diplomacy, they say, “Yes, but those people were impossible to deal with.” And by definition, I think the U.S. and the West generally have a really hard time dealing with the Iranian hardliners. They just talk past each other. I've seen this again and again. So even if the system really wants to engage with the West, with a hardline government and a hardline parliament, it will be much tougher, but it doesn't mean it's impossible.
ARIANE TABATABAI: To reiterate, foreign policy, national security policy comes out of a unified system. There is bargaining that happens within the system, but ultimately, when a decision on such national security issues as the nuclear file is made, it is made with the entirety of the system. The push and pull that takes place helps draw the contours of that decision. But once the decision has been made, for example, to negotiate a JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) Plus in 2021, then the parliament is going to be playing a fairly minor role. So we shouldn't overstate the importance of this particular election, of the composition of this current Majles, for Iranian national security and the nuclear file and regional activities more generally. 

But I think there were a couple of places where the parliament and the rise of the hardliners can be significant. They can, as Ali was saying, pressure the governments and they've already started to do so. So we may see more of that type of activity. For example, over the past couple of months, there has been more of a push to force the government to withdraw from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. We don't take that very seriously because again, the decision making doesn't take place in the Majles, it takes place elsewhere. And the Majles is a very small part of that system that makes that decision. But nonetheless, the fact that there is more pressure to get the government to leave the JCPOA is significant. As we move forward, as the Iranians and the Europeans failed to kind of get in line on the JCPOA, as the Europeans push forward with the dispute resolution mechanism, for example, the Majles may play a more active role in forcing the government to take more actions to violate the JCPOA, or to dial down its implementation of the JCPOA.

Again, these are things that we've seen a little bit of, but that may increase as we move toward 2021 and the presidential elections. So I think that the Majles can add bumps in the road. I don't think it is the only player or even the most significant player in choosing the direction, but it can certainly play an important role in adding pressure and adding stress for the government to make sure that it doesn't achieve its goals.

WRIGHT: Let's look at the broader political trend. Ken, you wrote about the Revolutionary Guards, which are known as the Pasdaran in Farsi. So is the Pasdaran-ization of Iranian politics going to change its approach to foreign policy? 

KENNETH KATZMAN: U.S. policymakers need to be prepared for a very rough ride. These boys play rough. They put 80-year-olds in jail, they take over airports and economic institutions. They clearly want to get revenge for [General Qassem] Soleimani, who was the architect of Iran’s regional strategy. The IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) largely feels they have accomplished their core national security goal, which is to be able to project so much power in so many different places in the region that no one will attack them. They can deter. They've achieved a certain measure of deterrence.

I believe they want to force Mr. Trump to cave in on sanctions. I believe they will continue to push. They want to force the United States out of Iraq. They are going to continue to push. Even a few days ago, a pro-Iranian proxy militia, the Nujaba Movement, was still attacking the U.S. embassy. Even today, after the killing of Soleimani, Iran's allies in Iraq are still attacking U.S. locations.

They are going to keep arming their proxies and allies with short range ballistic missiles. And interestingly, I know a lot of U.S. policy focuses on limiting Iran's longer range ballistic missile capabilities. Iran does not project power with long-range missiles. It is projecting power with short-range ballistic missiles provided to the Houthis, to Hezbollah, to the Kataib Hezbollah militia in Iraq. This is how Iran projects power, not with 800-mile-range missiles, but with a 100-mile-range missiles, and I see no evidence Iran is willing to bargain any of that away at all. I think there is a certain emboldening that's taken place from this election, and I would just circle back to that the U.S. needs to be prepared for a rough ride here.

WILSON CENTER PRESIDENT JANE HARMAN: The savage crackdown on the protests was apparent to all of us. Where do these protests go? What is likely to happen in the next period, whether it's one year to two or three? Don't the people come back? Don't they understand through technology what's available in the rest of the world and what they get? And if they do, is Iran going to kill all its people in order for the regime's survival or what?

VAEZ: I think it’s an interesting phenomenon. If you look at the protests in the past two or three years, they are becoming more frequent; they are becoming more existential; they are targeting the core of the regime; they are targeting the Supreme Leader more and more. But do they pose an existential threat to the system? Not yet.

But I'm making this prediction with the caveat that the regimes in that part of the world are stable until they're not. But if you take into account that in the recent protests, if you look at the numbers, it's been quite limited. According to surveys inside Iran, at most in all of these protests (in November and January), there were about 200,000 people who came to the streets throughout the country, combined. Two hundred thousand people. And the system can still mobilize millions and can bring them to the streets. It has the will and a fearsome capability to suppress. And it has actually demonstrated this.

The Trump administration got the wrong lessons from recent protests. The administration increasingly believes that the regime is on the brink of collapse and there's only a question of time. Whereas if you talk to Iranian officials, they give you the exact opposite perception, that they demonstrated by killing a few hundred people in a matter of a few days, by cutting off the Internet entirely, which did cost their economy more than $500 million a day, that they're willing to go to any length and at any cost to remain in power. And they've demonstrated to the Trump administration that they are in full control of their internal sphere.

As Ken was mentioning, they have also demonstrated their power in the region by the kind of attacks—spectacular, brazen—that they've conducted in the past few months, from the attack on Aramco (in Saudi Arabia) to the attack on Ain al Assad (in Iraq). And then in contrast, you have a society that is primarily politically apathetic and despondent. There is no viable alternative to this system inside the country or outside of the country. The Iranian people have experienced this before of knowing precisely what they don't want, but not knowing what they want, which often adds chaos and turmoil to their existing misery. So, I don't think they want to repeat that experience.

They still want radical change, but the short-sightedness of the system in Iran is that this was actually an opportune moment to bring about a government of unity, to open up internally. But because these people came to power, these are still the Jacobins of the 1979 revolution. They came to power at the time the Shah demonstrated a little bit of weakness, and the revolutionaries basically sensed blood, and they went for it. And so they're very reluctant to compromise under pressure internally or externally.

TABATABAI: Earlier, Ken said something to the effect of, this is a regime that is currently pretty confident, but we should distinguish something. The regime is fairly confident in its ability to control the situation. I don't see the regime collapsing immediately. Though, again, as Ali was saying, these things tend to happen when they happen, and if you look back at the sort of assessments prior to the revolution of where Iran was going, most people thought that it was fairly stable, including President Carter, who said as much in Iran, in what would be the last visit by a U.S. president to Iran.

The regime feels confident in its ability to control the situation. It's been doing so by controlling the flow of information. It's been doing so by cracking down very heavily on the November protests. But it doesn't actually feel very confident in its legitimacy. You don't have to kill hundreds, disrupt the flow of information, shut down the Internet, and disqualify 7000 plus candidates, if you feel like your legitimate and that the population is on board with your values, with your policies and what you're pursuing.

That is also tied to several things. One is that the population is increasingly politically apathetic. There is a lack of viable alternatives, whether it's within Iran or outside of Iran. But all of these things are pushing the regime to feel like it is not losing control, but at the same time, it is realizing that it lacks legitimacy that it so wishes to have within the population.

KATZMAN: The Iranian people do not want a Syria-type situation where it is an all out war between the IRGC and the people. I just don't see an appetite to go down that road. I do not yet see cracks in the security forces in any of these protests. 

The regime has evolved a little bit. We talk about the crackdown and yesterday they shot people, they killed people, but they also, in the recent protests combined it with a little bit of humility. Khamenei got out there and said, I acknowledge there's problems, there's grievances. Rouhani has done that. I did not see that in some of the earlier responses, like in the Green Uprising of 2009. I did see some leadership statements saying, you have a right to protest as long as you're peaceful, as long as you don't use violence, as long as you don't burn buildings, you can protest. So I'm seeing a little bit of evolution in how the regime plays these protests movements lately.

VAEZ: The biggest existential threat to the system is this culture of mendacity and incompetence. You see it all over, from shooting down the passenger jet, to how they are dealing with the coronavirus, and so on. The only way they can resolve this is to open up the system. But they’re closing it down. In some ways, they are dooming the system down the road. They might survive in the short run, but in the medium-to long-term, they're basically dooming the system to failure.

WRIGHT: One of the great untold stories is what the U.S. is doing to counter Iran and cyber. And I think that's happened multiple times at strategic moments when it looks like we're not responding kinetically and we're using cyber instead. And I think that will be increasingly the story, because we actually have the capability to take down Iran completely—everything. We don't want to do that in part because we don't want to set the precedent, because the U.S. is the most vulnerable of any country on Earth to cyber attack. And we don't want to encourage anyone else to adopt that kind of precedent. 

QUESTION: In Munich, at the conference, there was a delegation from Iran, and we heard that Foreign Minister Zarif met with some senator. What was the sense of Zarif and the Iranian delegation of where they are going to move from now? And also, did you get a chance to bring up the fate of Siamak Namazi and the dual nationals in jail

QUESTION: Given the remarks made, whether anything can be said about Iran's relationship, in light of the elections, with the Russian elements and the Chinese elements, and the second component that questions whether a counterbalance can be created between a significant expatriate Iranian community—10 percent of the population lives outside of Iran and in the younger generation, about eight to 10 million live outside of Iran—and a younger generation that is entirely dissatisfied with where the country is going.

TABATABAI: I think the diaspora plays an important role in ensuring communication and ensuring the flow of information in a period where, as we've said, the regime increasingly tries to stop the flow of information. Persian language media outlets that are based abroad are particularly helpful in making sure that there is that flow of information.

What I would caution against, though, is something that the administration seems to be wanting to do, which is to see the diaspora as a representation of what the Iranian public may want. And there, I think the diaspora is fairly limited. It is a self-selecting group, by and large. Yes, there is back and forth. Yes, there are connections. Yes, there are family ties. But Secretary Pompeo going and talking to people in Austin or in San Diego does not give him a sense of what Iranians may be thinking. And I think that we need to be honest and realistic about those limitations.

VAEZ: Two observations of the views from Tehran at the Munich Security Conference: One is that they believe that the Trump administration is so confident with maximum pressure and believes that maximum pressure is working, that there is no hope for any serious engagement through mediation or direct or in whatever format with the Trump administration. So the Iranians are now in a de facto less-for-less kind of arrangement with the Europeans when it gets to the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).

And they believe it's a stable situation until November. Iran is obviously not getting the benefits of the deal, but is also not abiding by its commitments and by the restrictions of the JCPOA. But I don't think that means that they want to ramp up their nuclear capability much more. Regarding the next deadline, the 60-day deadline, which is March 6, I don't think much is going to happen. And I think they want to hold this pattern until November.

Now, the question is, if the Europeans, and especially here I worry about the British, if they snap back the U.N. sanctions, which the U.N. arms embargo is supposed to come off in October, and if the British decide as a favor to the Trump administration, which is obsessed with this question, to stop that from being lifted by snapping back the U.N. sanctions, then I think all bets are off and the Iranians would react in a very radical way, including by potentially withdrawing from the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty).

On the regional side, I agree with Ken, and my impression from discussions I had in Munich was that we'll see the continuation of pushback probably in indirect forms, through proxies with plausible deniability in places like Afghanistan. Actually, if this deal with the Taliban falls apart, I fear that that will be the main theater of rivalry between the two countries.

Finally, on the question of the prisoners, apparently, there are still discussions happening despite all of the negative developments that we've seen. But I'm not holding my breath that anything will happen before the elections.

KATZMAN: Each year, Congress mandates that the administration do a report on Iran's military power. The latest report says that Iran has been in discussions and is seeking specific weapons systems that Iran wants to buy from Russia and China when Resolution 2231, the Arms Transfer Embargo expires on October 18 of this year. Obviously, the cooperation of those two countries in particular to extend the arms embargo obviously can't be counted on. In terms of snapback, I still don't see from the Europeans an appetite to snapback sanctions and basically kill the entire JCPOA. I don't see that right now.

QUESTION: To what degree do you think this conservative consolidation can be attributed to the maximum pressure policy? Do you see any prospect for Iran engaging with the Trump administration if there is a second term? And do you see them making any sort of compromises on regional activities and going further than the JCPOA

WRIGHT: And to add the yin to your yang, if the JCPOA had endured or was still supported by the United States, might that have led to a different electoral outcome or were we headed in this direction anyway?

TABATABAI: It’s really hard to say whether, had the JCPOA continued, we would have seen a different outcome. The Guardian Council may have still disqualified half the candidates, and we would have still ended up with the same results. I do think that maximum pressure campaign and everything that has been unfolding internationally and regionally for Iran plays a role. But I think that the domestic [situation] is probably the bigger piece here. 

In terms of whether Iran may engage the United States, should President Trump win a second term, I think that is plausible. But I think that it's dependent on a few things. One is whether or not the administration manages to send a coherent message to Iran. Two is whether it manages to establish off-ramps and not see off-ramps as taking out the maximum from maximum pressure, which it seems to be doing currently.

The regional issues and the missiles were always something that could be added to the JCPOA. They were not going to be negotiated within the context of the JCPOA. But currently the Iranians are engaging on the regional files with the Europeans. Yemen is a topic of conversation between the two sides. That means that it's not completely off the table. It just means that we have to find the right platform, the right format for those negotiations, and the administration needs to be offering a more coherent message as to what it's willing to do to get what it wants and also what it is that it's looking to achieve, which we don't have very good answers to right now.

WRIGHT: And I have a feeling that the administration is deeply divided on what it wants to do. 

VAEZ: I think the conservative consolidation is multi-factorial. It's not just because of the Trump administration, but I think it's also a mistake to overlook how much they did in discrediting the conservatives' rivals. In every election since 2012, despite disqualification, the conservatives have lost. Last year, the disqualification rate was 45 percent versus 56 percent this year. So we're not talking about a major change in terms of disqualification, but we talk about the major change in the political fortunes, which I think was partly because of the Trump administration, which turned out to be the best ally that the Iranian hardliners could wish for.

But I also have to admit that the Rouhani administration overpromised, underdelivered, mismanaged, lied, and covered up. They committed all sorts of mistakes, and their public relations strategy has been disastrous, internally. So they have themselves to blame for that.

On the prospects for negotiations, if there is a second Trump term, the Iranians say, and this includes discussions I had just last week, they say we will wait it out for another five years. I don't think that's possible. If there is a second term turn, the economic situation in Iran would not allow the system to keep its head above water for that long. So, they will have to negotiate.

The question is that the Iranians don't come to the negotiating table from a position of weakness. So they want to revive their leverage. And that's what I'm afraid of. We probably have to go through a nuclear crisis or maybe through more regional crises before we get back to negotiating table. And with this administration, even if it's in its second term, that's a dangerous proposition. 

Finally, on the JCPOA Plus, yes, I think it's possible. The Iranians can make concessions on the ballistic missile issue, on the regional issue, but only if we're talking about marginal concessions and only if the reciprocation on this side goes beyond economic incentives and has some security assurances also put on the table. But I don't think a grand bargain is possible in the foreseeable future or as long as the supreme leader is in office.

KATZMAN: I think the answer to the question lies with administration policymakers. Is the administration willing to ease sanctions or not? I'm looking for signs, but I do not see indications that the administration is willing to entertain the idea of easing sanctions. I mean, there are new sanctions. And now, its virtually every week. It's a succession, and now they've begun designating high level Iranian officials for sanctions, which never was the case before, until recently. Until I have an answer to that question, it's very hard to say.

Yes, Iran has indicated they're willing to talk about long range missiles, which is not core to their national security strategy anyway. It's the short-range missiles that are. On whether they're willing to bargain voluntary restraints in their efforts to support regional armed factions, I personally would give that a flat no. I see no indications that they will accept any restraints on supporting these factions that they see as key to their ability to project power in the region.