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Emil Avdaliani

Emil Avdaliani:Iran's Foreign Policy under a new Leadership

【明報文章】The tragic death of the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi along with other high level offcials of the Islamic Republic on May 19 is seen as a major test for the country and its leadership.

This is especially true as it happened at a time when the country has entered a new and qualitatively different period in its foreign policy. Exacerbating tensions with Israel and its allies such as the U.S. and a number of European countries creates a major dilemma for Tehran and its future leadership. For a casual reader this is nothing new, but the recent dynamic in the Middle East indicates that the rivalry between Iran and the Jewish state has entered a more dangerous period.

With the April attack by Israel on the Iranian diplomatic facilities in Damascus followed by a massive retaliatory attack from Iran on Israel itself, Tehran and Tel-Aviv have come out of a traditional shadowy war they had been waging for decades. The two understood the rules of the game and where the red lines were drawn. Neither Tel-Aviv nor Tehran attempted direct attack on each other's soil.

Now, however, the rules of the game have changed. The shadowy rivalry evolved into an open confrontation. Therefore, the main dilemma for the new leadership will be how to manage growing instability in the Middle East which could easily get out of control and a major tenet of Iran's foreign policy – keeping U.S. at bay – could be easily reversed with Washington potentially entering the fray. For a certain period of time, the deterrence which was re-established in April between Israel and Iran will remain in place as Tehran is presently not interested in wider regional destabilization.

After Raisi's death the prevailing hardline doctrine in both domestic and foreign policies is likely to be continued. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (and his close associates) will remain a major course-setter. Just as at the domestic level, also at the regional and international ones Iran will try not to show signs of weakness amid increased tensions in the Middle East, fuelled by the war in Gaza and the growing support for its regional proxies. Ultimately, the objective will be to ensure the longevity of the Islamic Republic.

Whoever the next president of Iran is, Tehran will continue with its efforts to dominate Iraq which serves as a bridge to Syria and eventually Lebanon and the Mediterranean world. Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groupings will continue to pressure Israel but this will not spill over into a major conflagration based on the prevailing thinking in Tehran.

Still this does not guarantee that a major conflict is ruled out. After all, a major arms race will likely accelerate where Israel and the Islamic Republic will pay special attention to developments of drone, missile and anti-missile technologies. Iran potentially perceiving being unable to catch up with Israel will likely use its major card: completing the nuclear program, which, in turn, will create the need for other powers (for instance, Saudi Arabia) to aqcuire their version of nuclear capabilities.

Whoever the next president of Iran will be the country will continue to work toward preventing Saudi Arabia and Israel from normalizing their relations which will also be linked to a close security pact between Riyadh and Washington. Iran will oppose this scenario but can do little unless a major war happens between Israel and other Iran-backed groupings.

Another critical element of Iran's foreign policy will be its relations with Russia, which are likely to expand further – the trend observable over the past several years, but especially so following the war in Ukraine. Moscow too is interested in close ties. The International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) which runs from Russia's northern ports and major cities in the country's hinterland to Iran's south is a major geopolitical project the two countries have worked on over the past two years.

For Russia it is about re-orienting its trade away from the West to Asia and the Middle East; for Iran it is about puncturing the economic isolation the country has endured for decades of international (essentially Western) sanctions. The benefits, therefore, are immense and they run both ways, which means that irrespective of who is in charge in Moscow or Tehran, the expansion of Russian-Iranian ties is likely to continue.

Emil Avdaliani is a professor of international relations at European University in Tbilisi, Georgia.

(Criticisms on this publication, if any, are aimed at pointing out the errors or defects of certain systems or policies with a view of rectifying or eradicating such errors or defects, as well as prompting improvement or remedy for them via lawful means. There is absolutely no intention of inciting hatred, discontent or hostility towards the government or other classes of the community.)

[Emil Avdaliani]

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