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Analysis'Will they be traditional or revolutionary conservatives?'

With world watching, Raisi’s cabinet will indicate where he’s taking Iran

Hardline president to reveal conservative cabinet in coming days, as nuclear talks expected to pick up in September

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, gives his official seal of approval to newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi in an endorsement ceremony in Tehran, Iran, August 3, 2021. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, gives his official seal of approval to newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi in an endorsement ceremony in Tehran, Iran, August 3, 2021. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

The world is watching closely as new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi assumes office.

It will be looking for any hints on whether he will pursue a highly ideological agenda, with a combative stance toward the West, or whether he will prove surprisingly pragmatic despite his hardline credentials and bloody past.

“No one’s quite sure what will happen,” said Ori Goldberg of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya’s Lauder School of Government.

This lack of clarity might be the reason the European Union sent Enrique Mora, its point man for the Vienna nuclear talks, to Tehran for Raisi’s inauguration.

Israel criticized the move bitterly, calling the gesture a “shameful” display of “poor judgment.”

According to a senior EU official, Mora spoke with the Iranian official designated to take charge of the nuclear talks, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and determined that Iran was ready to resume the negotiations in Vienna, possibly in early September.

He added that it was unclear whether the nuclear talks would remain the responsibility of the Iranian foreign ministry or be taken over by another body heavily influenced by the supreme leader, Iran’s powerful Supreme National Security Council.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) greets new Iran President Ebrahim Raisi at the latter’s office on August 6, 2021. (Screen capture/YouTube)

If the EU reports are true, it is certainly an encouraging sign for those looking for a return to the 2015 JCPOA, but is no guarantee that the two sides will find common ground, or that Iran is even looking to compromise at all.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is ultimately responsible for Iran’s strategic decisions, could be trying to buy more time to advance his country’s nuclear program with another round of talks.

An important indicator of the direction Raisi will take the country will be the makeup of his cabinet.

“This will be a conservative cabinet,” said Raz Zimmt, an Iran scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Raisi has until August 19 to reveal his picks, but is expected to do so earlier at Khamenei’s urging.

The question is how far Raisi will go in creating a hardline government.

File: Women supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi hold up his posters during an election campaign rally in the city of Eslamshahr, about 25 kilometers south of the capital Tehran, on June 6, 2021. (AFP)

“The overwhelming majority of ministers, certainly in the most substantive positions, will be conservatives,” said Goldberg. “The question is whether they will be more traditional conservatives or revolutionary conservatives.”

The pick for foreign minister, who is currently responsible for the nuclear talks, will be an important tell regarding the direction Iran wants to take the negotiations.

Amir-Abdollahian is a veteran diplomat and an adviser to Hassan Rouhani ally and current Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, but is also a close ally of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Another possible replacement for Zarif is Saeed Jalili, who withdrew from the presidential race in favor of Raisi. Jalili lost a leg while fighting with the IRGC in the Iran-Iraq War, and is Khamenei’s representative on the powerful Supreme National Security Council.

Other positions — like the interior and intelligence posts — will indicate how Raisi intends to deal with internal unrest and dissent.

“If he takes ministers who are more ideological, that means he is going more in a direction of repression and enforcement,” said Zimmt.

Protestors block roads over water shortages, in the province of Khuzestan, southwest Iran, on July 17, 2021. (Video screenshot)

The Economic Affairs and Finance Ministry is another key post. If Raisi chooses an ideological hardliner who wants to build a “resistance economy” that is impervious to Western sanctions, it could be a sign that Tehran does not expect a nuclear deal and the subsequent sanctions relief.

It would mean Iran is “going the course alone and not looking to the world for cooperation,” said Goldberg.

A technocrat economist, on the other, would indicate a desire to improve living conditions and open Iran up to international trade and investment, which would only be possible in the framework of a nuclear agreement.

The ministerial positions that also come with seats on the Supreme National Security Council — currently Energy, Foreign Affairs, Finance, Defense, Information, Interior, Science and Intelligence — will have a powerful role in Iran’s relations with the world beyond the Foreign Ministry.

Another indication of Raisi’s intentions was his address as he was sworn in on Thursday as the Islamic Republic’s eighth president.

Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, arrives for a meeting at his office in Tehran, Iran, March 16, 2014. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

He promised to pursue the country’s “legal rights,” but also did not rule out diplomacy with the West to ease economic sanctions.

Raisi, who is expected to take a less conciliatory approach than his predecessor, comes into office as high-stakes talk for the resumption of the 2015 nuclear pact have stalled, and with tit-for-tat sabotage attacks between Israel and Iran threatening to snowball into open conflict.

“The policy of pressure and sanctions will not cause the nation of Iran to back down from following up on its legal rights,” Raisi said in a parliamentary ceremony broadcast live on state television, referring to the country’s nuclear program.

Notably, Raisi stressed his embrace of diplomacy to lift US sanctions and mend rifts with neighbors, a subtle reference to Sunni rival Saudi Arabia.

“The sanctions must be lifted,” he said during his half-hour inauguration speech. “We will support any diplomatic plan that supports this goal.”

Iran’s outgoing president, Hassan Rouhani, center, arrives at the swearing-in ceremony for Iran’s new president at the parliament in the Islamic republic’s capital Tehran, on August 5, 2021. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

But he also signaled that Iran seeks to expand its power as a counterbalance to foes across the region.

“Wherever there is oppression and crime in the world, in the heart of Europe, in the US, Africa, Yemen, Syria, Palestine…” he said, his voice rising with emotion, “the message of the election was resistance against arrogant powers.”

“We are the true defenders of human rights, and we do not accept silence against oppression and crime and the violation of the rights of innocent and defenseless human beings,” added Raisi, who has been accused of helping order the execution of some 5,000 prisoners in 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq War.

During the speech, Raisi cited Khamenei’s 2003 religious edict against pursuing nuclear weapons, saying that “such weapons have no place in the defense strategy of the Islamic Republic.”

Raisi was elected in a landslide June election marked by low turnout as Iranians protested the disqualifications of nearly all other candidates by the country’s Islamist leadership.

Students of Iran’s Basij paramilitary force burn posters depicting US President Donald Trump (top) and President-elect Joe Biden, during a rally in front of the foreign ministry in Tehran, on November 28, 2020, to protest the killing of prominent nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh a day earlier near the capital. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

His inauguration completes hardliners’ dominance of all branches of government in the Islamic Republic.

He took over from the more moderate Rouhani, whose landmark achievement during his two-term presidency was the 2015 nuclear agreement between the Islamic Republic and six world powers.

US President Joe Biden has sought to reenter the deal via indirect talks taking place in Vienna under European Union stewardship, but those negotiations have failed to budge over the last month.

Thursday’s inauguration ceremony, scaled back because of the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the country, still drew leaders and dignitaries from around the world, including Hamas terror group chief Ismail Haniyeh and Naim Qassem, second in command of the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy.

A woman receives the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine at the Iran Mall shopping center in Tehran, Iran, on Monday, May 17, 2021. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Khamenei, in an endorsement ceremony for Raisi on Tuesday, advised him to “empower the country’s poor people and improve the national currency” during his presidency.

Amid ongoing sanctions, Iran is grappling with runaway inflation, diminishing revenues, rolling blackouts and water shortages that have sparked scattered protests.

Barred from selling its oil abroad, Iran has seen its economy crumble and its currency crash, hitting ordinary citizens hardest. Iran is also battling the Middle East’s deadliest outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than four million cases and upwards of 92,000 deaths.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report. 

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