Iran’s Next Leaders Face a Choice: Aggression or Caution

Iran’s Next Leaders Face a Choice: Aggression or Caution

In their three years in power, President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran and his equally hard-line foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, did everything they could to consolidate the “Axis of Resistance” against the United States and Israel.

They funded Hamas and Hezbollah. They armed the Houthis, feeding the militia intelligence that fueled attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea. They cracked down on dissent at home, launched Iran’s first direct missile attacks on Israel, after Israel killed several Iranian generals, and turned Iran into a “threshold” nuclear state that could produce fuel for three or four bombs in short order.

But for all those aggressive moves, the two men, both killed in a helicopter crash in the mountains near Azerbaijan on Sunday, were also careful.

Last week, days before their deaths, they approved talks with the United States through intermediaries aimed at making sure the war in Gaza was not the prelude to a wider war in the Middle East. And they stopped just short of making those bombs, at least as far as American intelligence agencies and international inspectors can determine.

The question now is whether their successors — almost certain to be from the same hard-line camp, American officials suspect — will show similar caution. And whether, in the cauldron of internal Iranian power plays, and an all-consuming presidential election in the United States, it will even be possible to keep up the sliver of communications between Washington and Tehran.

“The thing about Raisi was that he was the supreme leader’s man,” said Dennis Ross, the longtime Mideast negotiator, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the 85-year-old head of state who has led the country since 1989. “He allows engagement, but no compromise. His team will inflict damage, but keep it within bounds. They don’t want a direct conflict with the U.S., which is the one thing that could threaten the regime. And I don’t expect that to change.”

American officials say it is far too early to predict Mr. Raisi’s successor but that he is likely to be cast in the same mold.

As one American official noted recently, in the eyes of the supreme leader, that approach may appear to be working: Iran has forged a new relationship with Russia as a critical supplier of drones and missiles, and its attack on Israel demonstrated a new ability to “swarm” weapons — even if most of Iran’s drones and missiles were taken out by air defenses.

Short as it was, the Raisi era turned “resistance” into the semblance of a strategy.

A decade ago, it was possible to imagine a very different future for the United States and Iran. Mr. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, and his urbane, Western-educated foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, seemed determined to dial back the decades of hostility, and sanctions, that had crippled Iran’s economy. They talked about personal freedom and women’s rights, courted European leaders even while the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps kept funding terrorism.

Mr. Zarif engaged directly with the secretary of state at the time, John Kerry, even triggering an uproar among Iranian conservatives when the two men were seen strolling together, deep in conversation, in Vienna.

In a series of often volcanic negotiations, Mr. Zarif and Mr. Kerry emerged with an agreement that essentially swapped Iran’s stockpile of nuclear fuel for sanctions relief. And while the country refused to give up its right to enrich uranium, it negotiated a complex series of limits on its activity that stretched to 2030. After that, Iran was free to produce as much nuclear fuel as it wanted — though it would still be prohibited, as a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, from building atomic weapons.

The deal, of course, quickly came under attack in the United States, especially in a Republican Congress, because it only delayed Iran’s nuclear progress — it did not terminate its ability to cheat on the treaty. But it also proved enormously unpopular in Iran, especially after it turned out that the promised sanctions relief did not come as quickly, or fully, as promised. Big European banks and other financial institutions did not want to take the enormous financial risk of re-entering business agreements that could later run afoul of new sanctions, especially if relations with the West soured again.

That is exactly what happened. President Donald J. Trump pulled out of the deal in 2018, and eventually so did the Iranians. Mr. Rouhani’s reformists were frozen out of the supreme leader’s inner circle and, when Mr. Rouhani’s term ended, they were replaced by a new government that was openly dismissive of the nuclear agreement with the United States and the reformist agenda at home. Crackdowns on dissent followed.

When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken proposed a new nuclear arrangement, “longer and stronger” than the 2015 agreement, Mr. Amir Abdollahian shot the idea down. “We will not have a so-called ‘longer and stronger’ deal,” he told The New York Times in an interview in New York in 2021, where he was attending a United Nations meeting.

“We will return to the negotiations and will do so very quickly,” he said. “But if our counterparts don’t change their behavior we may not reach the required result.” He was critical of the new American president, Joe Biden, for his “paradoxical statements” about relations with Iran and highly skeptical any middle ground could be found.

Indeed, a new nuclear deal that seemed all but sealed in 2022 was killed in Tehran. Later, inspectors’ access to nuclear sites was limited, and Iranian authorities dismantled cameras and other monitoring devices. Only last week, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency was in Tehran, meeting with Mr. Amir Abdollahian about trying to win greater access to nuclear sites. He emerged without an agreement.

And, in the months before his death on Sunday, Mr. Amir Abdollahian expressed little interest in calming tensions over the war in Gaza. “If the U.S. continues its military, political and financial support of Israel and helps manage Israel’s military attacks on Palestinian civilians, then it must face its consequences.”

Mr. Amir Abdollahian’s deputy for political affairs, Ali Bagheri Kani, has been named “caretaker” of the Foreign Ministry. He is well known to American officials, and he led the Iranian delegations that have secretly and indirectly negotiated with the United States in Oman on at least three occasions over the past year.

His appointment suggests that the supreme leader is interested in continuity. But as one U.S. official noted on Monday, Washington’s analysis over the past few years was focused on what would happen after the death of Ayatollah Khamenei, who is rumored to be ill. No one foresaw that, at age 85, he would be picking a new president.

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