How will Tehran deal with the rise of Persian nationalism?

President-elect Ebrahim Raisi and the regime will face new challenges both within and outside the country
FILE PHOTO: A supporter of Ebrahim Raisi displays his portrait during a celebratory rally for his presidential election victory in Tehran, Iran June 19, 2021. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY./File Photo

What will the Iranian regime led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei do about receding religious sentiments among the people, or about the government’s waning control over society? What will its overarching strategy to deal with internal and external challenges be when President-elect Ebrahim Raisi succeeds Hassan Rouhani in August? The challenges the new government will face in the coming years are, no doubt, remarkable in nature.

First, as Persian nationalism grows and challenges pan-Islamism, it will be worth monitoring how the regime will deal with this trend pragmatically, while maintaining its Islamic doctrine. Second, there will be a strategic shift on the part of the government once US-led sanctions are lifted – predicated on the country’s return to the 2015 nuclear deal – towards economic and military development in partnership with China and Russia. This will allow Iran to become a regional hegemon within three years, according to some estimates. Economic revival is an immediate priority.

Experts I spoke to recently have said that the regime currently confronts a “legitimacy crisis” and needs to redefine itself – and that it is already in the midst of doing so.

Edward Luttwak, the veteran strategist and historian, said the clerical regime has – ironically, one would assume – “caused secularisation” across the country. “The regime is losing control of society,” he said. “If you want peace and quiet in Iran, just go to a mosque [because] they're all completely empty. They [the regime] are losing control.” Mr Luttwak added that if the regime continues to finance proxies abroad, ordinary Iranians will be provoked to take to the streets.

Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, said the regime knows it needs to redefine itself. “The Islamic Republic is moving towards Persian nationalism and is relying on national pride and identity as a way to connect with the people,” she said. The conservative Islamic ideology, Ms Vakil added, cannot currently be used to reconnect with the people, because “that ideology is seen as bankrupt and having failed”.

According to Amr Moussa, the former Egyptian foreign minister who was once secretary general of the Arab League, the rise of Persian nationalism will create new dynamics in the Middle East and, perhaps, even make it harder to reach understandings between Iran and Arab countries, where its influence is pervasive. “[The Iranian regime] can have that right [to adopt Persian nationalism] but cannot also continue their interventions in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria," Mr Moussa pointed out.

The expectation among some experts is that, Iran will – at least for the time being – take a different route towards its aim of becoming the most important player in the region. Andrei Fedorov, the former Russian deputy foreign minister, told me that, with the economy ailing in large part due to the sanctions, the immediate priority for the incoming Raisi administration will be to revive it. “What I know personally from my friends in Tehran is they are not willing too much to go on into an open conflict with Israel now. I am told that they need two to three years to stand up again before they can strike.”

In other words, according to Mr Fedorov, there will be backdoor negotiations to avoid direct conflict between Israel and Iran.

This could be the reason why Israel – a sworn enemy of the regime since the latter’s founding in 1979 – does not seem too worried about the American and European diplomatic sprint towards Iran in recent months. It is dealing calmly with the ongoing talks between the global powers and Tehran for the latter's return to the nuclear deal, because it has succeeded, allegedly, in infiltrating Iran in ways that allows it to strike nuclear facilities and assassinate nuclear scientists at will, taking it upon itself to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

To Mr Fedorov’s point, Tehran will need three to four months after signing the deal in order to restore its economic relations with the EU. This will mark the starting point for its planned renewal and recovery. By most estimates, it will take about three years for Iran to realise its ambition of becoming a regional powerhouse – both economically and militarily – which is a period that will coincide with the Biden presidency.

This is telling because Iran will capitalise on the likelihood that the administration will face more challenges over time – including the fact that Joe Biden won’t get any younger – and consolidate its position in the region. By then, the administration will have lifted oil sanctions, thereby benefiting its so-called rivals, China and Russia. Meanwhile, China is developing a strategic foothold in Iran on whose oil it depends, while Russia is hoping for an end to military sanctions so that it can sell arms to Tehran.

A richer and stronger Iran will be less fearful of the US and more capable of implementing its aggressive projects in the region. During this period, Mr Raisi will have consolidated his power in the country by leveraging Persian nationalist sentiments to achieve a strategic revival. This way he will be able to absorb the popular animosity towards the religious leadership and its theocratic rule, as he – presumably – prepares to succeed Mr Khamenei as the supreme leader.

By getting people to focus on economic development and Persian nationalism, he will divert their attention away from theocratic authoritarianism and camouflage some of the overtly religious faces of the regime, distracting especially younger Iranians with pretensions of change. In reality, however, the Islamic Republic will be doubling down on its religious doctrine, the supreme leader’s rule and the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps over the country’s foreign policy.

A wealthier Iran will also be able to shore up its “Persian Crescent” project, but in a less provocative way. It could use its proxies in the region to maintain its influence and control it by stepping up unrest and consolidating its interests. Iran may use some of its soft power, too, but it will not forfeit its doctrine or its regional and international strategies.

Tehran seeks to continue engaging the Arab countries but wants them to concede that Iran will shape the region's security architecture. But because it seeks “tranquility”, it will attempt to strike deals with other major regional powers. Saudi Arabia-Iran talks will, therefore, continue under Mr Raisi.

The next president may stand on two legs, a Chinese and a Russian one. Moscow will equip and modernise the military, while Beijing will firm up a strategic partnership. Both powers will do so knowing full well that Iran will never relinquish its nuclear capabilities.

How does the US fit into these long-term calculations and strategies? So far, the Biden administration seems focused on securing short-term successes, including strengthening its ties with Europe and confronting China’s rise. In the process, though, it is ceding influence to China in the Middle East.

Published: July 4th 2021, 4:00 AM
Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National