Raisi wants to build trust at home. Can he do so abroad?

As he prepares to enter office, Iran's new president confronts a tough domestic situation and an even more complex geopolitical one

The history of the Islamic Republic of Iran is one defined by being outside global political norms and pursuing hardline domestic agendas. However, like all new political leaders, Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, who comes into power this week, has an early window to open a new, more positive chapter if he chooses.

It is unlikely to happen. Mr Raisi has throughout his career been loyal to the most conservative elements in the establishment. He has consistently advocated economic isolation and a "resistance economy". He is accused of overseeing the executions of thousands of opposition activists in the 1980s.

Yet, he enters office admitting the need to reverse dwindling public trust in the regime. The rest of the establishment, fearful of rising anger at home, is behaving similarly. Hassan Rouhani, the outgoing president, has said his administration “did not tell part of the truth” at points, even asking for "forgiveness and mercy" from the public. And Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is now on record saying the public are not to blame for current protests, a striking observation from the ultimate authority of a system that has suppressed protests, including during today's unrest.

Just like at home, Iran is running up a trust deficit abroad. This week, Israel, the UK and the US have accused it of a deadly drone attack on an oil tanker that killed two people. Such events are happening as Iran tries to negotiate with world powers a return to the 2015 nuclear deal. Carrying out lethal attacks at the same time would make Tehran's presence at negotiations seem like a diplomatic facade.

It might not be able to rely on western tolerance for long. Washington's patience is being tested, and parties are rightfully sceptical that Tehran is willing to change its behaviour. Mr Raisi, even if he does desire progress, is chained to institutions that do not want compromise any time soon. The National has reported on a recent report from the British think tank The Tony Blair Institute, which outlines the ongoing and complex threat posed by the country's inherently destabilising Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Mr Raisi has close links with the group. Diverging from their agenda will be hard.

A return to the terms of the 2015 deal would not help the Middle East. A more comprehensive one is needed to truly stabilise the region. But Tehran would still profit from a stricter agreement. The priority of re-establishing trust with its citizens is closely linked with its foreign policy, which dictates how much Iran is able to re-join the global economic order, easing inflation and sanctions and, therefore, poverty at home. It might also be necessary for its domestic security. As neighbouring Afghanistan deteriorates, regional diplomacy, not isolation, will protect Iranians from potential fallout.

The new government is right to talk about building trust with its people. It remains to be seen whether it is able to do so at home and abroad.

Published: August 3rd 2021, 5:00 AM