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Hopes for a Diplomatic Opening Rise Under Iran’s New President

Hopes for a Diplomatic Opening Rise Under Iran’s New President

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With the election of the reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian as president, Iran may see a softening of its absolutist foreign policy and even an opportunity for a new diplomatic opening, current and former officials and experts say.

Mr. Pezeshkian, a cardiologist, member of Parliament and former health minister, has little direct experience in foreign policy. But he has pledged to empower Iran’s most elite and globalist diplomats to run his foreign agenda, raising hopes of a warmer relationship with the West.

Mr. Pezeshkian “represents a more pragmatic posture and less confrontational posture toward the outside and the inside,” said Dennis B. Ross, who served as a special assistant to President Barack Obama and is a longtime Mideast negotiator.

Still, Mr. Ross noted, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “would do a great deal to limit” Mr. Pezeshkian’s international agenda.

Most of the Iranian president’s powers are confined to domestic issues. It is Mr. Khamenei, as the country’s highest political and religious official, who makes all of the major policy decisions, particularly in foreign affairs and Iran’s nuclear program.

The other leading power in the Iranian system, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, oversees all of Iran’s military matters. The Revolutionary Guards and the supreme leader are closely aligned, and they decide when and how to use military force, whether in unleashing its proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, or in threatening Israel.

Iran’s foreign policies have grown increasingly hard-line in recent years, diplomats and analysts say, and that trend may well continue under Mr. Pezeshkian. That includes solidifying alliances with other authoritarian states — as Iran has by arming Russia with drones and missiles to attack Ukraine — and portraying itself as a power to be reckoned with, both in the Middle East and the West, despite its domestic upheaval and cratered economy.

“Iran’s axis of resistance has been so remarkably successful that it is hard to see why anyone would seek to disrupt a policy that has allowed Tehran to project power with some measure of impunity,” Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an analysis as the election neared.

Where the president may have the greatest effect internationally, analysts say, is in shaping how Iran’s policies are viewed around the world, largely through the diplomats he selects. In this respect, the contrast between Mr. Pezeshkian and his top challenger, the anti-Western ultraconservative Saeed Jalili, is stark.

During the hard-line presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr. Jalili had flatly opposed a deal with world powers to limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from bruising economic sanctions. Instead, he had pushed to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels, Stimson Center experts wrote in an analysis in June.

“His approach led to Iran’s isolation,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran director at the International Crisis Group. “He doesn’t believe in the value of dealing with the West.”

Under Mr. Pezeshkian, he said, “I think the odds of a diplomatic breakthrough will increase.”

Mr. Pezeshkian has said he is determined to set a policy of international engagement and supports an easing of relations with the West with the aim of ending the sanctions. He says he wants to foster communication with most other governments across the world — except Israel — but he has also warned against putting too much stock in alliances with Russia and China. That’s “because then they could exploit Iran” and further isolate it globally, Mr. Vaez said.

“If we want to work based on this policy, we must behave well with everyone and establish a good relationship with everyone based on dignity and interests,” Mr. Pezeshkian said in May. “The more we improve our foreign relations, the closer we get to the aforementioned policy, but the more tensions increase, the more we move away from it and the situation worsens.”

Mr. Vaez said Mr. Pezeshkian has not put forward any specific foreign policy proposals and is fairly upfront about his lack of international experience. But the chief foreign policy adviser for his campaign was Mohammad Javad Zarif, the former foreign minister who brokered a nuclear deal with world powers in 2015. An astute English-speaking diplomat who has lived in the United States, Mr. Zarif has been mocked at home by hard-liners as a make-believe American.

A key test of Iran’s interest in diplomacy with the West will be in whether it responds to efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, an issue that is complicated by the candidacy of former President Donald J. Trump.

The agreement, which aimed to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb, technically expires next year. But it has been all but defunct since Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018 and reimposed American sanctions. That prompted Iran to accelerate its uranium enrichment to the point where experts say it may now be able to produce the fuel for three or more bombs in days or weeks.

Iran has long insisted that its nuclear program is peaceful, and that it is prohibited from manufacturing or using nuclear weapons because of a 2003 “fatwa,” or religious edict, issued by Mr. Khamenei. American officials say there is no evidence of a current effort to weaponize Iran’s near bomb-grade uranium, but the Israelis argue that such efforts are indeed underway under the guise of university research.

Catherine Ashton, a British diplomat who oversaw the nuclear talks as the European Union’s foreign policy chief when an interim agreement was reached in 2013, worked closely with both Mr. Jalili and Mr. Zarif at the negotiating table. She said Mr. Jalili appeared most concerned with “keeping the negotiations happening while ensuring there was no real progress or outcome.”

Mr. Zarif, on the other hand, had “a far greater understanding of the U.S.A. and Europe, and a determination to secure the future of Iran in the region,” Ms. Ashton said.

Mr. Khamenei had warned Iranians against electing a president who might be seen as too open to the West, particularly to the United States. Diplomats also note that the warming of transactional relations with Russia over the last decade, following years of distrust and disagreement, has helped Iran cope with continued international isolation.

The war in Gaza has aggravated tensions between the United States and forces backed by Iran in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, diminishing the possibility of new agreements between Washington and Tehran, Stimson Center experts wrote.

After an Israeli strike on Iran’s embassy compound in Syria in April, killing several Iranian commanders, Tehran retaliated by firing hundreds of missiles and drones against Israel, most of which were intercepted. It marked a serious escalation between the two enemies, and most likely led Iran to ensure it had a more potent deterrent in place.

Still, the Iranians are aware that the United States is determined to avoid a broadening of the conflict in the Middle East, and there have been back-channel messages between the two capitals to underscore the dangers.

A prisoner exchange last year between the two countries had stirred hope of further diplomatic cooperation, as had indirect talks over the nuclear program. But Iran is now focused on how — or whether — to deal with Mr. Trump if he wins re-election in November, as is widely assumed among Iran’s political class.

Mr. Ross, the negotiator, said the new Iranian president will have some leeway in adjusting the balance between “pragmatism or adherence to the ideological norms that the supreme leader sets” in making government decisions.

But that will only go so far in Mr. Pezeshkian’s dealings in foreign policy, especially with the United States, where Mr. Khamenei has set clear boundaries. Even when it came to the 2015 nuclear deal, Mr. Ross said, the supreme leader “distanced himself from it and positioned himself to say ‘I told you so’ when Trump walked away from it.”



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