The Iranian Studies Unit of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies held its second annual conference from 22-23 August 2022 of which the topic was “Iran: The Raisi Presidency One Year On.”

In an election with the lowest voter turnout of any presidential election to date, Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s former head of the judiciary, became the eighth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran in June 2021. The new president came to office amid a wave of voter apathy, poor economic performance, and general disillusionment with the political system. Raisi’s election represents the first time in post-Khomeini Iran when the president’s ideological dispositions and priorities are aligned with those of the velayat-e faqih.

Summer 2022 marked the first anniversary of Raisi’s inauguration. The two-day conference, featuring a selection of scholars of Iran, analysed the first year of Raisi’s presidency by examining the continuities and changes in politics and policies. The conference covered the following topics:

  • Iranian foreign policy, especially Iran’s relations with the great powers; Iran and the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC); Iran and non-state actors; nuclear negotiations and the JCPOA; and Iran in the Caucasus;
  • Domestic politics, including the role of the various political institutions; the legitimacy of the system; treatment of activists; media freedoms, the future of the velayat-e faqih; the religious establishment; labor issues and activism; protests; cyber activism and restrictions;
  • The Iranian economy, with a focus on the impact of sanctions; cryptocurrency; workforce and employment; income inequality; industrial manufacturing and production; agricultural production;
  • Public policy, including the state’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic and healthcare, demographic shifts and developments, refugees, climate change and environmental challenges, and cyberspace.

The conference addressed these topics in 15 papers distributed among seven panels, in addition to a public lecture titled “Iranian Foreign Policy and the Raisi Presidency,” delivered by Seyed Hossein Mousavian, former spokesman for Iran in its nuclear negotiations with the international community and a Middle East Security and Nuclear Policy Specialist at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs.

Day one

The conference opened with remarks from Mehran Kamrava, Head of the Iranian Studies Unit at the Arab Center and Professor of Government at Georgetown University Qatar. Kamrava noted that the conference examines the first year of Raisi’s presidency, paying particular attention to Iran’s foreign policy, domestic politics, economy, and public policy. The conference’s keynote speaker, Dr Seyed Hossein Mousavian, former spokesman for Iran in its nuclear negotiations and currently a Middle East Security and Nuclear Policy Specialist at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, discussed President Raisi’s regional and nuclear policies, overall changes to Iran’s security and foreign policies, and Iran’s pivot to the East policy.

Moderated by Kamrava, the conference’s first panel, “Ebrahim Raisi’s Election,” provided an overview of the 2021 presidential elections in Iran by analysing changes in the Islamic Republic, the politicisation of ethnicity during elections, and the post-election future of the reformist faction. The University of Connecticut’s Amir Mahdavi examined the contextual elements that rendered the election of Raisi a departure from electoral authoritarianism to a hegemonic autocracy. He further discussed the characteristics of the post-2021 political situation with respect to the three forms of hegemonic autocracy — personalist, single-party, and military — that may shape the future of the Islamic Republic. Hamid Ahmadi, from the University of Tehran, contended that the politicisation of ethnicity in Iran is deeply rooted in elite-state relations following the emergence of a modern state in Iran. Ilkhom Mirzoev, currently at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, outlined the process of reformist faction’s marginalisation and highlighted the conflicting strategies within it.

Panel two, titled “Iran and the GCC” and moderated by the Arab Center’s Marwan Kabalan, focused on Iran’s relations with neighbouring Gulf states. Abdolrasool Divsallar, at the Università Cattolica in Milan, stated that while previously Iran viewed Saudi Arabia’s military power as an extension of the US regional power, Iranian elites have started to view Riyadh as an independent military threat. He addressed whether Saudi-Iran talks under Raisi and his deeper ties with security elites can alter this emerging trend. Mahjoob Zweiri, Director of the Gulf Studies Center and Professor of Contemporary History and Politics of the Middle East at Qatar University, and Leen Al-Rabbat, Research Assistant at the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, analysed how Raisi has been able to navigate his foreign policies amidst numerous unfolding crises during the first few months of his presidency, focusing specifically on the Saudi-Iranian relations amidst ongoing peace talks in Iraq.

The third panel, “Iran’s Relations with Africa and South Asia,” examined Iran-Africa and Iran-South Asia relations and was moderated by Mohammed Hemchi. Eric Lob, at Florida International University, examined Raisi’s foreign policy toward Africa in comparison with that of his predecessors. The session concluded with a presentation by Omair Anas, from Ankara’s Yildirim Beyazit University, who offered insights into Raisi’s South Asia policy, explaining the security, economy, and identity dilemmas faced by the Islamic Republic in the region.

Day two

The second day of the conference began with the panel on “domestic and cyber politics,” moderated by Professor Ibrahim Fraihat. In his analysis of Raisi’s domestic policy, Bernard Hourcade, Senior Research Fellow Emeritus at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, claimed that former President Hassan Rouhani’s administration paid special attention to three policy areas, namely the nuclear negotiations, the economy, and relations with neighboring countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. According to Hourcade, the main challenges facing the new administration are the social demands and the possible popular upheaval of the new well-educated middle-class which did not vote for him. Another presenter, Hassan Muzaffar Al-Razzo, who is Director of the Mosul Center for Strategic and Future Studies, outlined the institutional structure of Iranian cyber strategy, highlighting its most important characteristics and identifying the changes that have occurred since Raisi’s election.

The conference also included a panel on “Iran, the US, and Israel,” which was moderated by Dr Emad Kaddorah. The panel examined Iran’s relations with the US and Israel’s policy on the Iranian nuclear program. Mahmood Muhareb, Associate Researcher at the ACRPS, presented on Israeli policy in dealing with the ongoing negotiations to return to the Iranian nuclear agreement, and its rejection of any political solution that does not lead to a definitive end to the Iranian nuclear program. Muhareb examined Israel’s efforts to establish an Israeli-Arab-US military alliance against Iran, its perception of military attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities, and its vision of what could happen in the event that Iran achieves nuclear capability. Gawdat Bahgat, Professor of National Security Affairs at the National Defense University in the United States, explained the key forces that shape the relations between Iran and the United States, arguing that despite the intense animosity, there is room for rapprochement. Bahgat argued that reduced tensions between the two is important in order to reinforce regional stability and security.

 “Sanctions and Iran’s Economy” was the focus of another panel, which was moderated by Professor Hamid Ali, Dean of Public Administration and Development Economics at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, Founder of the Bourse & Bazaar Foundation, examined the growing use of the synthetic control method (SCM) to analyse the effects of sanctions on the Iranian economy. Nikolay Kozhanov, Research Associate Professor at the Gulf Studies Center of Qatar University, provided an overview of the economic strategies adopted by Raisi’s cabinet during his first year in office. Raisi’s economic policies have certain differences and similarities with those of his predecessor, and Kozhanov assessed the potential impact of these policies on Iran’s economic development.

The final panel of the conference, “Iran and the Caucasus,” moderated by Dr Aicha Elbasri, looked into Iran’s foreign policy toward the South Caucasus. Javad Heiran-Nia, International Relations Director of the Gulf Studies Group at the Center for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies in Iran, and Mahmood Monshipouri, Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University, maintained that Iran’s leverage and assets in the South Caucasus are limited, in part due to Tehran’s strained relations with Washington, but largely because of its 20-year strategic agreement with Russia. Rovshan Mammadli, taking part in the conference from Lithuania, concluded the session by discussing how the Raisi administration sought to overcome new challenges in the South Caucasus and assessing its success in doing so. He examined Iran’s policies after the Nagorno-Karabakh war and its view of Israel and Turkey’s activities in the region.