A map of China seen through a magnifying glass on a computer screen, Singapore, July 2021
In 2016, AlphaGo, a computer program developed by machine learning experts in London, beat the world’s top players of the classical Chinese board game Go. It was a revolutionary breakthrough in artificial intelligence: AlphaGo had demonstrated an unprecedented capacity for intuition and pattern recognition. That a Western program had been the first to achieve this AI feat prompted some commentators to declare that China had experienced a “Sputnik moment,” an event that would trigger widespread unease in the country about its perceived technological lag. Indeed, China has had a Sputnik moment in recent years—but it wasn’t prompted by AlphaGo’s victory. Rather, since 2018, tightening U.S. trade restrictions have threatened the viability of some of China’s biggest firms, fueling anxiety in Beijing and forcing Chinese companies to reinvent the U.S. technologies they can no longer access.
The Chinese government has long had twin ambitions for industrial policy: to be more economically self-sufficient and to achieve technological greatness. For the most part, it has relied on government ministries and state-owned enterprises to pursue these goals, and for the most part, it has come up short. In semiconductor production, for example, China has barely crossed the starting line.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran, June 2021
The Islamic Republic of Iran is a state divided against itself. Since its inception in 1979, it has been defined by tension between the president, who heads its elected government, and the supreme leader, who leads the parallel state institutions that embody modern Iran’s revolutionary Islamist ideals. The current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, served as president from 1981 to 1989. During his tenure as president, he clashed over matters of policy, personnel, and ideology with the supreme leader at the time, Ruhollah Khomeini, the charismatic cleric who had spearheaded the Iranian Revolution. After Khomeini died, in 1989, Khamenei was appointed supreme leader and went on to do battle with a long line of presidents more moderate than himself.
Iran’s recent presidents have not been radicals by the standards of the country’s political establishment. But despite their differing worldviews and social bases, all of them pursued domestic and foreign policies that the parallel state labeled as secular, liberal, antirevolutionary, and subversive. In each case, Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which answers directly to the supreme leader, moved aggressively and at times brutally to contain and control the elected government. The battles left the government bureaucracy depleted and paralyzed.
With the election of Iran’s new president, this struggle may have finally been decided in favor of the parallel state. Ebrahim Raisi, who captured the presidency in a meticulously engineered election in June, is a loyal functionary of Iran’s theocratic system. For decades, he served as a low-profile prosecutor and judge, including two years as the head of Iran’s judiciary. Over the course of his career, Raisi became notorious for his alleged role in the summary execution of thousands of political prisoners and members of leftist armed groups in the late 1980s. His eagerness to stamp out any perceived threat to the parallel state clearly endeared him to Khamenei, and there is little doubt that as president, one of his priorities will be to tighten the supreme leader’s control over the administrative agencies of the elected government.
The context in which Raisi assumed the presidency will also require a break from the past. Iran has been impoverished by the stranglehold of U.S. sanctions and the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. The democratic aspirations of the devastated middle class are waning, and a collective sense of isolation and victimhood is rising in their place. The surrounding region remains threatening, strengthening those who pose as guardians of national security. Amid all this turmoil, Iran will soon need a new leader—a transition in which the new president is set to play a critical role, and which could potentially result in his own rise to head of the Islamic Republic.
These changes promise to usher in a new era in the Islamic Republic’s history. The turmoil created by a divided system could give way to an Iran that is more cohesive and more assertive in trying to shape the region in its own image. As many of the leaders and movements that defined Iranian politics for the past three decades fade away, a faction of right-wing leaders has the opportunity to reshape Iran’s politics and society in ways that will expand the IRGC’s control over the country’s economy, further diminish political freedoms, and yet display limited tolerance on religious and social issues. It will champion Iranian nationalism to widen its popular base domestically, while relying on Shiite and anti-American ideologies to project power regionally.
These changes could also reshape Iran’s relationship with the world, and particularly with the United States. With the backing of a self-assured IRGC and no fear of domestic sabotage, the new government will not shy away from confronting perceived existential threats from the United States. Although it may compromise on the nuclear issue to mitigate mounting economic and environmental crises at home, the incoming foreign policy team will shelve previous presidents’ aspirations of a rapprochement with the West and instead pursue strategic alliances with China and Russia. Its primary focus will be the Middle East, where it will seek bilateral security and trade agreements with its neighbors and double down on strengthening its “axis of resistance,” a sprawling network of proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and the rest of the region.
U.S.-Iranian relations will be transactional and revolve around immediate security concerns. The alluring promise of a broader rapprochement will no longer find fertile ground in Tehran. The window of opportunity for a “grand bargain” between the two countries has likely closed.
Born In Struggle
The political order that Khomeini ushered into being in 1979 emerged in struggle. Removing the shah, the dictator who had ruled Iran since 1941, was a relatively peaceful affair, but the contest between Islamists and their rivals was bloody and protracted. Khomeini’s acolytes battled traditional clergy, nationalists, and Marxists for power. The 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy by students loyal to Khomeini consolidated the Islamists’ grip on power, as did the war that Iran fought against its neighbor Iraq from 1980 to 1988, which helped expand their paramilitary force, the IRGC, as a counterweight to the U.S.-trained Iranian army.
The victorious Islamist forces established parallel institutions that collectively they call nezam, or “the system,” which is designed to neuter any threats from the secular state. Iran soon found itself riven by fault lines, however: between the supreme leader and the president, between the commanders of the IRGC and the army, and between the religious jurists of the Guardian Council (the body that holds a veto power over legislation) and members of parliament. The fissures deepened after Khomeini died, when the Islamists’ conservative wing took over and removed its leftist brethren from power. The ruling faction soon split between the parallel state and the government, headed by the new supreme leader and the president, respectively.
The supreme leader is constitutionally the ultimate decision-maker in Iran, but the president and the government bureaucracy can occasionally exploit popular sentiment to outmaneuver him. Elections have highlighted polarizing issues such as civil rights, mandatory dress codes, corruption, and relations with the United States, spurring social movements and protests that the parallel state cannot ignore. The 1997 presidential election gave birth to a formidable reform movement whose “religious democratic” aspirations altered even the supreme leader’s lexicon.
But for Iran’s recent presidents, efforts to exploit popular sentiment to push for reform usually ended in frustration and failure. As candidates, all the men who have served as Iran’s president during the past three decades—Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Hassan Rouhani—promised to chart an independent course and open the country up to the world. Once in office, however, they inevitably fell short, constrained by the supreme leader’s active opposition. All these men also began their careers as fervent loyalists of the parallel state, and indeed they helped build the foundations of the Islamic Republic.
Rafsanjani made the first attempt to weaken the parallel state. He was himself one of the founders of the theocratic establishment, as well as an instrumental backer of Khamenei’s appointment as supreme leader. But as Iran’s president from 1989 to 1997, Rafsanjani tried to shepherd the country out of its revolutionary phase and rebuild its fractured economy by strengthening ties with the United States and Europe. Before long, he was locked in a power struggle with Khamenei, as he sought to subsume the IRGC into the army or at least reduce it to a small, elite division. His objective was to centralize decision-making within the government and prevent the parallel state’s interests from determining national security.
Khamenei foiled that plan and nixed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed Rafsanjani to run for a third consecutive term. But when Rafsanjani left office in 1997, he did not exit the political scene. Instead, the competition between him and Khamenei introduced an element of volatility into Iranian electoral politics that lasted for a quarter century.
Khatami owed his stunning landslide electoral victory in 1997 in part to Rafsanjani, who used his control over the political machine to back the unlikely reformist candidate. Khatami’s progressive platform appealed to disgruntled youth, women, and a middle class that had swelled because of Rafsanjani’s economic reforms. As president, Khatami presided over a brief moment of liberalization: hundreds of new media outlets emerged, and intellectuals put forward ideas about religious pluralism that threatened the supreme leader’s monopoly on divine truth. Khamenei and the IRGC moved aggressively to thwart Khatami’s reformist agenda and head off any rapprochement with the United States, arresting hundreds of journalists, intellectuals, and students.
The window of opportunity for a “grand bargain” between Iran and the United States has likely closed.
Following this crackdown, the parallel state seemed to be on the verge of winning its power struggle with the government. Ahmadinejad ran a populist campaign in the 2005 election and defeated Rafsanjani, whom he portrayed as the symbol of a corrupt system. Throughout Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the IRGC penetrated state institutions, accelerated the country’s nuclear program, and exploited Iran’s international isolation under sanctions to bolster its own economic activities. When millions of Iranians protested Ahmadinejad’s contested reelection in 2009, the IRGC violently crushed the demonstrations. The parallel state imprisoned many reformist leaders and placed others under house arrest. Among the dead and detained were children and relatives of senior conservative officials. For a moment, even the parallel state cracked: IRGC commanders had to travel around the country to brief rank-and-file members and other conservative figures to justify their excessive use of violence against the protesters.
But even Ahmadinejad eventually clashed with Khamenei and the IRGC. In his second term, he dropped his anti-American stance in favor of overtures toward Washington and replaced his earlier Islamist rhetoric with appeals to Persian nationalism. He accused the IRGC and the intelligence agencies of smuggling luxury commodities such as cigarettes and women’s makeup products (and other goods) disguised as sensitive items into and out of Iran. In an effort to bypass the very religious establishment that had brought him to power, he intimated that he enjoyed a connection of some sort to the “Hidden Imam,” a messianic figure revered by the Shiites.
After eight years with a loose cannon as president, Iranians began to support reformists who promised a return to normalcy. Rafsanjani was disqualified from running in the 2013 election by the Guardian Council, which is charged with assessing whether candidates hold loyalty to the supreme leader, and so he rallied support for his protégé, Rouhani, a former national security adviser to and nuclear negotiator for Rafsanjani and Khatami. Rouhani campaigned on an ambitious platform, pledging to defend citizens against the militarism of the IRGC and the religious extremism that restricted citizens’ daily lives, secure the release of reformist leaders from house arrest, and improve the economy by resolving the nuclear impasse. He linked economic growth to the nuclear negotiations by declaring, “It’s good to have centrifuges running, but people’s lives also have to run; our factories have to run.”
With Rafsanjani and the reformists behind him, Rouhani was elected president in 2013 and reelected in 2017. Technocrats returned to senior positions and resumed the nuclear negotiations they had started a decade earlier under Khatami, but this time, they spoke not only with European powers but also directly with the United States. Preliminary nuclear talks between Iran and the United States had started secretly in Oman, with Khamenei’s blessing, a few months before Rouhani’s election. But the new team used its popular mandate to pressure the supreme leader to show more flexibility in the negotiations than he would have liked. After two years, Rouhani’s negotiators concluded an agreement with six world powers, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which offered Iran some relief from sanctions in return for agreeing to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities and to limit its uranium enrichment, at least for a time.
The parallel state struck back hard to dampen the euphoria that greeted the 2015 nuclear deal. In doing so, it provided graphic evidence of the internal struggles within the Iranian state. In April of this year, a three-hour audio file that was part of a classified oral history commissioned by an arm of the president’s office was anonymously leaked to the media. In it, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif can be heard bluntly stating that Iran’s foreign policy has consistently been at the service of the IRGC.
This leak confirms that the Rouhani administration viewed Iran’s nuclear program as an IRGC project not entirely in the interests of the state. In the taped conversation, Zarif says that he told Khatami and Rouhani that “a group [presumably the IRGC] has thrown the country down into a well, and that well is a nuclear well.”
Zarif even accuses the IRGC of collaborating with Russia to sabotage his diplomatic efforts on the nuclear issue. The Russians feared that a nonproliferation agreement could bring Iran closer to the United States. According to Zarif, immediately after the JCPOA was announced, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, to discuss the Syrian conflict. Russian missiles and planes then began intentionally flying a longer route through Iranian skies to attack forces battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Zarif implies that Putin intended to lock Iran into a collaboration with Russia in a regional battle as a way to keep Tehran in conflict with Washington.
In the leaked audio, Zarif howls that the parallel state spent the six months before the nuclear agreement went into effect trying to sabotage it. The IRGC’s “firing a missile with ‘Israel must be wiped out’ inscribed on it, those affairs with Russia and the following regional events, raiding the Saudi embassy [in Tehran], seizing U.S. ships—they were all done to prevent the JCPOA from implementation,” he says on the tape.
In the years after the JCPOA was adopted, Zarif found himself constantly scrambling to repair the IRGC’s damage to his careful diplomacy. Soleimani told Zarif little about his plans. For instance, in January 2016, U.S. sanctions on Iran’s flagship airline, Iran Air, were relaxed as part of the nuclear deal. But five months later, Zarif learned from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Iran Air not only had resumed the use of putatively civilian flights to funnel weapons to Hezbollah in Syria, the action that had gotten it sanctioned in the first place, but also had increased those flights sixfold on Soleimani’s direct orders.
The flights put Iran Air’s aging fleet at risk and courted new sanctions. Zarif furiously summarizes the IRGC’s view of the matter—that if using Iran Air for this purpose conferred a two percent advantage over the alternatives, “even if it cost the country’s diplomacy 200 percent, it was worth using it!” (Soleimani’s risk acceptance and willingness to provoke the United States may have contributed to his own demise; in early 2020, he was targeted and killed by an armed U.S. drone in Baghdad.)
Zarif bemoans the fact that his popularity among Iranians dropped from 88 percent to 60 percent in the years after the JCPOA was finalized. Meanwhile, Soleimani’s approval jumped to 90 percent thanks to his heroic portrayal in the IRGC-backed media.
Throughout his time in office, Rouhani found himself at war with the parallel state, just like predecessors. Back in the 1980s, Rouhani had helped expand the IRGC from a small volunteer organization into a full-fledged army, with ground, naval, and air forces. Three decades later, he publicly accused the IRGC of sprawling interference. In a 2014 anticorruption conference with the heads of the judiciary and the parliament, he demonstrated his frustration with the IRGC’s nonmilitary activities. Without explicitly naming the IRGC, he stated, “If guns, money, newspapers, and propaganda all gather in one place, one can be confident of corruption there.”
Deus Ex Machina
This familiar struggle between Iran’s elected government, under Rouhani, and its parallel state institutions, under Khamenei, could have ended as inconclusively as previous clashes. But an impetus from outside—namely, Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States in 2016—tipped the balance decisively toward the parallel state. The Rouhani government had assured Iranians that it would be impossible for the United States to unilaterally abrogate the nuclear deal, because it was an international agreement negotiated among six world powers and further endorsed by the UN Security Council. But the IRGC made a different wager, as it trusted neither U.S. promises nor international agreements. No sooner had Trump won the U.S. presidency than the IRGC’s front companies lined up at Iran’s central bank, its Ministry of Petroleum, and other state agencies to bid for contracts to circumvent likely U.S. financial and energy sanctions.
When Trump formally withdrew from the agreement in May 2018, these “sanctions profiteers” stood poised to take over Iran’s financial sector. Due to the reimposition of U.S. sanctions, Iran now had to rely on the IRGC’s network to circumvent international banking networks to sell its oil and bring revenues back into the country. According to the former head of Iran’s central bank, Abdolnaser Hemmati, the IRGC’s takeover of these financial transactions resulted in the equivalent of a 20 percent commission on every transfer the government makes. U.S. policies had effectively empowered the IRGC to deepen its economic influence.
The Trump administration denied the existence of meaningful political divisions within the Islamic Republic. It adopted a “maximum pressure” policy designed to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero and strangle its economy. Inside the White House, there was no agreement on the endgame. While Trump’s goal was to force Iran to negotiate a new agreement, his then secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and his national security adviser at the time, John Bolton, pushed for regime change. Regardless of its ultimate objective, the new approach did not spare even those Iranian officials who opposed the IRGC from within: the Trump administration sanctioned Zarif in July 2019.
Trump’s election tipped the balance away from Iran’s elected government towards the parallel state.
The Trump administration’s insistence that Iran’s elite was monolithic became something like a self-fulfilling prophecy: Trump’s actions pushed Iranian politics in a more extreme direction. Under the existential threat of a draconian U.S. sanctions policy, internal divisions abated. The White House’s policies helped forge a broad agreement among Iran’s elites that the only way to protect the country’s national interests was to secure the regime, which allowed the IRGC to present itself, for the first time in its existence, as the champion of Iranian nationalism.
The IRGC had long claimed that its advanced ballistic missiles and network of proxies across the Middle East protected Iran’s territorial integrity. In 2019, after it became clear that Iran’s policy of “strategic patience” in upholding the JCPOA was not paying off, the IRGC sprang into action to establish deterrence against further pressure from the United States. It began carrying out brazen attacks, launching a startling, precise drone strike on an oil-processing facility in Saudi Arabia and shooting down a U.S. drone over the Persian Gulf. In January 2020, the IRGC launched ballistic missiles against American forces in Iraq in response to Soleimani’s assassination. These operations also served to silence the IRGC’s opponents within the state and society.
For decades, the parallel state had feared that Iranian society would unite with the elected government to overpower it. The parallel state had acted, nimbly and often violently, to forestall that possibility. Now it could envision a new future, one in which both Iranian society and the government united behind the parallel state, making the supreme leader and the IRGC the vehicles for their aspirations.
Supporters of Ebrahim Raisi celebrate his electoral victory in Tehran, Iran, June 2021
Co-opting the Field
By this year’s election, Iran’s political and social landscape had been transformed. Rafsanjani, for decades a powerful force in elite politics, had died suddenly from a heart attack in 2017. Khatami remains under virtual house arrest, and the government forbids Iranian media from mentioning him or publishing his photograph. Ahmadinejad is still an outspoken critic: former advisers have described in Iranian media how he envisions himself as an Iranian Boris Yeltsin, destined to ride mass protests to power to save the nation. But Ahmadinejad’s faction has been purged from every important institution.
The reformist bloc was the biggest loser of the 2021 campaign, during which its aging leadership failed to present a united front or a coherent plan of action. The movement had once mobilized enough public support to propel Khatami to the presidency and later formed a crucial part of the coalition behind Rouhani. Now, however, it seems out of touch. The inflation rate in Iran soared to 40 percent after Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, and the country is plunging into poverty. According to Iran’s Social Security Organization, the absolute poverty rate doubled within only two years, from 15 percent in 2017 to 30 percent in 2019. The efforts by student groups and women’s organizations to organize protests against political repression and human rights violations have tailed off, replaced by impromptu violent riots over economic grievances, water shortages, and power outages. The rioters’ angry slogan—“Reformists, conservatives, your time is up”—suggests that they view the reformists as accomplices in their misery.
In the past, reformists succeeded in elections by polarizing the political landscape. Khatami ran on a platform of promoting civil society and democracy, and Rouhani promised the resolution of the nuclear issue and improved ties with the United States. These qualify as wedge issues in Iran, and invoking them transformed those candidates’ campaigns into social movements, thus increasing voter turnout, particularly among women and young people. That strategy doomed Raisi’s first bid for the presidency, in 2017, when he lost badly to Rouhani.
In this year’s election, however, Khamenei and the IRGC found little resistance on their way to choreographing Raisi’s win. The Guardian Council disqualified all the candidates who could have potentially energized the electorate, barring not only all the reformists and Ahmadinejad but also Ali Larijani, a relatively moderate former Speaker of the parliament and chief nuclear negotiator. The only moderate candidate left in the game was Rouhani’s head of the central bank, Hemmati.
In the end, the reformists’ supporters fractured into three camps: those who boycotted the election, those who cast blank ballots, and those who voted for Hemmati. Turnout came in at 49 percent, the lowest for a presidential election in the Islamic Republic’s history. In the reformist stronghold of Tehran, only 26 percent of eligible voters participated. According to official figures, Raisi won 62 percent of the vote, and Hemmati only eight percent.
The hard-line campaign succeeded not solely due to repression but also by stealing a page from its opponents’ playbook. Raisi’s background is almost entirely in the theocratic judiciary, but as a presidential candidate, he emphasized security and prosperity rather than religion and ideology. He ran on a platform devoted to building a “strong Iran,” promising to tackle government corruption and neutralize the effect of sanctions by replicating the IRGC’s self-reliance in the defense industry in nonmilitary arenas, too. When he campaigned at bazaars, factories, and Tehran’s stock market, IRGC-affiliated media showed him talking to workers and technocrats about reopening bankrupt businesses and reviving the economy.
Raisi not only posed as a centrist technocrat but appropriated the reformists’ secular discourse, as well. He promised to fight domestic violence and pledged to discourage the much-despised morality police from harassing ordinary people and to encourage them to instead go after economic and bureaucratic corruption. Images released by his campaign suggested that his supporters included women who did not follow the strict official dress code.
Other hard-liners have struck a similar tone. In a debate between reformists and hard-liners held on the chat app Clubhouse during the campaign, Masoud Dehnamaki, a notorious vigilante and militia leader who since the 1990s has physically attacked intellectuals, students, and ordinary people for “un-Islamic” behavior, ridiculed the reformists for focusing on social restrictions. In a telling moment, he said that compulsory veiling was no longer a serious concern for the regime.
Raisi has also repeatedly said that he advocates engagement with the world. This represents a significant shift from the confrontational approach that hard-liners have traditionally taken. He also has made clear that he does not object to the nuclear deal as such, only to the specific aspects of the agreement that allowed the United States to violate it with impunity. The most dramatic shift has come among Raisi’s hard-line supporters, who were adamantly opposed to the JCPOA until a few weeks before his campaign began but have since made a U-turn, pledging compliance with the agreement. Mojtaba Zonnour, a senior member of parliament, once led a group of conservatives to the podium and set a copy of the JCPOA on fire after Trump withdrew from the agreement. After criticizing the JCPOA for years, he is now backing Raisi’s adherence to it, as long as the United States honors its obligations.
The Parallel State as Unitary State
This time, those who anticipate a repetition of the familiar conflict between the president and the supreme leader may be disappointed. The impending transition to the next supreme leader will loom over Raisi’s presidency. There is limited information on the 82-year-old leader’s health, except for a much-publicized prostate surgery in 2014. But it is widely expected that the decision to replace Khamenei will have to be made during the new president’s tenure.
The forces that engineered Raisi’s victory are purging the highest echelons of the Islamic Republic to smooth this succession process. If he is not himself named Khamenei’s successor, Raisi will play a key role in determining who is. He is thus unlikely to spend his presidency challenging the current occupant of the nation’s highest office.
Raisi is simply part of a larger political project that Khamenei is pursuing in his final years. The new president may tactically moderate his positions, but any real policy shift will occur in close coordination with the supreme leader. The parallel state is widening its social base beyond Islamists to nonreligious nationalists, in an attempt to co-opt the growing influence of those who despise the official and selective imposition of Islamic law. Many veiled women have joined the anti-veiling campaign, since they see the dress code as divisive, generating resentment toward them in the street. Raisi’s selective and reversible appropriation of the reformists’ social and foreign policy agendas is designed to further undermine their ability to return to the political scene at this critical moment in Iranian history.
The new administration will deepen Iran’s security and economic ties with both China and Russia.
Despite its smooth start, this high-stakes gambit could quickly fall apart. Raisi and his team of young, right-wing technocrats will need to use state patronage to co-opt resentful elites, particularly the faction of marginalized conservatives. They also must address the needs of the impoverished population, a portion of which backed Raisi because of his economic promises.
On foreign policy, Raisi will attempt to turn the failed globalist aspirations of his predecessors on their head. Previous presidents came to believe that the best way to forge a safe and secure Iran was to make the country a prosperous part of the global economy. Raisi believes that, on the contrary, only a strong Iran with undisputed regional leverage can deter external forces and achieve economic prosperity. Therefore, he is expected to enhance the IRGC’s military capabilities in order to counter U.S. pressure. That means bolstering the corps’s network of proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and beyond, all in the service of protecting the original parallel state in Iran.
The new administration will also deepen Iran’s security and economic ties with both China and Russia. Putin issued one of the first and strongest congratulations to the new president, expressing his confidence that Raisi’s election will lead to “further development of constructive bilateral cooperation between our countries.” Tehran also recently signed a 25-year trade and military partnership with Beijing, which was initially delayed in 2016 because Iran hoped to improve ties with the United States and Europe.
Paradoxically, the elimination of any potential rapprochement with the United States has brought coherence to Iran’s foreign policy. There is now a general consensus across Iran’s political spectrum that their country’s hostile relationship with the United States will persist indefinitely. Consequently, Iran’s competing factions are no longer obsessed with the domestic ramifications of improved ties with Washington. This means that neither the JCPOA’s success nor its failure can dramatically upset the internal balance of power. This new dynamic has reduced the likelihood of domestic sabotage in the event a diplomatic breakthrough is achieved—but it has also hardened Iran’s bargaining position in the ongoing negotiations.
Raisi needs a diplomatic success on the nuclear front to deal with a sea of internal problems. But unlike Rouhani, he is not betting his political fortune on it. His hawkish foreign policy team perceives the United States as ideologically committed to destroying the Islamic Republic. Its assumption is that Washington will attempt to renege on any agreement either bluntly, as Trump did, or subtly, as the Obama administration did, by not properly removing financial sanctions on Iran. The political forces that propelled Raisi to the presidency are therefore preparing step-by-step retaliatory measures in case a revived JCPOA falters. They are also committed to preserving Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, to maintain the option to weaponize the program rapidly if the agreement falls apart. At the same time, the signing of a new nuclear deal could inadvertently create a more combustible region: Tehran fears that it would give the United States a free hand to go after its regional influence, and Tehran’s enemies are concerned that it would provide Iran with more resources to bolster its proxies and missile program.
The resulting security dilemma appears poised to escalate tensions between Iran and the United States. The two countries are already embroiled in a low-level but continuous conflict in Iraq, where U.S. forces and pro-Iranian militias clash sporadically. Although Raisi has held out the prospect of talks with regional powers to lower tensions, the emerging unified leadership in Iran sees itself in a win-win position. It is confident in its military and has long known how to thrive on conflicts and expand its nonstate allies. Thanks to the new domestic political transformation, it can also make tactical compromises with its adversaries without the risk of exacerbating internal divisions. As a new era of the Islamic Republic begins, Iran and the United States are on a collision course.
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Afghan National Army soldier at Bagram U.S. air base on the day of troop departure, Afghanistan, July 2021.
The withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan has unleashed a fresh wave of violence. Taliban forces have stepped up attacks across the country and overrun a growing number of districts. They have positioned soldiers and materiel around major cities for eventual sieges. Iran and Russia have ramped up their covert support to the Taliban and other antigovernment groups. In June, General Scott Miller, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, admitted that the security situation was dire, saying, “Civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the trajectory it’s on right now.”
U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces was a mistake. A far better choice would have been to keep roughly 2,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan—as well as a small number of aircraft and helicopters at major bases—to provide training and other aid to Afghan forces. But that ship has sailed, and now an increasingly violent civil war in Afghanistan presents U.S. policymakers with a difficult choice: Should the United States remain engaged and, if so, how?
Preventing catastrophe—a complete Taliban military victory and the reestablishment of terrorist safe