On Tuesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei formally endorsed Ebrahim Raisi as the country’s next president, pending his inauguration on Thursday. The ceremony took place against the backdrop of growing concerns about escalating tensions between the Islamic Republic and its regional and Western allies. Although this escalation has been ongoing for at least two years under the administration of pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani, his successor is an avowed hardliner who is expected to place members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in a number of major government positions to help further a belligerent foreign policy.
The danger posed by that belligerence was made clear one week before Raisi’s inauguration when Tehran’s practice of maritime harassment caused its first fatalities. Last Thursday, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle delivered an explosive charge to an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman, killing two crew members, one British and the other Romanian. The vessel, named Mercer Street, is owned by a Japanese firm and sails under the flag of Liberia but is managed by a company belonging to an Israeli billionaire. It is widely assumed that this association was a factor in its apparent targeting by the Islamic Republic. The US State Department and a number of other Western institutions have expressed a high degree of confidence that Iran was responsible for the incident, which utilized a type of weapon that the country has been using with more and more frequency.
Evidence mounted for Tehran’s responsibility on Tuesday when another tanker was boarded near the United Arab Emirates’ port of Fujairah, apparently by the IRGC. Iranian officials have attempted to deny that their regime was behind both incidents, but these denials appear notably implausible in light of the fact that the crew of the tanker MV Asphalt Princess was specifically directed to sail into port in Iran and be detained there. The ship was released without any further reported incidents the following day, but the seizure most likely succeeded in presenting the international community with a warning of greater damage and perhaps more fatalities to come in the Raisi era.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had attempted to downplay this expectation the day before when reflecting on the fatal incident with the Mercer Street, which he noted took place under the supervision of the outgoing presidential administration and did not necessarily reflect the emerging plans of the Raisi administration. It was not immediately clear how this perspective fared in the wake of the second incident, but in any event, some of Blinken’s further commentary was notably critical of the Iranian regime.
He pointed out that the Mercer Street attack fit within a much larger pattern of aggressive behavior and attempted intimidation of Arab and Western powers, as well as Israel. What this indicates, Blinked said, is that “Iran continues to act with tremendous irresponsibility when it comes to, in this instance, threats to navigation, to commerce, to innocent sailors who are simply engaged in commercial transit in international waters.”
In the familiar style of Iranian propaganda, Iran’s outgoing First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri attempted to turn those observations back against the regime’s adversaries, citing dubious accounts of Iranian tankers having been damaged and using them to justify the very behaviors that Tehran was denying responsibility for. He also referenced the “maximum pressure” campaign spearheaded by former US President Donald Trump, despite the fact that Trump was succeeded by President Joe Biden at the start of this year, prompting multilateral efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal and resume the suspension of US sanctions.
“Trump and his team stood to prevent us from selling even one barrel of oil,” Jahangiri complained at a meeting of Iranian officials on Monday. But the following day, Ebrahim Raisi commented upon this situation in the wake of his endorsement ceremony and said, “We will seek to lift the tyrannical sanctions imposed by America but we will not tie the economy to the will of foreigners.” He provided little in the way of elaboration, thereby leaving open the question of whether or not he intends to “lift” the sanctions by participating in the negotiations that have been ongoing in Vienna among signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Six rounds of those talks have taken place since April and European negotiators agree that although progress has been made, much more work remains to be done. Nonetheless, no further plans have been made since last month, and Iran’s pending presidential transition was widely cited as a complicating factor. Considering that even the pragmatist Rouhani defended an Iranian position that included demands for the US to drop all sanctions before the Islamic Republic reversed any of its myriad violations of the JCPOA, it is highly doubtful that the hardline Raisi will adopt a position that negotiators can actually work with.
It is also somewhat doubtful that Raisi’s government will participate in the talks at all, as opposed to reiterating Tehran’s demands and using a strategy of threats and intimidation to pursue Western capitulation. If the new administration opts for this latter course of action, it will no doubt entail more of the same sorts of attacks and subsequent denials that have been seen in recent days, perhaps resulting in still more casualties among innocent sailors.
While entities like the US State Department have been wary of blaming the recent incidents on Raisi in particular, few have hesitated to point their fingers at the regime itself or to urge a serious international response to the elevated threat. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab issued a call-to-action for the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday, following up on a letter signed by representatives of the United Kingdom and several other nations.
Also on Tuesday, officials from the European Union joined in condemning Iran’s belligerence at sea, and NATO spokesperson Dylan White issued a statement which said, “Freedom of navigation is vital for all NATO allies, and must be upheld in accordance with international law. Allies remain concerned by Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region, and call on Tehran to respect its international obligations.”
The timing of such statements is significant insofar as it potentially sets the tone for dealings with the Raisi administration on the day that marks its unofficial beginning. As the new president formally assumes the duties of office, that tone is likely to intensify unless the Islamic Republic backs down from its belligerent posture in the face of serious consequences for the past week’s actions.