Meet Iran's Secretive New Elite | Opinion

From an attempt to kidnap an Iranian dissident on U.S. soil to Twitter spats between Iranian and U.S. diplomats over prisoner exchanges, there has been plenty of evidence of tensions between the U.S. and Iran in recent weeks, tensions which will only intensify when the new president, Ebrahim Raisi, takes office later this week

To the outside world, Raisi—who is a student and loyal follower of Ayatollah Khamenei—is best known for his hardline views and track record of gross human rights abuses; he served on the notorious "Death Committee" in 1988, which oversaw the mass executions of between 5,000 and 30,000 Iranian leftists. The role earned him the title "The Butcher of Tehran." And yet, despite recent events and Raisi's CV, Washington remains outwardly committed to re-entering the 2015 nuclear deal, a move which would grant Iran's regime sanctions relief to the tune of $90 billion.

For now, the nuclear talks have effectively been put on hold while the transfer of power between Rouhani and Raisi takes place. But the Biden administration should take this time as an opportunity to re-assess the nature of the incoming Iranian government and its likely priorities before making any decision on the nuclear deal.

The main discussion in DC foreign policy circles appears to be around what kind of stance the clerical regime will take under Raisi, and who is going to be on the other side of the negotiating table. After all, Biden's team has already outlined its ambition to eventually achieve a "longer and stronger" deal down the line. So a key part of Washington's calculus should be whether Iran is going to increase or decrease its destabilizing activity in the region and its ballistic missile program after sanctions are eased on the regime and once the U.S. withdraws from the Middle East.

The answer depends on understanding the nature of the incoming Raisi administration and its key personnel. Supreme leader Khamenei is the ultimate decision maker in determining the regime's policies. Still, the very fact that the aging Ayatollah went to unprecedented lengths to ensure Raisi assumed the presidency demonstrates that the incoming president is trusted by his mentor thus far. Raisi will be keen to prove his credentials and further empower the regime's core support base in his incoming administration. It is therefore critical that the West understands not just Raisi himself, but the forces and personnel behind him.

A major problem with Western analysis of the Islamic Republic is that in the 42 years since the Revolution that brought it into existence, the West has continually failed to appreciate its true nature. It has often relied on a hardliner-reformist dichotomy which was itself originally promoted by the regime to influence Western policy to its advantage, and which obscures more than it reveals.

Still, the regime continues to be viewed through this lens by many U.S. commentators and analysts, who suggest Raisi's hardline background somehow makes him the best partner for a successful nuclear deal (think "Nixon in China"). But in indulging these comforting analogies, the West is failing to appreciate the true nature of what Raisi is and represents.

First and foremost, as the world scrambles to get to know Raisi, it also needs to understand the nature and the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the clerical regime's ideological army. The Guard will provide the foundation of Raisi's government, which Khamenei has already called for to be "young and Hezbollahi." IRGC members will occupy the key ministerial roles that are up for grabs in the new Raisi administration and many of the 874 senior government-appointed roles across Iran's ministries and state bureaucracy.

But while the IRGC is fully committed to Khamenei's hardline Islamist vision, the Guard itself is not a monolith. The individuals that will come to shape Raisi's administration all belong to different factions and groups in the Guard.

Tracking who does what will provide valuable intelligence in determining the kind of policy priorities Raisi and Khamenei will pursue, a deeper understanding that will help the West to make a well-informed decision on whether it should re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal or not.

In short, in order to understand the regime, it is vital that the IRGC is unmasked.

Ebrahim Raisi press conference in Tehran, Iran
Iranian president-elect Ebrahim Raisi holds a press conference at Shahid Beheshti conference hall on June 21, 2021 in Tehran, Iran. Meghdad Madadi ATPImages/Getty Images

Our new research, which you can read here, uncovers three key centers of power in the IRGC's elite: security-intelligence, political and economic, and for the first time identifies where the key individuals of the IRGC, many of whom will be unfamiliar to the Western eye because they operate in the shadows, sit in relation to these key centers of power. In so doing, we expose the intra-elite alliances and competition within the Guard.

We identify unfamiliar individuals like Gholam Hossein Ramazani, head of the Counter-Intelligence Organization in the Office of the Supreme Leader, as the most important member of the security-intelligence center of power, and Morteza Rezaei, the shadowy IRGC commander, who sits athwart both the intelligence and economic power centers.

Being able to unmask and track key Guard personnel will also enable policymakers to identify its key decision makers and sanction them the next time the IRGC violently suppresses anti-regime unrest on the Iranian streets—something that will sadly be necessary as the ongoing violent suppression of protests in Khuzestan have revealed.

Having familiarized itself with the inner workings of the IRGC and the competing priorities, the key question the U.S. policy establishment will have to ask itself is whether it is wise to proceed with giving this new external-facing elite up to $90 billion in sanctions relief, and whether a return to the JCPOA is still in its interests and those of its allies who have been the targets of Islamic Republic's destabilizing foreign policy.

A misjudged calculation could end up increasing the threat to U.S. national security, and to stability in the Middle East.

Saeid Golkar is a Senior Fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Kasra Aarabi is a Senior Analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change who specialises in Iran and Shia Islamist extremism.

The views in this article are the writers' own.