Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei inaugurated Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s new president on Tuesday. On Thursday, Raisi takes office.
This is not good news.
Raisi is an uncompromising revolutionary with blood on his hands: In 1988, he was among those who orchestrated the mass murder of thousands of political dissidents. Those who heard him speak during his February 2021 visit to Baghdad describe a firebrand whose rhetoric and worldview remain firmly ensconced in the early days when revolutionary death squads patrolled Iranian streets — days when dozens went to the gallows or stood before the firing squads each night.
Raisi may lack polish, but his disdain for America is consistent with those who came before him. The only real difference between the Islamic Republic’s reformers and hard-liners is of style and not substance.
The late President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations viewed as a moderate, was the father of post-revolutionary Iran’s nuclear program. While former President Mohammad Khatami publicly spoke about a “Dialogue of Civilizations,” his administration privately presided over nuclear warhead work and the covert construction of enrichment plants. While an assistant to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Jake Sullivan began the nuclear negotiations. Sullivan believed that with sanctions relief and financial reward, he could not only win nuclear concessions but bolster reformers over hard-liners. In reality, the Iranians duped him and later Secretary of State John Kerry with an elaborate game of good cop-bad cop.
Their wishful thinking was costly.
The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear accord was a bad deal that reversed decades of nonproliferation precedent such as the agreements that ended South Africa’s and Libya’s nuclear deals. Iranian negotiators understood Kerry to be desperate for a deal. Never once during negotiations did he define the best alternative to a negotiated agreement nor signal a real willingness to walk away from the table. Kerry’s weakness convinced the Iranian leadership that America had no red lines. This emboldened Iranian negotiators to up their demands and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps simultaneously to increase its efforts to destabilize the region.
History shows that success against Iran requires red lines.
For almost a decade, Iranian revolutionaries rode high on their humiliation of the United States. They overran the U.S. Embassy, and President Jimmy Carter rewarded them for it with both financial and diplomatic concessions. President Ronald Reagan initially was not much better. Not only did his withdrawal of Marines from Lebanon after the 1983 barracks bombing demonstrate to Iran, and a young Osama Bin Laden, that terrorism worked, but his arms-for-hostages scheme incentivized more kidnappings. It was only in 1988 when Reagan launched Operation Praying Mantis, and sank much of the Iranian navy, that Iranian leaders reconsidered their aggression.
Iranian leaders have long forgotten the lessons of 1988. For all his tough rhetoric, George W. Bush let Iran quite literally get away with murder in Iraq. Quds Force Chief Qassem Soleimani killed Americans with impunity and grew arrogant: His photographs from Syria and Iraq circulated widely on Twitter. He taunted America with not only words but also deeds. Former President Donald Trump ended all that with a January 2020 drone strike. Iran blustered but ultimately understood it could do little.
That has changed under President Joe Biden. Iraqi officials tell me that Tehran calculates that Biden will never respond like Trump. He might order symbolic strikes on peripheral targets, but it’s nothing they cannot weather. In effect, it is open season on Americans. It is just a matter of time before Iran or its proxies land a lucky shot and kill a dozen Americans or snatch new American hostages off the streets of Baghdad, Erbil, or Sulaymani. The same lack of fear encourages Iran’s recent assaults on shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.
As dangerous as the region is now, it is about to become more so.
Raisi is Iran’s unrepentant bad cop. He does not care about image, and his revolutionary rhetoric is not for show. Meanwhile, both White House press secretary Jen Psaki and Iran envoy Rob Malley signal that nothing can distract Biden’s team from misguided diplomacy. No outrage will lead it to take its eyes off the false prize.
Wars in the Middle East are caused not by oil or water but by overconfidence. Biden’s refusal to define red lines will condemn his diplomacy to failure. It will encourage Iran to adopt more extreme positions and Iran’s belief that it faces no accountability for any provocation. It will thus encourage more provocations.
Until Biden takes a page from Reagan and Trump, defines a red line, and hits the Iranian regime where it hurts, it will be inevitable that more Americans die.