As Iran deal negotiations continue in Europe and Tehran tries to squeeze the West to get sanctions relief while it races toward becoming a nuclear threshold state, it is worth focusing on who Iran's leaders are today. This isn't the Iranian leadership of several years ago, a new report warns.
Research from the Tony Blair Institute exposes a new class of highly indoctrinated technocrats, a report says. The new report – "Raisi's Rising Elites: The Imam Sadeghis, Iran's Indoctrinated Technocrats" – was released this week.
"The administration of Iran's new president, hardline Islamist cleric Ebrahim Raisi, is now crystallizing," the report says. "A student and loyal follower of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Raisi was groomed to become president to 'purify' the Islamic Republic.
"For Khamenei and his hardline followers, purification is necessary to advance the next stage of the Islamic Revolution – the creation of an idealist Islamic state – which, they believe, has not yet been achieved."
This matters because the regime in Iran has now produced a new generation of leaders who see Iran's future in a reorientation to the East. This is clear from Iran's new deal with China as well as talks about an energy agreement in Central Asia.
"As well as cleansing the system of Western influences, one of the goals of an Islamic state is to make the Islamic Republic more efficient by reversing decades of government mismanagement. To advance this goal, Iran's clerical regime is aware that it requires trained technocrats and bureaucrats who can implement the regime's policies," the report reads.
The new elite will make a deal even more difficult for Western countries. The current US administration, in contrast to the Obama administration, has been listening to concerns from Israel and the Gulf about Iran's role in the region. In addition, Israel recently held high-level meetings with the United Kingdom about Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Iran's chief negotiator at the Vienna talks is one of the new "Imam Sadeghi" elite, the article warns. The research characterizes them as highly indoctrinated technocrats. These men have been gathered around Raisi. The report "reveals that the rise of the 'Imam Sadeghis' is, for the first time in 42 years, altering Iran's elite dynamic, resulting in a new emerging alliance between the Supreme Leader's Office, Iran's Revolutionary Guard and the ideological technocrats."
Greater coordination will now take place with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This has already been clear in recent years as the IRGC seemed to sponge up power from other parts of Iran, grabbing leading military and defense programs and acting as its own foreign ministry and intelligence service.
The new report names several important figures in the administration as emblematic of the new trend. These include Iran's new deputy foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, Economics Minister Ehsan Khandoozi and Minister of Labor Hojatollah Abdolmaleki.
The report also warns that the West has misread some of these technocrats. They are not pragmatic, but "zealous ideologues." This means that, "while observably non-militaristic, the Imam Sadeghis are just as ideological as the IRGC, having gone through a rigorous selection process to enroll and undergo extensive indoctrination to graduate."
Senior Iran analyst Kasra Aarabi, who co-authored the report, said that the "takeover of the bureaucracy by the 'Imam Sadeghis' makes an acceptable nuclear deal less likely and increases the chances that any money allocated to the regime "through sanctions relief as part of a possible US re-entry into the 2015 nuclear deal will be dedicated to meeting nefarious ideological objectives at home and abroad – not least, regional militancy – rather than to solving Iran's economic problems."
He says that the West must familiarize itself with this rising Iranian elite to be able to foresee the regime's future direction. The paper traces the rise of these men, dating back to their younger years during the era of former president Seyyed Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) to the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), who "opened up new horizons for the Imam Sadeghis, providing them with an open door into the conventional state bureaucracy.
Whereas the Khatami era brought about the emergence of the Imam Sadeghis, the period under Ahmadinejad can best be described as their "growth stage."
The slow conquest of the state by these men can be seen across the board. They have increased power in their media sector as well as other institutions.
"Imam Sadeghis were appointed across the Islamic Republic's unconventional bureaucracy in institutions run by the hardline Islamist establishment, such as the Expediency Council, the Guardian Council and Astan Quds Razavi, a Khamenei-run ideological-charitable foundation," the report says.
"Thus, for example, Khajeh Sarvari was replaced as deputy for culture and social affairs in the science ministry, which oversees higher education, but then appointed to a managerial role in Astan Quds Razavi. Similarly, Khoramshad, who was among ISU's rising technocrats, having become the head of the culture ministry's Islamic Culture and Communication Organisation under Ahmadinejad, left the government to become secretary of the Khamenei-run think tank, the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
The report's findings suggest an Iranian shift away from the West is now likely.
A reading of the report provides several other takeaways. A shift away from the West is now likely. If in the past Iran would put on a kind face, trotting out Javad Zarif like a Cheshire cat to smile with his Western counterparts, today Iran sees less use for the West. In some ways this may mean that at the Vienna talks, Iran will present the West with a fait accompli: Give us a deal or we walk.
Iran feels empowered. Despite US maximum pressure during the Trump era, the Iranian regime reached new heights of power. It got the Shia militias in Iraq to be given official paramilitary status, raising them up and making them permanent. It empowered Hezbollah by destroying Lebanon's economy. It has given the Houthi rebels in Yemen new missile and drones technology. It has expanded the Hamas arsenal. It helped keep the Syrian regime in power and took over a swath of Syria. It also brokered deals with Turkey and Russia regarding the beleaguered country.
For policymakers, the reality of Iran's regime is now clear. Instead of the dog and pony show that used to be trotted out in talks with the West, with the "moderates" on hand to talk the Western language while the "hardliners" controlled things back home, now the Iranian regime is what it appears to be.
There are fewer contradictions now that these men have come to power. This means that the regime may telegraph more openly exactly what it is going to do, rather than hide behind its old duplicity.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.