That Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi and his team should seize every scrap of feel-good news is understandable at a time that Iran is gripped by the Covid-19 disaster, a melting economy and sporadic protests by a population visibly frustrated by the repeated failures of a leadership besotted by ideology. Pictured: Raisi remotely addresses the United Nations General Assembly on September 21, 2021 in New York. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Success, victory, achievement, triumph....
These are some of the words that Tehran's state-controlled media are using these days to describe the performance of Ebrahim Raisi, the new President of the Islamic Republic. The undertone is that Iran is just emerging from eight years of bad news under President Hassan Rouhani and his "New York Boys" and is braced for a rebound under the new team.
The successes claimed include a dramatic move by the new Foreign Minister Hussein Amir-Abdollahian, to push his way through the first rank of some heads of state and government meeting in Baghdad, thus ignoring protocol rules. The move angered many, including the Iraqi hosts, but gave the Iranian mullahs an opportunity to claim that the Baghdad summit "adopted all of the policies suggested by the Islamic Republic."
In reality, however, the summit's statement does not include even a single proposal tabled by Tehran. The summit opted for stability, cooperation and reduction of tensions while Abdollahian urged "resistance" and "struggle" against unspecified foes.
The next "triumph" was trumpeted even before it was supposed to happen. Raisi was slated to travel to Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan, for a summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organization nations, a security cooperation outfit led by China and Russia. Tehran media waxed lyrical about the forthcoming tête-à-tête between Raisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Because Russia is now cast as the principal protector of the Islamic Republic, the hoped-for meeting was labelled "historic" before it happened. In the event, it didn't happen because Putin quarantined himself after a Covid-19 cluster was found in the Kremlin.
The next "triumph" came when Russia lifted its 16-year veto on the Islamic Republic's application for full membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Raisi's entourage presented this as a great victory for the new man who "succeeded" where Presidents Khatami, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani had failed.
However, what actually happened was rather less than a "triumph". The Dushanbe summit agreed to trigger "the process of full membership" for the Islamic Republic, something that could take more than five years to be completed.
The decision is in line with Russia's overall policy on the Islamic Republic, which consists of offering dazzling promises but keeping the Tehran regime on a tight leash. A long list of such instances could be established. Russia has promised to sell weapons to Iran but drags its feet in actually doing so. In the few instances that a transfer was actually made, Russia gave Iran outdated weapons, including de-commissioned diesel submarines that are now rusting in the Gulf of Oman.
Putin also promised to open a new trade route, branded the Volga-Caspian Route, to facilitate Iran's trade with Europe, circumventing US sanctions.
Again, all that has happened is granting Iran access to a small port on the northern shores of the Caspian that, even if fully operational, would handle a small volume of bilateral trade.
Moscow's promise of "cooperation" to help Iran with its problems in international banking is also hailed as a "success". But the agreement signed in Moscow last week is ambiguous and, with the most favorable interpretation, would not loosen the shackles imposed on Iran's international trade by US sanctions.
Raisi's call for "the urgent activation of the strategic partnership with China" is also hailed as a "great success," although Beijing seems to prefer keeping the Islamic Republic under probation for a while longer. Nor is there any sign that China will release at least some of the $22 billion in Iranian assets frozen in Chinese banks.
The decision by the Dushanbe University to bestow an honorary doctorate on Raisi is also hailed as a "success" for the new president. Footage and photos showing him wearing the academic gown has been splashed all over the place, endorsing the title of "doktur" (doctor) that he uses alongside that of ayatollah. However, some evil tongues have reminded the public that another president of another Islamic Republic, that is to say Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, had preceded Raisi in being thus honored by Dushanbe University.
The Raisi team also claim that they have "saved Lebanon" by sending quantities of oil via Syria.
Iraq's agreement to abolish visas for Iranians travelling there by air is also posted as a "triumph" although it would affect no more than two percent of Iranian pilgrims per annum.
That Raisi and his team should seize every scrap of feel-good news is understandable at a time that Iran is gripped by the Covid-19 disaster, a melting economy and sporadic protests by a population visibly frustrated by the repeated failures of a leadership besotted by ideology.
Ex-President Rouhani, following a course set by Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, pursued the mirage of a grand bargain with the United States. He called the US "the headman of the global village" and claimed that making a deal with it would solve all of Iran's problems. That illusion may have been shattered but it is being replaced by another illusion that alliance with Russia would produce the miracle that "Supreme Guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continues to hope for.
The "American illusion" of Rafsanjani, Khatami and Rouhani did great damage to Iran, principally by fostering the belief that the solution to Iran's problems could only be found outside Iran. That illusion is now being replaced by the "Russian illusion" which is based on the same analysis.
However, neither America nor Russia nor China or any other power would be prepared to fully endorse a regime that tries to live in a fantasy world in which Khomeinism conquers the Middle East, wipes Israel off the map and leads in the creation of a "World Without America." US Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama went out of their way to help the Khomeinist regime consolidate itself but were ultimately not prepared to endorse its fantasies.
Presidents Putin and Xi treat Iran with even greater brutality by keeping it on a life-support machine and milking it as much as possible, but never accepting it as an equal strategic partner.
The Rafsanjani-Khatami-Rouhani trio took 24 years to understand that. Raisi now has four years to do so. The clock is ticking.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.