Raisi’s Foreign Policy: Revitalizing Iran’s International Position with a Non-Strategy

April 2024
Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University
April 19, 2024


While many expected Ebrahim Raisi’s tenure to be marked by seclusion and controversy, the Iranian president has skillfully navigated the complex world of international relations. This chapter argues that Raisi has strengthened Iran’s international position, not by developing a new strategy, but by building on the foundational work of his predecessors. He has leveraged diplomatic strategies from previous administrations, including asymmetric deterrence, regionalism, and the “Look East” strategy. Moreover, his administration has revived the “neighborhood policy” and increased engagement with Latin America.

The first section of this chapter will outline the challenges that Raisi inherited, followed by an evaluation of his subsequent responses. It argues that the leader’s policies constitute a continuation of established Iranian foreign policy rather than offering a distinct approach. Furthermore, this continuity has proved instrumental in mitigating the country’s isolation and re-asserting its influence in both the Gulf region and the broader Middle East. Considering the ongoing war on Gaza and Iran’s diplomatic maneuvers following October 7, 2023, this policy continuity positions Iran to benefit irrespective of the war’s outcome.

A Troubled Beginning

Mahsa Amini’s death while under morality police custody on September 16, 2022 sparked social and political unrest in Iran. In the face of mass demonstrations, there was widespread speculation about the short-term prospects of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its position in the region. At that time, Ebrahim Raisi was only a year into his presidency and already facing sharp criticism for his human rights record as the head of the judiciary from 2019–2021.1 After his previous defeat to Hassan Rouhani in 2017, Raisi secured victory in the 2021 election, although turnout was at an all-time low of 48.8%.2 This win, with a mere 18 million votes, made him Iran’s least popularly-supported president since 1997. In 2018, the United States (U.S.) unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) under then-President Donald Trump and reimposed strict sanctions. This, in conjunction with the COVID-19 crisis, exacerbated the country’s economic downturn and further complicated the political landscape. Mass protests raged across the country, as the public demanded immediate solutions, doubtful of relief from the newly elected president.

Iran’s Diplomatic Shift Under Raisi

By the second year of Raisi’s presidency however, Tehran’s global and regional standings began to improve. Historically, Iranian leaders leveraged the state’s foreign policy to gain domestic credibility. Raisi continued this trend, using foreign policy successes to enhance his 2025 re-election chances and ambitions to become the next supreme leader of the Islamic Republic. Diverging from his predecessors’ more ostentatious diplomacy, the president has made substantial gains on the international stage, reinvigorating Iran’s global standing and fortifying regional alliances.

A significant achievement is the expedited reconciliation with regional adversary Saudi Arabia, which materialized in Beijing on March 10, 2023, with the support of Iraq and Oman.3 While the exact advantages and details of the 2023 agreement are still being debated, the prompt reinstatement of embassies in Riyadh4 and Tehran represents a significant moment in regional diplomacy.5 The two countries’ had severed ties after protesters, angered by the execution of a Shia cleric, assaulted Saudi’s diplomatic offices in Iran in 2016.6 The 2023 deal restoring ties echoed Iran’s re-established connections with the UAE earlier in 2022.7 A significant illustration of this new direction was the first-ever phone conversation between President Raisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman during the war on Gaza, indicating a transformative phase in Iran’s diplomatic relations. The Saudi-Iran rapprochement has also opened avenues for dialogue with other regional nations like Bahrain and Egypt. However, this deal merely revives the previous Saudi-Iran Security Cooperation agreement signed between in April 2001 under the presidency of Mohammad Khatami.8

Iran’s diplomatic achievements have gone beyond improving ties with neighboring countries and establishing a stronger position in the global sphere. These enhancements are highlighted in their elevation to full membership within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2022,9 followed by an invitation to join the bloc formerly comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) in 2024.10 Additionally, Iran has emerged as a key supporter of Syria, advocating for its readmission into the Arab League, thereby promoting regional recognition after a long decade of isolation within Arab communities.11

Although there has been significant progress at the regional level, the nuclear dispute with the United States has reached an impasse, with no significant breakthroughs since President Joseph Biden took office, despite the recent prisoner exchange.12 However, this deadlock has not hindered other aspects of Raisi’s foreign policy agenda. Instead, he has skillfully utilized diplomatic approaches from past governments, encompassing strategies like asymmetric deterrence, a focus on regionalism, and the “Look East” policy. These methods, rooted in the previous administrations including those of presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–2013) and Hassan Rouhani (2013–2021), have been crucial in reducing isolation and reaffirming Iran’s central role in the Gulf region and the wider Middle East.

An analysis of Raisi’s foreign policy indicates a strategic dependence on the diplomatic infrastructure developed by his forerunners, rather than charting a fresh path in foreign relations. Raisi’s period in office has witnessed a resurgence of the “good neighbor” approach toward neighboring Gulf states—a policy first put forth by President Hashemi Rafsanjani in the 90s—and a reinvigoration of the Ahmadinejad’s Latin American policy. This reflects a cultivation of traditional policies rather than a shift. Even recent overtures to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are consistent with the path defined by the Hormuz Peace Initiative (HOPE) launched by Rouhani in December 2019.13

The exchange of prisoners between Iran and the United States, announced in August 2023 and implemented in September, along with the release of six billion dollars previously frozen in South Korea due to U.S. sanctions, also denotes a widening of Raisi’s diplomatic room for maneuver vis-à-vis Biden.14 This development not only hinted at a potential defrosting in bilateral ties but also unveiled new possibilities for dialogue and the prospect of establishing a more comprehensive “JCPOA 2.0.” This agreement would include considerations regarding Iran’s regional role, which Tehran had been unwilling to entertain previously.

The current war on Gaza may derail such possible avenues for rapprochement. In the aftermath of the “Al Aqsa Flood” operation, many states and analysts held Iran responsible as Hamas’s primary financial and political backer. The Wall Street Journal claimed that Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian had convened meetings in Gaza and Lebanon with representatives from various factions to plan and organize the attack.15 Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, strongly refuted these claims, asserting that while Iran consistently supports Hamas, it does not exert control over their political strategies or decisions.16 Despite this, Iranian news outlets lauded the attacks, and several Iranian officials commented on Israel’s vulnerability and the persistent will of the Palestinians to challenge the Zionist establishment, backed by the “Axis of Resistance,” and spearheaded by Iran. They also critiqued Arab nations for seeking normalization with Israel.17 Further reinforcing Iran’s claims of non-involvement, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked a few days after October 7 that no concrete evidence linked Iran directly to the attack.18 Similarly, a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Daniel Hagari, mentioned that Israel could not conclusively tie Iran to the planning or execution of the attacks,19 aside from the recognized support they had been providing Hamas over the years.

Iran has unwaveringly rejected any pact with Israel, from the Camp David Accords (1979) to the Madrid-Oslo Accords (1991–1994), and more recently the Abraham Accords (2020). This stance resonates with Arab populations, which often express stronger support for the Palestinian cause than their leaders. Recent geopolitical trends highlight that Iran’s sustained backing of groups like Hamas has amplified its influence in the Middle East and Arab World in general.20 This sentiment is not confined to the Muslim or Arab populace but extends to anti-imperialist segments of the Global South. By side-stepping conventional diplomatic norms, Iran’s overt endorsement of these attacks seeks to connect with those feeling disenfranchised by their governments’ increasing ties with Israel. Importantly, this is not a novel direction spearheaded by Raisi but rather an extension of a longstanding foreign policy doctrine, rooted in the era of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini.

In this context, Amirabdollahian’s meetings with Ismail Haniyeh in Doha since October 7 served two objectives.21 First, they overtly demonstrated Iran’s unwavering support for Hamas and the Palestinian cause to the international community. Second, they were a show of strength to the broader region, Israel, and the United States. Moreover, the U.S.-Iran agreement to exchange prisoners and unfreeze six billion dollars of Iranian assets signalled Washington’s openness to ease the strain on Iran, at least prior to October 7. It also suggested that the United States might find it challenging to reverse the Qatar-mediated agreement, without potentially provoking a more forceful response from Iran.22

Moreover, Iran’s response to the Gaza conflict positions it as a regional player advocating for the containment of regional spillover, even amid its repeated warnings to Israel. The unprecedented phone dialogue between Raisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman,23 centered on Gaza, was a promising sign of the region’s diplomatic efforts on de-escalation. This particular convergence of the various elements of Raisi’s foreign policy approach can be characterized as “pragmatic revolutionism.”24 However, it is notable that this blend of strategies is not unique to Raisi; it echoes tactics previously employed by predecessors such as Ahmadinejad.


In a scenario where many expected the Raisi administration to be marked by isolation, the Iranian president has demonstrated skill in navigating the complex world of international diplomacy. Rather than forging a new path, he has made significant progress by building on the foundation set by his predecessors, thereby repositioning Iran’s global standing and proactively engaging at the regional level. Though considerable challenges still loom large, especially in the economic and social sectors, Raisi’s strategies present an image of Iran that is not only strengthened within the region but is also intent on expanding its influence internationally.

Raisi’s approach might be aptly termed a “non-strategy,” given that he has not crafted a distinct regional or global blueprint for his administration. Instead, he treads the courses charted by his predecessors, most notably Rouhani and Ahmadinejad. While these inherited approaches have yielded dividends during Raisi’s initial tenure, his endeavors to distinguish his leadership style have yet to manifest clearly.

Please note that this dossier was compiled before Iran’s drone and missile attack on Israel on April 13. The strike marked Tehran’s first direct attack on Israel, framed as a retaliation for the Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1. This dossier provides insights into Iran and its policy thinking. The analysis does not reflect recent developments.
The opinions expressed in this chapter are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Council on Global Affairs.

1 “Iran: Ebrahim Raisi Must Be Investigated for Crimes Against Humanity,” Amnesty International, June 19, 2021, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2021/06/iran-ebrahim-raisi-must-be-investigated-for-crimes-against-humanity/; “Iran: Overseer of Mass Executions Elected President,” Human Rights Watch, June 19, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/06/19/iran-overseer-mass-executions-elected-president; Hadi Ghaemi, “Raisi: Record on Crackdown and Human Rights,” United States Institute for Peace, July 20, 2021, https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2021/jul/20/raisi-record-crackdown-human-rights.
2 Luciano Zaccara, Iran Presidential Elections 2021: What the Numbers Say, Gulf Insights 47, (Doha, Qatar: Gulf Studies Center and OPEMAM, June 25, 2021), https://www.qu.edu.qa/static_file/qu/research/Gulf Studies/documents/Gulf Insights 47.pdf.
3 Parisa Hafezi, Nayera Abdallah and Aziz El Yaakoubi, “Iran and Saudi Arabia agree to resume ties in talks brokered by China,” Reuters, March 11, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iran-saudi-arabia-agree-resume-ties-re-open-embassies-iranian-state-media-2023-03-10/#:~:text=DUBAI%2FRIYADH%2C%20March%2010%20(,East%20from%20Yemen%20to%20Syria.
4 “Saudi and Iran Exchange Ambassadors after Rapprochement,” Al Jazeera, September 5, 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/9/5/saudi-and-iran-exchange-ambassadors-after-rapprochement.
5 Mohammed Benmansour, “Iran’s Embassy Reopens in Saudi Arabia for First Time in Seven Years,” Reuters, June 7, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/irans-embassy-reopens-saudi-capital-riyadh-al-arabiya-tv-2023-06-06/.
“Saudi and Iran Exchange Ambassadors.”
7 Giorgio Cafiero, “The UAE-Iran Rapprochement: Causes and Effects,” Gulf International Forum, July 25, 2022, https://gulfif.org/the-uae-iran-rapprochement-causes-and-effects/
8 Howard Schneider, “Saudi Pact With Iran Is Sign of Growing Trust,” Washington Post, April 16, 2001, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2001/04/17/saudi-pact-with-iran-is-sign-of-growing-trust/fbdde133-8ef9-48d2-9deb-5393b7f314d4/.
9 “The Islamic Republic of Iran Becomes 9th Member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation,” Iran Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 17, 2021, https://en.mfa.ir/portal/newsview/652127/The-Islamic-Republic-of-Iran-becomes-9th-member-of-the-Shanghai-Cooperation-Organisation.
10 Luciano Zaccara and Nesibe Hicret Battaloglu, “BRICS Membership: Gulf States’ Strategic Pivot in Shifting Global Dynamics,” Gulf International Forum, September 5, 2023, https://gulfif.org/brics-membership-gulf-states-strategic-pivot-in-shifting-global-dynamics/.
11 Aziz El Yaakoubi and Samia Nakhoul, “Syria’s Assad Wins Warm Welcome at Arab Summit after Years of Isolation,” Reuters, May 20, 2023,  https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/syrias-assad-attend-arab-summit-bringing-regional-isolation-an-end-2023-05-19/
12 Arshad Mohammed and Parisa Hafezi, “Iran releases to house arrest 5 US citizens in swap, fund deal,” Reuters, August 11, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/four-us-citizens-moved-iranian-prison-house-arrest-2023-08-10/.
13 Mehran Haghirian and Luciano Zaccara, “Making Sense of HOPE: Can Iran’s Hormuz Peace Endeavor Succeed?,” Atlantic Council, October 3, 2019, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/making-sense-of-hope-can-irans-hormuz-peace-endeavor-succeed/.
14 Jon Gambrell, Lujain Jo, and Matthew Lee, “Five Americans Detained in Iran Walk Free, Released in Deal for Frozen Iranian Assets,” Associated Press, September 19, 2023, https://apnews.com/article/iran-us-prisoner-swap-sanctions-assets-4e1fa477f8e6af45fb764acd259c2f1a.
15 Summer Said, Benoit Faucon, and Stephen Kalin, “Iran Helped Plot Attack on Israel Over Several Weeks,” The Wall Street Journal, October 8, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/world/middle-east/iran-israel-hamas-strike-planning-bbe07b25.
16 Tehran correspondent, “Khamenei Cheers Hamas’ ‘Epic’ Attacks on Israel, but Denies Iran Role,” Al Monitor, October 10, 2023, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2023/10/khamenei-cheers-hamas-epic-attacks-israel-denies-iran-role.
17 “Arab States Normalizing with Israel Should Learn Lesson from Palestine Developments: Leader’s Aide,” Press TV, October 9, 2023, https://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2023/10/09/712367/Arab-states-normalizing-Israel-learn-lesson-Palestine-developments.
18 Jesse Pound, “Blinken Says U.S. Has ‘Not Yet Seen’ Evidence of Iran Involvement in Hamas Attack on Israel,” CNBC, Ocober 8, 2023, https://www.cnbc.com/2023/10/08/blinken-says-us-has-not-yet-seen-evidence-of-iran-involvement-in-hamas-attack-on-israel.html.
19 Patrick Wintour, “No Evidence Yet of Iran Link to Hamas Attack, Says Israeli Military,” The Guardian, October 9, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/oct/09/no-evidence-yet-of-iran-link-to-hamas-attack-says-israeli-military.
20 “Arab Public Opinion about Israel’s War on Gaza,” Arab Center Washington DC, February 8, 2024, https://arabcenterdc.org/resource/arab-public-opinion-about-israels-war-on-gaza/.
21 “Iranian foreign minister meets with Palestinian Hamas’ leader in Doha, Al Jazeera reports,” Reuters, October 14, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iranian-fm-meets-with-palestinian-hamas-leader-qatars-doha-al-jazeera-tv-2023-10-14/.
22 Ministry of Foreign Affairs-Qatar (@MofaQatar_EN), “His Excellency the Prime Minister,” X, October 12, 2023, 10:16 a.m., https://twitter.com/MofaQatar_EN/status/1713091466124198142.
23 “Iran President, Saudi Crown Prince Speak for First Time since Ties Restored,” Reuters, October 12, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/irans-president-saudi-crown-prince-speak-first-time-since-diplomatic-ties-2023-10-11/.
24 Mohammadbagher Forough, Raisi’s Foreign Policy: Pragmatic Revolutionism and the Iranian Pivot to Asia, GIGA Focus no. 7, (Hamburg, Germany: German Institue for Global and Area Studies, December 2021), 3, https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/publications/giga-focus/raisi-s-foreign-policy-pragmatic-revolutionism-iranian-pivot-asia.