On Wednesday, Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s new president, selected Hossein Amir-Abdollahian as the country’s next foreign minister, succeeding Javad Zarif.
Under both conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and moderate Hassan Rouhani, Mr Amir-Abdollahian served as Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab and African relations.
Mr Amir-Abdollahian was named deputy foreign minister under Mr Ahmadinejad in 2011 but left the government in 2016 to become former parliament speaker Ali Larijani’s international affairs adviser.
Mr Amir-Abdollahian was in charge of Tehran’s policy in some of the most strategically significant nations for Iran, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen, as deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs.
After Mr Zarif was named foreign minister, he was the only area-specific deputy foreign minister who stayed on. He is known to have significant ties to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and was primarily retained in Mr Rouhani’s reformist government at Qassem Suleimani’s request.
Mr Amir-Abdollahian holds a PhD in international relations from Tehran University and is believed to be bilingual (Arabic and English), however, he only speaks to the media in Farsi.
He has long been a prominent figure in Iran’s hardline political scene, but he shot to international prominence in 2007 when he was part of a small group of Iranian negotiators who met with American counterparts to discuss the security situation in Iraq – the first such meetings between US officials and Iranians since the revolution. In 2007, he was also appointed as Iran’s ambassador to Bahrain.
Mr Amir-Abdollahian is taking on a difficult position at a critical juncture in history. Mr Zarif, his predecessor, had established himself as Iran’s global public face. His ties to the West, position in the nuclear talks, diplomatic ability, and humorous demeanour created an opening between Iran and western countries.
Mr Amir-Abdollahian is unlikely to play a similar role in the future.
No other diplomat, moderate or hardline, has Mr Zarif’s “special qualities,” according to Negar Mortazavi, writer and host of The Iran Podcast.
“In the history of the Islamic Republic, Javad Zarif has been the most capable diplomat it has ever produced… “He was a unique person in that he had the faith of the system’s core,” she explained.
“He had his education in the United States, knows the language, and is familiar with the culture.” He knows how to communicate with Americans, the world community, and the press; he was a negotiator, a top diplomat, and a speaker all at once.”
Mr Raisi’s background is likely to re-establish Iran’s foreign minister as the country’s global face.
The election of Mr Raisi has enraged human rights advocates and political leaders all around the world. Since his election, his membership in the 1980’s execution panels, as well as his harsh sentencing as Iran’s judiciary director, have been heavily scrutinised.
Many people are waiting to see “if the [foreign minister] can somehow fill the hole that will exist between governments speaking to each other,” according to Adnan Tabatabai, Iran analyst and co-founder of the Bonn-based Centre for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient.
Mr Raisi’s past is likely to continue to be a source of friction in foreign ties, according to Mr Tabatabai.
It’s too early to say how Mr Amir-appointment Abdollahian’s will affect nuclear talks, but Mr Raisi’s government has not only signalled that it will take a tougher stance, but its hands are tied, according to Mr Tabatabai.
Due to a bill passed by the hardline and conservative majority parliament in December 2020, Mr Raisi and his team are unlikely to strike an agreement with the US, according to Mr Rouhani.
In the absence of US participation in the nuclear deal Iran negotiated with world powers in 2015, the law mandates the government to take a series of escalatory nuclear-related steps.
Mr Raisi and his foreign minister will be required to respect the text of the law, even with the endorsement of Iran’s top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on the conversations.
The Iranian parliament must still accept Mr Raisi’s cabinet at its next session on Saturday.