DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — In his first statements after his landslide election victory, Iran’s president-elect laid out a hard-line stance, dismissing the prospect of meeting with President Joe Biden or discussing Tehran’s ballistic missile programme or backing for regional militias.
Ebrahim Raisi’s remarks provided a stark preview of how Iran would interact with the rest of the world over the next four years as it enters a new stage in talks to resuscitate the now-defunct 2015 nuclear deal with international powers.
At the press conference in Tehran, the judiciary head was questioned on live television for the first time about his participation in the 1988 mass execution of political detainees at the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war. Raisi did not respond directly to that tragic episode in Iranian history, but he seemed strong and uncompromising in his description of himself as a “defender of human rights.”
Raisi fielded questions from a sea of microphones, primarily from Iranian media and nations with Tehran-backed militias, on topics ranging from the nuclear talks to ties with regional foe Saudi Arabia. He seemed uneasy at the outset of the hour-long discussion, but when he returned to broad campaign topics like strengthening Iran’s economic self-sufficiency and fighting corruption, he became more at ease.
In Friday’s presidential election, the 60-year-old cleric, a protégé of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, won over 62% of the 28.9 million ballots cast, the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history. Millions of Iranians remained home in protest at a vote they regarded as skewed in Raisi’s favour after a commission led by Khamenei rejected key reformist candidates and friends of President Hassan Rouhani, who is considered moderate. The turnout in Tehran province was shockingly low, almost half of prior years, with many voting locations conspicuously vacant.
Raisi vowed to rescue the Iran nuclear deal in order to gain relief from US sanctions that have wreaked havoc on the Iranian economy. However, he ruled out any restrictions on Iran’s missile capability or backing for regional militias, among other problems that the Biden administration sees as flaws in the landmark agreement.
Iran’s ballistic missile programme is “unnegotiable,” Raisi stated, adding that the US “is obligated to ease the unjust sanctions against Iran.”
Tehran’s attack aircraft are mostly from before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, requiring the country to focus on missiles as a counter to its neighbouring Arab neighbours, who have spent billions of dollars on American military hardware over the years. With a self-imposed range restriction of 2,000 kilometres (1,240 miles), these missiles can reach over the Middle East to US military sites.
Iran also backs terrorist organisations in Yemen, such as the Houthi rebels, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, in order to strengthen its position and oppose regional adversaries.
Raisi curtly replied, “No,” when asked about a prospective meeting with Biden. He scowled and gazed forward, without saying anything. Abdolnasser Hemmati, his moderate opponent in the election, had hinted during campaigning that he may be open to meet with Biden.
According to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, the US has no diplomatic relations with Iran and no intentions to meet at the leader level, so it’s unclear what has changed on that front.
She went on to say that Biden considers Iran’s “decision leader” to be the “supreme leader.” That was the case before the election; it is the case today, and it will most likely be the case in the future.”
Raisi will be the first serving Iranian president to be sanctioned by the US government, in part because of his tenure as the head of Iran’s globally condemned judiciary – a position that might hamper state visits and statements at international venues like the United Nations.
Raisi’s victory propels hardliners to the top of the administration while talks in Vienna continue to attempt to save Iran’s nuclear deal, which removed sanctions in exchange for restrictions on the country’s nuclear programme.
In 2018, then-US President Donald Trump abruptly withdrew America from the pact, igniting months of rising Middle East tensions.
Iran has gradually abandoned all restrictions on enrichment as a result of Trump’s decision. Tehran is now enriching uranium to 60%, the highest level it has ever achieved, but it is still shy of the weapons-grade 90%. Following the last round of talks on Sunday, diplomats from the deal’s parties returned to their capitals for discussions.
Rouhani and his fellow moderates saw their popularity fall when the accord broke apart. The election of a hardliner opposed to the West has fueled fears about the accord’s survival and regional stability.
Raisi, though, highlighted the deal’s importance in his speech Monday, calling sanctions relief “essential to our foreign policy” and urging the US to “return and implement your obligations.”
Iran’s lone nuclear reactor at Bushehr was shut down unexpectedly on Sunday, months after Iranian authorities warned that US sanctions were limiting their capacity to get parts for the plant.
However, it is unclear if Iran and the United States will be able to go beyond the agreement to tackle more difficult topics.
“Regardless of the date, a US-Iran deal in Vienna leaves unanswered whether the US can accomplish a larger reconciliation with an Iran led by an acknowledged proponent of Iran’s Islamic Revolution’s basic tenets,” the Soufan Center in New York wrote in its study.
Regarding Saudi Arabia, which has recently begun covert negotiations with Iran in Baghdad over a number of issues, Raisi stated that Iran would have “no difficulty” with the reopening of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and that the “repair of relations” would meet no obstacles. As ties between the two countries worsened, the embassy was closed in 2016.
When challenged about the 1988 killings, Raisi remained defiant, referring to fake retrials of political prisoners, militants, and others that became known as “death commissions.”
Following the acceptance of an UN-brokered cease-fire by Iran’s then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, members of the Iranian opposition organisation Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, heavily equipped by Saddam Hussein, surged across the Iranian border from Iraq in a surprise attack. Their attack was thwarted by Iran.
Around that time, the accused were requested to identify themselves, and the trials started. According to a 1990 Amnesty International investigation, those who responded “mujahedeen” were taken to their graves, while others were interrogated about their readiness to “clear minefields for the Islamic Republic’s army.” According to international human rights organisations, up to 5,000 individuals were executed. Raisi was a member of the committees.
There was no melancholy tone on Monday.
“As a prosecutor, I am proud of being a protector of human rights and people’s safety and comfort everywhere I was,” Raisi added.