Iran’s president-elect Ebrahim Raisi signals tough line on nuclear deal

Iran’s newly elected president has signalled that his government will take a tougher line with negotiations over the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers after his victory at the polls delivered hardliners full control over all arms of the state. 

Ebrahim Raisi, a conservative cleric and judiciary chief, told reporters that his government would not “negotiate for the sake of negotiations” and ruled out any meeting with US President Joe Biden.

“Our foreign policy does not start with the JCPOA [the nuclear deal] and does not end with the JCPOA,” Raisi told reporters at his first press conference since his landslide victory on Friday. “We will support any negotiations that meet our national interests. But we will not tie the economic situation and people’s livelihoods to these talks . . . We will not let the talks be protracted.”

However, he suggested his government, which will take office in August, would be committed to the moribund accord. Analysts say sanctions relief will be critical to Raisi’s hopes of easing economic pressure on Iranians. 

Shoppers at the Grand Bazaar in Tehran on Sunday. Analysts believe sanctions relief will be crucial to Raisi’s hopes of easing economic pressure on Iranians © Morteza Nikoubazl/AFP/Getty

His victory was marred by the lowest turnout at a presidential poll since the 1979 revolution as more than half of voters stayed home. 

Biden has said he will rejoin the accord, which the Trump administration unilaterally abandoned in 2018, if Iran falls back into compliance with the deal after it dramatically ramped up its nuclear activity over the past two years. The Islamic regime insisted all US sanctions must first be lifted — and their removal verified — before it returned to its commitments.

“It was the US that violated the JCPOA,” Raisi said. “I insist to the US, it is you who were committed to removing sanctions and you did not. Go back to it and implement your commitments.”

The outgoing government of President Hassan Rouhani, an architect of the accord, has for months been holding talks with the deal’s remaining signatories — the UK, France, Germany, China and Russia — to pave the way for the US to return and lift sanctions. The US has been an observer at the talks, but not directly involved. 

When asked if his government would be willing to hold direct negotiations with the Biden administration, Raisi did not give an explicit answer, instead saying, “my serious suggestion to the US . . . is to show honesty by lifting sanctions”.

Iran’s economy was plunged into a deep recession after Trump withdrew from the accord and imposed waves of sanctions on the Islamic republic. The punitive measures crippled the ability to export oil, the state’s key source of hard currency, and pushed inflation above 46 per cent as the rial plummeted. The recession has been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.

Raisi, who is widely perceived to have been backed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, insisted that Iran’s support for militant groups across the region and the development of its missile programme were “not negotiable”.

The Biden administration faces pressure in the US and from Israel and its Arab partners, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to expand any agreement with Iran to include these issues. They say Tehran destabilises the region and threatens their security. Iran counters that its support for militias and its missile arsenal are vital deterrents. Any decisions on major foreign policy issues are determined by Khamenei. 

Raisi, who was the subject of sanctions by the Trump administration in 2019, also rebuffed allegations that he oversaw abuses at the judiciary, saying his record proved he was a “defender” of human rights. 

Allegations about the incoming president’s human rights record risk further complicating Iran’s relations with the west. “As a jurist, I have always defended people’s rights,” he said. “Human rights have been pivotal to my responsibilities.”

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