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Raisi sets out hardline stance in first remarks since winning Iran election

Raisi sets out hardline stance in first remarks since winning Iran election

Iran’s president-elect staked out a hardline position in his first remarks since his landslide election victory, rejecting the possibility of meeting Joe Biden or discussing Tehran’s ballistic missile programme and support of regional militias.

The comments by Ebrahim Raisi on Monday offered a blunt preview of how Iran might deal with the wider world in the next four years as it enters a new stage in negotiations to resurrect its tattered 2015 nuclear deal with global powers.

The news conference in Tehran marked the first time the judiciary chief found himself confronted on live television about his role in the 1988 mass execution of political prisoners at the end of the Iran-Iraq war.

Raisi offered no specific response, but appeared confident and defiant as he described himself as a “defender of human rights.”

Behind a sea of microphones, mostly from media in Iran and countries home to Tehran-backed militias, Raisi took questions ranging from his views on the nuclear talks to relations with regional rival Saudi Arabia.

He appeared nervous at the start of the hour-long session, but relaxed as he returned to vague campaign themes of promoting Iran’s economic self-sufficiency and combating corruption.

The 60-year-old cleric, a protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, took nearly 62% of the 28.9m votes in Friday’s presidential election, which had the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history as millions of Iranians stayed at home in defiance of a vote where serious rivals were blocked from standing. Tehran province had a staggeringly low 34% turnout, roughly half that of previous years, with many polling stations noticeably deserted.

Raisi promised to salvage Iran’s nuclear deal with the west to secure relief from devastating US sanctions, but ruled out any limits to Iran’s missile capabilities and support for regional militias – among other issues viewed by Washington as shortcomings of the landmark deal that the Biden administration wants addressed.

“It’s non-negotiable,” Raisi said of Iran’s ballistic missile programme, adding that the US “is obliged to lift all oppressive sanctions against Iran”.

Tehran’s fleet of attack aircraft largely dates back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, forcing Iran to instead invest in missiles as a hedge against its regional Arab neighbours, which have bought billions of dollars in American military hardware over the years. Those missiles, with a self-imposed range limit of 2,000 kilometres (1,240 miles), can reach across the Midle East and US military bases in the region.

Iran also supports militant groups including Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Lebanon’s Hezbollah to bolster its influence and counter its regional foes.

When asked about a possible meeting with Biden, Raisi curtly answered: “No.” He frowned and stared ahead, without elaborating. His moderate competitor in the election, Abdolnasser Hemmati, had suggested during campaigning that he might be willing to meet Biden.

The White House did not immediately respond to Raisi, who will become the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the US government before entering office, in part over his time as the head of Iran’s internationally criticised judiciary. It is a situation that could complicate state visits and speeches at international forums such as the United Nations.

Raisi’s election vaults hardliners to top posts across the government as negotiations grind on in Vienna to try to rescue Tehran’s nuclear deal, which lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdraw the US from the agreement, setting off months of spiraling tensions across the Middle East.

Trump’s decision has, over time, seen Iran abandon every limitation on enrichment. Tehran is enriching uranium to 60%, its highest level ever, though still short of weapons-grade 90%. Diplomats from parties to the deal returned to their capitals for consultations following the latest round of negotiations Sunday.

With the collapse of the deal, Rouhani and his fellow moderates watched their popularity plummet. Now, the ascendancy of a hardliner hostile to the west has stoked concerns about the future of the accord and regional stability.

In his remarks on Monday, Raisi emphasised the deal’s importance, describing sanctions relief as “central to our foreign policy” and exhorting the US to “return and implement your commitments”.

On Saudi Arabia, which has recently started secret talks with Iran in Baghdad over several points of contention, Raisi said that Iran would have “no problem” with a possible reopening of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and that the “restoration of relations faces no barrier.” The embassy shut down in 2016 after it was stormed by protesters enraged by Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.

Raisi displayed defiance when asked about the 1988 executions, which saw sham retrials of political prisoners, militants and others that would become known as “death commissions” on which Raisi served.

After Iran’s then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini accepted a UN-brokered ceasefire, members of the Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, heavily armed by Saddam Hussein, stormed across the Iranian border from Iraq in a surprise attack. Iran blunted their assault.

The trials began around that time, with defendants asked to identify themselves. Those who responded “mujahedeen” were sent to their deaths, while others were questioned about their willingness to “clear minefields for the army of the Islamic Republic,” according to a 1990 Amnesty International report. International rights groups estimate that as many as 5,000 people were executed.

On Monday, there was no sombre tone. “I am proud of being a defender of human rights and of people’s security and comfort as a prosecutor wherever I was,” Raisi said.


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