Iran swears in new hard-line president amid regional tension

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The protégé of Iran’s supreme leader, Ebrahim Raisi, was sworn in as the country’s new president during a ceremony in parliament on Thursday, an inauguration that completes hard-liners’ dominance of all branches of government in the Islamic Republic.

The former judiciary chief takes the reins at a time that Iran’s indirect talks with the U.S. to salvage Tehran’s landmark 2015 nuclear deal have stalled.  Washington maintains crippling sanctions on the country and regional hostilities simmer.

“The sanctions must be lifted,” Raisi said during his half-hour inauguration speech. “We will support any diplomatic plan that supports this goal.”

Wearing the traditional black turban that identifies him in the Shiite tradition as a direct descendant of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, Raisi recited the oath of office with his right hand on the Quran.

Iran's newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi speaks at his swearing in ceremony at the Iranian parliament in the capital Tehran on August 5, 2021. Raisi takes the oath before parliament today with Iran facing an economy battered by US sanctions, a grinding health crisis and thorny negotiations on its nuclear programme.
Iran’s newly elected President Ebrahim Raisi speaks at his swearing in ceremony at the Iranian parliament in the capital Tehran on August 5, 2021. Raisi takes the oath before parliament today with Iran facing an economy battered by US sanctions, a grinding health crisis and thorny negotiations on its nuclear programme. AFP – ATTA KENARE

​​In his address, Raisi stressed his embrace of diplomacy to lift U.S. sanctions and mend rifts with neighbors, a subtle reference to Sunni rival Saudi Arabia. But he also signaled that Iran seeks to expand its power as a counterbalance to foes across the region.

“Wherever there is oppression and crime in the world, in the heart of Europe, in the U.S., Africa, Yemen, Syria, Palestine … we will stand by the people,” he said, referring to Iran-backed militias like Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. His voice rose with emotion, eliciting a clamor of approval from the audience. “The message of the election was resistance against arrogant powers.”

Fierce criticism

Raisi, who won a landslide victory in an election that saw the lowest voter turnout in the nation’s history, faces a mountain of problems — what he described on Thursday as “the highest level of hostilities by Iran’s enemies, unjust economic sanctions, widespread psychological warfare and the difficulties of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Amid ongoing sanctions, Iran is grappling with runaway inflation, diminishing revenues, rolling blackouts and water shortages that have sparked scattered protests. Barred from selling its oil abroad, Iran has seen its economy crumble and its currency crash, hitting ordinary citizens hardest.

Without offering any specific policies, Raisi pledged to resolve the country’s mounting economic crisis, improve the spiraling currency and “empower poor people.”

Earlier on, Raisi’s election drew fierce criticism from political opponents and human rights groups.

Crimes against humanity loom large over Ebrahim Raisi’s inauguration as president of #Iran. We continue to call for him to be criminally investigated for his role in past and ongoing crimes against humanity related to 988MassacreAmnesty EU (@AmnestyEUAugust 4, 2021

“That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity of murder, enforced disappearance and torture, is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran.

“In 2018, our organization documented how Ebrahim Raisi had been a member of the ‘death commission’ which forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially executed in secret thousands of political dissidents in Evin and Gohardasht prisons near Tehran in 1988,” according to Amnesty International Secretary General Agnès Callamard.

Wait and see

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that the U.S. would wait to see what approach the new government in Iran will take.

“Our message to President Raisi is the same as our message to his predecessors and that is very simple: the U.S. will defend and advance our national security interests and those of our partners,” he said. “We hope that Iran seizes the opportunity now to advance diplomatic solutions.”

Former President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Iran’s nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA,) in 2018 has led Tehran to abandon over time every limitation the accord imposed on its nuclear enrichment. The country now enriches a small amount of uranium up to 63%, a short step from weapons-grade levels, compared to 3.67% under the deal. It also spins far-more advanced centrifuges and more of them than allowed under the accord, worrying nuclear nonproliferation experts, though Tehran insists its program is peaceful.

Hard-line stance

Raisi, 60, a conservative cleric long cultivated by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has promised to engage with the U.S. But he also has struck a hard-line stance, ruling out negotiations aimed at limiting Iranian missile development and support for regional militias — something the Biden administration wants to address.

The official proceedings in Tehran come just a week after a drone crashed into an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman, killing two crew members.

The U.S., Israel and the United Kingdom blamed Iran for the raid and vowed a collective response, with Israel’s defense minister on Thursday even warning the country is ready to strike Iran. Although Tehran denied involvement, the assault escalates a yearslong shadow war targeting commercial shipping in the Mideast and threatens to complicate efforts to revive the nuclear deal.

Thursday’s inauguration ceremony, scaled back because of the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the country, still drew leaders and dignitaries from around the world. The presidents of Iraq and Afghanistan flew in for the occasion, along with Enrique Mora, the European Union official who has coordinated the recent nuclear negotiations in Vienna. Senior officials from Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Venezuela and South Korea also attended.

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