- Iran’s next president, Ebrahim Raisi, is a hard-liner accused of involvement in mass executions.
- Raisi supports reviving the 2015 nuclear deal but could cause headaches for Biden on other issues.
- Trump’s confrontations with Iran helped empower hard-liners like Raisi.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi won’t be inaugurated until August, but he’s already made it clear that he’s not especially interested in diplomacy with the US by rejecting the notion of meeting with President Joe Biden.
Beyond writing off a face-to-face meeting with Biden, Raisi on Monday also said he wouldn’t negotiate over the country’s ballistic-missile program or relinquish support for regional militias that have fomented attacks against US and Israeli troops, according to The Associated Press.
“His election puts into question the future of any US follow-on talks with Iran,” Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Insider.
“I don’t see Raisi and the Iranian regime willing to pursue future talks with the US on ballistic missiles and Iranian proxies,” she said. “Instead they will opt for bilateral discussions with regional counterparts to discuss these issues, similar to the format of talks with the Saudis in Baghdad.”
Raisi, Iran’s judiciary chief and a protégé of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is poised to be the most hard-line president the country has seen in years and could cause major headaches for Biden.
Raisi, an ultraconservative accused of involvement in the execution of thousands of political dissidents in the late 1980s, is already under US sanctions over his human-rights record.
When she was asked about how the US would deal with Raisi in light of the sanctions against him, White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday said Iran’s “new president will be held accountable for violations of human rights on his watch going forward.”
Raisi’s election is a result of Iran’s clerics barring moderate candidates from running and a sign of how the Trump administration’s confrontational stance – including assassinating the country’s top general – empowered anti-US hard-liners.
Engaging with Raisi’s government on any level could generate domestic criticism for Biden among hawkish Republicans who oppose the 2015 nuclear deal, and may lead to awkwardness with Israel – America’s top ally in the Middle East. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in tweets over the weekend referred to Raisi as the “Butcher of Tehran” and an “extremist” who is “committed to the regime’s nuclear ambitions and to its campaign of global terror.”
“The greatest benefactors of Raisi’s election will be the external opponents of the Iranian regime and the Iran nuclear deal, most prominently the Republican Party and the government of Israel,” Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an op-ed for The Atlantic.
Raisi is not expected to derail efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal
While Raisi is not expected to be open to dialogue with the US on most issues, experts say he’s unlikely to derail efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal – formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Biden has made restoring the landmark pact – which was designed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and give it sanctions relief in return – a top priority. Iranian and US diplomats have been engaged in indirect talks in Vienna directed at reviving the agreement.
Raisi has publicly expressed support for the restoring the pact, and Khamenei – the top cleric who calls the shots at the end of the day – has endorsed the Vienna talks.
“We support the negotiations that guarantee our national interests … America should immediately return to the deal and fulfil its obligations under the deal,” Raisi said during Monday’s press conference, according to Reuters.
Restoring the pact could provide a boost to Iran’s economy by providing sanctions relief, which Raisi could benefit from politically. At the same time, he’s extremely unlikely to embrace a revamped version of the pact or allow the Biden administration to use the Vienna talks as an avenue toward discussions on other matters of concern to the US government.
“The hard-liner’s election probably does not mean the death of the JCPOA,” Henry Rome, a senior Iran analyst at the Eurasia Group, said in a Washington Post op-ed. “But the transition is likely to complicate the deal’s implementation and add additional barriers to subsequent negotiations. This may weigh on the longer-term sustainability of the deal.”
Trump helped empower hard-liners like Raisi, but his victory is also part of a broader trend
Former President Donald Trump in some ways helped pave the way for Raisi’s rise to power by withdrawing from JCPOA in May 2018, imposing harsh sanctions on Iran as part of a “maximum-pressure” campaign, and ordering a controversial drone strike in January 2020 that killed the country’s top general, Qassem Soleimani. Experts say Trump’s approach to Iran empowered hard-liners in the Iranian government by bolstering their talking points about how the US is a foe who cannot be trusted.
“Trump may no longer be president but he looms large over Iran’s presidential elections,” Trita Parsi and Rouzbeh Parsi, experts on Iran, recently wrote in Responsible Statecraft. “Undermining America’s credibility by pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement predictably strengthened the Iranian hardliners’ hand while giving a near death-blow to those within the Iranian power elite that favor an opening to the United States.”
But Slim also cautioned against giving Trump too much credit.
“Trump’s maximum-pressure strategy and US withdrawal from the JCPOA did contribute to increasing tensions between the US and Iran and in the region writ large,” Slim said.
“However, we can neither put all the blame for Raisi’s victory on Trump nor for emboldening hard-liners in Iran,” she added. “On regional issues, hard-liners, particularly the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps), have been for a long time in charge of the policymaking process.”
Raisi won last week’s election with roughly 62% of the vote amid historically low turnout. Millions of voters stayed home in protest over Iran’s rigged political system, which allowed only seven people to run for the presidency. Iran’s Guardian Council barred prominent moderates and reformists from running.
“It’s what we call electoral engineering,” Clément Therme, a research associate at the European University Institute in Florence, told NBC News ahead of the vote. “The list of seven is designed to make Raisi win.”