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Iran’s incoming president vows tough line on missiles and militias

Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi addressed his first news conference on Monday following his election in Tehran.
Iran's President-elect Ebrahim Raisi addressed his first news conference on Monday following his election in Tehran.Arash Khamooshi/New York Times

Iran will not negotiate with the United States over its ballistic missile programs or regional militia forces, its conservative president-elect, Ebrahim Raisi, said Monday.

In his first news conference as president-elect, Raisi said he would not meet with President Biden and called for the United States to comply with a 2015 agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting economic sanctions.

“My serious recommendation to the US government is to immediately return to their commitments, lift all the sanctions, and show that they have good will,” he said in a briefing with domestic and international reporters in Tehran on Monday.

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“Regional issues and missiles are not negotiable,” he said, adding that the United States had not carried through on issues it had “negotiated, agreed, and committed to.”

The comments come as the United States and Iran hold talks through intermediaries in Vienna about reviving the 2015 agreement. Biden has promised to seek a return to the deal, which would remove about 1,600 sanctions imposed on Iran after the Trump administration withdrew from the accord in 2018, calling it too weak.

Raisi’s pledge to refuse to negotiate on the missile and militia issues, which fell outside the 2015 nuclear agreement, was not a surprise, analysts said, echoing positions he took as a candidate, as well as those of the current government.

“It was quite expected — he knows more about what he is not going to do than what he is going to do in terms of any specific plans in foreign policy,” said Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “He was just repeating the general positions of the Islamic Republic.”

On meeting Biden, the Iranian president-elect had just a one-word answer: “No.”

The firmness with which Raisi rejected the possibility of meeting with the US president was striking, Azizi said, attributing it to his lack of diplomatic background.

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“The tone was not diplomatic, and this is something we are going to see more during his presidency because he has no experience in diplomacy,” he said.

The United States is also dealing with a quickly developing threat from Iranian proxies in Iraq, where militia forces have used weapons such as armed drones to attack US targets.

Talal Atrissi, a sociologist at the Lebanese University in Beirut who studies Iran and its regional allies, said Raisi’s victory was a blow to reformists and would strengthen Iran’s ties with its regional militia allies, known as “the axis of resistance.” These include Hezbollah in Lebanon, various militias in Syria and Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who receive support from Iran and share its anti-Israeli and anti-American stances.

“Raisi will stay committed to the axis of resistance,” Atrissi said, adding that Iran’s regional activities have never been run by the president but by Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

“This relationship will not change at all,” he said. “On the contrary, there will be more cooperation.”

Former president Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran had failed, Raisi said Monday, according to the Iranian state-controlled broadcaster Press TV.

A negotiating team involved in the indirect talks in Vienna would continue those talks until his administration took its place, he said. He added that he supported discussions that secured Iran’s national interests, but “we will not allow talks for the sake of talks.”

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That call extended to European nations too, Raisi said, “who must not be influenced by the US pressure and must act upon their commitments.”

An ultraconservative judiciary chief seen as a potential successor to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Raisi has been accused of human rights abuses, including involvement in a mass execution of opponents of the government in 1988. That record has brought him sanctions from the United States.

But Monday, he called himself a “defender of human rights and of people’s security and comfort,” adding he would continue in that role as president.

He also voiced a new idea: that Iran was willing to restore diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, which collapsed in 2016 after Iranians protesting against the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shi’ite cleric stormed Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.

That suggestion, Azizi said, appeared to be part of Iranian efforts to build bilateral ties with other countries in the region, including US allies like Saudi Arabia, independently of the United States.

Also over the weekend, Iran’s nuclear power plant, in Bushehr, was temporarily shut down, with officials chalking it up to “technical fault” and telling Iranians that the shutdown, which began Saturday, would last for “a few days,” according to state media.