Iran’s Incoming President Rebuffs Calls to Reel In Missiles, Militias

Iran’s Incoming President Rebuffs Calls to Reel In Missiles, Militias

Ebrahim Raisi, who won Friday’s election, reaffirms commitment to the nuclear deal as long it serves Iran’s interests

Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi on Monday said the Islamic Republic wouldn’t stop supporting Shiite militia groups fighting across the Middle East or rein in its missile program, rebuffing a key goal of the Biden administration as it negotiates a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal.

President Biden has said he wants any fresh agreement on Iran’s nuclear activities to lead to broader discussions on how to reduce its military footprint in the Middle East. But in his first press conference in Tehran after winning Friday’s election, Mr. Raisi ruled out such an approach.

“Regional and missile issues are not negotiable,” said the 60-year-old senior cleric.

As a central part of its military strategy in the Middle East, Iran funds and arms militias that help it exert influence and threaten its foes. It also has built up a formidable missile arsenal. Saudi Arabia blamed Tehran for striking its oil facilities in a 2019 attack. Earlier last year, Iran fired missiles at U.S. forces at an Iraqi military base, in attacks Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said were retribution for the U.S. killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

President Trump abandoned the nuclear deal in 2018 before reimposing sanctions that had been lifted in the original accord. He also added new ones. Mr. Trump said he pulled out because the deal didn’t restrict Iranian military activity in the region and some provisions expired within 10 or 15 years.

Despite his resistance to a broader agreement over Iran’s regional footprint, Mr. Raisi said he supports reviving the nuclear deal. Such a step would reimpose curbs on Iran’s enrichment activities in return for relief from U.S. sanctions. The president-elect said the nuclear deal must serve Iran’s national interests.

“Our foreign policy doesn’t start with the JCPOA and it will not be limited to it either,” Mr. Raisi said, using an acronym for the accord.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the ultimate decision-making authority on Iran’s strategic matters, has said he also supports the nuclear deal.

Mr. Raisi, a veteran judge but a foreign-policy neophyte, is expected to hew to the views of Mr. Khamenei, including a more adversarial attitude toward the West than departing President Hassan Rouhani. Mr. Raisi told the press conference he wasn’t willing to meet Mr. Biden.

In contrast with Mr. Rouhani, whose government aimed to boost Western investment in Iran, Mr. Raisi advocates a kind of economic resistance that is more focused on building up domestic capacity and fostering trade within neighbors, along with outreach to China and Russia.

“He wants to resolve certain issues but not by putting all his eggs in the basket of the nuclear agreement,” said Foad Izadi, associate professor at the faculty of world studies at Tehran University. “He wants to work more with neighbors and cooperate with China and Russia.”

Mr. Raisi’s indifference to commercial engagement with the West could limit American leverage in extracting concessions from Iran, according to Henry Rome, senior Iran analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington.

This attitude presents a real challenge to Washington,” Mr. Rome said. “How do you convince Iran to make further concessions when your main economic carrots are things Tehran may not actually want?”

Mr. Rome added that the Biden administration’s goal of resurrecting the nuclear deal “looks much more like the ceiling, not the floor, of U.S.-Iran engagement in the next several years.”

In recent weeks, U.S., European and Iranian negotiators in Vienna have made a last-ditch attempt at securing an agreement to mutually recommit to the nuclear accord before Mr. Raisi takes office in early August.

In lashing back at U.S. sanctions, Iran has over the past two years breached multiple key limits in the deal. Iran now stocks more than 15 times the amount of nuclear fuel allowed in the deal. It has also begun enriching uranium at 60% purity, far beyond the 3.67% limit in the accord.

Even though European and American diplomats don’t expect Mr. Raisi to change Iran’s position in the talks, the presidential transition in Tehran could overlay the negotiations with uncertainty. But in a sign that the departing Iranian administration wants to continue the talks, Mr. Raisi met earlier Monday with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, one of the architects of the deal.

Mr. Raisi’s victory in Iran’s election was partly a result of the lowest voter turnout in the 41-year electoral history of the Islamic Republic, with 49% of eligible voters participating. That compared with 73% in 2017 when Mr. Raisi lost to Mr. Rouhani. The turnout reflected low interest in the vote among ordinary Iranians, but the election helped Iran’s conservatives cement power over the country’s key institutions, from the parliament to the presidency.

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