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Raisi says he won’t meet with Biden, asks Riyadh to end Yemen fighting

Iran’s president-elect Ebrahim Raisi says he has no plans to meet with US President Joe Biden, while calling on regional rival Saudi Arabia to halt its intervention in Yemen immediately.

Iran’s president-elect Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a news conference in Tehran, Iran on June 21, 2021. (Reuters)

Iran’s president-elect Ebrahim Raisi has said he will not meet with US President Joe Biden nor negotiate over Tehran’s ballistic missile programme, while calling on regional rival Saudi Arabia to halt its intervention in Yemen immediately, sticking to a hard-line position following his landslide victory in last week’s election.

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On a possible meeting with Biden, Raisi simply answered: “No.” His moderate competitor in the election, Abdolnasser Hemmati, had suggested during campaigning that he’d be potentially willing to meet Biden.

“The US is obliged to lift all oppressive sanctions against Iran,” Raisi said at the news conference on Monday.

Raisi sat in front of a sea of microphones, most from Iran and countries home to militias supported by Tehran. He looked nervous at the beginning of his comments but slowly became more at ease over the hourlong news conference.

The White House did not immediately respond to Raisi’s statements.

Asked about Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its support of regional militias, Raisi described the issues as “non-negotiable.”

Tehran’s fleet of attack aircraft date largely back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, forcing Iran to instead invest in missiles as a hedge against its regional Arab neighbours, who have purchased billions of dollars in American military hardware over the years.

Iran also relies on militias like Yemen’s Houthis and Lebanon’s Hezbollah to counterbalance against enemies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, respectively.

Vienna nuclear talks

Raisi will become the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the US government even before entering office, in part over his time as the head of Iran’s internationally criticised judiciary — one of the world’s top executioners.

The victory of Raisi, a protege of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, came amid the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history. Millions of Iranians stayed home in defiance of a vote they saw as tipped in Raisi’s favour.

Of those who did vote, 3.7 million people either accidentally or intentionally voided their ballots, far beyond the amount seen in previous elections and suggesting some wanted none of the four candidates.

In official results, Raisi won 17.9 million votes overall, nearly 62 percent of the total 28.9 million cast.

Raisi’s election puts hard-liners firmly in control across the government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear programme, at a time when Tehran is enriching uranium at 60 percent, its highest levels ever, though still short of weapons-grade levels.

Representatives of the world powers party to the deal returned to their capitals for consultations following the latest round of negotiations on Sunday.

Top diplomats from nations involved in the talks said that further progress had been made on Sunday between Iran and global powers to try to restore a landmark 2015 agreement to contain Iranian nuclear development that was abandoned by the Trump administration.

They said it was now up to the governments involved in the negotiations to make political decisions.

Raisi’s election victory has raised concerns that it could complicate a possible return to the nuclear agreement. In his remarks Monday, Raisi called sanctions relief as “central to our foreign policy” and exhorted the US to “return and implement your commitments” in the deal.

Ties with Saudi Arabia

On Saudi Arabia, which has recently started secret talks with Iran in Baghdad to reduce tensions with Iran, Raisi said that Iran would have “no problem” with a possible reopening of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the “restoration of relations faces no barrier.”

The embassy was closed in 2016 when relations deteriorated.

Raisi also said Iran’s foreign policy priority would be improving ties with Gulf Arab neighbours, while calling on regional rival Saudi Arabia to halt its intervention in Yemen immediately.

A Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 after Iran-backed Houthi forces drove its government out of the capital Sanaa. The conflict has been largely stalemated for several years.

Raisi said Iranian foreign policy would not be limited to the nuclear deal.

“Iran wants interaction with the world…My government’s priority will be improving ties with our neighbours in the region,” he told his first news conference in Tehran, televised by state media, since winning Friday’s election.

1988 mass executions

Raisi struck a defiant tone, however, when asked about the 1988 executions, which saw sham retrials of political prisoners, militants and others that would become known as “death commissions.”

After Iran’s then-Supreme Leader 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 in a surprise attack.

Iran ultimately 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.

Raisi served on the commissions.

“I am proud of being a defender of human rights and of people’s security and comfort as a prosecutor wherever I was,” he said.

“All actions I carried out during my office were always in the direction of defending human rights,” he added. “Today in the presidential post, I feel obliged to defend human rights.”

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