Iran nuclear deal talks resume after Raisi’s election as president

Major powers have convened again in Vienna in an effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal, a process complicated by the election as Iranian president of Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline conservative cleric deeply antagonistic towards western values.

Israel denounced the incoming Raisi government as a “regime of brutal hangmen” over his involvement in mass executions in 1988 and predicted it would be a pawn in the hands of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

“Raisi’s election is, I would say, the last chance for world powers to wake up before returning to the nuclear agreement, and understand who they are doing business with,” said the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett. “A regime of brutal hangmen must never be allowed to have weapons of mass destruction. Israel’s position will not change on this.”

Senior diplomats from China, Germany, the UK, France and Russia will meet in the Austrian capital for the first time since Raisi’s election to take stock of developments on the 2015 deal. The US pulled out under Donald Trump and the terms of the deal were breached by Iran as it enriched uranium above permitted levels. The US has said it will rejoin under terms that will broadly mean it scales back sanctions and Iran returns to its original commitments.

Iranian diplomats, including the foreign minister, Javad Zarif, insist they have the same negotiating mandate as before and say a deal could be reached well before Raisi takes power in early August since none of the remaining obstacles are insurmountable. Raisi himself said in the election campaign that he supported the deal.

Some western diplomats claim Iran was stalling in the months-long talks to ensure the outgoing reformist government could not claim credit for restoring the deal and lifting US sanctions ahead of the election. These diplomats claim that with the reformists now vanquished inside Iran, the revived deal will be agreed upon rapidly.

But others claim the same difficult issues remain unresolved, including how the US can guarantee it will not leave the deal again, how Iran handles the knowledge and assets it has developed while in breach of the deal’s terms, whether the hardline Iranian parliament can delay Iran complying with the deal’s terms until it is satisfied US sanctions have been lifted, and finally the precise basket of US sanctions that will be lifted. The US on Friday lifted some sanctions to allow humanitarian food and medicines reach the country.

They also point out Iranian conservatives have called the original nuclear deal “a stinking corpse” and “a national humiliation”, so they will have to execute a delicate political pirouette to claim the restart of the deal as a political triumph.

Trump took the US out of the deal in 2018, imposing maximum economic sanctions on Iran, politically torpedoing the reformist government led by Hassan Rouhani, in part creating the context for Raisi to win the election.

Raisi, 60, the head of the judiciary, won a landslide victory with 18m votes in a contest in which serious rivals were blocked from standing, but the result was weakened by a collapse in numbers voting that left the true turnout closer to 43%, rather than the official 48% that was already the lowest recorded in the history of the Islamic republic.

Votes cast included 4m spoiled ballot papers, far above the normal rate and suggesting a conscious decision by large numbers of Iranians to go to the polls to register their protest at the regime and the limited choice on the ballot paper – bringing the proportion of Iranians who voted for a candidate down by as many as five percentage points.

Turnout in the capital, Tehran, was a paltry 26% and in Shiraz just over 30%. In Tehran province, 12% of the votes cast were invalid. Nationwide turnout in 2017 was 73.3% and in 2013 72.9%.

The result has led to a bitter inquest on social media among reformists about the wisdom of some such as Behzad Nabavi of throwing their weight behind the head of the central bank, Abdolnasser Hemmati, fourth placed behind spoiled ballot papers, and another conservative in the absence of a true reformist candidate.

Some of the older generation had backed Hemmati at the last moment, while the reformist umbrella group split 50/50 on whether to support a man that had little wide political experience, was unpopular due to his tenure at the central bank and surprisingly did not set out a clear economic plan, the issue on which the election was mostly likely to turn. At the time of his semi-endorsement by the reformists, the polls were showing Hemmati had no chance of winning at 3.6% in the polls.

Many said the debacle with Hemmati marked the death knell of a certain generation of reformists who believe that elected government can achieve change without confronting the powerful conservative unelected state led by Khamenei.

The US said Iranians had been denied a democratic election, pointing out that all prominent reformists were disqualified as candidates by the 12-strong Guardian Council.

In a sign of the limits of some reformists, Zarif said he was disappointed and surprised by the disqualifications, but accepted the legitimacy of Raisi as president.

Raisi, who campaigned as an opponent of corruption, has the task of constructing an economic programme, a cabinet, including a new foreign minister and head of the judiciary, as well as allaying the threat of yet another wave of coronavirus sweeping the country.

Human rights activists were dismayed by his election. The head of Amnesty, Agnès Callamard, called for Raisi’s prosecution for his role in the killing of thousands of detained MEK prisoners in 1988. Iran regarded the MEK as a terrorist group that was seeking to overthrow the regime, but members of the regime at the time condemned the extrajudicial killings. Raisi was a member of the death committee that sent thousands to be shot or hanged.

Source: The Guardian