Tehran — Iran's president-elect Ebrahim Raisi has wasted no time in setting out his hardline agenda. Raisi said on Monday that he would not meet with President Joe Biden even if the opportunity arose.
At an inaugural press conference, Iran's new political leader said Washington should immediately return to the 2015 nuclear deal that former President Donald Trump walked away from and lift all sanctions against his country. Raisi also said that Iran's ballistic missile program and its backing of extremist groups across the Middle East were non-negotiable, despite demands by some in the U.S. that those issues be included in negotiations over a prospective return to the nuclear pact.
The former head of Iran's powerful judiciary called himself "a defender of human rights" after being asked directly about his involvement in the 1988 mass execution of some 5,000 people who dared to speak out against the regime. CBS News senior foreign correspondent Elizabeth Palmer, who was at the press conference, said Raisi's claim will have struck many reform-minded Iranians as far-fetched.
As Palmer has reported, Raisi won an election that appears to have drawn the lowest voter turnout in the Islamic Republic's history — an election he was only able to dominate after a panel of officials under the watch of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei disqualified his strongest competition.
His candidacy, and the sense that the election served more as a coronation for him than an exercise in democracy, fueled widespread apathy among eligible voters in the country, where leaders have long pointed to high turnout as a sign of support for the theocracy that seized power in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
But in Iran, a public mandate isn't necessary if you have the backing of the country's clerical leadership, and Raisi is a protégé of the supreme leader himself.
With his remarks on Monday, the president-elect broadly set the stage for Iran to take a more belligerent stance on the world stage — right as the fate of the beleaguered nuclear deal hangs in the balance.
The Biden administration has been negotiating with Iran's outgoing government for weeks, trying to reach an agreement that would see both countries return to the terms of the international pact.
Over the weekend the talks in Vienna, Austria were paused so the negotiation teams could return to their respective capitals for consultations. Iran's lead negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, told Iranian TV on Monday that "good progress" had been made, and that the two sides were "closer to a deal than ever."
He even said he was still hopeful that a deal with the U.S. could be reached before Raisi formally takes office next month, but "it doesn't mean that we are there. The remaining job is still difficult."
Araqchi put a positive spin on the talks pausing for the teams to return to their capitals, saying it was, "not only for consultations, but this time for decision making."
As President-elect, Raisi will likely be directly involved in those consultations — and certainly, in close coordination with his boss the supreme leader, he'll have a say in any decision making. In his remarks on Monday, Raisi didn't voice the same level of optimism as the country's nuclear negotiator.
"Any negotiations that guarantee national interests will certainly be supported," Raisi told reporters, but he added that Iran would "not allow negotiations to be for negotiation's sake."
"Our foreign policy will not be limited to the nuclear deal," Raisi said. "We will have interaction with the world. We will not tie the Iranian people's interests to the nuclear deal."
Nuclear plant shut down
As Raisi spoke, Iran's secretive nuclear program drew new scrutiny as the country's only nuclear power plant remained shut down over an unexplained "technical fault." The country's atomic energy body gave no more detail on why the Bushehr plant and its 1,000-megawatt reactor on Iran's southern coast were shut down over the weekend.
An official from the state electric company Tavanir, Gholamali Rakhshanimehr, said on a talk show on state TV that the Bushehr plant shutdown began on Saturday and would last "for three to four days."
Without elaborating, he said that power outages could result. It was the first time Iran has reported an emergency shutdown of the plant in the southern port city of Bushehr, which went online in 2011 with help from Russia.
Earlier on Sunday, Tavanir released a statement saying that the nuclear plant was being repaired, again without offering further details. It said the repair work would take until Friday.