Tuesday, 28 September, 2021
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Raisi says Iran backs moves to lift sanctions, but won't bow to pressure

Iran's new ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi said Tehran backs any diplomatic moves to lift US sanctions but will not bow to pressure, as he took the oath of office on Thursday.

Raisi, who won a June 18 election marked by record abstention, takes office with Iran facing an economy battered by US sanctions, a grinding health crisis and thorny negotiations on its nuclear programme.

"Sanctions against the nation of Iran must be lifted," Raisi said at his swearing-in ceremony in parliament. "We will support any diplomatic plans that will realise this goal."

But he stressed that "the policy of pressure and sanctions will not cause the nation of Iran to back down from following up on its legal rights".

The 60-year-old former judiciary chief officially began his four-year mandate on Tuesday, when he was inaugurated by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

On Thursday, he was sworn in before Iran's parliament, to which he will present his cabinet list early next week, state television reported.

"Today I am the servant of all the republic and of more than 80 million people," Raisi told parliament, stressing his administration will be one of "national consensus".

Raisi's presidency is due to consolidate power in the hands of conservatives, following their 2020 parliamentary election victory, which was marked by the disqualification of thousands of reformist or moderate candidates.

He succeeds moderate Hassan Rouhani, whose landmark achievement during his two-term presidency was the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers.

The United States on Thursday urged Iran to return to talks aimed at reviving the nuclear deal.

- Nuclear issue -

Around 80 foreign dignitaries attended Raisi's swearing-in ceremony, according to state TV, including Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Iraq's President Barham Saleh.

European Union nuclear deal negotiator Enrique Mora was also present, seated behind Ghani and representatives of Iran-backed regional groups such as Ismail Haniyeh, leader of Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas.

Iran has been grappling with a deep economic and social crisis following former president Donald Trump's decision to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal in 2018 and impose crushing sanctions.

In response, Tehran pulled back from most of its main commitments in the deal.

The last round of talks attempting to revive the accord concluded on June 20, with no date set for another.

In Washington, US State Department spokesman Ned Price called on Raisi to resume negotiations in Vienna with world powers.

"We urge Iran to return to the negotiations soon," Price said. "For us, this is an urgent priority."

"If President Raisi is genuine in his determination to see the sanctions lifted, well that is precisely what's on the table in Vienna," he added.

On Thursday, Raisi repeated Tehran's official position of pursuing solely "peaceful" nuclear technology.

He also faces warnings to Iran from the United States, Britain and Israel over a deadly tanker attack last week, for which Tehran denies responsibility.

- 'Friendship and brotherhood' -

One of his administration's main foreign policy priorities will be improving relations with regional countries, Raisi said.

"I extend the hand of friendship and brotherhood to all countries in the region, especially our neighbours," he said.

He also noted that Iran's regional "capabilities support the peace and security of countries" and would only be used "against the threats of oppressive powers."

Criticised by the West for his human rights record, Raisi said in his speech that "we are the true defenders of human rights".

The new president vowed the Islamic republic will "stand alongside the oppressed", whether they be at "the heart of Europe, in America, in Africa, whether in Yemen, or Syria or Palestine".

Raisi has previously said there are "no obstacles" to restoring ties with Saudi Arabia, a US ally and Iran's rival in the Middle East.

Tehran and Riyadh have been engaged in talks hosted by Baghdad since April with the aim of improving relations, a first since they cut ties in 2016.

US sanctions have choked Iran and its vital oil exports, and the economy contracted by more than six percent in both 2018 and 2019.

The country is also battling the Middle East's deadliest outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, with more than four million cases and upwards of 92,000 deaths.

Raisi will have to "face multiple challenges due to the high number of problems", an editorial in the ultraconservative Kayhan newspaper said Wednesday, including "unprecedented inflation", steep housing prices, a private-sector recession and "corruption".

Reformist newspaper Shargh expressed the hope that "political games will make way for healthy intellectual rivalry and different discourse and voices" in the new government.