By Frederik Pleitgen, Claudia Otto and Ramin Mostaghim, CNN
After eight years of Hassan Rouhani’s moderate administration, Iran now turns to Raisi, an ultra-conservative judiciary chief whose views are fully in line with the thinking of the country’s powerful clergy and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the final say on all major matters of state.
Raisi’s inauguration comes at a pivotal time, with Iran currently in indirect negotiations with the United States over how to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement. Raisi will also face the task of reviving his country’s economy, which has been battered in recent years by the previous US administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions. Tensions in the region are also high following a string of maritime provocations blamed by the West on Tehran.
“I swear to safeguard the official religion and the establishment of the Islamic Republic and constitution of the nation,” Raisi said in taking the oath at parliament on Thursday. During the ceremony, tributes were paid to Qassem Soleimani, the top Iranian commander who died in a targeted killing ordered by former US President Donald Trump.
After his swearing in ceremony, Raisi called for US sanctions to be lifted, saying that his government will “support any diplomatic plan that will realize that objective.”
Raisi also said that the aim behind his country’s nuclear program is “peaceful,” and that Iran “rejects the use of nuclear power except for civilian purposes.”
Among the attendees at Thursday’s ceremony were Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Iraqi President Barham Salih and the EU’s Deputy Secretary-General for Foreign Action Enrique Mora, according to state media. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya and Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general Naim Qasem were also in the audience, along with Kuwait’s top diplomat and Qatar’s minister of business and trade.
At another ceremony earlier this week, the Supreme Leader praised the incoming administration as Rouhani silently sat and looked on.
“In a transfer of power, new ideas and new resolve enter the field, and this is a source of hope for all those who are highly motivated to serve the country, in particular the youth,” Khamenei said in a speech Monday about the contentious June elections that brought Raisi to power. The polls were marked by historically low turnout and criticized as largely uncompetitive after an unelected panel of clerics and lawyers barred all the major reformist and centrist candidates from running, all but guaranteeing Raisi’s victory.
Raisi quickly made clear that he is on the same page as the Supreme Leader. The new president also has a strong majority in parliament, which will allow him to quickly push through legislation that could lead to major shifts in Iran’s domestic and foreign policies.
“You have unity inside the three branches of government, and this reduces infighting, reduces disagreement and that is going to be crucial for him and not having to worry about internal competition is going to be important for him,” says Fouad Izadi, an associate professor at Tehran University.
The most fundamental change could happen in Iran’s economic policy. While Rouhani was keen to open Iran up to foreign investment and attract companies from the West, Raisi subscribes to the notion of a “resistance economy,” a model Iranian hardliners have been propagating for years. It seeks to make Iran’s economy independent from outside forces, allowing it to better weather the impact of international sanctions while trying to foster home-grown industries.
While Rouhani and millions of Iranians had hoped the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement (known as the JCPOA) would lead to a bonanza of foreign investment, those hopes were dashed by the Trump administration’s exit from the deal and its unleashing of the “maximum pressure” campaign that hit Iran with tougher than ever sanctions that continue to cripple the economy to this day.
Dr. Seyyed Mostafa Koshcheshm, a political analyst in Tehran, says Rouhani’s belief in improving relations with the West, even after the Trump administration started its maximum pressure campaign, may have been his biggest mistake.
“Rouhani marginalized ties with other countries. His focal point was the JCPOA, the nuclear deal and removing sanctions. Many Iranians that voted for Raisi believe that Rouhani was compromising Iran’s foreign policy at the behest of comfortable solutions with the US and not having enough care for ties with other countries like China, Russia, Latin America and Africa,” he said.
Negotiations are ongoing on how to bring the US back into the nuclear deal and Iran back into full compliance, after Tehran responded to Trump’s sanctions by significantly ramping up both its stock and purity of enriched uranium in recent years. While both sides say they want to reach an agreement, negotiations have recently stalled.
Raisi, like the Supreme Leader and most hardliners, is no fan of the JCPOA. He said in a speech after receiving his presidential credentials that while he was keen to do away with sanctions, he would not return to the deal at all costs.
“We will definitely seek to eliminate and lift the tyrannical sanctions,” Raisi said, but “we will not make people’s livelihood conditional, we will not tie all things to foreigners. We will definitely pursue the matters that are immediate issues for us, that we are facing today.”
Despite Raisi’s plans for a more self-sufficient economy, lifting at least some of the sanctions against Iran will be key as the incoming administration faces a struggling economy, a high unemployment rate and a currency that has been in near freefall, leading to a major spike in consumer prices.
On top of this, Raisi must also come up with a solution to the country’s water shortages, especially in southwestern Iran, which have led to sometimes violent protests with several people killed.
Iran’s Supreme Leader has said he understands those protesting the water shortages and has called on the government to act. Raisi says he has received the message and wants to tackle the problem, which will require big investments in local infrastructure.
“These matters have been detected and I assure the people that the solutions have been delineated and we have benefited from the views of experts and scholars and this will be urgently dealt with,” Raisi said earlier this week.
In foreign policy, Iran’s hard line course could become even more pronounced. A major regional power with widespread influence in the greater Middle East, Iran’s foreign policy will be “active and dynamic,” Raisi promised.
The Rouhani administration, particularly its foreign minister Javad Zarif, had a somewhat strained relationship with Iran’s powerful military and the Revolutionary Guards’ influential Quds Force, which is responsible for foreign operations in countries like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. With the new president, no such rift exists.
Hossein Amir-Abdollhian, parliament’s foreign affairs adviser and possibly the next foreign minister, told CNN in a recent interview that Iran does not plan to curtail its foreign policy.
Iran will have “a foreign policy that is balanced with an eye towards all countries — with a logical and at the same time strong discourse, a discourse that will be able to secure Iranian rights on all fronts,” Amir-Abdollhian said.
That could lead to major standoffs with the United States. The Biden administration said it wants Iran to enter talks about its ballistic missile program and the country’s “behavior” in the Middle East. Tehran has shot down even the notion of any direct talks with Washington. When asked at his first news conference after his election whether he would ever speak with President Biden, Raisi simply said: “No!”
But while tensions between Iran and the US could further escalate, other conflicts might see at least some de-escalation. Iran has recently been involved in talks with its main regional rival, Saudi Arabia, in a bid to end a long standoff that has contributed to instability in large parts of the Middle East. Political analyst Mostafa Khoshcheshm says he believes détente with Riyadh is key to Iran’s political and economic agenda.
On Wednesday, Raisi said that Iran’s regional presence “creates security,” and that he will extend the hand of “friendship and brotherhood” to neighboring countries.
“Our power in the region creates security, our regional capabilities support stability and peace in various nations, and will only be used to fight hegemonic powers,” he said.
At his first press conference as president-elect, Raisi said he foresaw a reopening of Iranian and Saudi embassies in Riyadh and Tehran. Relations between the two countries have been frozen since 2016.
“Raisi’s ultimate goal is economy,” Khoshcheshm said. “One of the means to do that is foreign trade and when we speak of foreign trade that means de-escalation, that means detente with Saudi Arabia and that means dealing with other countries. That is why in his first press conference after he was elected, he sent a warm welcome to Saudi Arabia.”
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CNN’s Mostafa Salem contributed to this report from Abu Dhabi