The mullahs hand-picked hardliner Ebrahim Raisi for a reason, after all. Not only did the new Iranian president rule out any direct negotiations with Joe Biden on the previous JCPOA nuclear deal without the end of all sanctions, Raisi won’t discuss any ancillary issues at all — such as Iran’s missile program.
How desperate will Biden be to accommodate Raisi in order to re-embrace Barack Obama’s Iran deal?
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.
It’s that history that should inform Biden’s next steps, says hardline Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Oh wait, it’s not Netanyahu — it’s Naftali Bennett reminding Biden and the world that the Iranian mullahs picked “the Hangman of Tehran” to run their government:
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, at the weekly Cabinet meeting:
"This weekend, Iran chose a new president – Ebrahim Raisi. Of all the people that Khamenei could have chosen, he chose the 'Hangman of Tehran'https://t.co/A0XXRgL1c8 pic.twitter.com/CnINsYJQcs
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) June 20, 2021
In Bennett’s first televised cabinet meeting on Sunday, he scorched Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi— whose election was dubious at best—before warning the free world against engaging with Iran’s new leader who is “infamous among Iranians and across the world for leading the death committees which executed thousands of innocent Iranian citizens throughout the years.”
“Raisi’s election is, I would say, the last chance for world powers to wake up before returning to the nuclear agreement and to understand who they are doing business with. These guys are murderers, mass murderers. A regime of brutal hangmen must never be allowed to have weapons of mass destruction that will enable it not to kill thousands, but millions—Israel’s position will not change on this.”
The real question here is what Biden chooses to do now that Raisi has issued this ultimatum. Biden wants to return to the JCPOA, as do the leaders of other Western nations anxious to do business with Iran for its energy output. However, caving on this point would make Biden look extraordinarily weak, especially in chasing after a deal which was extraordinarily weak in the first place. Capitulating to the Hangman of Tehran would ice Biden’s reputation as a pushover, which he can hardly afford.
Raisi wants to pressure the US in another way — by putting a wedge between the US and Saudi Arabia:
Raisi also said his administration would be open to restoring ties with Iran’s regional foe Saudi Arabia.
“There are no obstacles from Iran’s side to re-opening embassies… there are no obstacles to ties with Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia were cut in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions following the kingdom’s execution of a revered Shiite cleric.
The two sides are reported to have been engaged in talks hosted by Baghdad since April to improve relations.
That’s easier said than done, however. Iran’s meddling in Yemen and its establishment of a Syrian position is clearly intended as an encirclement strategy not just of Israel but of Saudi Arabia — and perhaps primarily the latter. Iran has pressed a Shi’ite claim of supremacy over the holy sites of Islam against the Wahhabi Sunni stewardship of the Saudis. Raisi and the radical clerics in Ali Khamenei’s clique might see a momentary advantage in warming up to the Saudis, but the Saudis won’t be easily fooled on this point. Especially not with Iran-backed Houthis turning Yemen into a failed state on its southern border.
If Biden’s not willing to capitulate, he will have no choice but to continue the “maximum pressure” campaign started by Donald Trump to force Raisi to compromise. Like so many other policies in Biden’s short tenure, it seems as though Biden’s simply following his predecessor’s playbook, mainly because he doesn’t appear to have one of his own. If Biden does that with Iran, it might be the wisest foreign policy decision of his presidency.