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Bennett: Hardliner Raisi’s election a sign for world powers to ‘wake up’ on Iran

PM says Islamic Republic ‘must never be allowed to have weapons of mass destruction’ as negotiators meet in Vienna; Iran’s nuclear envoy says sides are closer to deal than ever

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, June 20, 2021. (Amit Shabi/POOL)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C) leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, June 20, 2021. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday opened the first cabinet meeting of his new government with a condemnation of the newly elected Iranian president. He said Iran’s choice was a sign for world powers to “wake up” before returning to a nuclear agreement with Tehran.

Iran’s hardline judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, was elected Saturday with 62 percent of the vote amid a historically low voter turnout and as all major competitors were disqualified or pulled out.

He is sanctioned by the US in part over his involvement in the mass execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Raisi has not commented specifically on the event.

Bennett said at the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem that “of all the people that [Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei could have chosen, he chose the hangman of Tehran, the man infamous among Iranians and across the world for leading the death committees that executed thousands of innocent Iranian citizens throughout the years.”

He said that the new government would follow the previous Israeli administration’s policy of determinedly opposing Iran reaching a nuclear weapon.

“A regime of brutal hangmen must never be allowed to have weapons of mass destruction that will enable it to not kill thousands, but millions,” the prime minister said, speaking briefly in English.

Ebrahim Raisi, head of Iran’s judiciary, waves to journalists while registering his candidacy for the presidential elections, in Tehran, Iran, on May 15, 2021. Behind him is a poster of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi, File)

Iran and world powers were set to resume indirect talks in Vienna on Sunday to resurrect Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal, which granted Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

For weeks, Iranian and American diplomats have been negotiating a return to the accord in the Austrian capital through European intermediaries.

Sunday’s talks are the first since the election of Raisi, which will put hardliners firmly in control across Iran’s government.

The landmark nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, which Israel opposed, collapsed after former US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew Washington from the accord in 2018. That decision has seen Iran, over time, abandon every limitation on enrichment and Tehran is currently enriching uranium at its highest levels ever, though still short of weapons-grade levels.

Bennett said Raisi’s election as Iranian president was “the last chance for the world powers to wake up before returning to the nuclear agreement and to understand who they’re 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 to not kill thousands, but millions,” he said.

Israel has long stated that it opposes Iran’s nuclear program and said it would prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Iran insists its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes.

Negotiators trying to save the Iran nuclear deal were set to meet Sunday to take stock at the end of the latest round of talks. The meeting is part of their regular discussions since early April, aimed at bringing the US back to the 2015 landmark agreement and Iran back into compliance with curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Negotiators have said the presidential election is not expected to influence the talks, though Raisi’s views are widely seen as a break from the more moderate stances of former president Hassan Rouhani.

Iran’s envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, said that after the day’s meeting in Vienna negotiators will take a break to return to their capitals, ending the sixth round of talks.

Political deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, Abbas Araghchi, enters the ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ where closed-door nuclear talks take place in Vienna, Austria, May 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner)

“We are now closer to an agreement than ever. But it is not an easy task to close the distance currently between us and an agreement,” he told Iran’s national television. “At this point, it is clear which fields, which actions are possible and which are not. Therefore, it is time for all sides, especially our counterparts, to be able to make their final decision.”

He added he cannot say how many days the latest break will last.

He also said that “bridging the gaps requires decisions that mainly [the US] has to take. I hope in the next round we will travel this short distance — although it is a difficult one.”

Bennett’s comments came as IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi headed to the US with a senior delegation of top Israeli military officers to meet with American officials in Washington and discuss Iran’s nuclear program and its expansionist efforts in the region.

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