TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s supreme leader officially endorsed his hardline protégé as the nation’s next president on Tuesday, two days ahead of Ebrahim Raisi’s inauguration.
“Following the people’s choice, I task the wise, indefatigable, experienced and popular Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Raisi as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wrote in a decree read out by his chief of staff at a ceremony.
In his speech, Khamenei advised Raisi, a former judiciary chief, to “empower the country’s poor people and improve the national currency.”
While repeating his usual anti-West rhetoric about Iran’s “enemies” seeking to sway public opinion, Khamenei struck a milder tone during the endorsement. He focused on Iran’s mounting domestic issues, praising Raisi’s anti-corruption campaign and asking him to encourage local production.
“The nation needs competent, effective and brave management,” Khamenei said.
Without commenting on stalled nuclear negotiations in Vienna, Raisi stressed he would “pursue the removal of oppressive sanctions” in order to salvage the crippled economy.
“We will not [tie] the people’s dining tables and the economy to the will of the foreigners,” he said.
The new president’s ascension comes at a sensitive time for Iran and the wider Middle East.
Iran is reeling from crushing US sanctions that have devastated the economy, led to the crash of the Iranian riyal and hit ordinary Iranians hard in a crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.
Tuesday’s ceremony marked Raisi’s formal accession to office. He will then be sworn in before parliament on Thursday, when he is to submit his proposed government lineup.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Monday condemned a European Union decision to send diplomat Enrique Mora to the upcoming inauguration ceremony. No change in Mora’s plan to attend has since been announced or reported.
Raisi won a presidential election in June in which more than half the electorate stayed away after many political heavyweights were barred from standing.
A former judiciary chief, he has been criticized by the West for his human rights record.
Raisi is on a blacklist of Iranian officials sanctioned by Washington, due to his complicity in a “brutal crackdown” on protests and “extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.”
Amnesty International has accused Raisi of having played a key role as a prosecutor on the “death commission” that sent thousands of prisoners to their deaths in 1988, described as a crime against humanity by the rights group.
The 60-year-old also faces the United States, Britain, and Israel’s warnings to Iran over a deadly tanker attack last week for which Tehran denies responsibility.
Doubts about an imminent return to Tehran’s tattered 2015 nuclear deal, which granted Iran sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear program, have become a dark cloud dangling over the incoming hardline administration.
The collapse of the nuclear agreement after former US president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the accord three years ago doomed the relatively moderate administration of outgoing Hassan Rouhani, who has seen his popularity plummet.
Rouhani sat stone-faced throughout the endorsement ceremony.
The 2015 deal saw Iran accept curbs on its nuclear capabilities in return for an easing of sanctions.
After pulling out of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the US ramped up sanctions again, as Tehran pulled back from most of its nuclear commitments.
US sanctions have choked Iran and its vital oil exports, and the economy contracted by more than six percent in both 2018 and 2019.
Trump’s successor US President Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the landmark nuclear accord and lift sanctions if Iran moves back into compliance with the agreement.
The US has engaged in indirect negotiations with Iran alongside formal talks in Vienna with the accord’s remaining parties — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
But escalating tensions in the Middle East now risk complicating the diplomatic choreography. The West has blamed Iran for a drone attack last week that struck an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire off the coast of Oman, killing a British security guard and a Romanian crew member.
Iran has denied involvement in the incident, which marks the first-known fatal assault after a yearslong shadow war targeting commercial shipping in the region.
Economy top challenge
Iran’s economic woes, exacerbated by US sanctions, will be the new president’s top challenge, said Clement Therme, a researcher at the European University Institute in Italy.
“His main objective will be to improve the economic situation by reinforcing the Islamic republic’s economic relations with neighboring countries” and others such as Russia and China, Therme said.
In the winter of 2017-2018, and again in 2019, street protests sparked by the economic crisis rocked the country.
And last month, demonstrators in oil-rich Khuzestan province, which has been hit by drought, took to the streets to vent their anger.
The economic malaise has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has officially cost more than 90,000 lives and also hit many Iranians in the pocket.
In his final cabinet meeting on Sunday, Rouhani defended his track record but apologized over the “hardships” Iranians have had to endure.