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Incoming Iranian President Is Expected To Make U.S.-Iran Relations Even Tougher


This Thursday - tomorrow - marks an important shift in Iranian politics. Iran's pragmatic president, Hassan Rouhani, will leave office after two terms in power. He'll be replaced by Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi is a hard-line former judge who is under U.S. sanctions for his part in the executions of political prisoners.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports relations between the U.S. and Iran are likely to get even chillier.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Ebrahim Raisi is taking power at a difficult time, even by Iranian standards.


KENYON: This video uploaded to YouTube shows one of the many recent confrontations between police and demonstrators who poured into the streets to protest ongoing water shortages and power cuts during the summer heat. Human rights groups say they've confirmed the deaths of several protesters.

But beyond Iran's domestic issues, some are wondering what changes a Raisi government might bring to Iran's foreign policy. When asked to describe Raisi's views on the West in general, and the U.S. in particular, Simon Henderson with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy sums it up this way.

SIMON HENDERSON: He hates the United States. He distrusts the United States. And he doesn't want to do anything which will ease the relationship with the United States. He sees it as a waste of time.

KENYON: In a June speech, Raisi said Washington had proved its mendacity by walking away from the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, and Europe had done next to nothing about it. Heard here through an interpreter, Raisi said the key for Iran remains what it has always been - the lifting of punitive sanctions.


PRESIDENT EBRAHIM RAISI: (Through interpreter) The Americans violated the JCPOA, and the Europeans did not fulfill their commitments. What I want to stress to the U.S. is that, based on the nuclear deal, you are obligated to lift the sanctions, and you did not. Return and fulfill your commitments.

KENYON: Raisi has said he's willing to continue talks on reviving the nuclear accord if he can get a better deal, plus guarantees that the U.S. won't walk away again - a guarantee American officials say they can't make.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, says it would lift sanctions if Iran stopped supporting proxy militias in the region and considers restrictions in other areas, such as its ballistic missile program.

Sanam Vakil, an analyst with the U.K.-based think tank Chatham House, says so far, each side finds the other's demands unworkable.

SANAM VAKIL: I think both sides want something more, and that's the problem here. I don't think a deal can be made on Iran's ballistic missile program or regional activities as part of the nuclear agreement.

KENYON: Vakil says she expects the new administration in Tehran to use security concerns - such as fear of more attacks by America's main Mideast ally, Israel - to carry out a purge of moderate or reform-minded officials from Rouhani's government.

VAKIL: The Israelis have assassinated their nuclear scientist. Their nuclear facilities have experienced sabotage. So on the back of those very embarrassing incidents, a purge of the system, I think can also be justified.

KENYON: Analyst Simon Henderson says the Israelis think they have good reason to be concerned about Iran's intentions and about Washington's willingness to negotiate with Tehran.

HENDERSON: The Israelis are very worried about the situation. They don't think there's a possibility of dealing with Iran at any quasi-diplomatic level, and they tend to believe, as well they might, that if Khamenei and the Iranian media make threatening sounds against Israel, that these are genuine.

KENYON: Meanwhile, just as Raisi is set to begin his presidential duties, a trial thousands of miles away in Sweden will shine a light on what human rights groups call an atrocity from his past - mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s. Raisi himself is not a defendant, but the case will rekindle memories of his role in ordering those executions, and will remind the world that Ebrahim Raisi is the first Iranian president to take office while under American sanctions for his human rights record.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.