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Iran Elects A New President As The U.S. Tries To Revive Nuclear Talks

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Iran's new president, Ebrahim Raisi, was elected over the weekend. He's a conservative cleric who has been the head of the country's judicial system. He says he will not meet with President Joe Biden, nor will he negotiate over Tehran's ballistic missile program and Tehran's support of regional militias. This comes as the U.S. is attempting to revive nuclear talks with Iran. Here's national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaking on ABC's "This Week."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")

JAKE SULLIVAN: The ultimate decision for whether or not to go back into the deal lies with Iran's supreme leader. And he was the same person before this election as he is after the election.

MARTIN: So what kind of difference will this new president make? We're going to ask that question of Robin Wright. She's a fellow at the Wilson Center and a contributing writer at The New Yorker. Robin, thanks for being back on the show.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Great to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: What more can you tell us about Ebrahim Raisi?

WRIGHT: Ebrahim Raisi has been the judiciary chief for the last two years. But he's been a prosecutor since he - since the young age of 20 in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. So he has a long history in one of the most draconian branches of the Iranian government. The judiciary has been responsible for the persecution and prosecution of many of the political dissidents in the country on a wide range of charges from sabotage to trying to overthrow the system.

MARTIN: So you think of that legacy, and then a lot of people might wonder what Iranians saw in this particular leader in this moment. I mean, turnout wasn't great, right? So how legitimate are elections in Iran and this one in particular?

WRIGHT: Well, this one is arguably the most rigged of all the elections since the revolution. Almost 600 people registered to run, and that included 40 women. A council of guardians, a panel of 12 religious scholars, vetted all the candidates for their Islamic credentials. And the list was slimmed down to just seven candidates. And in the last two days of the election, three of the seven opted to drop out. So Iranians didn't have much of a choice. Now, Raisi is interesting because he has made corruption his foremost issue. And Iran faces really hideous corruption today. It was bad under the shah. But it is many times worse under the Islamic Republic. And Iranians who are feeling the economic pinch hope that cleaning up corruption will be one way to help redistribute wealth rather than have it hoarded by those in either the private sector or in some government circles.

MARTIN: It's also U.S. and international sanctions that have had a real effect on the economy. How is Raisi likely to recalibrate Iran's relationship with the U.S.?

WRIGHT: Well, he said during the three presidential debates that he supported the return to the Iran nuclear deal known as the JCPOA. And that's already at an advanced stage of negotiation. It's widely expected that the two sides will try over the next month to wrap up the negotiations, which involve getting the United States and Iran back into full compliance. The Trump administration imposed more than a thousand new sanctions on Iran, which Iran wants lifted. And Iran had, in the meantime, breached some of its obligations under the accord to limit the number of centrifuges that it makes and the stockpile of uranium that it keeps. And enriched uranium is the critical element for both fueling a peaceful energy program as well as building a nuclear bomb.

MARTIN: So - I mean, beyond the nuclear deal, what other components of the relationship are likely to change with Raisi's election?

WRIGHT: Well, that's the key question, Rachel. And the Biden administration has promised that it wants to engage with Iran on a whole range of other issues, including its escalating missile program, which is now capable of reaching 2,000 kilometers outside Iran, places as far as central China and north to Russia, west to as far as Greece and south as far as Ethiopia. This is - in many ways, it's the most dangerous weapon that's available to them now. The United States also wants to talk about Iran's meddling in the region, whether it's Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or the war in Yemen, and then, of course, Iran's abysmal human rights record. Underway, you see all of this is going to be much more difficult because he is much more hard line. And the interesting thing about the timing of this election is that the presidency is not the only thing at stake. It comes at a time that the supreme leader, who is the ultimate power and the ultimate arbiter of any issue, domestic or foreign, is 82 years old. And the president may be the last one during the supreme leader's rule. And he may be the chief candidate to replace him.

MARTIN: Robin Wright is a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center and a contributing writer at The New Yorker. Robin, we appreciate your perspective on this. Thanks, as always.

WRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.