Iran's supreme leader officially endorsed his hard-line protégé Ebrahim Raisi as the nation's next president on Tuesday, two days ahead of an inauguration ceremony. It comes at a sensitive time for Iran and the Middle East, under the shadow of the stalled nuclear talks with the West and a recent diplomatic spat over an attack on a ship.
In his endorsement speech, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei advised Raisi, a former judiciary chief, to “empower the country's poor people and improve the national currency.”
Iran's economy has suffered due to US sanctions, which has led to the crash of the Iranian riyal and hit ordinary people hard.
Al Khamenei 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,” he said.
To make things worse, the coronavirus has spiraled out of control, with authorities reporting a record of 39,000 new cases on Tuesday — almost 2,000 more than the previous day.
Iran has recorded a total of more than 3.9 million virus cases and 91,785 fatalities — the highest death toll in the region.
Future of accord in doubt
Raisi also comes to the job facing doubts about an imminent return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), the agreement between Iran and the "P5+1" (the permanent members of the UN Security Council -US, UK, France, Russia and China- plus Germany), which granted Iran sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear program.
The collapse of the nuclear agreement after former President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the accord three years ago doomed the relatively moderate administration of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, who has seen his popularity plummet. Rouhani himself sat stone-faced throughout the endorsement ceremony.
US President Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the landmark nuclear accord and lift sanctions if Iran moves back into compliance with the agreement.
Last week, Khamenei delivered a harsh rebuke of the West, blaming the delay of the deal's revival on America's “stubborn” negotiating stance. While repeating his usual anti-West rhetoric on Tuesday about Iran's “enemies” seeking to sway public opinion, Khamenei struck a milder tone during the endorsement ceremony.
Raisi did not specifically comment on the stalled nuclear negotiations in Vienna, but stressed in his speech that 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.
Raisi won a landslide victory in the June election, which saw the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic's history. He will take the oath of office in an inauguration ceremony Thursday before parliament.
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 two crew members.
Iran has denied involvement in the incident, which marks the first-known fatal assault after a years long shadow war targeting commercial shipping in the region.