Iran's new ultraconservative president, Ebrahim Raisi, has taken his oath of office with a promise to pursue diplomacy to secure the lifting of U.S. sanctions, drawing a cautious response from Washington.
Raisi, who previously served as Iranian judiciary chief, was sworn in at the Iranian parliament in a ceremony Thursday, two days after his term officially began with an endorsement from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Raisi, a longtime protege of Khamenei, won a landslide victory in a June presidential election overshadowed by a record-low turnout. Iran's Guardian Council, a body stacked with Khamenei loyalists who vet presidential candidates, had disqualified Raisi's most prominent rivals from running, dampening public interest in the vote. The United States and Iranian opposition activists dismissed Raisi's win as neither free nor fair.
"I swear to safeguard the official religion and the establishment of the Islamic Republic and constitution of the nation," Raisi said during the oath ceremony.
In a speech to the parliament, Raisi said, "Sanctions against Iran must be lifted, and we will support any diplomatic plan that achieves this goal."
Echoing language long used by Khamenei, he also asserted that the Iranian electorate had given him a mandate to maintain Iran's "resistance to ... the arrogant and oppressive powers," a euphemism for the United States and its key regional ally, Israel.
Iran's economy has been in recession since 2018, when the U.S. began unilaterally tightening sanctions against Tehran under then-President Donald Trump. His successor, Joe Biden, who took office in January, has kept almost all of Trump's sanctions in place but has offered to lift some if Iran agrees to curb nuclear activities that could be weaponized.
Iran has retaliated for the U.S. sanctions since 2019 by exceeding the limits imposed on its nuclear activities by a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Trump quit the JCPOA, saying it was not tough enough on Iran, while Biden has tried to revive the deal in recent months through several inconclusive rounds of indirect talks involving U.S. and Iranian negotiators in Vienna.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price responded to Raisi's speech with an expression of hope and a warning.
"Our message to President Raisi is the same as our message to his predecessors: The U.S. will defend and advance our national security interests and those of our partners," Price told a daily press briefing.
He also said Raisi's stated desire to obtain relief from U.S. sanctions "might suggest there's an appetite on the part of the new Iranian government to engage in this diplomacy."
"We certainly hope that's the case, because we believe profoundly that it remains in our interest — in the interests of our allies and partners — to see Iran's nuclear program once again permanently and verifiably restricted," Price said. "But this is a new administration in Iran. We've heard their words. To us, actions will speak louder. And the Iranians clearly have some decisions to make," he added.
Iran's economic problems have worsened in the past year as the coronavirus pandemic hit the Islamist-ruled nation harder than any other country in the region. Critics say decades of governmental corruption and mismanagement of the economy is another key problem.
"Raisi is starting his presidency at a time when the country is facing a mega crisis," said Masoud Rafiei Taleghani, a Tehran-based journalist for a licensed Iranian newspaper.
"One of those crises is the coronavirus pandemic, which Raisi did not say how he will tackle," Taleghani told VOA Persian in an interview, referring to the president's parliamentary speech.
"During his campaign, he talked about combating corruption, and he mentioned it in the speech, but I doubt he will have the means to do so, especially with the Cabinet that it is rumored he is assembling," Taleghani said. Raisi has not yet announced whom he will choose for Cabinet positions that must have parliamentary approval.
Among the dignitaries attending Raisi's swearing-in were Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Iraqi President Barham Salih and the European Union's deputy secretary-general for foreign action, Enrique Mora.
Sitting a few feet in front of Mora in the assembly hall were the leaders of several Islamist militant groups allied to Iran. They included Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary General Naim Qassem, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad chief Ziad al-Nakhalah. All three groups are U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations.
U.S.-based Iran analyst Rasool Nafisi, a sociologist at IGlobal University, told VOA Persian that Raisi has received a warm welcome from Iran's proxy militias in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.
"When Raisi was talking in his speech about expanding and strengthening relations in the region, he was talking about the proxies and not, let's say, to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Sunni-led powerhouses in the region," Nafisi said.
"As I listened to the speech, Raisi emphasized several times that he will not negotiate directly with the United States. If he does not want to sort out Iran's problem with the U.S., then the chances of establishing good relations with Saudi Arabia and UAE are next to nothing," he said. Shiite-majority Iran's Sunni-led Arab neighbors have long complained of what they see as Tehran's aggressive attempts to expand its regional influence through support of proxy militias.
Since November 2019, the United States has sanctioned Raisi for his involvement in Iran's mass executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. Iranian leaders long have refused to acknowledge the killings.