Iranian reformist candidate vows to tackle nuclear deal “at first chance”

The only reformist Iranian presidential candidate has vowed to try to resolve the stalemate with world powers over the “first-chance” nuclear deal if elected.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Abdolnaser Hemmati, a former central bank governor who battles hard-core rivals in Friday’s vote, said if he wins his priorities will be relaunching the nuclear deal. of 2015, an agreement to lift US sanctions and attract foreign investment.

“If the United States returns to its commitments under the JCPOA [the nuclear accord] and Iran can verify that they have lifted the sanctions. . . it would be an important step towards building trust between Iran and the United States, ”he said.

Polls suggest Hemmati is far behind his main outright rival Ebrahim Raisi and the odds seem against his chances of securing a shock victory. But the 64-year-old said he had previously asked Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s top diplomat and one of the architects of the nuclear deal, to be part of his government.

He added that if sanctions were lifted and conditions improved, a meeting with US President Joe Biden would “not be impossible.” “In general, I do not reject [the possibility of talks with the US] but that will depend on the behavior and actions of the United States, ”he said. “My priority is to lift the sanctions. It is very important, “he added.

Hemmati’s comments highlight the stakes of the election and highlight the differences between the reformist and his die-hard rivals after four years of hostilities between Tehran and the Trump administration.

Raisi, the frontrunner, suggested that if he wins, he will support the ongoing negotiations between Tehran and the other signatories to the nuclear deal – the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – which aim to negotiate an agreement that would lead to the re-accession of the United States. the agreement and the lifting of sanctions.

But analysts say Raisi, head of the judiciary, should take a much more conservative approach and not prioritize relations with Western states. Raisi said he would focus on strengthening domestic industrial production. This brings him closer to the position expressed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, whom many Iranians suspect of favoring Raisi. While Khamenei has the final say on all crucial foreign and security policies, the president can influence the direction Iran takes.

Outgoing President Hassan Rouhani signed the nuclear deal in 2015 under which Tehran agreed to strictly limit its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of US sanctions. But the deal fell apart after Donald Trump unilaterally pulled the United States out of the deal in 2018 and imposed sanctions on the republic. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign plunged Iran into a spiraling recession, severely weakening reformists who supported the deal and emboldened hardliners who resisted engagement with the United States.

Biden has vowed to join the deal if Iran returns to full compliance with the deal. But any chance of easing hostilities is complicated by Iran’s refusal to make concessions on its support for regional militant groups and its increasingly sophisticated missile program.

Hemmati, a soft-spoken technocrat who guided the central bank during the crisis, said the Iranian economy could withstand the sanctions. But he added that the punitive measures by the United States would prevent the republic from developing at the pace necessary to tackle Iran’s economic problems.

“We cannot have rapid and solid economic development in a closed atmosphere. We need technology, investment and foreign funding, ”he said. “Foreign policy should serve Iran’s economic development, which would be my government’s number one priority.”

Analysts say Hemmati’s only chance of victory is if Raisi can’t get more than 50 percent of the vote. There would then be a second round and pro-democracy Iranians could vote in greater numbers to support Hemmati.

His last-minute run for president rose to prominence after authorities banned all major reformist candidates. But his campaign has been undermined by the sense of desperation many Iranians have after the unrest of the past three years and what they perceive to be broken promises that the nuclear deal would bring prosperity and end years of isolation. . As a result, many Reform supporters say they will boycott the election when the turnout may be the lowest for a presidential election since the 1979 revolution.

The Iranian elections have a history of unpredictability and those close to Hemmati say they remain optimistic. But his hopes rest on the belief of disillusioned voters that their ballots can make a difference.

“The relationship between the people and the state has weakened, that’s a fact. I ran to tell people this can change, ”he said.

He called the vote a “day of fate”. “It can open windows of hope for people, we shouldn’t let those windows close,” he said. “If that happens, we don’t know when they will reopen and what will happen before those windows reopen. “

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