Iran's supreme leader gives tentative approval to nuclear deal

But Ali Khamenei says the country will not dismantle its nuclear programme until UN watchdog closes weapons investigation

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has given his qualified approval to the nuclear accord agreed with major powers, but added conditions that could complicate its implementation.

In a letter to President Hassan Rouhani, Khamenei said Iran would not take major steps to dismantle its nuclear programme until the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), closed an investigation into the country’s alleged past work on the design of nuclear weapons.

The intervention is problematic for Rouhani’s government, which is in a hurry to implement the nuclear deal so that Iran can benefit from sanctions relief before legislative elections in late February. On Wednesday, it announced that it was close to a deal with Russia to export its stockpile of enriched uranium in return for imports of natural uranium.

Khamenei also stipulated that sanctions, or even the threat of sanctions, from abroad could be grounds for walking away from the deal, known as the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA).

“Any comments suggesting the sanctions structure will remain in place or [new] sanctions will be imposed, at any level and under any pretext, would be a violation of the JCPOA,” the letter, published on Khamenei’s official website, said.

The JCPOA was agreed by Rouhani’s government with the US and five other world powers, including the UK, in Vienna in July. It has since been endorsed by the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, but the supreme leader has the final say.

The caveats he placed on his approval make the deal even more fragile and could postpone its implementation. The US has recently declared that Iran has continued to violate UN resolutions with its test of ballistic missiles, and the Republican majority in Congress has threatened to slap further sanctions on Iran. Khamenei’s letter increases the odds that such threats could torpedo the nuclear deal.

The IAEA is due to deliver its report on suspected past nuclear weapons work on 15 December. Khamenei’s letter says Iran should wait until then before carrying out two key time-consuming steps agreed under the JCPOA – exporting its stock of enriched uranium and removing the core from a heavy-water reactor. This could substantially postpone the implementation of the deal, which Rouhani’s government had wanted finished by the end of the year.

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, Ali Akbar Salehi, said an Iranian delegation was in Moscow negotiating a uranium exchange deal by which Iran would fulfil its JCPOA obligation to reduce its stock of low-enriched uranium by more than 90% to 300kg.

“We have about nine metric tonnes of enriched uranium, and we opted to sell this amount in global markets in choosing from two options of diluting it or selling; this is a strong advantage of JCPOA for Iran,” Salehi said, according to the IRNA news agency. He estimated the exchange could be carried out in two months.

Ali Vaez, an expert on Iran at the International Crisis Group, said Khamenei’s conditions, particularly on sanctions, could undermine the JCPOA agreement.

“Expecting the US to unilaterally give up on a tool of statecraft that it has used to contain what it sees as unconstructive Iranian regional policies is unrealistic,” Vaez said. “Predetermining Iran’s response to potential sabotage by hardliners in Washington doesn’t deter them. In fact, it puts their hand on the trigger while diminishing Iran’s manoeuvring room.”


Julian Borger Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Iran's leader lambasts Trump over US exit from nuclear deal
Conservatives in Iran seize on chance to consolidate power over reformists who championed pact

Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent

09, May, 2018 @8:28 AM

Article image
Five lessons from Iran's 2016 elections
Observers who portrayed the elections as a battle between ‘reformists’ and ‘hardliners’ have tied themselves in knots – especially after reporting earlier that nearly all reformists had been disqualified by the watchdog Guardian Council

Gareth Smyth for Tehran Bureau

28, Feb, 2016 @3:41 PM

Article image
Iran's leader: US pullout from nuclear deal leaves Trump 'lost in history'
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sets out six conditions for Europe if it wants Iran to remain in agreement

Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent

23, May, 2018 @10:39 PM

Article image
Iranian nuclear deal won't change policy toward US, says Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Supreme leader says in televised speech that US policy in the Middle East not in line with Tehran’s strategy, but says further talks may be possible in future

Staff and agencies

18, Jul, 2015 @10:43 AM

Article image
Iran accused of making ‘maximalist demands’ in nuclear deal talks
Talks to save 2015 agreement on brink of collapse as Tehran is also accused of testing missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

30, Jun, 2022 @7:05 PM

Article image
UN nuclear watchdog fails to reach access deal with Iran
IAEA head says failure to gain renewed access to sites casts doubt over chances of restoring 2015 deal

Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

24, Nov, 2021 @1:54 PM

Article image
Iran’s supreme leader dismisses Trump's 'rants and whoppers'
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responds to US president decertifying nuclear deal, saying Tehran will not violate agreement first

Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent

18, Oct, 2017 @11:17 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on decertifying the Iran deal: full of sound and fury | Editorial
Editorial: Trump rampages in rhetoric. But for all his posturing, the Iran deal still stands – just


13, Oct, 2017 @6:32 PM

Article image
Hawks in Iran and Israel agree: Biden’s bid to salvage nuclear deal must not succeed
With elections looming in both states, and hardliners out to ensure the collapse of the 2015 deal, time is running short for the US president to save it

Simon Tisdall

21, Feb, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Iran nuclear deal: historic agreement in Vienna – live updates
Agreement to end 12-year standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme unveiled in Vienna. Follow the latest developments live

Claire Phipps in Sydney, Matthew Weaver in London and Raya Jalabi in New York

14, Jul, 2015 @9:02 PM