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

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has lambasted Donald Trump over his decision to unilaterally pull the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal, saying that his statement was “ludicrous and shallow”, as hardliners rejoiced at the US exit.

“I say it on behalf of Iranian people, Mr Trump, you can’t do a damn thing,” said Khamenei, who wields ultimate power in Iran, a day after the US president broke with European allies over what he said was a “horrible, one-sided” agreement.

The Ayatollah said Trump’s statement on the 2015 landmark nuclear deal, also known as the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA), contained “more than 10 lies”. He said: “He both threatened the system as well as the nation ... The body of this man, Trump, will turn to ashes and become the food of the worms and ants, while the Islamic Republic continues to stand.”

Hardliners in Iran have been given a new lease of political life with Trump’s decision to torpedo the agreement and reimpose economic sanctions at the highest level, seizing on an opportunity to consolidate their power over reformists who championed the pact.

On Wednesday the commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards congratulated the nation on the US exit. Mohammad Ali Jafari said: “I congratulate and see as a good deed the vicious withdrawal of the US from JCPOA, which was not credible even before the withdrawal … It was proved once more that US isn’t trustworthy in regards its commitments.”

At the opening session of the Iranian parliament, a group of hardline MPs held up a paper US flag and the text of the JCPOA before setting fire to both and chanting “death to America”.

The MPs’ protest was a nod to Khamenei, who had said in June 2016, prior to Trump’s election, that if the Americans “tear it up, we will set it on fire”.

In July 2015, Iran and a six-nation negotiating group reached a landmark agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that ended a 12-year deadlock over Tehran’s nuclear programme. The deal, struck in Vienna after nearly two years of intensive talks, limited the Iranian programme, to reassure the rest of the world that it cannot develop nuclear weapons, in return for sanctions relief.

At its core, the JCPOA is a straightforward bargain: Iran’s acceptance of strict limits on its nuclear programme in return for an escape from the sanctions that grew up around its economy over a decade prior to the accord. Under the deal, Iran unplugged two-thirds of its centrifuges, shipped out 98% of its enriched uranium and filled its plutonium production reactor with concrete. Tehran also accepted extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has verified 10 times since the agreement, and as recently as February, that Tehran has complied with its terms. In return, all nuclear-related sanctions were lifted in January 2016, reconnecting Iran to global markets.

The six major powers involved in the nuclear talks with Iran were in a group known as the P5+1: the UN security council’s five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – and Germany. The nuclear deal is also enshrined in a UN security council resolution that incorporated it into international law. The 15 members of the council at the time unanimously endorsed the agreement.

On 8 May 2018, US president Donald Trump pulled his country out of the deal. Iran announced its partial withdrawal from the nuclear deal a year later. Trump's successor, Joe Biden, has said that the US could return to the deal if Iran fulfilled its obligations.

Saeed Kamali Dehghan, Iran correspondent

Khamenei said on Wednesday it was not feasible for Iran to continue implementing the agreement without making sure that the European partners in the agreement, the UK, France and Germany, could withstand US pressure. The EU wants to keep the agreement but a US exit might trigger a collapse of the deal because US sanctions will hamper European business with Tehran.

“It is not logical to continue the implementation of the Iran deal without receiving enough guarantees from three European countries,” Khamenei said. “Now it is said that we continue [the deal] with the three countries. I even don’t trust these three countries. Receive practical guarantees from them. If you can, that’s fine. But if you cannot receive a guarantee, it will not be possible to continue implementing Barjam,” he said, referring to the Persian acronym for the JCPOA.

Ali Larijani, the speaker of the parliament, said Tehran would wait to gauge how the European partners in the nuclear talks would handle the US exit from the deal. His comments echoed those of the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, who has said the agreement could survive if Europe defies Trump.

The US exit from the agreement dominated Wednesday’s newspaper front pages in Tehran. “Barjam minus America,” read the main headline on the front page of the reformist Ebtekar daily. “US exit from Barjam puts an end to the world’s trust in the empire of lies,” Ettela’at’s front page said.

“Trump tore up the agreement, now it’s time for us to set it on fire,” read the front page headline of Kayhan, an ultra-conservative daily whose editor is appointed directly by Khamenei.

Despite Rouhani’s assurances that Iran is prepared to withstand the impact of a US exit, Trump’s decision has revived worries of conflict inside Iran, where people are concerned about the state of its already fragile economy, and consequences for the fate of reformists.

On Tuesday night ordinary Iranians were on tenterhooks, monitoring any immediate impact on the country’s national currency, and prompting panic-buying of hard-to-find dollars amid political uncertainty. The rial traded at the all-time low on Wednesday. One US dollar was exchanged for 75,000 rials.

Sadegh Zibakalam, a prominent political commentator and professor of politics at Tehran University, struck a pessimistic tone about the consequences of Trump’s decision.

Iran’s President Rouhani speaks about the nuclear deal in Tehran on Tuesday
Iran’s President Rouhani speaks about the nuclear deal in Tehran on Tuesday. Photograph: Reuters TV/Reuters

“Many people are worried about war,” he told the Guardian by phone from Tehran. “Whenever the country faces a crisis in its foreign policy or economy, the situation gets better for hardliners, they’d be able to exert their force more easily.”

He added: “At the same time, hardliners will gain politically from this situation, because they’ll attack reformists and moderates like [President] Rouhani that this is evidence of what they had been saying for years, that the US cannot be trusted, and that the US is always prepared to knife you in the back.”

Foad Izadi, a Tehran-based conservative political analyst, said Trump’s aim was to confront Iran with greater force but that it could withstand the pressure. “For 40 years, we have been living under sanctions. The collapse of the nuclear deal will mean that we have to find ways to circumvent sanctions, something we have done in the past,” he said.

For ordinary Iranians, however, the prospects are gloomy. One, Arash Tavanafar, said the psychological pressure of Trump’s decision on the Iranian population could prove more powerful than its economic effect. “The psychological pressure and worry is destroying us, especially the youth, because we neither have any trust in this political system, nor any hope for its reform. We’ve only become spectators of its downfall,” he said.

It’s hard to overstate the power of Telegram in Iran. Of its 80m population, an estimated 40m use the free app created by Russian national Pavel Durov. Its clients share videos and photos, subscribing to groups where everyone from politicians to poets broadcast to fellow users.

While authorities ban social media websites like Facebook and Twitter and censor others, Telegram users can say nearly anything. In the last presidential election, the app played a big role in motivating turnout and spreading political screeds.

Telegram touts itself as being highly encrypted and allows users to set their messages to “self-destruct” after a certain period, making it a favourite among activists and others concerned about their privacy. That too has made it a worry of Iranian authorities.

A channel run by an exiled journalist, Roohallah Zam, helped organise some of those who took to the street, including times and locations for protests, and was suspended by Durov after Iranian authorities complained that it was inciting violence.

Zam, who denies the allegations, responded by launching new channels to spread messages about upcoming protests before the government ordered the app shut down. 

Mohammad, a postdoctoral student, said Trump’s decision would undermine moderates in Iran as the country might have to name a new supreme leader in the coming years. Khamenei is 78, and there has been speculation over his health. “Moderates can play a significant role in the appointment of the new leader if they’re not weakened, something that can hugely affect the future generations in the country,” Mohammad said.


Saeed Kamali Dehghan Iran correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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