September 20, 2017 at 5:05 PM
NEW YORK — The international nuclear agreement with Iran is a "closed issue" and cannot be extended or changed in any way, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared Wednesday, flatly rejecting President Trump's criticism that the deal is weak and "an embarrassment."
"This is a building the frame of which, if you take out a single brick, the entire building will collapse," Rouhani said.
"This issue must be understood by the American officials," he added. "Either the JCPOA will remain as it is in its entirety or it will cease to exist."
The 2015 deal known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was a signature achievement for President Barack Obama. The agreement, negotiated over more than two years of difficult diplomacy, also involves European allies, as well as Russia and China, and is backed by the United Nations. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held his first meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif later Wednesday, alongside the other parties to the accord.
France, Germany and Britain have not signed on to the criticism lodged by the new U.S. administration, and French President Emmanuel Macron used his meeting here with Trump on Monday to urge the U.S. leader to stick with it. The agreement meant an infusion of cash and investment in Iran, much of it from European businesses liberated from international economic sanctions on Iran.
It has been an open question whether the agreement could survive without the United States, whose participation was the key to Iranian willingness to strike a bargain, limiting what it asserts is a peaceful nuclear program.
Rouhani's remarks are a declaration that the deal cannot be renegotiated to address U.S. concerns and cannot be reconstituted without the United States.
Rouhani also suggested that if the United States abrogates the terms of the deal, Iran could resume larger-scale uranium-enrichment activities — a move likely to rekindle international fears that Tehran would be able to accelerate the development of nuclear weapons.
"If anyone exits the agreement and breaks their commitment, it means our hand is completely open to take any action that we see as beneficial to our country," Rouhani said at a news conference after his address to the U.N. General Assembly.
"The JCPOA has no other conditions," Rouhani said. "It is the JCPOA in its current form."
Tillerson later told reporters he was not discouraged by Rouhani's refusal to consider any kind of modification of the deal.
"As a longtime negotiator, I learned to never say never," he said. "And second, it always gets the darkest before you might have a breakthrough. As I've said to people many times, as the nation's chief diplomat, I better be the most optimistic person standing in the room."
Tillerson said the meeting between diplomats whose countries signed the nuclear deal was civil and matter of fact, even though he and Zarif clearly differed in their assessment of the agreement.
"There was no yelling," he said. "We did not throw shoes at each other."
Trump said Wednesday that he has decided what to do about the Iran deal, which he has strongly and repeatedly criticized, but he did not say what that decision was.
Speaking in New York after a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Trump responded to a reporter's question about whether a decision has been made about the future of the accord.
"I have decided," Trump said, three times.
Pressed by reporters to reveal his decision, Trump smiled and said, "I'll let you know what the decision is."
Under U.S. law, Trump must decide by Oct. 15 whether to recertify Iran's compliance with the agreement. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has inspectors in Iran to monitor its nuclear facilities, has said eight times that it is complying. If Trump does not recertify it, Congress will have 60 days to decide whether to reimpose U.S. sanctions that were lifted when the deal took effect. That would in effect be a withdrawal.
Trump, in his speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday, called the agreement with Iran an embarrassment and "one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into."
In that fiery speech, he also said that Iran is a "murderous regime" that he put in the same category with rogue nations such as North Korea.
That led Rouhani to demand an apology Wednesday.
"Mr. Trump was offensive to Iran, and we are waiting for Mr. Trump to apologize to the people of Iran," Rouhani said through an interpreter.
Rouhani, during a 23-minute address at the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, never mentioned Trump by name. Instead he referred to him obliquely, saying it would be a pity if the nuclear deal were undone by "rogue newcomers to the world of politics" and condemning "ignorant, absurd and hateful" remarks.
Rouhani denied that Iran had ever sought to obtain nuclear weapons and said the ballistic missiles it has been testing would be used only for defensive purposes.
Trump and other U.S. officials have criticized the nuclear deal for failing to address Iranian ballistic-missile programs and Iran's alleged support for terrorism. The criticism echoes long-standing conservative doubts about the value of the deal if it addressed only the potential threat of nuclear weapons. The Trump administration and Israel have also complained that even the nuclear protections are weak, since some of them expire in 10 to 15 years.
In his speech, Rouhani took umbrage at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's criticism of Iran the day before, when he called Iran the greatest threat to world peace.
"It is reprehensible that the rogue Zionist regime that threatens regional and global security with its nuclear arsenal and is not committed to any international instrument or safeguard has the audacity to preach [to] peaceful nations," he said.
Rouhani said that the time frame and deadlines contained in the deal were all carefully worked out and will not be revisited.
He also said the end of the nuclear deal would be more detrimental to the United States than to Iran.
"By violating its international commitments, the new U.S. administration only destroys its own credibility and undermines international confidence in negotiating with it, or accepting its word or promise," he said.
This is the third General Assembly since the deal was made, and Rouhani's appearances have reflected the arc of Iranian sentiment about it.
In 2015, as Iran was dismantling and downsizing parts of its nuclear program in the first part of the deal, Rouhani was optimistic it would lead to growth as Iran was reintegrated into the world economy. Last year, the Iranian president was dour, complaining that the United States had not done enough to convince international business and banks that it was safe to invest in Iran. This year, he was defiant.
And Tillerson was philosophical as he bemoaned the fact that the U.S.-Iranian relationship has been rocky for four decades now, since the 1979 revolution and the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
"It's a relationship that's never had a stable, happy moment in it," he said. "And I think if we ever get the chance to talk, perhaps that's where we ought to start talking. Is this going to be the way it is for the rest of our lives and our children's lives and our grandchildren's lives? We've never had that conversation."
Abby Phillip in Washington contributed to this report.