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Iran to negotiate with Europeans, Russia and China about remaining in nuclear deal

The Post’s Alan Sipress and Karen DeYoung explain how President Trump’s decision might affect an already tense Middle East. (Video: Sarah Parnass, Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

ISTANBUL — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday that his government remains committed to a nuclear deal with world powers, despite the U.S. decision to withdraw, but is also ready to resume uranium enrichment should the accord no longer offer benefits.

Rouhani, who had made the deal his signature achievement, spoke following President Trump’s announcement that the United States would reimpose wide-ranging sanctions on Iran. The removal of those sanctions, including on the Iranian oil and banking sectors, had been key to persuading Iran to accept limits on its nuclear program.

The Iranian leader said he had directed his diplomats to negotiate with the deal’s remaining signatories — including European countries, Russia and China — and that the nuclear agreement could survive without the United States.

President Trump said May 8 that the United States would reinstate sanctions on Iran and warned other states against helping Iran with its nuclear program. (Video: The Washington Post)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that he would “spearhead a diplomatic effort to examine whether remaining JCPOA participants can ensure its full benefits for Iran.” The nuclear deal is also known as the JCPOA, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

But Rouhani warned that Iran would begin enriching uranium beyond the levels allowed in the accord if the government decides the country’s needs are not being met. He said Iran would decide in “a few weeks” whether to ramp up enrichment.

It was a stark warning from an otherwise pragmatic politician who has long championed diplomacy with the West.

“If in the short term, we conclude that we can achieve what we want” from the nuclear deal, the agreement will survive, Rouhani said in a televised address. If not, he said, he ordered Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization to prepare for unlimited uranium enrichment in the event the government decides to withdraw from the pact. He called Trump’s tactics “psychological warfare” and urged Iranians to resist U.S. pressure on Iran.

A senior adviser to Rouhani, Hesamodin Ashna, tweeted Tuesday that Iran’s “answer to Trump will not be rushed, but it will be painful.”

As part of the nuclear deal, Iran pledged never to “seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” Iran’s supreme religious and political leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has declared nuclear weapons to be un-Islamic, saying that its nuclear program is aimed solely at producing energy and conducting medical research.

But Trump called the agreement “decaying and rotten” and said, “The Iran deal is defective at its core.”

Trump’s decision to reinstate “powerful” U.S. nuclear-related sanctions against Iran could cripple the Iranian economy and put European allies in a bind over whether to continue investing in Iran, which was a key provision of the deal.

The allies have stood firmly behind the accord, which was negotiated between Iran and six world powers: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. But they could also suffer penalties under renewed U.S. sanctions, removing incentives to continue to do business with Iran.

Iranian leaders said Tuesday that the country would stand united in the face of any new sanctions or threats from the United States.

Rouhani’s first vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, said earlier Tuesday that the government has “a plan for managing the country under any circumstances.” In remarks reported by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, Jahangiri, a popular reformist, said it would be “naive” to enter into negotiations with the United States again.

The comments underscored a growing debate among political factions in Iran over what to do after the U.S. withdrawal. Some politicians have urged the government to continue to work with Europe to salvage the accord.

“If the Europeans are willing to give us sufficient guarantees, it makes sense for us to stay in the deal,” the deputy speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Motahari, said in remarks carried by the Iranian Students’ News Agency.

Motahari said Iran should wait several months to see whether Europe plans to resist U.S. pressure to disengage from the Iranian economy, where European companies have invested in sectors ranging from auto manufacturing to oil exploration and tourism.

If Europe succeeds, “this is a victory for Iran, because it will have created a gap between the United States and Europe,” he said.

But others have been less forgiving, urging Iran’s leaders to immediately withdraw and restart suspended elements of the country’s nuclear program. Fliers circulating online called for a rally in Iran’s northeastern city of Mashhad to “set the JCPOA on fire.”

The Iranian parliament’s nuclear committee published three actions that the government could take if Trump leaves the deal, including installing more centrifuges and ramping up uranium enrichment. Enriched uranium can be used as fuel for nuclear power plants or — if enriched at much higher levels — as fissile material for nuclear weapons.

If Trump confronts Iran, “we will not remain passive,” the head of the National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, said Tuesday in an interview with the Hamshahri newspaper.

He said European leaders made a mistake in trying to appease Trump by seeking to extract further concessions from Iran, including a potential halt to its ballistic missile program. The nuclear deal was the result of painstaking negotiations over two years between the Rouhani administration and the world powers, including the Obama administration.

While Iran accepted limits on its nuclear program, including inspections, critics said the deal failed to address other problematic aspects of Iranian policy, including its missile development and support for militant groups in Iraq and Syria.

“The Islamic Republic will stand firmly against this threat,” Shamkhani said of the Trump administration’s stance.

Even as Iranian leaders vowed to weather the storm, Iran’s economy was already feeling the strain. Iran’s Central Bank governor, Valiollah Seif, downplayed any potential shock to Iranian markets, which have been roiled by high inflation and a collapsing currency.

“We are prepared for all scenarios,” Seif said on state television. “If America pulls out of the deal, our economy will not be impacted.”

But the Iranian rial was trading Tuesday at near record lows against the dollar, as Iranians looked to buy hard currency ahead of Trump’s announcement, economists said.

According to Pratibha Thaker, an Iran expert at the Economist Intelligence Unit, a risk analysis group, Trump’s withdrawal from the pact would accelerate regional insecurity, cause a dip in global oil supplies and plunge the Iranian economy into recession.

“Anxiety, stress . . . [these are] people’s feelings just hours before Mr. Trump’s extraordinary decision,” an Iranian journalist, Amine Sherifkan, posted on Twitter.

Worsening economic woes could spell trouble for Rouhani, a moderate cleric who championed the nuclear deal as a way to jump-start Iran’s economy and end the country’s isolation.

Rouhani staked much of his political credibility on the nuclear deal with world powers. But even as oil exports picked up in the wake of the agreement, ordinary Iranians have said they felt few tangible benefits from the accord.

Widespread economic unrest, currency fluctuations and a recent judicial ban on the popular messaging app Telegram have weakened the president, analysts said. A collapse of the nuclear pact could weaken Rouhani further, giving room for hard-line opponents of the accord to exert more influence.

“Rouhani is already under huge pressure,” said Saeid Hasanzadeh, an Iranian analyst based in Istanbul.

He said that Iran’s supreme leader, Khamenei, who wields ultimate religious and political authority in Iran,has distanced himself enough from the nuclear deal that its failure would be blamed on Rouhani.

The supreme leader “did not take direct responsibility for the deal,” Hasanzadeh said. “So the responsibility falls entirely on Rouhani’s shoulders.”

William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.

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