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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Rouhani hits back after Trump says fate of Iran nuclear deal 'decided'

Iranian president slams 'rogue newcomers' to politics after US counterpart says he has made up his mind on renewal of pact

US president Donald Trump speaks during his meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah at the UN General Assembly. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
US president Donald Trump speaks during his meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah at the UN General Assembly. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Donald Trump revealed on Wednesday that he had made his decision on whether to scrap the Iranian nuclear deal, weeks ahead of an October deadline, prompting his Iranian counterpart to use the UN General Assembly as a platform for a personal attack on the US president.

Mr Trump declined to say if he would find Iran to be in violation of the 2015 agreement, a key decision that could lead to the US Congress re-imposing sanctions lifted in the wake of the nuclear accord.

“I have decided, I have decided," he told reporters as he met the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. "I’ll let you know what the decision is.

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The administration is finishing its review of US policy towards Iran and the prospect of a US withdrawal from the deal has triggered a scramble by Iran to shore up support from other partners in the pact. The agreement between Iran and six powers - the US, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia - took years to negotiate but was finally sealed in 2015.

Speaking at the UN General Assembly just minutes after the US president sealed the fate of the agreement, Hassan Rouhani described Mr Trump as a “rogue newcomer to politics”.

“Iran won't be the first country to violate the agreement but it will respond decisively and resolutely to its violation by any party,” the Iranian president said. “Destruction of [the deal] by rogue newcomers to the world of politics will never impede Iran’s course of progress and advancement.”

It was a rare glint of steel from Mr Rouhani, who seeks to woo western audiences with claims that he is a moderate force seeking to change Iran and its place in the world. Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, warned that “sweet words” from the Iranian president and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif obscured the country’s destructive record as it pursued its regional agenda.

“Rouhani and Zarif are pros at sweet-talking Western, Asian and other audiences,” he wrote. “Trump is making their job much easier.”

Tehran maintains that the deal is a global agreement and has hinted it would seek to maintain the pact with Europe and the others, even if the US withdrew. Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, attended a meeting of all countries party to the deal last night, sitting around a table with Mr Zarif for the first time. However US officials ruled out a direct dialogue between the pair.

Mr Zarif met separately with Federica Mogherini, the top EU diplomat, and British foreign secretary Boris Johnson ahead of the conclave.

The pause in Iranian nuclear development will hold until sunset clauses kick in. Iran has said it is ready to resume its activity on day one after the agreement demises. Ballistic missile development has accelerated markedly since the deal was signed - a matter that has drawn the concern of US allies around the region and beyond.

At the time, the accord was depicted as a triumph for anti-proliferation efforts and a boost for Iranian reformists. However the removal of sanctions boosted the activity of Iranian-backed militias around the region and freed up resources available to the Revolutionary Guard.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has aligned himself with the concerns, telling reporters in New York that restrictions on ballistic missiles needed to be incorporated as a pillar of relations with Iran. Mr Macron also pushed to launch discussions for a follow-on deal that would come into effect from 2025 to negate the sunset clause threat. He added Iranian activities in the region needed to be put on the table.

The wide-ranging pressures on the US to toughen its stance on Iran are driving policy in Washington. Foreign Policy reported on Wednesday that Mr Tillerson was considering an array of new sanctions to put Iran under pressure to free Americans it was holding its jails.

It said the sanctions would lead to the appointment of an envoy to secure the releases, possibly in conjunction with a foreign government undertaking mediation efforts. The administration refused to comment on the the suggestion that Iranians held in the US could be part of a prisoner swap.

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