One day after Iran announced it was preparing to send a flotilla of warships to the western Atlantic Ocean following the announcement of a massive $500 million investment in war spending, the Iranian regime is fast emerging as the latest potential geopolitical headache for the Trump administration, after it warned on Tuesday that Iran could abandon its 2015 nuclear deal signed with Obama with world powers "within hours" if the United States imposes further sanctions on Tehran, president Hassan Rouhani said in his first address to Iran’s parliament since being sworn in to a second term, and hinted that Iran could quickly boost enrichment up to levels even higher than before it signed the nuclear accord.
"Those who try to return to the language of threats and sanctions are prisoners of their past delusions," Rouhani said in the address. "If they want to go back to that experience, definitely in a short time — not in weeks or months, but within hours or days — we will return to our previous [nuclear] situation very much stronger."
He also said Iran prefered to stick with the nuclear deal, which he called "a model of victory for peace and diplomacy over war and unilateralism" but that this was not the "only option". In response, the US warned it would continue to punish Iran’s “non-nuclear destabilising activities."
Rouhani's statement comes as Obama's sole diplomatic achievement, the Iran Nuclear deal, finds itself under mounting pressure after Tehran carried out missile tests and strikes, and Washington imposed new sanctions, with each accusing the other of violating the spirit of the agreement. Rouhani has warned that Iran was ready to walk out of the deal, which saw the lifting of most international sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear programme, if Washington persisted.
As a reminder, last month Iran tested a powerful new ballistic missile that resulted in new US sanctions, and as reported last night, Iran's parliament voted overwhelmingly to increase budget spending to $260 million for the ballistic missile programme, which is not limited by the nuclear deal. The vote also covered a further US$260 million spending on regional operations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign wing, the Quds Force, which is leading a range of militias in Syria and Iraq.
Rouhani warned that a reconstituted nuclear program would be “far more advanced” the NYT reports, a veiled threat that the country could start enriching uranium up to the level of 20%, a step toward building a nuclear weapon. Such enrichment activities were a major concern before 2015, when Tehran signed a landmark agreement with the United States and other world powers that lifted crippling economic sanctions in return for severe limits on Iran’s nuclear activities
Separately, Rouhani said Trump had shown he was an unreliable partner not just for Iran but for US allies.
Joining pretty much every other world leader in mocking the US president, Rouhani said that "in recent months, the world has witnessed that the US, in addition to its constant and repetitive breaking of its promises in the [nuclear deal], has ignored several other global agreements and shown its allies that the US is neither a good partner nor a reliable negotiating party," he said, highlighting Trump's decisions to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement and international trade deals.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert refused to address Rouhani's comments directly, insisted Washington was in full compliance with its side of the nuclear deal, however she did confirm the US administration was reviewing its policy towards Iran and that it believes the nuclear deal did not put an end to Tehran's other "destabilising activities" in its region. Rouhani’s warning was also sharply criticized by Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, who said in a statement that the warning amounted to an Iranian attempt at blackmail.
“Iran cannot be allowed to use the nuclear deal to hold the world hostage,” Ms. Haley said in the statement, titled “Ambassador Haley on Iran’s Threats to Quit the JCPOA.”
The new United States sanctions on Iran, she said, were not a violation of the nuclear deal but part of an effort to “hold Iran responsible for its missile launches, support for terrorism, disregard for human rights, and violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
Which begs the questions: what's the point of the deal, how much longer will it remain in place, and what happens to the price of oil if and when some 2-3 million barrels per day of Iranian oil exports are again taken out of the global market, crippling Iran's economy.
Of course, Iran is aware what the devastating consequences of such an escalation - the bottom line is tens of billions in lost oil revenue - could do to its economy, which is why some analysts cited by The National, cautioned that Rouhani’s remarks on the nuclear deal do not indicate that Iran is close to, or even considering, pulling out of the deal. It is much more likely a tactical move to protect the moderate president’s political flank on the right from the IRGC and other hardliners who oppose the cultural and economic opening that the deal is intended to facilitate, but which could weaken their grip on society and on the economy.
“I clearly do not think it is alarming,” said Marc Martinez, Iran analyst at the Delma Institute in Abu Dhabi. “It is a political speech for a domestic audience and a display of unity” as Washington steps up pressure.
“Rouhani's remarks are a classic act of political bravado, but the president's intentions [and] Iran's intentions are quite evident when we consider that Javad Zarif was reappointed minister of foreign affairs,” Mr Martinez said. “Iran is highly benefiting from the JCPOA, and it makes the calculus that the international community will not support Trump's adventurism.”
Which is spot on, and yet one can't help but think that Iran is, perhaps worried about Trump's unpredictable decision-making nature, hedging its bets. It would expain why on Monday night Rouhani spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin, vowing to build on their joint military efforts across the region.
"Tehran welcomes the active presence of Russia's investors... in major infrastructure projects including in the fields of industry and energy," his office said as Putin, no longer busy manipulating several tens of millions of middle class Americans to vote against Hillary Clinton, smiled in the background.
It's not just the Kremlin that Tehran is building up close ties: the European Union, which initially supported global sanctions against Iran under President Barack Obama, has started to invest heavily in the country since the nuclear deal was signed, and it is not likely to support new penalties. China has also been a partner to the Iranians for many years.