TEHRAN, Iran – Iran’s supreme leader publicly chastised the country’s moderate president and foreign minister Wednesday, saying he disagreed with the implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal they had negotiated with world powers.
The extraordinary comments by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the first time he’s criticized both politicians by name, came amid tensions with the United States a year after Washington’s withdrawal from the accord.
Khamenei has final say on all matters of state, and his blaming the deal’s unraveling limits the influence of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif – relative moderates within Iran’s Shiite theocracy who had struck the deal.
It also shows the growing power of hard-liners.
The White House earlier this month sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the region over a still-unexplained threat it perceived from Iran.
Since that development, Iran has announced it will back away from the atomic accord. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, alleged that four oil tankers were sabotaged off its coast, and Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen have launched drone attacks into Saudi Arabia.
Both Washington and Tehran have said they want to ease heightened tensions in the region in recent days. But many fear a miscalculation between the two countries, who have a 40-year history of mistrust, could escalate the situation.
Khamenei made the comments before hard-line students gathered for a Ramadan lecture. For years, hard-liners have criticized the accord for giving too much away to the West.
Khamenei had given his implicit stamp of approval on the deal, which when signed sparked spontaneous celebrations across Iran. The accord saw Iran limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions.
But the deal has unraveled after Trump’s withdrawal, with the U.S. re-imposing old sanctions and coming up with even stricter new ones.
“To some extent, I did not believe in the way that the nuclear deal was implemented,” Khamenei said, according to his official website. “Many times I reminded both the president and the foreign minister.”
Khamenei has previously warned the West, especially the U.S., wasn’t trustworthy. But he hasn’t named the country’s top elected politician and his top diplomat before Wednesday night. He’s previously said the two had done the best they could.
Even before Trump became president and later withdrew from the deal, there were concerns in Washington that the supreme leader might turn on the agreement if the envisioned sanctions relief fell short of what Tehran expected. For that reason, the Obama administration dispatched senior officials to Europe, Asia and elsewhere to explain to foreign governments and countries what was permitted.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew each encouraged foreign investors to do business with Iran so that the benefits of the deal would be apparent to the Iranian people.
Since Trump’s pullout last year and the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions in November, remaining parties to the deal have been unable to keep up the pace of relief and Iran’s economy has been significantly harmed, notably because of the loss of revenue from oil exports and the risk of incurring U.S. penalties that has dissuaded international companies from opening shop in Iran.
The role of the supreme leader within Iranian society, while overseeing its elected representatives, is spiritual rather than political. Khamenei acknowledged that in his speech Wednesday night, saying the gravity of the situation called on him to speak.
“Our belief is that the leadership should not enter into the executive issues, unless if it affects the entire revolution,” Khamenei said.
There was no immediate comment from either Rouhani, who is serving his second four-year term as president, or Zarif.
Khamenei did not directly address the ongoing tensions, which include a heightened U.S. naval presence in the region. However, during his appearance with the students, one came up to Khamenei with a painting of Revolutionary Guard soldier credited with laying mines targeting U.S.-escorted oil tankers in the Persian Gulf during Iran’s 1980s war with Iraq. The Guard says he was killed in a confrontation with the U.S. Navy.
On Monday, Iran announced it had quadrupled its production capacity of low-enriched uranium. Iranian officials made a point to stress that the uranium would be enriched only to the 3.67% limit set under the nuclear deal, making it usable for a power plant but far below what’s needed for an atomic weapon.
But by increasing production, Iran soon will exceed the stockpile limitations set by the nuclear accord. Tehran has set a July 7 deadline for Europe to set new terms for the deal, or it will enrich closer to weapons-grade levels in a Mideast already on edge.
Earlier Wednesday, a prominent reformist lawmaker who chairs parliament’s national security and foreign policy commission stressed that neither Iran nor its proxy allies are seeking armed conflict with the U.S.
“Under no circumstance will we enter a war,” Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh said, according to the semi-official ILNA news agency. “No group can announce that it has entered a proxy war from Iran’s side.”
Meanwhile, Iran’s army chief Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi alleged without providing evidence that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. were behind the sabotage of the oil tankers off the UAE, as well as a rocket that landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The U.S. has blamed Iran for both incidents without publicly offering evidence. America also has evacuated nonessential diplomatic staff from Iraq amid the tensions.
The U.S. Air Force also announced Wednesday that a B-52 bomber deployed to America’s vast Al-Udeid Air Base over the tensions took part in a formation flight with Qatari fighter jets. That comes as Qatar has grown closer to Iran after facing a nearly two-year boycott by four Arab nations also allied with the U.S.
“This flight was conducted to continue building military-to-military relationships” with Qatar, the Air Force said.
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