US 'disturbed' by Iranian leader's criticism after deal

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greeting the crowd during the Eid al-Fitr prayer ceremony in Teheran, Iran, on July 18, 2015.
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greeting the crowd during the Eid al-Fitr prayer ceremony in Teheran, Iran, on July 18, 2015.PHOTO: EPA

DUBAI (REUTERS) - The United States said on Tuesday it was very disturbed by anti-US hostility voiced by Iran's top leader after a nuclear deal, as both countries' top diplomats sought to calm opposition to the accord from political hardliners at home.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said a speech by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Saturday vowing to defy American policies in the region despite a deal with world powers over Teheran's nuclear programme was "very troubling".

"I don't know how to interpret it at this point in time, except to take it at face value, that that's his policy," he said in the interview with Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television. "But I do know that often comments are made publicly and things can evolve that are different. If it is the policy, it's very disturbing, it's very troubling," he added.

Ayatollah Khamenei, the highest authority in Iran, told supporters on Saturday that US policies in the region were "180 degrees" opposed to Iran's, in a Teheran speech punctuated by chants of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel".

Under the accord reached in Vienna last week, Iran will be subjected to long-term curbs on a nuclear programme that the West suspected was aimed at creating an atomic bomb but which Tehran says is peaceful. In return US, European Union and UN sanctions on Iran will be lifted. The deal was signed by the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

It was a major policy achievement for both US President Barack Obama and Iran's pragmatic elected President Hassan Rouhani. But both leaders have to sell it at home to powerful hardliners in countries that have been enemies for decades, referring to each other as the "Great Satan" and a member of the"Axis of Evil".

In the case of Iran, the deal must win final approval from the National Security Council and ultimately Khamenei, who has so far withheld final judgement while saying the text must still be scrutinised.

In the United States, Republicans who control Congress have lined up against the deal, but Obama says he will veto any congressional objection.

Kerry also has the task of selling the agreement to sceptical U.S. allies in the region. Israel is implacably opposed, and Sunni Muslim-ruled Arab allies of the United States, such as Saudi Arabia, are suspicious of an arrangement that would benefit their rival, Shi'ite, non-Arab Iran.

Kerry said the deal would improve regional security by preventing Iran from seeking atomic weapons. "The agreement gets rid of the nuclear weapon potential. But if we do the right things ... then I believe the Gulf states and the region can feel much more secure than they do today," he said.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister who developed a warm rapport with Kerry during weeks of unprecedented face-to-face talks, defended the deal in Iran's hardliner-dominated parliament. He said most of Iran's conditions had been met, including so-called "red lines" set by Khamenei. "We don't say the deal is totally in favour of Iran. Any negotiation is a give and take. We have definitely shown some flexibility," the foreign minister said. "I tell you as I told the Supreme Leader, we did our best to preserve most of the red lines, if not all."

Khamenei's own response to the deal has been ambiguous: he has thanked the negotiating team but has not given the accord an explicit endorsement. Supporting the negotiators was a political risk and by avoiding overt approval of the final deal he can avert criticism if it falls apart.

At the same time, his criticism has not been so severe as to torpedo the deal and block a lifting of sanctions, which ordinary Iranians are desperate to see.

Nevertheless, Iran's Revolutionary Guards and other hardliners have started to attack the deal directly, criticising a UN Security Council resolution passed on Monday endorsing it.

They may be trying to persuade Khamenei to block the deal by presenting it as having violated "red lines" he set, particularly provisions that leave in place an arms embargo and restrictions on Iran's missile programme.

Zarif told lawmakers the UN resolution restricted only development of missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads, and this would not affect Iran's missile programme as Iran does not have nuclear weapons.

Revolutionary Guard chief Mohammad Ali Jafari said on Monday, according to Tasnim news agency: "Some parts of the (resolution) draft have clearly crossed the Islamic republic's red lines, especially towards Iran's military capabilities."

Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Khamenei on foreign affairs, broke a long silence on Tuesday and said the deal was"not without flaws", although he did not reject it outright.

"No one can tell us which weapons we can have.... Except nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, Iran will continue making all the missiles, fighter jets, anti-missile defence systems, tanks and other armoured equipment it needs,"he was quoted as saying on the Supreme Leader's website.

The prospect that sanctions will be lifted is spurring businesses to make plans to return to Iran.

In Paris, Laurent Fabius, who will make the first trip to Iran by a French foreign minister in 12 years, said France's hard line towards Tehran at the nuclear negotiations would not hurt its businesses after sanctions are lifted.

Despite a long history of commercial, political and social links with Iran France took one of the hardest lines of the six powers negotiating the accord.

"It's true that France was very firm," Fabius told France Inter radio. "Will French firms be penalised? My answer is no because in the past we had an important presence in Iran. Our (expertise) is excellent in a lot of fields and the Iranians are serious. You know in foreign policy, I think you lose nothing in being respected."

French firms such as carmaker Puegeot and oil major Total had leading positions in the Iranian market before the United States and European Union imposed tighter sanctions in 2011.