DUBAI (Reuters, AFP) - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Sunday (Jan 17) that a nuclear deal with world powers was a "golden page" in the country's history, a day after sanctions against the Islamic republic were lifted in return for Teheran complying with a deal to curb its nuclear ambitions.
Addressing parliament and presenting the draft budget for the next Iranian fiscal year, Rouhani said the deal was a "turning point" for the country's economy.
“We Iranians have reached out to the world in a sign of friendliness, and leaving behind the enmities, suspicions and plots, have opened a new chapter in the relations of Iran with the world,” the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying.
Iran took a huge step to ending its international isolation on Saturday as sanctions were lifted following the entry into force of the country's momentous nuclear deal with major powers last July.
“Implementation Day” for the accord came after the International Atomic Energy Agency said its “inspectors on the ground verified that Iran has carried out all measures” agreed under the agreement.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, representing the six world powers -- the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia -- said that as a result “multilateral and national economic and financial sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme are lifted”.
The economic measures, mostly imposed in the last five years, had cut off the country of 80 million people from the global financial system, slashed Iran’s exports and imposed severe economic hardship on ordinary Iranians. Tens of billions of dollars worth of Iranian assets will now be unfrozen and global companies that have been barred from doing business there will be able to exploit a market hungry for everything from cars to airplane parts.
It is a crowning achievement for Rouhani, a pragmatic cleric elected in 2013 in a landslide on a promise to reduce Iran’s international isolation.
The end of sanctions means more money and prestige for Shi’ite Muslim Iran as it becomes deeply embroiled in the sectarian conflicts of the Middle East, notably in the Syrian civil war where its allies are facing Sunni Muslim rebels.
Rouhani has predicted a “year of prosperity” for his country. But the 67-year-old leader called on Sunday for economic reforms and less reliance on oil revenues in the post-sanctions era.
Iran’s return to an already glutted oil market is one of the factors contributing to a global rout in oil prices, which fell below US$30 (S$43.19) a barrel this week for the first time in 12 years. Teheran says it could boost exports by 500,000 barrels per day within weeks.
Rouhani told lawmakers that low oil prices were the best reason to cut “the umbilical cord” to oil, as he submitted the draft budget for the next Iranian fiscal year (beginning March 21) to parliament.
He also took a swipe at critics of Iran in the region and Washington. “Everybody is happy except the Zionists, the warmongers who are fueling sectarian war among the Islamic nation, and the hardliners in the US congress,” he added.
America’s thaw with Iran is viewed with deep suspicion by US Republicans as well as American allies in the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. US-Iranian suspicion still remains deeply entrenched.
Israel’s bitter opposition was evident in a statement from the office Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Saturday night. “Even after the signing of the nuclear agreement, Iran has not abandoned its aspirations to acquire nuclear weapons, and continues to act to destabilise the Middle East and spread terrorism throughout the world while violating its international commitments,” the statement said.
Iran denies its nuclear programme was aimed at obtaining an atomic bomb. Washington maintains separate, less comprehensive sanctions on Iran over its missile programme.
Iran detained 10 US Navy sailors on two boats in the Gulf a week ago, although they were released the next day.
DRAMATIC PRISONER DEAL
In a dramatic move scheduled to coincide with the scrapping of the sanctions, Teheran also announced the release of five Americans including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American Christian pastor sentenced to eight years in prison in 2013 on charges of undermining Iran’s national security.
President Barack Obama pardoned three Iranian-Americans charged for violating sanctions against Iran, a lawyer for one of the men said, while prosecutors moved to drop charges against four Iranians outside the United States.
Together, the lifting of sanctions and the prisoner deal considerably reduce the hostility between Tehran and Washington that has shaped the Middle East since Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979.
The prisoner deal was the culmination of months of diplomatic contacts, secret talks and legal manoeuvring which came close to falling apart because of a threat by Washington in December to impose fresh sanctions on Iran for recent ballistic missile tests.
The detente with Iran is opposed by all of the Republican candidates vying to succeed Obama as president in an election in November. Republican front-runner Donald Trump said at a campaign event that he was happy Americans were being freed, “but I will tell you it’s a disgrace that they were there for so long.”
Ted Cruz, a conservative senator from Texas and one of the leading Republicans, tweeted in support of Abedini’s release: “Praise God! Surely bad parts of Obama’s latest deal, but prayers of thanksgiving that Pastor Saeed is coming home.”
Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton took credit for helping to start the sanctions pressure on Iran during her 2009-2013 tenure as Obama’s secretary of state.
“These are important steps that make the United States, our allies, and the entire world safer. I congratulate President Obama and his team, and I’m proud of the role I played to get this process started,” she said in a statement.
Clinton also urged new sanctions on Teheran over its ballistic missile testing programme.
Rouhani was granted the authority to negotiate the nuclear deal with the world powers by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an arch-conservative in power since 1989.
The improved ties with Washington could have ramifications for US strategy against Islamist militants in the Middle East. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has argued, including in a New York Times op-ed column last week, that Iran wants to help the global fight against Sunni Muslim militants like Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda.
“It’s now time for all – especially Muslim nations – to join hands and rid the world of violent extremism. Iran is ready,” Zarif tweeted on Saturday.