European leaders criticise Trump’s disavowal of Iran nuclear deal; Iranians respond with mockery to Trump's threat

A lone protester outside the White House wears a Donald Trump mask in opposition to President Trump's announcement about the Iran nuclear deal and his policy towards Iran at the White House on Oct 13, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS
A handout picture provided by the office of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Oct 13, 2017, shows him speaking on Iranian state TV Broadcast in reaction to US President Donald Trump's speech in which the latter outlined an aggressive new strategy against Iran. President Rouhani said Trump is "more than ever against the Iranian people". PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (NYTIMES, AFP) - Iran, Russia and European leaders roundly condemned President Donald Trump's decision on Friday (Oct 13) to disavow the
Iran nuclear deal, saying that it reflected the growing isolation of the United States, threatened to destabilise the Middle East and could make it harder to resolve the growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

The reaction was far from panicked, as Trump's decision punts to Congress the critical decision of whether the US will reimpose sanctions on Iran - a step that would effectively sink the deal. But Trump also warned that unless the nuclear agreement was altered and made permanent - to prohibit
Iran from ever developing nuclear weapons - he would terminate the agreement, an ultimatum that threw the future of the accord into question.

Though they avoided direct criticism of Trump, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Emmanuel Macron of France said in a rare joint statement that they "stand committed" to the 2015 nuclear deal and that preserving it was "in our shared national security interest".

"The nuclear deal was the culmination of 13 years of diplomacy and was a major step towards ensuring that Iran's nuclear programme is not diverted for military purposes," they added.

Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's foreign minister, said that Trump was sending "a difficult and also from our point of view dangerous signal".

He said that the Iran deal, and other diplomatic achievements, were necessary "to convince countries like North Korea, and maybe also others, that it is possible to create security without acquiring nuclear weapons".

"Destroying this agreement would, worldwide, mean that others could no longer rely on such agreements - that's why it is a danger that goes further than
Iran," he added.

The European leaders noted that the United Nations Security Council had unanimously endorsed the deal, and that the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed Iran's compliance with it.

But Trump's aggressive stance on Iran won plaudits from several nations on Friday, specifically from adversaries of Iran like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister who has always opposed the agreement with Iran, said that Trump's announcement created "an opportunity to fix this bad deal" and was a sign of Trump's determination to "boldly confront Iran's terrorist regime".

Saudi Arabia, which has waged a proxy battle against Iran for supremacy in the region and was the first country Trump visited after taking office, said it welcomed what it called a "new US strategy" towards Iran.

The United Arab Emirates, which like Saudi Arabia is a predominantly Sunni Muslim country with a sizable Shiite minority, also said that it "fully supports" Trump's stance on Iran.

Some leaders declared that the deal, reached in 2015 between Iran and six world powers, including the US, was not something that Trump could cancel, contending that Trump was essentially putting on a show for his political base.

"The President of the United States has many powers - not this one," EU's top diplomat Federica Mogherini said at a news conference in Brussels. She said that there had been no violations of the agreement and that the world could not afford to dismantle an accord that "is working and delivering", especially at a time of "acute nuclear threat", referring to the standoff with North Korea over its nuclear programme.

Criticism of the nuclear deal was a central theme of Trump's candidacy for president, and he has repeatedly called for revisiting what he sees as a fatally flawed agreement.

Trump said on Friday that under the current deal "Iran can sprint" towards the development of nuclear weapons when the deal's restrictions expire. Some of the prohibitions in the agreement are set to end in 2025, including limits on the number of its centrifuges.

Iran, which has always maintained that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, not for weapons, would not agree to a permanent freeze in its ability to enrich nuclear fuel. That must be changed, Trump said, or he would scrap the deal altogether.

In blunt language, Mogherini essentially looked past Trump and appealed to Congress directly. America's next step "is now in the hands of the United States Congress," she said. "The international community and the European Union with it has clearly indicated that the deal is and will continue to be in place."

Russia, which took part in the negotiations to reach the accord and has warned Trump not to rescind it, said that the US President had no basis for disavowing the deal.

"Iran is abiding" by the nuclear agreement, Mikhail Ulyanov, a director at the Russian foreign ministry, told the Interfax news agency. "Everyone agrees with that. And an attempt to somehow heighten the tensions in this situation looks like unmotivated aggression."

Russia urged US lawmakers to preserve the deal as well.

In his remarks, Trump accused Iran of violating both the letter and the spirit of the accord. But Iran has accused the US of doing the same, and on Friday its mission to the UN warned that Iran might itself back away from the deal.

"Iran has many options on how to proceed and if necessary will terminate its commitment regarding this issue," the mission said in a statement, without elaborating.

Reactions In Iran

Appearing on television on Friday, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani denounced Trump and called the US an outlier that had become "more lonely than ever" in the international community. Rouhani did not threaten to withdraw from the deal, but made it clear that he would not renegotiate the terms, either.

"He has not studied international law. Can a president annul a multilateral international treaty on his own?" Rouhani said.

Iranians responded with anger and mockery on Saturday (Oct 14) to the bellicose criticism of their government by Trump.

Trump's use of the phrase "Arabian Gulf" rather than "Persian Gulf" particularly hit a nerve in a country with a fierce nationalistic streak.

"Everyone knew Trump's friendship was for sale to the highest bidder. We now know that his geography is too," wrote Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Twitter, referring to the US alliance with Iran's regional rival Saudi Arabia.

Despite pressure from the Arab Gulf monarchies, most international bodies still use "Persian Gulf" as the conventional name for the region's waterway, and many Iranians shared photos of US veterans' medals and graves referring to the "Persian Gulf conflict" of the 1990s.

In his White House speech on Friday evening, Trump reeled off a list of grievances committed by the "Iranian dictatorship, its sponsorship of terrorism, and its continuing aggression in the Middle East and all around the world".

He also threatened to "terminate" the 2015 nuclear deal signed between Iran and six world powers unless Congress passed stringent new sanctions.

But as Iranians headed to their offices on Saturday - the first day of the work week in Iran - the reaction was often one of bemusement.

"Trump's statements are so ridiculous that it actually works in Iran's favour. Speaking about the 'Arabian Gulf' is taken very badly by people here," said Abbas, a 40-year-old banker who gave only his first name.

"The reaction of the Europeans shows that the United States is isolated, and only Saudi Arabia and Israel have supported Trump," he added.

Trump's efforts to reach out to ordinary Iranians, who he referred to as the "longest-suffering victims" of the Islamic regime, also appeared to have fallen on deaf ears, with many recalling the travel ban he slapped on them earlier this year.

"The most disgusting part of Trump's speech was when he tried to show himself as sympathising with Iranians," wrote one Twitter user.

"Reminder: Not even 6 months have passed from the execution of visa ban for Iranians!" wrote another.

'Baseless Accusations'

For all the bluster, Trump's strategy was not as tough as many had predicted.

Although new sanctions have been placed on Iran's Revolutionary Guards, it was not designated a foreign terrorist organisation as had been trailed in the weeks leading up to the speech.

This was spun as a victory by some elements in Iran, with the hardline Kayhan newspaper saying: "Guards' formula worked: Trump didn't dare put the Guards on the list of terrorist groups".

This was a reference to threats in recent days that US forces would receive a "crushing" response if the Guards were designated as terrorists.

Still, the deal's future hangs in the balance as the US Congress has 60 days to decide whether to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions, or possibly new "trigger points" that would lead to new sanctions.

"If the Congress goes ahead with new sanctions, then the deal is dead and Iran will restart its nuclear programme and move forward full-steam ahead in all fields," Mohammad Marandi, a professor at the University of Teheran, told AFP.

"Iran will probably invest even more than before in order to show the Americans that they can't get away with destroying the agreement."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.