- Iranian leader says his country would respond ‘resolutely’ if US reneged on deal
- US secretary of state confirms Trump has decided whether to walk away
A rift between the Trump administration and Europe, over whether to stick to a nuclear agreement with Iran, deepened considerably on Wednesday after a meeting on the deal’s implementation at the United Nations in New York.
The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, emerged from the meeting conceding that Iran was abiding by the letter of the 2015 deal, but he still insisted Tehran was not fulfilling the “expectations” of the agreement. He confirmed that Donald Trump had made a decision on whether to continue to stick with the deal or walk away next month.
The European Union foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, who was hosting the session of a multilateral joint commission on implementation, said there was no doubt the agreement was being kept and she warned that if any country broke it, it would be in violation of the UN Security Council resolution that enshrined the deal in international law.
“All member states are considered to be bound by its implementation,” Mogherini said. “The international community cannot afford to dismantle an agreement that is working and delivering.”
Referring to the worsening standoff on the Korean peninsula, she added: “We already have one potential nuclear crisis that means we do not need to go into a second one.”
Mogherini said that European states would continue to stick to the agreement even if the Trump administration violated it. The other signatories to the deal - the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China – have all urged Trump not to torpedo it.
Tillerson said Trump had rebuffed an inquiry from Theresa May on what he had decided to do about the agreement, when the two leaders met at the UN.
“He has not shared that with anyone externally. Prime Minister May asked him if he would share it with her. He said no,” Tillerson said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, said his country would respond “decisively and resolutely” if the US walked out on the deal.
Rouhani told journalists Iran would feel it had a “free hand” if the US broke the agreement by re-imposing sanctions. He said one of the options would be an expansion of work on uranium enrichment, strictly limited under the agreement, but he insisted Iran would never seek to build nuclear warheads.
The Iranian president said his country’s response would be heavily influenced by the manner in which European countries reacted to any US abrogation of the accord.
At the meeting of the joint commission on the sidelines of the UN general assembly on Wednesday, Tillerson met his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for the first time, the highest level encounter between the two nations, since the Trump administration took office.
“It was a good opportunity to meet and shake hands,” the secretary of state said. “The tone was very matter of fact. There was no yelling. We didn’t throw shoes at one another. It was not an angry tone at all.”
However, he said the US and Iran had very different interpretations of the 2015 agreement. The secretary of state said that Iran had not lived up to the expectations expressed in the document’s preface, which says the signatories “anticipate that full implementation of this JCPOA will positively contribute to regional and international peace and security.”
Pointing to Iran’s role in the Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni conflicts as well as its missile programme and cyber operations, Tillerson said: “It’s pretty difficult to say that the expectations of the parties that negotiated this agreement have been met.”
None of the other signatories to the agreement agree with that interpretation. Mogherini said all such non-nuclear issues were “outside the scope of the agreement”.
Donald Trump had used his speech to the general assembly on Tuesday to repeat his denunciations of the deal, agreed upon by his predecessor Barack Obama, as the “worst ever”, and encouraged Iranians to overthrow their government.
The next day President Rouhani described Trump’s speech – in which he also threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea – as “ignorant, absurd and hateful rhetoric” that was “unfit to be heard at the United Nations”.
He said Iran was waiting for Trump to apologize for the speech and what he described as an insult to the Iranian people.
“It would be a great pity if this agreement were to be destroyed by rogue newcomers to the world of politics,” Rouhani said.
“The world will have lost a great opportunity.”
Rouhani said that the 2015 deal, signed by Iran and six world powers in Vienna, could become “a new model for international relations”. As a result of the agreement, Rouhani said Iran had “opened our doors to engagement and cooperation”, and he insisted Tehran would abide strictly to its terms.
“Iran will not be the first country to violate the agreement,” Rouhani said. “But it will respond decisively and resolutely to its violation by any party.”
“We never threaten anyone but we do not tolerate threats from anyone,” he added. “If the US breaks its commitments under the [nuclear agreement], then no other country be willing to enter into negotiations with the US.”
He said Iranian officials had spent a lot of time thinking how to respond to the US walking out of the agreement, and were “considering various scenarios”.
Rouhani suggested one response could be an increased level of uranium enrichment for Iranian reactors, but not an attempt to develop a nuclear warhead.
On Wednesday, Trump told journalists he had made a decision on whether to withdraw certification of the 2015 nuclear deal by a congressional deadline of 15 October.
The US president – a former TV reality show host who clearly enjoys building anticipation for his announcements – said “I have decided” and repeated it three times, but did not say what he had decided, telling reporters: “I’ll let you know.”
If he does not certify the agreement, under which Iran radically reduced its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief, Congress would have 60 days to decide whether to reimpose US sanctions. If the legislature makes no decision, the onus passes back to the president.
Trump received support from the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for his stance on the nuclear agreement, and on Wednesday Saudi Arabia added its backing.
The kingdom’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said his country did not believe Iran was abiding by the deal.
“We expect the international community to do whatever it takes to ensure that Iran is in compliance,” Jubeir told reporters at the UN.
It is unclear whether the agreement would survive if the US violated the deal by imposing new sanctions. Before Rouhani’s speech, Tehran had said it was willing to remain committed if the other five national signatories did the same.
Speaking to journalists on Wednesday, Macron said he wanted to add new “pillars” to the international community’s relations with Iran; agree restrictions on its development of ballistic missiles; develop a follow-on deal that would apply after major elements of the existing agreement expire in 2025; and have an “open discussion with Iran about current situation in the region”.
Germany’s chancellor was also frank in her criticism of Trump’s UN speech, addressing his comments on North Korea.
“I am against threats of this kind,” Angela Merkel told the broadcaster Deutsche Welle, adding that her government considered any type of military solution “absolutely inappropriate”.
“In my opinion, sanctions and enforcing these sanctions are the right answer. But anything else with regard to North Korea I think is wrong. And that is why we clearly disagree with the US president.”
Merkel proposed that the Iran deal could work as a blueprint for a similar diplomatic effort with North Korea: “We took part in negotiating the Iran agreement, which I think is good, and better than having no agreement at all.”
North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations Ri Yong-ho dismissed Trump’s threat as “the sound of a dog barking.”
Asked to comment on Trump’s mocking description of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man”, he said: “I feel sorry for his aides.”