Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks to President Hassan Rouhani (left) and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (centre) during a meeting in Tehran yesterday.
Iran’s Supreme Leader said yesterday he favoured a parliamentary vote on its nuclear deal reached with world powers and called for sanctions against Tehran to be lifted completely rather than suspended, state television reported.
President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist whose 2013 election paved the way to a diplomatic thaw with the West, and his allies have opposed such a parliamentary vote, arguing this would create legal obligations complicating the deal’s implementation.
“Parliament should not be sidelined on the nuclear deal issue ... I am not saying lawmakers should ratify or reject the deal. It is up to them to decide,” said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state policy in Iran.
“I have told the president that it is not in our interest to not let our lawmakers review the deal,” the top Shia cleric said in remarks broadcast live on state TV.
The landmark pact, clinched on July 14 between Iran and the US, Germany, France, Russia, China and Britain, would limit Iran’s nuclear programme to ensure it is not put to making bombs in exchange for a removal of economic sanctions.
Khamenei himself has not publicly endorsed or voiced opposition to the Vienna accord, although he has praised the work of the Islamic Republic’s negotiating team.
A special committee of parliament, where conservative hardliners close to Khamenei are predominant, have begun reviewing the deal before putting it to a vote. But Rouhani’s government has not prepared a bill for parliament to vote on.
Ali Larijani, Iran’s parliament speaker, told reporters in New York yesterday that Iranian lawmakers would likely debate the accord more heatedly than in the US Congress, where Republicans have sought to kill the deal.
Larijani, an ex-chief nuclear negotiator, said he personally considered the accord good but some stiff opposition remained in the Majlis (parliament), including over a so-called “snapback” clause under which UN sanctions can be reinstated in the event of alleged violations of the terms of the settlement.
A senior Iranian lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters a Majlis committee created to assess the deal would reach a decision within weeks, with a parliamentary vote in around a month.
For his part, President Barack Obama secured enough Senate votes on Wednesday to see the nuclear pact through Congress - a vote must be taken by September 17 - but hawkish Republicans vowed to pursue their fight to scuttle it by passing new sanctions.
Khamenei said that without a cancellation of sanctions that have hobbled Iran’s economy, the deal would be jeopardised.
“Should the sanctions be suspended, then there would be no deal either. So this issue must be resolved. If they only suspend the sanctions, then we will only suspend our nuclear activities,” he said. Iran and the Western powers have appeared to differ since the accord was struck on precisely how and when sanctions are to be dismantled.
“Then we could go on and triple the number of centrifuges to 60,000, keep a 20% level of uranium enrichment and also accelerate our research and development activities,” the Supreme Leader added.
The Vienna agreement places strict curbs on all three sensitive elements of Iran’s nuclear programme, seen as crucial to creating confidence that Tehran will not covertly seek to develop atomic bombs from enriched uranium.
Iran has said it wants only peaceful nuclear energy.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Iran’s arch regional enemy, insisted yesterday most Americans agreed with him over dangers posed by Tehran, even as he lost his battle to persuade Congress to reject the deal once Obama had bagged enough votes to get it upheld.
Khamenei also criticised the US’ Middle East policy, suggesting that antagonism prevailing between Iran and Washington since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran will not abate because of the nuclear deal.
“Our officials have been banned from holding talks with Americans except on the nuclear issue. This is because our policies differ with America,” he said.
“One of America’s regional policies is to fully destroy the forces of resistance and wants to retake full control of Iraq and Syria ... America expects Iran to be part of this framework,” Khamenei told a session of the Assembly of Experts which has the power both to dismiss a Supreme Leader and to choose one. “But this will never happen.”
By “forces of resistance”, Khamenei was alluding to Islamist militant groups such as Hezbollah, a close ally - like Iran - of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his war with rebels trying to overthrow him.
Rouhani has made it clear in his speeches that he favours greater engagement with the world, seeming open to cooperating with the US to reduce conflict in the Middle East.
But Khamenei and his hardline loyalists remain deeply suspicious of US intentions. Relations with Washington were severed in 1979 and hostility towards the US remains a central rallying point of influential hardliners in Tehran.
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