Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hit back at Donald Trump on September 20, questioning the US president’s credibility and dignity following the bellicose address he gave to the UN General Assembly the previous day, conflating Iran with North Korea.
Rouhani, in his own address to the assembly in New York, referred to Trump as a “rogue newcomer to international politics” and said it would be a “great pity” if the nuclear deal with Tehran, seen as effective by all the major powers except the US, was to be wrecked by his White House administration. Trump’s speech was also deplored by Rouhani as "ignorant, absurd and hateful rhetoric" which was "unfit to be heard at the United Nations". In a tweeted response to Trump shortly after his address, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif referred to “hate speech” that should be seen as “medieval”.
Rouhani said that the 2015 deal – formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and signed in Vienna by Iran, the Barack Obama administration, France, the UK, Germany, China and Russia and since certified eight times by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) for compliance – could become “a new model for international relations”. But Trump, in what was his first address to the UN General Assembly, called the nuclear deal with Tehran “an embarrassment” that is “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into”.
His intransigence and depiction of Iran as a "corrupt dictatorship" and "exporter of violence" is bad news for US companies who can only stand by as counterparts from the EU and other parts of the world arrive in the country to snap up JCPOA-permitted trade and investment opportunities. American aircraft giant Boeing stands to lose many billions of dollars of business with Iranian airlines if there is no change in the White House’s Iran policy.
Withdrawal? Not necessarily so
Given the unprecedented vitriol of Trump’s remarks at the UN, which included a threat to “totally destroy” North Korea should Pyongyang persist in building up its nuclear weapons programme, some observers automatically assumed that the US president would now quickly move to withdraw Washington from the JCPOA. However, there have been indications that that will necessarily be the case. Late on September 19, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told The Guardian: “We are continually urging the Americans not to tear it up. I have to tell you the odds are perhaps 50-50.” The next day US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley told CBS News that Trump's remarks were "not a clear signal that he plans to withdraw”, adding: "What it is, is a clear signal that he's not happy with the deal."
Under the JCPOA terms, the US president is asked to certify Iranian compliance with the deal every 90 days. The next certification is due in mid-October. If Trump does not certify the agreement, under which Iran radically scaled down its nuclear programme in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions, the US Congress would have 60 days to decide whether to reimpose US sanctions. But if it failed to make a decision, the matter would pass back to Trump for a decisive move.
There is also a scenario in which Iran and the major powers minus the US could continue with the JCPOA even without US involvement. French President Emmanuel Macron has led efforts to mediate between Tehran and Washington, saying that renouncing the deal could eventually set the scene for a nuclear standoff as tense as the situation on the Korean peninsula. “Renouncing it would be a grave error, not respecting it would be irresponsible, because it is a good accord that is essential to peace at a time where the risk of an infernal conflagration cannot be excluded,” he said.
At a press briefing, Macron talked of adding new “pillars” to the international community’s relations with Iran. These would mean restrictions on Tehran’s development of ballistic missiles – something that particularly unnerves Israel – and the working up of a follow-on deal that would apply after major elements of the JCPOA expire in 2025. The French president also said an “open discussion with Iran” was needed to look at the current situation in the Middle East. Trump has been angered by Iran’s expansion of influence and growing military support of allied militias in the Syria conflict and other hostilities, such as the war in Yemen.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also criticised Trump’s UN speech, telling Deutsche Welle that “I am against threats of this kind”, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rebuked Trump, saying: “It’s extremely worrying… We will defend this document, this consensus, which was met with relief by the entire international community and genuinely strengthened both regional and international security.”
Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, having voiced her support for the JCPOA as “highly important”, met Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and called for an expansion of ties between Tehran and London, Iran Front Page reported on September 20. Its report added that Rouhani remarked that facilitating banking relations between Iran and the UK could pave the way for further economic ties between the two sides.
London has been noticeably slow in arranging for such banking links since the nuclear deal came into effect at the start of 2016. Observers note the UK government is treading a fine line between securing post-Brexit business potential in the Islamic Republic and not upsetting the special relationship – and the likelihood of a quickly arranged US-UK trade deal once the British leave the EU – by angering the current occupant of the Oval Office.