March 4, 2019 / 8:00 AM / 2 months ago

Iran's Khamenei doubted Europe could help Tehran against U.S. sanctions

LONDON (Reuters) - A closed-door speech last year by Iran’s Supreme Leader voicing doubt about the Iranian government’s diplomatic overtures to Europe was released on Monday in a sign of feuding over foreign policy that led to a short-lived resignation by the foreign minister.

FILE PHOTO: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech during a meeting with Iranians from the East Azerbaijan province, in Tehran, Iran February 18, 2019. Khamenei.ir/Handout via REUTERS

The address by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in mid-2018 appeared to forecast difficulties European countries would have in honoring pledges to protect trade with Iran from new U.S. sanctions after Washington abandoned a 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.

The speech showed that while President Hassan Rouhani was trying to save the nuclear deal with European powers, who remained committed despite the U.S. exit, Khamenei was not optimistic. The publication of the comments eight months afterward presented Khamenei as viewing the situation as unchanged.

Khamenei, an anti-Western hardliner, was quoted as saying by his official website that the Europeans would naturally say they are protecting Iranian interests with their package but the Iranian government “should not make this a main issue”.

He said the nuclear deal did not resolve “any of the economic problems” of Iran. He predicted that a mechanism proposed by the EU to shield business with Iran against the U.S. sanctions would also be no panacea for Iran’s economic hardship.

“(The Europeans) are bad. They are really bad. I have a lot to say about the Europeans; not because of their current policies, but their mischievous nature over the last few centuries,” said Khamenei.

ZARIF’S RESIGNATION

His comments, made in a meeting with the cabinet, were published a week after Rouhani rejected the resignation of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a U.S.-educated veteran diplomat who championed the nuclear deal.

Khamenei’s comments cast doubt on the efficacy of Zarif’s past and current efforts to keep the agreement alive.

Zarif, who retracted his resignation after Rouhani refused to accept it, said on Monday he had resigned in order to preserve the dignity and credibility of the Foreign Ministry, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

Fars quoted him as saying the ministry is responsible for all of Iran’s foreign relations. “It’s not that any body inside or outside the government has its own foreign policy, and we’re only responsible for the foreign policy of the foreign ministry. In that case, there would be no need for a foreign ministry,” he was quoted as saying.

Iranian politics has long been riven by factional struggles, especially on fraught relations with the West.

While Rouhani and his moderate camp still back the nuclear deal and seek rapprochement with the United States and Europe, hardliners, echoing Khamenei’s stance, reject any yielding to foreign pressure as inimical to Islamic revolutionary values.

Khamenei, who has the final say on all major Iranian domestic and foreign policy and only reluctantly backed the nuclear negotiations, said on Monday Rouhani’s government should not be deceived by European countries and their “smiles”.

Under the nuclear deal struck between Iran and six big powers in 2015, sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union and United Nations were lifted in return for Iran agreeing long-term curbs on a nuclear program the West suspected was geared to developing an atom bomb.

U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the United States out last year. His administration said that while Iran had met the deal’s terms, the accord was too generous, failing to rein in ballistic missile testing or to curb Iranian involvement in regional conflicts such as Syria and Yemen.

New U.S. sanctions have largely succeeded in persuading European companies to put aside business projects with Iran.

France, Germany and Britain opened a new channel for non-dollar trade with Iran in January, although diplomats say it is unlikely to enable the big transactions Tehran says are needed to keep a nuclear deal afloat.

On Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi praised the proposed EU mechanism, known as Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), as a “late but important step”. Qasemi said, however, that the Islamic Republic would accept no conditions from the EU.

France has called on Iran to stop all activities linked to its ballistic missile program or face sanctions.

The Europeans have promised to help companies do business with Iran as long as it abides by the deal. Iran has threatened to pull out of the 2015 deal itself unless EU powers demonstrably protect its economic benefits.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Monday that Iran is still meeting its commitments under the nuclear deal.

“Contrasting the constant lies that Netanyahu, Trump & Associates tell about Iran, the #IAEA once again—and for the umpteenth time—affirms our standing by our word and adhering to the nuclear accord that the US has illegally violated. Our patience, however, is running thin,” Zarif tweeted on Monday.

Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Frances Kerry

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