Rouhani dismisses European statement on Iran role in Saudi attacks

The Iranian president is in New York with a "peace initiative" meant to resolve regional tensions at a time when pressure is building on Tehran over its alleged involvement in attacks on Saudi oil facilities.

al-monitor French President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during their meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, US, Sept. 23, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/John Irish.

Sep 24, 2019

A 90-minute meeting between President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, in New York covered a wide range of topics from bilateral ties to political solutions over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The discussions held on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, however, appeared to have been overshadowed by one thorny issue: Iran's alleged involvement in the Sept. 14 strikes on Saudi oil facilities claimed by Tehran-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels. Just ahead of the meeting, a joint statement from Britain, France and Germany pointed the finger of blame toward the Islamic Republic. "It is clear for us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack. There is no other plausible explanation," the statement read.

Rouhani criticized the stance and told Macron the allegations were "baseless." Yet Iran has not shied away from backing the Houthis, justifying the drone strikes as the Yemenis' legitimate option in self-defense against the Saudi invasion of their country.

According to Alireza Miryousefi, media bureau chief of the Iranian mission in New York, Rouhani also let his French counterpart hear about a peace initiative he is planning to present during an address to the General Assembly. The Hormuz Peace Initiative, named after the Iran-controlled strategic waterway, encourages contribution from the Persian Gulf littoral states for the long-term stability of the sensitive region.

But Iran's rivals, most notably Saudi Arabia, backed by some Western states have relentlessly accused the Islamic Republic of malign and destabilizing conduct in the Persian Gulf. Against that backdrop, the statement by the three European signatories to the JCPOA also called on Tehran to come to the negotiating table for a "long-term framework" covering its regional activities and missile program.

It did, unsurprisingly, draw a strongly worded condemnation from Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the man credited as being one of the key architects of the landmark accord. "E3's paralysis in fulfilling their obligations without US permission has been clear since May 2018," he tweeted, calling on the three countries to abandon "parroting absurd US claims."

In recent weeks, France has been spearheading a diplomatic push that aims to save the nuclear deal and bring arch-enemies Iran and the United States closer together. But mixed signals from US President Donald Trump and Tehran's precondition that talks will be held only after Washington re-embraces the pact have sent a cloud of uncertainty over the success of the French initiative.

Nevertheless, in an interview with CNN, Zarif did not rule out negotiations and tried to present a straightforward outline. He expressed Iran's willingness to immediately undertake the Additional Protocol, which the JCPOA does not enforce on Iran until 2023. Under the protocol, Iran will allow a closer oversight in the form of short-notice inspections of its nuclear facilities. But in exchange, according to Zarif's offer, Trump will need to lift all the sanctions he reinstated following his departure from the deal in May 2018. "We are prepared if President Trump is serious about permanent for permanent … Iran was never a nuclear weapons state, but permanent denuclearization, as they like to hear it," Zarif said.

As Zarif was making those comments, harsh and loud warnings could be heard in the background from Iran's most uncompromising critics. "Either in the form of a phone conversation, a planned meeting or an accidental encounter, no talk whatsoever should take place," said Javad Karimi Ghoddousi, a senior hard-line lawmaker and member of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission. "If anything of the sort happens, Rouhani and Zarif had better know that they will pay a very big price."

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