TEHRAN, Iran (NYT)- Iran’s supreme leader challenged on Thursday two of the United States’ bedrock principles in the nuclear negotiations, declaring that all economic sanctions would have to be lifted on the day any agreement is signed and that military sites would be strictly off limits to foreign inspectors.
The assertions by the leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could be tactical, intended to give both the negotiators and himself some political space to get hard-liners and others slowly accustomed to the framework of a deal with the United States and other world powers – reached just a week ago -that would guarantee that Iran will not make nuclear weapons. But they also illustrated the difficult hurdles that lie ahead.
In his remarks, Khamenei also criticized Iran’s regional competitor, Saudi Arabia, a sign of rising regional tensions that could pose another threat to the negotiations, even as diplomats strive to keep the issues on separate tracks.
Khamenei was speaking about the nuclear talks for the first time since the framework agreement was struck in Lausanne, Switzerland. He said he saw no need to make a clear pronouncement on the agreement, because no signed agreement yet existed.
“There was no need to take a position,” he said. “The officials are saying that nothing has been done yet and nothing is obligatory.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who spoke at a different event on Thursday, echoed the supreme leader’s remarks but with a potentially crucial difference, saying the sanctions have to be lifted on the day a deal is put in place, potentially months later.
“We will not sign any agreement, unless all economic sanctions are totally lifted on the first day of the implementation of the deal,” Rouhani said.
U.S. stance differs
Kerry and President Barack Obama have been clear that sanctions would be suspended in phases, as Iran complies with its obligations. That is critical to U.S. leverage in making sure that Iran follows through on its commitments to vastly reduce its uranium stockpile and decommissions centrifuges, placing them in storage.
Other sanctions are based on United Nations Security Council resolutions. Kerry said in Lausanne last week that under a final deal, if one is reached, a new set of resolutions would be passed, ending many sanctions but keeping proliferation controls in place.
Even if sanctions are legally eliminated, major corporate players may initially be reluctant to do business in Iran. Banks have been heavily fined for violations and would want assurances about the new rules. Investors may fear that sanctions could “snap back” if there is a dispute between Iran and the West.