NEW YORK — America’s fight with Iran flared anew here Tuesday, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accusing the Trump administration of trying to overthrow his government while National Security Advisor John R. Bolton warned there will “be hell to pay” if Tehran doesn’t cease its provocative behavior on the world stage.
The sharp exchanges, in back-and-forth speeches inside and on the periphery of the U.N. General Assembly, underscored the tension that has escalated dramatically between the two nations in the four months since President Trump broke with other world powers to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord and re-impose harsh economic sanctions on Tehran.
Mr. Rouhani used the main stage at the annual gathering of world leaders here to slam the president’s move, claiming the international community simply won’t follow Mr. Trump’s lead and that Washington’s widening re-imposition of economic sanctions against Iran is a “form of economic terrorism.”
U.S. allies such as Britain, Germany and France, along with Russia and China, say the deal has succeeded in curbing Iran’s suspect nuclear programs and are scrambling to save the accord in the face of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal.
Mr. Rouhani’s speech came just hours after Mr. Trump stood at the same podium, calling on the world to help him isolate Iran and accusing Tehran of spreading terrorism and of continuing to build a nuclear arsenal despite the three-year-old accord that aimed to contain it’s atomic ambitions.
“We cannot allow the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism to possess the planet’s most dangerous weapons,” said Mr. Trump, channeling the same aggressive energy that he used toward North Korea in his first U.N. General Assembly speech a year ago — energy his aides say has worked in driving Pyongyang to the bargaining table.
The Trump administration is in the midst of reimposing U.S. sanctions that were lifted under the Obama-era deal with Tehran in exchange for limits to the Iranian nuclear program. Tehran has long been suspected of seeking a nuclear military capability in violation of past U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The administration is also pushing for a global embargo of Iranian crude oil, which could prove a critical test of whether Mr. Trump will succeed in torpedoing the pact.
“We ask all nations to isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggression continues,” said Mr. Trump, who has publicly teased the idea of new North Korea-style, one-on-one negotiations with Mr. Rouhani, if Tehran yields to a new demands from Washington.
The Iranian president scoffed at the notion Tuesday. “The U.S. government does not even conceal its plan for overthrowing the same government it invites to talks,” he said. “On what basis and criteria can we enter into an agreement with an administration misbehaving such as this?”
Mr. Rouhani charged that the Trump administration abandoned the nuclear deal purely for U.S. domestic political reasons — because “it is the legacy” of the Obama administration — and said Tehran would only be willing to talk through the “multilateral” setting of the U.N. Security Council, which endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal.
“We invite you to come back to the negotiating table you left,” he said. “We invite you to come back to the Security Council resolution. We invite you to remain in the international institutions. Do not engage in imposing sanctions. Sanctions and extremism are two sides of the same coin. Extremism involves negating the thinking of others and sanctions negate the life and prosperity of people.”
In a sign of the uphill battle the Trump administration faces on the matter, the other signatory nations have been busy this week seeking a mechanism to bypass sanctions Washington is now reimposing on Iran — and on foreign companies that want to do business with the Islamic Republic.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini confirmed the effort to work around the U.S. Monday night after meeting on the sidelines of the General Assembly with French, British, German, Chinese and Russian diplomats. In a statement, the EU foreign policy office said participants want to create “special” payment channels so foreign companies doing business with Iran can avoid being caught up in the reimposed U.S. sanctions.
The other major powers in the nuclear deal are committed to pursuing “concrete and effective measures to secure…the continuation of Iran’s export of oil and gas condensate, petroleum products and petrochemicals” — an effort that flies in the face of the Trump administration’s stated goal of cutting Iran’s oil and gas exports to “zero” by early November.
Mr. Trump’s team was undeterred Tuesday, with aides recounting the reasons why Mr. Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal and Iran’s failure to curb missile and other military programs that Washington says violate past U.N. Security Council resolutions. The U.S., backed by regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, also condemn Tehran’s backing of destabilizing proxy forces around the Middle East that Washington deems as terrorist organizations.
Mr. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared Tuesday afternoon at a strategically-timed event at the Westin Grand Central Hotel in midtown Manhattan to rail against not only the Iran deal, but also what they described as the hardline and oppressive Islamist nature of the government in Tehran.
“The Iran Deal was the worst diplomatic debacle in American history,” Mr. Bolton said at the event hosted by “United Against Nuclear Iran,” a bipartisan group with such high-level advisors as former Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman that’s working with the administration to economically and diplomatically isolate Iran.
“The deal failed in its fundamental objective: permanently denying Iran all the pathways to nuclear weapons,” said Mr. Bolton.
“According to the mullahs in Tehran, we are ‘the Great Satan,’ lord of the underworld, master of the raging inferno,” he said. “So, I might imagine they would take me seriously when I assure them today that if you cross us, our allies, or our partners; if you harm our citizens; if you continue to lie, cheat, and deceive, yes, there will indeed be HELL TO PAY”— with the all-caps warning included in the official statement given to reporters.
Mr. Pompeo dismissed Mr. Rouhani’s speech at the General Assembly.
“So many times over the years during the U.N., Iranian regime leaders and diplomats have used this occasion to turn on their charm offensive…to present themselves as moderates,” Mr. Pompeo said. “But the world knows the truth, that their polished diplomatic waltz is a transparent trick,” he said, adding that “in actually,” the Iranian government is “an outlaw regime.”
As the secretary of state began his remarks, a female protester suddenly emerged from the crowd to shout: “Peace with Iran! Americans want peace.”
While the woman drew boos from others in the audience, security quickly converged on her. But Mr. Pompeo remained calm, saying he was used to outspoken opposition.
“It would be wonderful,” he said, “if they could protest like that in Iran.”
But some analysts say Iran may be banking on Mr. Trump facing divisions inside the U.S. over his Iran policy, with a difficult midterm election looming.
“President Trump’s go-it-alone approach to Iran is failing,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and key member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement Tuesday.
“Europe’s decision to legally sidestep U.S. sanctions shows that our allies continue to believe the Iran nuclear agreement is working, a view shared by our own intelligence community,” Ms. Feinstein said. “President Trump should drop his threat to impose new oil sanctions on Iran. They won’t work without international support.”