- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 25, 2019

NEW YORK — Iran’s president described U.S. government officials as “criminals” in a speech before the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, asserting that Tehran will “never negotiate” with the Trump administration unless it pulls back harsh economic sanctions imposed on Tehran over the past year.

In a sign that tensions with Iran are unlikely to abate anytime soon, President Hassan Rouhani called for U.S. forces to leave the Middle East and urged the region to embrace a Tehran-led “peace security” plan for the heavily trafficked waters of the Persian Gulf.

His comments — a day after President Trump said the U.S. will neither withdraw forces nor ease sanctions and just two days after European leaders blamed Tehran for recent attacks on Saudi Arabia — were met by consternation from American diplomats.

Before Mr. Rouhani had even taken to the podium, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that the Iranian president would project a false narrative amid soaring tensions in the region after the Saudi attack.

“Rouhani is desperate to deceive because the world is awakening to the truth,” Mr. Pompeo said at an event hosted by United Against Nuclear Iran, a bipartisan advocacy group. “More and more nations are beginning to stand up to Iran’s thuggish behavior and disengaging [from Iran] economically.”

Mr. Pompeo used the event to reveal even more U.S. sanctions on Iran’s critical oil exports. He announced penalties on six Chinese companies and their chief executives for continuing to transport Iranian crude.

Mr. Rouhani wasted little time trying to stoke anti-American sentiment. In his U.N. address, he slammed Washington’s use of unilateral economic sanctions to contain Iran and other countries around the world.

“How someone can believe that the silent killing of a great nation and pressure on the life of 83 million Iranians, particularly women and children, are welcomed by American government officials who pride themselves on such pressures and exploit sanctions in an addictive manner against a spectrum of countries such as Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, China and Russia?” the Iranian president said.

“The Iranian nation will never ever forget and forgive these crimes,” he said before lambasting the Trump administration for “fail[ing] to honor the commitment” that the 2015 international nuclear accord that had eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits to its nuclear program.

No meeting

The harsh rhetoric made clear that a much-rumored possible face-to-face meeting between the U.S. and Iranian leaders would not happen. Mr. Trump has said the goal of increased U.S. pressure is to draw Tehran into wider-reaching negotiations with Washington, but Mr. Rouhani scoffed at the notion.

“[W]e will never negotiate with an enemy that seeks to make Iran surrender with a weapon of poverty, pressure and sanctions,” he said, adding that the only way toward talks would be for Washington to revoke the sanctions and return to the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal.

“Stop the sanctions so as to open the way for the start of negotiations,” Mr. Rouhani said. Only then, he said, would Tehran be willing to return to the “minimums” of its nuclear agreement with the U.S., China, Russia and Western European powers four years ago.

“However, if you require more, you should also give and pay more,” he said.

Mr. Rouhani shot back at U.S. portrayals of Iran as a purveyor of terrorist movements bent on fomenting religious unrest in the Middle East and at Mr. Trump, who warned from the same U.N. podium Tuesday that Iranian leaders have a long history of espousing “monstrous anti-Semitism” and hurling invective at Israel.

He invited regional powers to join a Tehran-led security coalition to guarantee safe passage of sensitive oil shipping traffic through the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz but offered few details.

The U.S. and others have blamed Tehran for bombings that hit commercial oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz in June, and the Trump administration’s attempt to galvanize a coalition to counter Iran has gained steam amid growing international agreement that Tehran was behind the more recent attack that hit Saudi Arabian oil facilities.

The leaders of the United Kingdom, France and Germany signed a joint statement Monday to declare their agreement with U.S. and Saudi claims that Iran was responsible. Many saw the statement as a shift by the Europeans, who have spent much of the past year criticizing Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

“The fact that you had three European countries condemning Iran and saying they’re responsible for the attack, I think is a large step forward,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, told reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday.

Mr. Graham spoke after attending a classified briefing by State Department, intelligence and Pentagon officials on the attack on Saudi Arabia, which Yemen’s Houthi rebels claim they carried out in retaliation for a Saudi-led military campaign against them.

“I’ll be surprised if any senator leaves the briefing with doubts about Iran’s involvement,” Mr. Graham said.

Democratic criticism

Some Democrats were critical of the Trump administration’s effort to build a coalition against Iran.

“The administration continues to live in an absolute fantasy world when it comes to Iranian politics and objectives,” said Sen. Christopher Murphy, Connecticut Democrat. “The administration continues to believe they’re going to be able to put together some broad multilateral coalition to pressure the Iranians into coming back to the negotiating table when in fact the exact opposite is true.

“Our European partners are actually actively trying to undermine our maximum pressure campaign,” said Mr. Murphy, who added that administration officials are “pretend[ing] as if they’re on the cusp of convincing the Europeans to join us.”

Mr. Pompeo, meanwhile, argued that Mr. Trump was justified in pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal to “take a stand for American national security” and because “the deal only made Iran’s bloodthirsty ambitions more brazen.”

“Indeed, Iran has a long history of unprovoked aggression — 40 years now — against its own people, against its neighbors and, indeed, against civilization itself,” the secretary of state said. “The list is long, from murdering and torturing their own people to killing Americans from Lebanon to Iraq to harboring al Qaeda even today.”

A similar message was promoted at street protests organized outside U.N. headquarters by dissident Iranian exiles. A statement circulated by supporters of the exiled opposition group Mujahedeen-e Khalq (MEK) said thousands attended the rallies Tuesday and Wednesday, with many calling on the international community to adopt a policy of firmness in the face of “Iran’s oppressive, theocratic and terrorist-sponsoring regime.”

The statement said several former U.S. officials and some with close ties to Mr. Trump, including the president’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, were on hand. Gen. Jack Keane, former Vice Chief of Staff of the Army; former Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut independent; and former Sen. Robert Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, attended as well.

• Lauren Meier contributed to this report.

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