Iran’s top leader struck a belligerent tone Tuesday in an escalating confrontation with the West, promising further Iranian violations of the fraying nuclear agreement and retaliation for what he called the piracy of an Iranian tanker by “the vicious British.”
The defiance expressed by the top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, contrasted with what seemed like a less confrontational stand taken at the White House. U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters that “we’re not looking for regime change” in Iran and that Iranian leaders had communicated a desire for negotiations with the United States despite their hostile remarks in public.
“They’d like to talk, and we’ll see what happens,” Mr. Trump said. Mike Pompeo, Mr. Trump’s secretary of state, asserted that Iran was willing to negotiate over its missile program, an area of Western concern that was not covered in the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Just a few weeks ago the Trump administration, which abandoned the nuclear agreement last year, was on the verge of ordering a military strike on Iran over its downing of an American surveillance drone.
There was no immediate comment from Iran to the remarks from Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo. The administration’s comments came as Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was visiting the United States, under a highly restrictive U.S. visa that basically limited his travel to the United Nations in New York.
The speech to clerics by Ayatollah Khamenei, broadcast on Iran state television and excerpted on his English-language Twitter account, appeared to signal his intention to ignore diplomacy for the moment and stoke tensions with the West over the beleaguered nuclear accord.
Ayatollah Khamenei spoke as unconfirmed news reports suggested Iran’s Revolutionary Guard may have seized a United Arab Emirates tanker in the Persian Gulf, possibly in retaliation for Britain’s impounding of an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar this month.
The ayatollah’s speech came a day after European foreign ministers sought to allay a confrontation with Iran over its recent transgressions of the agreement’s limits on nuclear fuel, which were Iran’s response to the American imposition of harsh sanctions.
The European ministers said they did not consider Iran’s violations serious enough yet to warrant a response and reiterated their desire to preserve the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Defying the Trump administration’s pressure for tougher action, the European ministers instead exhorted Iran to abide by the agreement’s terms. But Ayatollah Khamenei seemed to reject their gesture out of hand.
“Iran will continue the process of cutting down on its #JCPOA commitments,” he said in his speech.
The 2015 agreement promised Iran an end to economic isolation and punitive sanctions in return for its verifiable commitment to never seek atomic weapons.
Ayatollah Khamenei, known for his deep hostility toward the United States and its Western allies, had reluctantly backed the agreement with the big powers, which included the United States, Britain, France and Germany.
But he turned sharply against the agreement after Mr. Trump repudiated it in May, 2018, and reimposed onerous sanctions. European efforts to salvage the deal have foundered, and Ayatollah Khamenei has increasingly blamed the European participants for failing to provide Iran the economic relief that was promised.
“Western governments’ major vice is their arrogance,” the ayatollah said in another Twitter excerpt from his speech. “If the country opposing them is a weak one, their arrogance works; but if it’s a country that knows & stands against them, they will be defeated. Regarding our ties with Europeans, what makes problems persist is their arrogance.”
Ayatollah Khamenei reserved particular hostility for Britain, despite that country’s attempt to defuse a separate dispute over the Iranian tanker, which British forces impounded on suspicion that it was transporting oil to Syria in defiance of European sanctions on that country.
On Saturday, Britain’s Foreign Minister, Jeremy Hunt, offered to release the tanker if Iran guaranteed its cargo would not be taken to Syria, suggesting the possibility that diplomacy would offer a way out of the dispute.
But Ayatollah Khamenei suggested otherwise.
“The vicious British government committed piracy and attacked our ship,” Ayatollah Khamenei said. “They commit crimes and legalize it. The Islamic Republic and the believing members of the establishment will not leave such vicious acts without a response.“
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