Middle East

Iran left with limited options to respond to Trump decision

Iranian MPs burn a US flag during a session at the parliament in Tehran, Iran (9 May 2018) Image copyright EPA
Image caption Iranian MPs set fire to a US flag during a parliamentary session on Wednesday

Iran's supreme leader has poured scorn on President Donald Trump's decision to end the United States' participation in the 2015 nuclear deal, and accused him of lying in his speech.

"He had maybe more than 10 lies in his comments. He threatened the regime and the people, saying 'I'll do this and that'," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday.

"Mr Trump, I tell you on behalf of the Iranian people: You've made a mistake."

Earlier in the day, Iranian MPs set fire to a copy of the nuclear accord and US flags in parliament to chants of "Death to America".

But despite the dramatic scenes and harsh rhetoric, the Islamic Republic has decided, at least for now, to stay in the deal.

To keep or burn the deal?

Minutes after Mr Trump's announcement on Tuesday, President Hassan Rouhani appeared on TV without his trademark smile, expressing his disappointment but also making it clear that Iran would abide by its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is formally known.

Mr Rouhani said Iran would negotiate with the five other signatories to the deal - the UK, France, Germany, China and Russia - in the coming weeks.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption President Hassan Rouhani struck pragmatic tone in a televised address on Tuesday

"If at the end of this short period we conclude that we can fully benefit from the JCPOA with the co-operation of all countries, the deal will remain," he added.

That announcement may have surprised many Iranians, who may have been expecting their government to also abandon the accord in retaliation for the US reinstating sanctions.

In June 2016, while Mr Trump was still running for office, Ayatollah Khamenei had threatened to "burn the deal" if the new US president chose not to honour it.

Although a physical copy has now actually been burnt in parliament, it was only a symbolic protest and not one that reflected the stance of the supreme leader.

Pressure builds

But why is Iran giving the other parties a chance to keep the deal alive?

The country's leaders know full well that it will not work without the US on board.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Many newspapers called for a united response from Iranians to the US decision

Despite Europe's best efforts to encourage companies to do business with Iran after the nuclear deal was implemented in January 2016, most big firms have avoided any long-term co-operation with the Islamic Republic.

That is because doing put them at risk of US sanctions and hefty penalties.

Iranian officials have complained time and again over the past two years that they have not seen any tangible benefits from the JCPOA.

Ordinary people who voted in their millions for President Rouhani in 2013 and 2017 have expressed their anger over the moderate cleric's failure to deliver on his promises of economic opportunity, prosperity and growth.

Some Iranians took to social media to welcome Mr Trump's decision, with many using the hashtag #ThankyouTrump.

"Sanctions might cause us ordinary people hardships, but we are happy because the pain now is like the pain a mother would suffer giving birth to a child that is a new free and prosperous Iran," one person wrote on Twitter.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Protesters gathered outside the former US embassy building in Tehran

Others used the hashtag #untr_US_table, and called on Mr Rouhani to abandon the nuclear deal immediately.

"Now is time to add JCPOA to school curriculums as an example of the kind of deals that gave away Iranians rights, and Rouhani should be described as the official who signed it," one person tweeted.

Hardliners - who have always opposed the nuclear accord, saying Iran made too many concessions - seized on the opportunity to step up the pressure on the president.

"That piece of paper on which you agreed ignored the blood of our martyrs. This is all because of the misplaced trust that our politicians placed in the US," said one tweet.

No easy decision

Despite the criticism, Mr Rouhani is unlikely to abandon the deal because he knows that such a move would most probably prompt European powers to side with the US and reimpose their own sanctions. In 2017, trade between the European Union and Iran was worth $25bn.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Iranians had rushed to buy foreign hard currency before Mr Trump's announcement

The Iranian government is also nervously following other developments in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia's evolution from a relatively passive regional player into an active one that has been challenging Iranian activities in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere.

And perhaps more worrying from the point of view of officials in Tehran has been the sight of Saudi Arabia getting closer and closer to Iran's arch-enemy, Israel.

Staying in the nuclear deal will not be easy for Mr Rouhani domestically.

Beside the attacks from hardliners, recent protests have shown the widespread discontent among ordinary people who continue to face economic hardship.

Mr Rouhani and Iran's other leaders know that one wrong move could put them in a very difficult situation, but their efforts to outmanoeuvre the US president by sticking with the nuclear deal show how limited their options are.

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