Iran’s president has suggested the Islamic Republic could hold a referendum over the country’s nuclear program amid the unravelling deal with world powers and heightened tensions with the United States, Iranian media reported Sunday.
According to the official IRNA news agency, President Hassan Rouhani, who was last week publicly chastised by the country’s supreme leader, made the suggestion in a meeting with editors of major Iranian news outlets on Saturday evening.
Rouhani said he had previously suggested a referendum to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2004, when he was a senior nuclear negotiator for Iran.
At the time, Khamenei approved of the idea and though there was no referendum, such a vote “can be a solution at any time,” Rouhani was quoted as saying.
A referendum could provide political cover for the Iranian government if it chooses to increase its enrichment of uranium, prohibited under the 2015 deal with world powers.
Last year, US President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal that capped Iran’s uranium enrichment activities in return to lifting sanctions.
Trump has argued that the deal failed to sufficiently curb Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons or halt its support for militias throughout the Middle East - that the US says destabilise the region - as well as address the issue of Tehran’s missiles, which can reach both US regional bases and Israel.
Nuclear inspectors have certified that Iran has long stuck by the terms of the deal.
In recent weeks, tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated over America deploying an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the region over a still-unexplained threat it perceives from Tehran.
The US also plans to send 900 additional troops to the 600 already in the Middle East and extending their stay amid the tensions.
Rouhani’s remarks could also be seen as a defence of his stance following the rare public chastising by the supreme leader.
Khamenei last week named Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif — relative moderates within Iran’s Shia theocracy who had struck the nuclear deal — as failing to implement his orders over the accord, saying it had “numerous ambiguities and structural weaknesses” that could damage Iran.
Earlier last week, Iran said it quadrupled its uranium-enrichment production capacity though Iranian officials made a point to stress that the uranium would be enriched only to the 3.67 percent limit set under the deal, making it usable for a power plant but far below what’s needed for an atomic weapon.
Measures to suspend some commitments are in line with Sections 26 and 36 of the deal, which allow Iran to cease some or all of its commitments if the US or other parties fail to adhere to the agreement, including by reimposing sanctions.
Zarif, the foreign minister, was in the Iraq capital on Sunday for talks with officials.
On Saturday, Mohamad Halbousi, the parliament speaker in Iraq, a key Iranian ally, said Baghdad is ready to mediate between the United States and Iran if it is asked to do so.