TEHRAN, IRAN - Iran's supreme leader publicly chastised the country's moderate president and foreign minister Wednesday, saying he disagreed with the implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal they negotiated with world powers.
The extraordinary comments by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the first time he's criticized both politicians by name, came amid tensions with the United States a year after Washington's withdrawal from the accord.
Khamenei has final say on all matters of state, and his assessment limits the influence of President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who are relative moderates within Iran's Shiite theocracy.
It also shows the growing power of hard-liners.
The White House this month sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the region over a still-unexplained threat it had perceived from Iran.
Since that development, Iran has announced it will back away from the atomic accord. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, alleged that four oil tankers were sabotaged off its coast, and Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen launched drone attacks into Saudi Arabia.
Fear of mistake
Both Washington and Tehran have said in recent days that they want to ease heightened tensions in the region. But many fear a miscalculation between the two countries, who have a 40-year history of mistrust, could escalate the situation.
Khamenei made the comments before hard-line students gathered for a Ramadan lecture. For years, hard-liners have criticized the accord for giving too much away.
Khamenei had given his implicit stamp of approval on the deal, the signing of which sparked spontaneous celebrations across Iran. The accord called for Iran to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions.
But the deal has unraveled since Trump's withdrawal, with the U.S. re-imposing old sanctions and coming up with even stricter new ones.
``To some extent, I did not believe in the way that the nuclear deal was implemented,'' Khamenei said, according to his official website. ``Many times I reminded both the president and the foreign minister.''
Khamenei has previously warned that the West, especially the U.S., isn't trustworthy. But he hadn't named Iran's top elected politician and top diplomat before Wednesday night. He's previously said the two have done the best they could.
Even before Trump became president and later withdrew from the deal, there were concerns in Washington that the supreme leader might turn on the agreement if the envisioned sanctions relief fell short of what Tehran expected. For that reason, the Obama administration dispatched senior officials to Europe, Asia and elsewhere to explain to foreign governments and countries what was permitted.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew each encouraged foreign investors to do business with Iran so that the benefits of the deal would be apparent to the Iranian people.
Loss of oil revenue
Since Trump's pullout last year and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions in November, remaining parties to the deal have been unable to keep up the pace of relief, and Iran's economy has been significantly harmed, notably because of the loss of revenue from oil exports and the risk of incurring U.S. penalties that has dissuaded international companies from opening shop in Iran.
While Iran's supreme leader does oversee elected representatives, his main role in society is spiritual rather than political. Khamenei acknowledged that in his speech Wednesday night, saying the gravity of the situation called on him to speak.
``Our belief is that the leadership should not enter into the executive issues, unless if it affects the entire revolution,'' Khamenei said.
There was no immediate comment from either Rouhani, who is serving his second four-year term as president, or Zarif.
Khamenei did not directly address the ongoing tensions, which include the heightened U.S. naval presence in the region. However, during his appearance with the students, one came up to Khamenei with a painting of the Revolutionary Guard soldier credited with laying mines targeting U.S.-escorted oil tankers in the Persian Gulf during Iran's 1980s war with Iraq. The Guard says he was killed in a confrontation with the U.S. Navy.
On Monday, Iran announced it had quadrupled its production capacity of low-enriched uranium. Iranian officials made a point to stress that the uranium would be enriched only to the 3.67% limit set under the nuclear deal, making it usable for a power plant but far below what's needed for an atomic weapon.
But by increasing production, Iran soon will exceed the stockpile limitations set by the nuclear accord. Tehran has set a July 7 deadline for Europe to set new terms for the deal, or it will enrich closer to weapons-grade levels.
Not seeking conflict
Earlier Wednesday, a prominent reformist lawmaker who chairs parliament's national security and foreign policy commission stressed that neither Iran nor its proxy allies were seeking armed conflict with the U.S.
``Under no circumstance will we enter a war,'' Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh said, according to the semiofficial ILNA news agency. ``No group can announce that it has entered a proxy war from Iran's side.''
Meanwhile, Iran's army chief, Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi, alleged without providing evidence that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. were behind the sabotage of the oil tankers off the UAE, as well as a rocket that landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The U.S. has blamed Iran for both incidents without publicly offering evidence. America also has evacuated nonessential diplomatic staff from Iraq amid the tensions.
The U.S. Air Force also announced Wednesday that a B-52 bomber deployed to America's vast Al-Udeid Air Base over the tensions took part in a formation flight with Qatari fighter jets. That comes as Qatar has grown closer to Iran after facing a nearly two-year boycott by four Arab nations also allied with the U.S.
``This flight was conducted to continue building military-to-military relationships'' with Qatar, the Air Force said.