TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s president has suggested the Islamic Republic could hold a referendum over the country’s nuclear program amid the unraveling 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, President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. 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 U.S. says destabilize the region, as well as address the issue of Tehran’s missiles, which can reach both U.S. regional bases and Israel.
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 U.S. 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 defense 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 Shiite 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% limit set under the deal, making it usable for a power plant but far below what’s needed for an atomic weapon.
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.