Iran’s ballistic missile program is non-negotiable, president Rouhani says

TEHRAN — Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional influence were non-negotiable, President Hassan Rouhani said Monday in a possible effort to set the terms of future nuclear talks with President-elect Joe Biden.

“The missiles program and regional issues have nothing to do with the nuclear issue,” Rouhani said in a response to a question by NBC News at a press conference in Tehran.

“There is one JCPOA that has been negotiated and agreed — either everyone commits to it or they don’t,” he said, referring to the landmark 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and world powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

An Iranian missile pictured during a military exercise near the strategic strait of Hormuz in southern Iran in September. Iranian Army office / via AFP – Getty

Rouhani added that Biden was “well aware” of what negotiations had previously taken place and what their results were. The Iranian president declined to answer a question about whether there had been contact between Iran and the Biden team.

Meanwhile, the U.S. treasury announced that it was sanctioning two senior Iranian officials it says were involved in the disappearance of former FBI agent Robert Levinson in 2007.

Bidenhas promised to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement, from which President Donald Trump withdrew the United States in 2018, if Tehran abides by the deal, but he has suggested building on the pact.

“With our allies, we will work to strengthen and extend the nuclear deal’s provisions, while also addressing other issues of concern,” Biden wrote in a CNN Op-Ed ahead of the election.

“We will continue to push back against Iran’s destabilizing activities, which threaten our friends and partners in the region,” the article continued. “We will continue to use targeted sanctions against Iran’s human rights abuses, its support for terrorism and ballistic missile program.

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Iran supports a network of proxies throughout the region including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Islamic Jihad group in Gaza.

When asked about Biden’s comments, Rouhani said that he “hadn’t heard” the president-elect speak about these issues.

“This is Trump’s words not the words of Biden,” he said. “Trump would say, ‘We don’t agree with this agreement, we should reach a stronger agreement.”

Tensions between Tehran and Washington escalated when Trump withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear agreement, which required Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

Trump then pursued a campaign of maximum pressure on the Middle Eastern state by reimposing crippling sanctions. He has insisted that Iran must agree to limits on its ballistic missile program, but Iran has refused.

The Trump administration has kept up the pressure by continuing to hit it with fresh sanctions in an effort to bring them back to the table to negotiate an agreement with better terms for the U.S.

In response to America’s withdrawal, Iran has openly exceeded the uranium enrichment levels set out in the pact to try to pressure Europe into offsetting the economic pain of U.S. sanctions. Iran has long denied seeking to develop a nuclear weapon and says doing so would be against Islam.

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Last month, Iran said one of its leading nuclear scientists, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated near Tehran. No group or country has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Iranian Foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pointed the finger at Israel saying there were “serious indications” of an Israeli role in the killing.

In the wake of the killing, NBC News approached the Israeli prime minister’s office which said it was not commenting on the reports.

Tehran has long been at odds with Israel, where many consider Iran an existential threat. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been among the fiercest critics of the 2015 nuclear deal, which required Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions.

The Israeli prime minister has encouraged U.S. administrations not to sign and later to withdraw from the pact.

Amin Hossein Khodadadi and Abigail Williams contributed.

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