Verbal sparring continues as Iran calls US sanctions 'idiotic'

Responding to new U.S. sanctions against Iran's top leadership, Tehran says the measures signaled a “permanent closure” for future diplomacy. As tensions rise, members of the White House maintain the door to a diplomatic solution is still open. 

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/AP
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in a meeting at his residence in Tehran, June 19, 2019. President Donald Trump signed new sanctions targeting Mr. Khamenei and other Iranian officials, prompting rebuke from Tehran.

Iran on Tuesday sharply criticized new U.S. sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic's supreme leader and other top officials, saying the measures spell the "permanent closure" for diplomacy between the two nations. Iran's president described the White House as "afflicted by mental retardation."

President Hassan Rouhani went on to call the sanctions against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei "outrageous and idiotic," especially as the 80-year-old Shiite cleric has no plans to ever travel to the United States.

From Israel, Mr. Trump's national security adviser John Bolton said talks with the United States were still possible and that the U.S. is leaving an "open door" for Iran to walk through.

But the comments from Tehran clearly show its leaders think otherwise at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran over its nuclear program and Iran's downing of a U.S. military surveillance drone last week.

"The fruitless sanctions on Iran's leadership and the chief of Iranian diplomacy mean the permanent closure of the road of diplomacy with the frustrated U.S. administration," said Abbas Mousavi, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.

The crisis gripping the Middle East is rooted in President Donald Trump's withdrawal of the U.S. a year ago from Iran's 2015 nuclear deal and imposing crippling new sanctions on Tehran. Recently, Iran quadrupled its production of low-enriched uranium to be on pace to break one of the deal's terms by Thursday while also threatening to raise enrichment closer to weapons-grade levels on July 7 – if Europe doesn't offer a new deal.

Citing unspecified Iranian threats, the U.S. has sent an aircraft carrier to the Middle East and deployed additional troops alongside the tens of thousands already there. All this has raised fears that a miscalculation or further rise in tensions could push the U.S. and Iran into an open conflict, 40 years after the Islamic Revolution.

Mr. Trump enacted the new sanctions on Monday against Mr. Khamenei and his associates.

The sanctions follow Iran's downing last week of a U.S. surveillance drone, worth more than $100 million, over the Strait of Hormuz, an attack that sharply escalated the crisis in the Persian Gulf. After the downing of the drone, Mr. Trump pulled back from the brink of retaliatory military strikes but continued his pressure campaign against Iran.

U.S. officials also said they plan sanctions against Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, something that drew Mr. Rouhani's anger during his televised address on Tuesday.

"You sanction the foreign minister simultaneously with a request for talks," an exasperated Mr. Rouhani said and called the sanctions "outrageous and idiotic."

"The White House is afflicted by mental retardation and does not know what to do," Mr. Rouhani added.

There was no immediate reaction from Washington early on Tuesday to the remarks from Iran. The sharp comments are reminiscent of North Korea's verbal attacks on Mr. Trump before the dramatic change in course and the start of negotiations with Washington. In 2017, state media quoted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un calling Mr. Trump "the mentally deranged U.S. dotard."

However, in Iran's case, there are no signs Iranian leadership would welcome talks.

Mr. Mousavi's statement echoed that of Iran's U.N. ambassador, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, who warned on Monday that the situation in the Persian Gulf is "very dangerous" and said any talks with the U.S. are impossible in the face of escalating sanctions and intimidation. Meanwhile, the U.S. envoy at the United Nations, Jonathan Cohen, said the Trump administration's aim is to get Tehran back to negotiations.

The sanctions were announced as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held talks in the Middle East with officials in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia about building a broad, global coalition that includes Asian and European countries to counter Iran. Mr. Pompeo is likely to face a tough sell in Europe and Asia, particularly from those nations still committed to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bolton said the president was open to real negotiations to eliminate Iran's nuclear weapons program and "all that Iran needs to do is walk through that open door."

Mr. Bolton was meeting with his Russian and Israel counterparts in a first-of-its-kind trilateral security summit in Jerusalem that was focused on Iranian involvement in conflicts across the region, particularly in neighboring Syria.

"As we speak, American diplomatic representatives are surging across the Middle East, seeking a path to peace. In response, Iran's silence has been deafening," he said. "There is simply no evidence that Iran has made the strategic decision to renounce nuclear weapons and open realistic discussions to demonstrate that decision."

But only hours later, Mr. Bolton told a news conference that "all options remain on the table" if Iran goes over the limit for its low-enriched uranium stockpile as planned by Thursday.

"It would not be in their interest to do it but they have done a lot of things recently that are not in their interest," Mr. Bolton said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Associated Press writer Aron Heller in Jerusalem continued to this report.

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