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White House plays down Rowhani crowing on nuclear deal

Rowhani had said world powers were now bowing to Tehran

Published: Updated:

The White House Tuesday dismissed an aggressive claim of victory by Iran’s President Hassan Rowhani over an interim nuclear deal, and attempted to face down rising domestic political pressure over the pact.

Washington said Rowhani’s comment that world powers were now bowing to Tehran was a symptom of domestic politics and insisted that the deal, curbing aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in return for limited sanctions relief, hinged on its words and not its rhetoric.

“It is not surprising to us and nor should it be surprising to you that the Iranians are describing the agreement in a certain way towards their domestic audience,” spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

“It does not matter what they say, it matters what they do.”

Rowhani’s comment was sent out on his official Twitter account, and played directly into the complaints of hawkish members of the U.S. Congress that the deal, due to come into force on Jan. 20, gave too much up to Iran for too little in return.

“Our relationship with the world is based on Iranian nation’s interests. In #Geneva agreement world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will,” the tweet said.

The White House is fighting a tense political battle to prevent Congress from slapping a new round of sanctions on Iran which it says could cause the Islamic republic to walk away from the negotiating table, and eventually push Washington into a war to thwart Tehran’s nuclear program.

So any statements by Iran have the potential to color the political debate in Washington, where the interim nuclear deal is viewed with intense suspicion by many Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

Supporters of tightened sanctions say they have at least 59 votes in the 100-seat Senate and may be heading towards the 67-vote threshold needed to override the veto that President Barack Obama has promised. There is also strong backing for new sanctions in the House of Representatives.

Some lawmakers have reacted angrily to warnings by the White House that voting for the sanctions bill could unleash consequences that could embroil the United States in a new war in the Middle East.

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid has so far declined to bring the bill to the floor, noting that 10 key Democratic committee chairs have called on him to thwart the passage of any measures that could scupper the nuclear diplomacy.

“We’re going to wait and see how this plays out,” he told reporters.

Reid spoke a day after Obama publicly called on lawmakers to hold off on new sanctions to avoid disrupting his nuclear diplomacy with Iran -- after more than three decades of Cold War-style antagonism between the Islamic republic and a nation it derides as the “Great Satan.”

“Now is not the time for us to impose new sanctions. What we want to do is give diplomacy a chance and give peace a chance,” Obama said.

Lawmakers who support the bill say tough sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and stiffer measures would increase Obama’s leverage in talks between Tehran and the P5+1 group of world powers.

The new measures target the petroleum, mining and engineering sectors of Iran’s economy, but supporters say they would only come into force if Tehran stops negotiating in “good faith.”

While the United States and Iran have held direct talks for the first time in decades during a diplomatic thaw triggered by Rowhani’s election last year, the foes are still estranged on a string of other geopolitical issues.

Washington on Tuesday registered a sharp protest at a visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a key player in the nuclear talks, to the grave of Imad Mugniyah, a former leader of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said that Mugniyah was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people, including Americans.

“The inhumane violence that Mugniyah perpetrated -- and that Lebanese Hezbollah continues to perpetrate in the region with Iran’s financial and material support -- has had profoundly destabilizing and deadly effects for Lebanon and the region,” Hayden said.

“The decision to commemorate an individual who has participated in such vicious acts, and whose organization continues to actively support terrorism worldwide, sends the wrong message and will only exacerbate tensions in the region.”