Iran vows to ‘proudly bypass’ US sanctions

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said the Islamic republic “will proudly bypass sanctions” by the United States that took effect on Monday targeting the country’s oil and financial sectors.

The punitive measures described by Washington as “the toughest sanctions ever” come six months after US President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to abandon the multi-nation nuclear deal with Tehran.

“I announce that we will proudly bypass your illegal, unjust sanctions because it’s against international regulations,” Rouhani said in a televised speech. We are in a situation of economic war, confronting a bullying power. I don’t think that in the history of America, someone has entered the White House who is so against law and international conventions,” he added.

Since Trump took over at the White House in early 2017, the US has set Iran in its sights, accusing it of seeking to destabilise the Middle East. The president announced in May that Washington would withdraw unilaterally from the landmark nuclear pact signed in 2015 between Tehran and major global powers.

The latest tranche of US sanctions aims to significantly cut Iran’s oil exports — which have already fallen by up to one million barrels a day since May — and cut off its banks from international finance.

The US has given temporary exemptions to eight countries — including India, Japan and Turkey — to continue buying oil in a bid to avoid disturbing their economies and global markets. But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed to push Iran’s oil sales to zero. “Watch what we do. Watch as we’ve already taken more crude oil off the market than any time in previous history,” he told CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday.

However, China has denounced the new sanctions as “long-arm jurisdiction" and vowed to continue its bilateral trade with the Iran. China is a signatory to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — which includes Britain, France, Germany and Russia — that Trump pulled out from earlier this year. The remaining members believe the agreement is working as intended and is keeping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons for now. “Under the current circumstances, we hope all parties can bear in mind the larger picture and fulfil their duties and choose to stand on the right side of history," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular press briefing, adding that China will continue to “uphold the objective and responsible attitude to uphold the agreement”.

Trump’s administration says it wants a new deal with Iran that curbs its interventions around the Middle East and missile programme — demands that have been flatly rejected by Tehran. “Constantly they are sending us messages saying ‘Let's sit and negotiate.’ Negotiations for what?” said Rouhani. “First, you respect the negotiations we already concluded, so that there are grounds for the next negotiations.”

Rouhani said four countries had approached him during his visit to New York for the UN General Assembly in September, offering to mediate with the US but he turned them down. “There is no need for mediation. There is no need for all these messages. Act on your commitments, and we will sit and talk,” he said.

All over Iran, the mood is a mix of gloom, defiance and anger. “America has been hitting at us for the last 100 years, but we will never become their servants,” said Mehdi Mirzaee.

In one of Tehran’s bazaars, there was anxiety over the future. “The shadow of the sanctions has already affected the economy in a disastrous way, people’s purchasing power has plunged,” said Ehsan Attar in his herbal remedy shop in northern Tehran.

“The US is just like a bully, as long as you listen to them they leave you alone, otherwise it will try to suffocate you.”

Iran’s economy was already suffering major structural problems — including widespread corruption, weak investment and a banking sector laden with toxic assets — before Trump walked out of the nuclear deal. But Trump’s announcement in May helped fuel a run on Iran’s currency that has seen the rial lose more than two thirds of its value, driving up prices and forcing the government to resort to food handouts to the country’s poor.

Rouhani’s strategy since taking power in 2013 was to boost the economy by rebuilding ties with the world and attracting billions of dollars in foreign investment. That now looks in tatters, despite the other parties to the nuclear deal — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia — vehemently opposing the US move and promising to keep trade going.

Private companies and banks in those countries are unwilling to make enemies of the US Treasury and most international firms that set up in Iran after the 2015 deal have been forced to leave, including France’s Total, Peugeot and Renault, and Germany’s Siemens.

“Today, it’s not just us who are angry with America’s policies. Even European companies and governments are angry with America’s policies,” said Rouhani. Iran’s arch-foe Israel however welcomed Trump’s “bold decision” as “the sea-change the Middle East has been waiting for.”