Grappling with a weakened economy and the Middle East’s worst coronavirus outbreak, Iran’s president delivered a defiant and fiery speech Tuesday to the U.N. General Assembly as he insisted it would be the United States that surrenders to Iran’s resilience.
Hassan Rouhani spoke in a prerecorded speech to the virtual summit just days after Iran’s currency plunged to its lowest levels ever against the U.S. dollar due to crippling U.S. sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump, who pulled the U.S. out of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2018. The accord had been signed by the Obama administration. The sanctions effectively bar Iran from selling its oil globally.
“The United States can impose neither negotiations nor war on us,” Rouhani said, adding: “Life is hard under sanctions. However, harder is life without independence.”
Rouhani compared his country’s plight with that of George Floyd, the Black American man who died in May after a white police officer in Minneapolis pinned him to the ground by pressing a knee into his neck. Floyd’s death set off nationwide protests in support of Black lives.
Calling it “reminiscent of our own experience,” Rouhani said: “We instantly recognize the feet kneeling on the neck as the feet of arrogance on the neck of independent nations.”
He said Iran “has paid a similar high price” in its quest for freedom and liberation from domination.
Rouhani insisted his nation does not deserve sanctions and described the U.S. as “a terrorist and interventionist outsider” before referring to the 1953 U.S.-backed coup that cemented the control of the shah in Iran, which ultimately pushed the country toward its Islamic Revolution and hostility with the West. He said it is the U.S. that has been “the sole user of atomic bombs” in the world.
This week, the White House doubled down on its maximum-pressure campaign against the Islamic republic with an executive order to enforce all U.N. sanctions on Iran because Tehran is not complying with the nuclear deal — a move that most of the rest of the world rejects as illegal.
Because Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement, few U.N. member states believe the U.S. has the legal standing to restore the sanctions. Even so, diplomatic efforts in Europe have failed to preserve the deal. Iran has steadily broken restrictions on the amount of uranium it can enrich in order to pressure countries to do more.
U.S. sanctions and the coronavirus outbreak have pummeled Iran’s economy. In March, Tehran requested a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, marking the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that Iran has sought such assistance.
Iran has recorded more than 429,000 infections of the virus, including more than 24,000 deaths as it resists nationwide lockdowns that could further imperil the economy.
Rouhani’s speech reflects how tensions have skyrocketed between Tehran and Washington following the U.S. strike in January that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iraq. Iran retaliated with a ballistic missile strike on Iraqi bases housing American troops. The powerful commander was close to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wept openly at his funeral.
Rouhani mentioned the commander briefly in his speech, referring to him as an “assassinated hero.”
Gulf Arab states and Israel have long wanted the United States to push back Tehran’s drive to spread influence through Shiite proxies across the region that Soleimani had commanded. They see Iran as a destabilizing force that has exploited failed uprisings, military interventions and chaos in Arab states like Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have cemented ties with Israel in part due to shared concerns over Iran, their shared rival. Saudi Arabia, which blames Iran for a stunning missile and drone attack last year on its main oil refinery, is also quietly cementing ties with Israel.
Rouhani sought to frame Iranian interventions as in defense of besieged people, and noted Iran’s efforts fighting against extremist Sunni Muslim groups like the Islamic State.
Trump, in the middle of a contentious re-election race, has made pressure on Iran a cornerstone of his Mideast foreign policy. He’s also increased U.S. military presence in the Gulf.
“We are not a bargaining chip in U.S. elections and domestic policy,” Rouhani said. It was his last speech to the U.N. assembly as president of Iran. Fresh elections in Iran are slated for 2021.