Iran’s president says country could hold referendum over nuke program
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Iran’s president says country could hold referendum over nuke program

Amid war of words and escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington, vote could provide political cover for uranium enrichment

In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani attends a meeting in the southwestern city of Ahvaz during his tour to Khuzestan province, Iran, March 29, 2019. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
In this photo released by the official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani attends a meeting in the southwestern city of Ahvaz during his tour to Khuzestan province, Iran, March 29, 2019. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani suggested Saturday that the Islamic Republic could hold a public referendum over the country’s nuclear program amid tensions with the United States, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.

Rouhani said he previously suggested a referendum to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2004, when he was a senior nuclear negotiator.

Such a referendum could provide political cover for the Iranian government if it chooses to increase its enrichment of uranium, prohibited under the 2015 deal with world powers.

US President Donald Trump pulled the country out of the deal last year. In recent weeks, tensions between the US and Iran have risen over America deploying an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the region over a still-unexplained threat it perceives from Tehran.

A helicopter loads cargo onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea as the ship’s strike group makes its way to the Persian Gulf, May 8, 2019. (US Navy/Michael Singley)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Saturday a US decision to deploy 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East was “a threat to global peace and stability.”

“Increased US presence in our region is very dangerous and a threat to global peace and stability and must be confronted,” Zarif told the official IRNA news agency before heading home from a visit to Pakistan.

Washington says the reinforcements are in response to a “campaign” of recent attacks approved by Iran’s top leadership.

Meanwhile a top Iranian military commander warned Saturday that the country would employ “secret weapons” to destroy American Naval forces in the Persian Gulf if they initiate hostilities.

“America… is sending two warships to the region,” General Morteza Qorbani, an adviser to military command, told semi-official news agency Mizan in comments translated by Reuters. “If they commit the slightest stupidity, we will send these ships to the bottom of the sea along with their crew and planes using two missiles or two new secret weapons.”

US President Donald Trump gestures as he delivers remarks on immigration at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC on May 16, 2019. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

Trump has in recent weeks alternated between tough talk toward Iran and a more conciliatory message, insisting he is open to negotiations with the Islamic Republic.

The US has about 70,000 troops across the Middle East, including at a major Navy base in Bahrain and an Air Force base and operations center in Qatar. There are about 5,200 troops in Iraq and 2,000 in Syria.

Tensions have been rising with Iran for more than a year. The Trump administration withdrew last year from the 2015 nuclear deal between the Islamic Republic and world powers, and reinstated American sanctions that have badly damaged the Iranian economy.

The US president has argued that the nuclear deal failed to sufficiently curb Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons or halt its support for militias throughout the Middle East that the US argues destabilize the region.

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