In a speech broadcast live on Iranian state television on Tuesday, Rouhani said sanctions against Khamenei would fail because he had no assets abroad.
Describing the latest round of measures as “outrageous”, “idiotic”, and a sign of US desperation, Rouhani said: “The White House actions mean it is mentally retarded.”
He added that Tehran’s “strategic patience” should not be mistaken for fear.
Iranian officials have used this insult in the past about US President Donald Trump, but it was a departure from Rouhani’s own comparatively measured tone.
Trump targeted Khamenei and other top Iranian officials with sanctions on Monday, in a bid to increase pressure on Iran after it downed an unmanned US drone last week.
Washington also said it will impose sanctions on Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, this week. The moves came a day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated that Washington was prepared to enter talks with Iran “with no preconditions”.
Rouhani dismissed Pompeo’s offer, saying: “You sanction the foreign minister simultaneously with a request for talks.”
In Washington, Trump responded by calling Rouhani’s statement “ignorant and insulting”, and threatened to retaliate to any Iranian attack with “great and overwhelming force”.
“In some areas overwhelming will mean obliteration,” he said in a series of posts on Twitter.
….Iran’s very ignorant and insulting statement, put out today, only shows that they do not understand reality. Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration. No more John Kerry & Obama!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 25, 2019
‘All options on table’
The crisis gripping the Middle East stems from Trump’s decision last year to abandon an international accord between Iran and six world powers that offered Tehran relief from global sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.
After exiting the 2015 deal, Trump reimposed and extended sanctions on Iran, saying the “maximum pressure” campaign was aimed at forcing Tehran to negotiate a new deal that also addressed its ballistic missiles programme and support for regional armed groups.
But Iran says there is no point negotiating with Washington when it has abandoned a deal that was already reached. And on Tuesday, the country’s foreign ministry said the new US sanctions permanently closed the path to diplomacy between Tehran and Washington.
“Imposing useless sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader and the commander of Iran’s diplomacy [Zarif] is the permanent closure of the path of diplomacy,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said in a tweet.
“Trump’s desperate administration is destroying the established international mechanisms for maintaining world peace and security.”
A year after the US exit, Iran said it would reduce compliance with some elements of the nuclear agreement, and gave Europe, China and Russia a two-month ultimatum to help Iran circumvent US sanctions and sell its oil.
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said on Tuesday Iran will “resolutely” abandon more commitments under the nuclear deal at the end of that deadline.
“As of July 7, Iran will forcefully take the second step of reducing its commitments” to the nuclear deal, Shamkhani was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.
This was so “countries who interpreted Iran’s ‘patience’ with weakness and inaction realise that Iran’s answer to the American drone’s violation of its airspace will be no different than its reaction to devious political efforts to limit Iranian people’s absolute rights,” he added.
Shamkhani slammed Europe’s “political insolence” for expecting Iran to continue its commitments without them fulfilling their end of the deal and said it showed a “lack of will” to face the US.
US National Security Adviser John Bolton, speaking in Israel, said that Trump was open to negotiations and “all that Iran needs to do is walk through that open door”.
Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Bolton said he believes pressure imposed on Iran through sanctions will lead it to the negotiating table. “They’ll either get the point or … we will simply enhance the maximum pressure campaign further”.
“It will, I think, be the combination of sanctions and other pressure that does bring Iran to the table,” the longtime Iran hawk said.
However, he added that “all options remain on the table” if Iran exceeds the uranium enrichment limit under the nuclear deal. Tehran had previously warned it would pass the 300kg stockpile limit this week.
‘Khamenei won’t be affected’
Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Tehran, said the US decision to sanction the supreme leader would likely not have much effect.
“Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not left Iran in over 30 years since he was president in 1989. The last time he left Iran was on a state visit to China in April 1989,” she said, adding that the announcement that Zarif would be sanctioned had come as a surprise to Iran.
“Zarif is a career diplomat who lived in the US. He was at the UN for many years. He is known as the face of the Islamic Republic on the international stage,” Jabbari said.
Tensions have escalated in the region in recent weeks following a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf.
The US and its regional allies – Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates – have blamed Iran for the attacks, a charge Tehran has denied as “baseless”.
The downing of the US surveillance drone last week almost brought the two foes to the brink of war, with Trump saying he initially approved attacks on Iran in retaliation for the drone shootdown but later pulled back.
Tehran said the drone violated its airspace but Washington insisted it was flying over international waters.
Trump has said he is not seeking war with Iran, as he dispatched his top diplomats – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and John Bolton – to the Middle East to shore up support against Iran.