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Feb 8, 5:06 AM EST

Iran awards medals of honor to nuclear team


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TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iran awarded medals of honor on Monday to its nuclear negotiators who helped clinch a landmark deal with world powers last year.

President Hassan Rouhani awarded the "Medal of Merit" to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the "Medal of Courage" to Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan and Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, who is also the country's nuclear chief.

The historic July 14 agreement brought about the lifting of international economic sanctions last month after the United Nations certified that Iran has met all its commitments to curbing its nuclear activities.

"We passed behind us difficult days, difficult hours and nights," Rouhani said at the ceremony. "But we did not lose the right path and God did not leave us alone."

Rouhani was a strong supporter of the nuclear negotiations and backed the agreement in the face of fierce internal resistance from hard-liners. The agreement and the lifting of sanctions were seen as a major accomplishment for Rouhani, who was elected in 2013 on a platform promising constructive engagement with the outside world and an end to Iran's international isolation.

On Monday Rouhani expressed particular gratitude for the support he received from Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters in Iran.

"Without the Supreme Leader, there was no national unity. Without the Supreme Leader, our (nuclear) accomplishment would have not been as great as it is today and maybe we would not have had such an achievement," he said.

The implementation of the deal and the lifting of sanctions have increased Rouhani's popularity; now his allies are hoping for a strong showing in Feb. 26 parliamentary elections.

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