New Iranian President Hassan Rohani took his bid to improve Iran’s image onto the world stage with a speech yesterday at the United Nations that offered softer rhetoric without conceding his country’s right to nuclear power.
Rohani, 64, said Iran isn’t interested in escalating tensions with the U.S. and is ready to enter talks “without delay” to resolve questions about whether his country’s nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes, as he said, or a secret attempt to develop the capability to make weapons, as the U.S., Israel and the European Union suspect.
“Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions,” Rohani told the UN General Assembly, according to an English language translation of his remarks. “Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”
Unlike his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rohani didn’t denounce Israel by name and referred to the Torah, a core of the Jewish faith. At the same time, he criticized the U.S. use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists, as well as Western economic sanctions against Iran.
Michael Singh, a former director for Iran policy on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, called the speech “more constructive and far less bellicose than the UN speeches by Rohani’s predecessor Ahmadinejad, but that is a very low bar.”
“The style has definitely changed, but the fundamentals haven’t changed at all,” said Majid Rafizadeh, president of the Washington-based International American Council on Middle East and North Africa.
“Rohani needed to deliver some satisfaction to the Iranian public, who are worried about the damaging impact of sanctions on the economy,” said Rafizadeh. He also said that a “charm offensive this week at the UN” by the Iranian president and Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif “was not for the West, but for the voters that put them in office.”
Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy research organization, called the speech “a bit disappointing,” saying he’d hoped Rohani would say more.
Rohani spoke after rejecting a possible informal encounter with U.S. President Barack Obama while both leaders were at the UN. Iranian officials cited domestic political considerations, a U.S. official told reporters.
Rohani later told CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour that he didn’t meet Obama because “we didn’t have sufficient time to really coordinate the meeting,” according to excerpts provided by the network.
“I think it reflects the realities of his situation, just as Obama’s timid remarks reflect his,” said Pollack, a former analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. “They both have domestic skeptics and will have to have the courage to get past them if this is going to work.”
It remains an open question whether Rohani can convince Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, to do a “cost-benefit analysis” of the country’s nuclear program and make way for some sanctions to be eased or lifted, said Rafizadeh.
In his interview with Amanpour, Rohani abandoned Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust and said “the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews is reprehensible and condemnable.”
“Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn,” Rohani continued. “The taking of human life is contemptible. It makes no difference whether that life is Jewish life, Christian, or Muslim. For us it is the same.”
Without mentioning any nation or group by name, he then said the crime committed against the Jewish people doesn’t justify occupation of Palestinian land.
In the interview, he made a point of extending “my greetings to the people of America who are very dear and near to the hearts of the Iranian people and to wish them a good time and good times ahead.”
Rohani missed his chance to impress the world with his UN speech, said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Rohani’s speech was targeted not at winning over Americans, but pleasing Khamenei and other hardliners at home in Tehran,” Dubowitz said.
In Tehran, some Iranians said they were happy about the promise of further dialogue between their leader and the U.S. president.
“Finally, Obama didn’t threaten us,” said Reza, 65, who lives in Karaj, outside Tehran and declined to give his last name. “Rohani has a strong personality; I think he can leave a positive impression.”
Speaking earlier yesterday to the UN, Obama said the U.S. is “encouraged” that Rohani’s election in June gave the Iranian leader a mandate to pursue a moderate course that may provide a basis for a “meaningful agreement” on the nuclear issue.
To that end, Obama said he instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to begin high-level negotiations on its nuclear program.
Concern that the U.S. and its allies might be tempted to ease the sanctions on Iran ahead of any agreement have prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials to issue warnings over Rohani’s more conciliatory tone toward the West.
Netanyahu instructed the Israeli delegation to the General Assembly to leave the hall during Rohani’s speech, as it did last year during Ahmadinejad’s address.
“Iran thinks that soothing words and token actions will enable it to continue on its path to the bomb,” Netanyahu said in an e-mailed statement. “Israel would welcome a genuine diplomatic solution that truly dismantles Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons. But we will not be fooled by half-measures.”