A deal on Iran’s nuclear program is possible by July 20 and talks will continue between Tehran and six major powers if the deadline is not met, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said today at a press conference to mark a year since the election that propelled him to power.
“If our counterparts have the necessary determination and goodwill, it’s possible to reach an agreement in five weeks, but if we don’t reach one, we will continue with negotiations,” Rouhani told a gathering of foreign and Iranian journalists in Tehran. Iran won’t return to the past, he said.
Iran and six world powers are seeking to agree a final settlement to a decade-long dispute over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. An interim deal signed in November, which offered Iran limited relief from international sanctions in return for caps on its atomic work, expires July 20.
“In the next round of talks starting this week, it’s possible the two sides can start formulating an agreement,” Rouhani said. The U.S. and its allies want an accord to stop Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. Iran says it has no such ambition, and is seeking a deal that will end its economic isolation.
Rouhani said Iran, a Shiite ally of neighboring Iraq, stands ready to help should the government in Baghdad ask for assistance to combat fighters who are advancing across the country, triggering concern that it will be plunged into a sectarian civil war.
Rouhani said no request had been received from Iraq for help in combating the militants. Iran would consider its position on cooperating with Washington if the U.S. decided to intervene.
“Whenever the Americans - against the terrorists - enter Iraq, and we see it, well then we can think about it,” Rouhani said.
The next round of formal talks on the nuclear issue is scheduled to start June 16. Iranian and U.S. negotiators met last week in Geneva in a bid to overcome hurdles -- including issues such as the number of centrifuges that Iran will be allowed to keep, and hence how much enriched uranium it can produce -- that have stalled progress.
The Obama administration and Iran have said they are open to an extension to allow more time for obtaining a final agreement. The U.S. Congress, though, has threatened new sanctions if a final deal isn’t completed by next month.
An agreement “doesn’t mean our engagement with the world is finalised, it means it has just started,” Rouhani said.
Last year, on the eve of his election, Rouhani described Iran’s relationship with the U.S. as “a chronic wound,” bemoaned Iran’s fractured relationship with the international community and spoke of Iran’s failure to stop the best of its white-collar workforce from fleeing overseas.
Soon after taking office in August, he was on the phone to U.S. President Barack Obama, the first direct conversation between presidents of the two countries since the revolution in Iran in 1979.
Today, Rouhani said he hadn’t had received any messages from Obama recently but that “there were no complications and no problems.”
“Our relationship with the world today is different,” he said.
The rapprochement, while irking conservative politicians and fueling his opponents at home, has cleared the way for Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to pursue the nuclear talks.
“It’s amazing how quickly the new normal becomes the new normal -- we tend to forget that nine months ago this was impossible,” Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said by telephone on Tuesday.
The economy has shown tangible improvements. Rouhani told reporters that inflation has declined by between 26 and 27 percentage points since his election. The International Monetary Fund said in February that Iran’s economy was stabilizing and would grow by 1 to 2 percent in the next 12 months.
According to Saeed Laylaz, a former economic adviser to reformist President Mohammad Khatami, Rouhani’s election “saved Iran’s economic system from collapse.”
Domestic opponents of Rouhani’s policies -- some of whom formed a group called “the anxious” earlier this year -- have tried to paint the nuclear talks as having weakened Iran’s strategic independence.
While Rouhani secured the approval of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for his economic and foreign policies, he’s made little progress on his declared ambition to significantly relax cultural restrictions and improve freedom of expression.
Small gains such as the release of reformist activists from prison have often been overshadowed by new detentions and the shutting down of newspapers that looked favorably on Rouhani’s government. The administration has embraced social media on a scale unseen before. Yet Twitter, Facebook and YouTube remain banned.
Today’s news conference and the fact that Rouhani took questions from foreign news organizations including the BBC, and fielded more questions than he initially planned, reflected the shift in atmosphere in Iran.
Referring to his naysayers, Rouhani urged people who he said are determined to “look backward while they’re walking” to look forward to the future.
Last year’s election “was a big ‘no’ to the domestic extremists in the country,” he said.