President Obama has opened the door to improving U.S.-Iranian relations. And Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is carefully walking through it.
The new Iranian president brought his charm offensive to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. In his first remarks in front of the international body, Rouhani declared that “Iran seeks to resolve problems, not to create them” and that he was confident his country and the U.S. “can arrive at framework to manage our differences.”
The speech wasn’t an unqualified embrace of the west. Rouhani condemned what he said was the “persistence of a Cold War mentality” and the “bipolar division of the world into a superior us and an inferior others.” He denounced the use of drone strikes in the Middle East and called the U.N. sanctions against his country “violent—pure and simple,” adding they “cause belligerence, war-mongering and human suffering.”
On Iran’s nuclear program, Rouhani said he is prepared to engage in “time-bound and result-oriented” discussions. He insisted that the country’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. “Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine.”
Rouhani did seem to distance himself from his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
After all, Ahmadinejad created drama at previous UN gatherings. In 2009, several nations walked out after he questioned whether the Holocaust ever happened. In 2011, there was another walkout when he condemned Israel, railed against U.S. “slave masters and colonial masters” and said America used the “mysterious Sept. 11 incident” as a pretext for launching wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Rouhani, who assumed office in August, has already taken a more conciliatory approach toward the U.S., perhaps because Iran’s economy is suffering under western-imposed sanctions. Rouhani and Obama have confirmed the two have exchanged letters, a big change from the longstanding silence that for decades characterized Washington’s relationship with Iran.
Rouhani told NBC News’ Ann Curry last week that his administration would never seek weapons of mass destruction, that he has the “full authority to make a nuclear deal with the West,” and that everything is on the negotiating table.
But despite the warmer speeches, two senior U.S. administration officials shot down speculation that Rouhani and Obama may meet face-to-face at the UN this week. The officials said the Iranians were not ready to have such a meeting and that the encounter proved “too complicated” for Iran back home. They said Obama was open to an informal meeting.
It would have been the first direct interaction between a U.S. president and an Iranian leader since the 1979 revolution in Iran. Secretary of State John Kerry is still scheduled to meet with Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on Thursday for preliminary talks in what both sides have signaled they hope will become full negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and international sanctions.
What’s yet to be seen is if Rouhani takes concrete steps regarding his nuclear weapons program.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell that if Iran truly wants a different relationship with the west, “They have to act…there will have to be real steps” to address the international community’s concerns.
President Obama, at the U.N. earlier in the day, expressed optimism. He said he would direct Secretary Kerry to work toward a diplomatic solution with Iran.
“We should be able to achieve a resolution that respects the rights of the Iranian people, while giving the world confidence that the Iranian program is peaceful,” he said.
Several hundred Iranian-Americans and human rights advocates gathered at the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in New York to protest Rouhani. They argued Rouhani’s regime has executed 170 people since his election, oversaw two deadly attacks on Iranian dissidents in Iraq, and deceived the international community while advancing a nuclear weapons program.