19 Sep 2013

Iran does ‘not seek war with any country’, pledges Rouhani

In a US TV interview, Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani says the country seeks peace and friendship and has no nuclear weapons as he continues on a seeming rapprochement campaign with the west.

When asked about Israel in an interview with NBC News, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said: “What we wish for in this region is rule by the will of the people. We believe in the ballot box. We do not seek war with any country. We seek peace and friendship among the nations of the region.”

He also said that Iran would never seek to develop nuclear weapons. That claim is nothing new – Iran has long insisted that its nuclear program has only peaceful aims, despite the suspicions of the United States and allies.

But the tone and timing of Iranian President Rouhani’s latest comments on the nuclear question and other issues, made days before he travels to New York for a UN appearance, could mark a thawing in one of the frostiest diplomatic relationships on the globe: Iran and the west.

What we wish for in this region is rule by the will of the people…We do not seek war with any country. Iran’s President Rouhani

Speaking from his presidential compound in Tehran, President Rouhani – who has been Iran’s top negotiator at nuclear talks in the past – also said he had “complete authority” to negotiate a nuclear deal.

He said: “We have time and again said that under no circumstances would we seek weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever.”

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The conciliatory overtures just a few months into his presidency are part of a seemingly wider campaign of engagement and modernisation from President Rouhani, which also saw the release of eleven political prisoners on Wednesday in Iran.

Since his election in June, the centrist cleric has called for “constructive interaction” with the world, a dramatic shift in tone from the strident anti-Western rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – although some activists say little has changed on the ground yet. The moves are at least in part linked to the dire state of the Iranian economy, which is being crippled by western sanctions.

Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East programme at the Wilson Center in the United States, told Channel 4 News: “He [Rouhani] is under a lot of pressure to deliver something. People in Iran are very restless with the current implication of these sanctions.”

So now you have a normal person [as president]. Let’s see what he’s going to deliver. Haleh Esfandiari, Wilson Center

Ms Esfandiari, who was imprisoned in Iran in 2007, said the release of prisoners was important, but it was just a start in terms of Mr Rouhani delivering on his promises.

“Mr Rouhani promised to do his best to have a more open society, and this is to show he is keeping his word,” she said, acknowledging Mr Rouhani’s hints in the NBC interview that he would consider lifting some of Iran’s internet censorship, tightened up after dissent swept social media in the wake of the disputed elections in 2000 – an early indicator of the power of the internet which would later come to be associated with the Arab Spring.

However, she said there are a number of obstacles which still lie ahead for Iran: “I suffered at the hands of the security forces so if I ever encounter him, my question is – how are you going to consolidate all these different powers within the security forces?”

Happy families?

The White House responded cautiously to the friendlier rhetoric.

“The world has heard a lot from President Rouhani’s administration about its desire to improve the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s relations with the international community, and President Obama believes we should test that assertion,” White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said.

Despite the caution, there are signs of hope. Mr Rouhani confirmed Mr Obama had written to him congratulating him on his election, adding: “It could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future.”

Questions remain about how far Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will allow Mr Rouhani to go on the nuclear issue. He is a staunch supporter of Iran’s nuclear program, although he has said in the past that weapons development would be inconsistent with Islamic values.

However, he too appears to be part of the softening mood – saying on Tuesday there was a need for “flexibility” to address Iran’s relationship with the west.

Too excited?

The diplomatic moves have lead to speculation that Mr Obama and Mr Rouhani could meet at the UN – even if only in the corridors. If the two do get together, it would be a big moment: the first meeting between a US and Iranian president since 1979, when radicals overthrew the pro-American Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. But the Wilson Center’s Ms Esfandiari is not convinced.

“The west is always too excited, but I don’t blame them when they are facing a normal president in Iran, a normal human being. But I don’t think we should expect miracles from him. It’s two months in – give him more time,” she told Channel 4 News.

“His election was a big change because for eight years in Iran we had a president who was erratic, in your face, you never knew what he was going to say and he annoyed people domestically and internationally.

“So now you have a normal person…Let’s see what he’s going to deliver.”