UNITED NATIONS — Iran’s new president said Wednesday his country is ready to negotiate and has “nothing to hide” as world powers prepare to revive stalled talks over Tehran’s disputed nuclear activities.
Iran has agreed to meet with six world powers on Thursday on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly to try to restart nuclear negotiations that stalled in April. The West suspects Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon, something Tehran has repeatedly denied.
“If there is political will on the other side, which we think there is, we are ready to talk,” President Hasan Rouhani told editors in New York in a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. “We believe the nuclear issue will be solved by negotiation.”
But Rouhani said Iran must be careful in starting a new relationship with the U.S. after three decades of frozen ties, adding that his first goal is to reduce the distrust. He noted that there are radical voices in America and radical voices in Iran who would not like to see that happen, but said that the voices of moderation need to be strengthened and supported.
“The more two countries are apart, the more suspicions, fears and miscalculations creep in,” Rouhani said.
His remarks were made at a meeting of senior editors and news anchors, which initially was supposed to be off the record. However in response to requests from journalists, Rouhani agreed some of his remarks could be quoted.
On Tuesday, Rouhani addressed world leaders at the U.N. in his debut speech to the international audience. He toned down anti-Israel rhetoric and generally showed a more moderate face of the hard-line, clerical regime in Tehran.
But his speech was also peppered with digs at America and the West — a reminder that a diplomatic warming will not come quickly or easily.
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said he did not think Rouhani’s speech on Tuesday was conciliatory. But his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “set an incredibly low bar for dignified behavior” and Rouhani delivered a less polarizing, less divisive speech, he said.
“Given how vitriolic that Ahmadinejad’s language was, in contrast he certainly appears as a moderate,” Sadjadpour said.
On Wednesday, Rouhani said he has no problem shaking hands with President Barack Obama, but he thought that the first meeting between leaders of their two countries in more than three decades needed to be handled very carefully.
There had been heated speculation that the two might meet at the U.N. on Tuesday and even exchange handshakes and pleasantries. But that did not happen.
Hours later in Washington, the White House said Obama remains open to the possibility of an informal encounter with Rouhani at a future date.
Rouhani toned down the fiery rhetoric of his predecessor Ahmadinejad on the World War II Holocaust. He condemned “the Nazi massacre against Jews, Christians and others.”
Ahmadinejad, in contrast, once called the Holocaust a “myth” and later said more research was needed to determine whether it had really happened.
“There is no way to ignore Nazi crimes against Jews,” Rouhani said.
But he also said “it is important that those victimized not seek compensation by victimizing other groups” — a pointed reference to what he has described as Israel’s occupation and subjugation of Palestinians.
Citing the Quran, or Muslim holy book, Rouhani said that if any innocent person is killed, it is as if all of mankind has been killed.”
In his speech Tuesday, Rouhani briefly criticized Israel for what he described as Palestine’s deprivation and subjugation, even though he did not directly refer to the Jewish state by name. He also ended his speech with a reference not only to the Quran and Bible, but also the Torah.
Israel, however, was not pacified. The Israeli delegation walked out of his speech, and Israeli Minister for Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Yuval Steinitz called his rhetoric a “game of deception.”
“Rouhani came here today in order to cheat the world,” Steinitz told reporters in a hastily organized news conference at the U.N. after the speech. “And unfortunately many people are willing to be cheated.”
But in a text message statement sent to reporters, Finance Minister Yair Lapid said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s instruction to Israeli delegates to walk out was a “mistake,” saying it created the impression that Israel was not interested in encouraging a peaceful solution to Iran’s suspect nuclear program.
Standoffs with the West over nuclear activities and Syria now stand as key tests of whether relations will improve.
World powers for years have tried to curb Tehran’s nuclear program to prevent Iran from being able to build a bomb. But Iran insists its program is peaceful, and has long demanded the world recognize its right under international treaties to enrich uranium — a process that can be used to produce fuel for nuclear weapons or nuclear energy.
Rouhani said Iran is prepared to immediately engage in nuclear negotiations on condition that the world acknowledge it has the right to enrich uranium. He said all nations — and not just Iran — should publicly commit to building nuclear programs for peaceful purposes only.
Israel’s Steinitz said in reality, little has changed in Iran since Rouhani was elected in June.
“Not even one centrifuge was stopped,” he said, referring to Iran’s enrichment of uranium.
In his own General Assembly speech on Tuesday, Obama said it was unrealistic to expect that the U.S. and Iran would see eye-to-eye any time soon or easily bridge the chasms between them.
“I don’t believe this difficult history can be overcome overnight — the suspicions run too deep,” he said. “But I do believe that if we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
In Iran, most newspapers gave ringing approval to Rouhani’s speech, and some lavished rare praise on Obama for acknowledging the religious edict, or fatwa, against nuclear weapons by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But some hard-line media claimed that Obama’s more diplomatic-minded approach was the result of Iran’s resistance to sanctions.
“Historic proposal” was the headline in Etemad daily, a reference to Rouhani’s proposal to “manage differences with the U.S.” It also said there was a “change in Obama’s tone” toward Iran in response to Rouhani’s outreach.
But the hard-line daily Jomhuri-e-Eslami highlighted Obama’s pledge that the U.S. is not after “regime change” in Iran.