Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, dips his toes further in the waters of engagement with the west, declaring in a US TV interview that the country has no nuclear weapon ambitions.
The 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 Hassan Rouhani’s latest comments on the nuclear question, made in an interview with NBC News 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.
We have time and again said that under no circumstances would we seek weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever.Iran’s President Rouhani
Speaking to NBC’s Ann Curry in his presidential compound in Tehran, President Rouhani – who has been Iran’s top negotiator at nuclear talks in the past – 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… This government enters with full power and has complete authority.
“I have given the nuclear negotiations portfolio to foreign ministry. The problem won’t be from our side. We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem.”
he 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. President Rouhani even tweeted about the release.
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. The move is at least in part linked to the dire state of the Iranian economy, which is being crippled by western sanctions.
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, andPresident Obama believes we should test that assertion,” White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said.
“We hope that this new Iranian government will engage substantively in order to reach a diplomatic solution that will fully address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.”
We hope that this new Iranian government will engage.White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan
Despite the caution, there are signs that there could be real progress in relations between Washington and Tehran. Mr Rouhani confirmed Mr Obama had written to him congratulating him on his election, and raising “some issues of interest” which he had responded to.
Mr Rouhani said the letter was “positive and constructive”, 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.
Mr Obama told Mr Rouhani in their exchange that the United States was “ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Mr Carney reiterated that Mr Obama had no plans to meet Mr Rouhani at the United Nations. But there is always the possibility the two might see each other in the UN corridors. In the NBC television interview, Mr Rouhani did not rule out meeting Mr Obama at the event.
If the two do meet, 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.