• The Washington Post


In his first news conference since taking office, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the man known as the “diplomat sheik,” reiterated his willingness to participate in nuclear negotiations with the international community but stopped short of saying he would welcome direct talks with the United States.

“I, as president, say that the Islamic republic has a serious political intention to resolve the nuclear issue while maintaining our rights and trying to ease the concerns of all parties in the short term,” Rouhani said.

Tehran says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes, but the United States and its Western allies believe Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon.

Rouhani was asked several times about a possible thaw in relations with the United States, in response to a statement from White House press secretary Jay Carney that coincided with the Iranian president’s inauguration Sunday.

Carney said the new regime in Tehran would find a “willing partner” in Washington if it was willing to “engage substantively and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue.”

Rouhani on Tuesday criticized what he called the United States’ “contradictory” dual-track policy of diplomacy and sanctions with Iran, saying: “White House statements are not in line with their practices. The U.S.’ practical actions are more important to us, not their statements.”

He also denounced new sanctions passed last week by the U.S. House that would make it even more difficult for Iran to access foreign oil revenue. “The target for sanctions was not the nuclear issue or our missile program, but its aim was to put pressure on ordinary Iranian people,” Rouhani said.

He added, however, that Iran would quickly return to the negotiating table in coming months.

“For Iran’s peaceful nuclear program, we are ready to seriously and without wasting any time participate in serious negotiations,” Rouhani said. “If other sides have the same notion, I am sure this issue will be solved in short time.”

While most of the questions posed to Rouhani by visiting foreign media involved Iran’s nuclear program and its relations with the United States, the range posed by domestic reporters about issues as disparate as poverty, corruption and regional stability demonstrated the number and depth of challenges Rouhani is inheriting from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Since his election victory June 14, Rouhani has pledged that his administration will address all those problems. What is less clear, however, is how he intends to accomplish his lofty and varied goals. Tuesday’s news conference offered very few specific plans.

Iran’s stagnating economy is likely to require the bulk of Rouhani’s attention in his early months in office, and he said that he and his economic advisers will present an accurate and honest picture of where the country stands and their plans to repair it within his first 100 days in office.

On the civil war in Syria, Rouhani seems intent on continuing Iran’s support for President Bashar Assad’s regime but said Tehran would work to bring a peaceful solution to the conflict.

“In Syria we condemn terrorism, foreign intervention and sending arms. The Syria issue has only a political solution,” Rouhani said. “If regional countries like Iran and Turkey help, this process can work better, but ultimately the people of Syria must decide for themselves.”

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