Addressing the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, Iranian President Rouhani said Iran never contemplated a nuclear bomb, and that he would support a two-state solution for the Palestinians, if that is what they want.
Saying Iran should “remove tensions” with the United States, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Thursday delivered a speech to a mostly American audience that was less confrontational in tone than his address to the United Nations General Assembly three days earlier.
Iran observers have noted that Rouhani’s rhetoric is being parsed by two separate groups on this overseas trip – the western world, above all the United States, listening for hints that Rouhani’s moderate language might yield changes in Iran’s nuclear program, and the Iranian hard-liners back in Tehran.
His speech Thursday, at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, seemed to be geared toward the former, with his remarks resembling his conciliatory Washington post op-ed, published before he arrived stateside, rather than his defiant General Assembly speech.
Speaking in Farsi, Rouhani said Iran should avoid “any new tension in the Iran/U.S. relationship and at the same time endeavor toward removing tensions that we inherited from the past” -- hinting at his hard-line predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, infamous for his inflammatory rhetoric.
Rouhani reiterated that his country was not interested in developing nuclear weapons and was “ready to work toward removing any ambiguity and answer any reasonable question about Iran's peaceful nuclear program.”
The Iranian president did, however, criticize U.S. sanctions on his country, but not with the same vitriol as he did in his General Assembly speech, when he called them “violent.” He warned that “the continuation of pressure, arm-twisting, intimidation and extra-territorially imposed measures directed against the Iranian people and innocent civilians… could only poison the atmosphere.”
Mentions of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict were also more muted than on Monday, when Rouhani said the Palestinian people were suffering under “apartheid” and “brutal repression,” and warned against the “warmongering pressure groups” that influenced American policy -- a possible reference to Israeli-American lobbyist organizations.
In an interview with NBC News' Ann Curry last week, Rouhani blamed Israel for causing "injustice to the people" of the Middle East. He also called for peace, saying Iran is not "looking for war."
In his speech Thursday, Rouhani did criticize Israel obliquely as the “chief agitator” of concerns about its nuclear weapons aspirations, and said Palestinians had been “pushed out of their homes.” But he largely refrained from mentioning the region at all in his prepared remarks, discussing it mostly in a question-and-answer session following his speech.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif entered the event hall as Rouhani's speech was wrapping up, having just completed an historic meeting with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
Zarif told the audience the partners had agreed to move forward on an agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue and they hope to implement it “within a year’s time.”
“I thought I was too ambitious bordering naiveté, but I saw that some of my colleagues were even more ambitious and wanted to do it faster,” Zarif said, speaking in English.
Kerry had an additional one-on-one meeting with Zarif following the talks, saying he welcomed the change in tone.
"We had a constructive meeting, and I think all of us were pleased that Foreign Minister Zarif came and made a presentation to us, which was very different in tone and very different in the vision that he held out with respect to possibilities of the future," Kerry said in a statement.
Asked for his reaction to Zarif’s news, Rouhani said, “You asked for the first step, they took it.”