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World Politics

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attacks 'violent' sanctions, but confirms he is ready for talks with West in UN address


The newly elected president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, confirmed Iran’s readiness to engage immediately in “time-bound and results-oriented” talks with western powers to resolve the stand-off over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions under certain conditions while also excoriating them for imposing “violent” sanctions on his country.

While sounding some familiarly antagonistic themes, including a scolding of the US for its use of drones and employing military threats on the world stage, Mr Rouhani nonetheless set himself apart from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, notably by eschewing all rhetorical attacks on Israel or Zionism. 

Yet after days of anticipation that he would offer a clearly softer and more moderate Iranian face, Mr Rouhani may not have quite lived up to the billing in his speech to the UN General Assembly. Speculation meanwhile that he would at least exchange historic greetings with President Barack Obama fizzled when Iran declined. Instead, Mr Rouhani had brief direct talks here with the French President Francois Hollande.

His criticism of the sanctions imposed mostly through UN resolutions over recent years to force Iran to halt enrichment and its nuclear weapons programme was particularly fierce. “These sanctions are violent, pure and simple,” he told the UN General Assembly in New York, asserting that regular citizens, not political elites, suffer the most because of them. “The negative impact is not nearly limited to the intended victims of sanctions.”

While accepting the early resumption of talks with the West represented by US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany, he stressed they could proceed only on the understanding that Iran has the right to continue enrichment and nuclear techology development for non-military, civilian purposes. And, as widely expected, he explicitly ruled out Iran using the technology to build an atomic arsenal as the west fears it means to.

“Iran’s nuclear programme and for that matter of all counties must pursue exclusively peaceful purposes,” Mr Rouhani, who took office in August, asserted. “I declare here openly and non-ambiguously… this has been and will always be the objective of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” He added that weapons of mass destruction will have “no place” in his country.

He also said he was ready to talk directly to the US to “manage differences,” adding that Iran “does not seek to increase tension with the United States”.

But Israel reiterated its belief that Iran cannot be trusted on the issue and President Obama in his address, while welcoming the new expressions of relative moderation from Mr Rouhani, also insisted that those words must be followed by actions. But Mr Obama said he had authorised Secretary of State John Kerry to hold first talks with his Iranian counterpart Jivad Zarif on the sidelines of the UN meeting in New York on Thursday.

Citing serial grievances, most clearly aimed at the US, Mr Rouhani said the use of “drones against the innocent in the name of combating terrorism” should be condemned and raised what he called the “criminal assassination of nuclear scientists” in Iran. “People all over the world are tired of war, violence and extremism,” he said, offering instead what he called “a blend of hope and moderation”.