Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, on Tuesday used his first news conference to call for serious negotiations to solve the decade-long dispute over the country’s nuclear program and he repeatedly suggested openness to direct talks with the United States, an idea that until recently had been unthinkable for many years.
At the same time, Mr. Rouhani said that Americans needed to take the first step in the stalled nuclear negotiations, and he would not specify what his country would be prepared to do, if anything, in order to make those negotiations advance. While the tone of Mr. Rouhani’s remarks appeared more accommodating than that of his predecessor, he broke no new ground on Iran’s position regarding the nuclear dispute, the most serious international issue confronting the country.
“As the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I state that the Islamic republic system is very seriously determined to solve the nuclear issue. It will defend its people’s rights and at the same time will remove the concerns of the other party,” Mr. Rouhani said.
“What matters to us is a practical response from the U.S. government, not statements,” Mr. Rouhani said. “If we feel that the Americans are truly serious about resolving problems. Iran is serious in its will to resolve problems and dismiss worries. If they are serious too, naturally things will go ahead and we will see practical results.”
Numerous times during the question-and-answer session, Mr. Rouhani made references to unspecified “warmongering pressure groups” which he accused of confusing the White House at the behest of an unidentified foreign country.
Mr. Rouhani apparently was referring to pro-Israel advocates of strong sanctions against Iran that have publicly praised Congress in recent days for advancing legislation that would greatly intensify the economic consequences on Iran unless it halts uranium enrichment.
Israel’s government, which regards Iran as an existential threat, has accused the Iranians of working toward production of a nuclear weapon, an accusation they have repeatedly denied. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has described Mr. Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and has asserted that Mr. Rouhani’s election on June 14 did not portend a policy change.
Mr. Rouhani never made any explicit reference to Israel at his news conference. But he said the interests of “one foreign country” had been imposed on Congress, and that “even the interests of the U.S. are not considered in such actions.”
Mr. Rouhani also said: “We advise that the White House come out of its current confusion, see the realities and make decisions based on them.”
In Washington, the State Department responded to Mr. Rouhani’s remarks by reiterating its own position — that Iran is in violation of Security Council resolutions requesting a halt to the uranium enrichment.
“We’ve also expressed an openness to having direct discussions with Iran,” a State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, told reporters at a regular daily news briefing. “But the ball is in their court. We still feel that they need to take steps to abide by their international obligations, and we’re not at that point.”
Mr. Rouhani’s repeated mention of direct negotiations with the United States made clear that Iran is no longer ideologically opposed to such talks, ending a period of more than three decades in which the subject was a political taboo.
On Saturday Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stated that he was not opposed to talks over certain issues, but warned Mr. Rouhani that some of Iran’s enemies “do not speak our language of wisdom.”
The new president’s choice for foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said in a statement to Parliament that managing relations with the United States would be one of his tasks. Mr. Zarif was educated in the United States, where he spent many years, and is widely seen as Mr. Rouhani’s main adviser on foreign policy. His confirmation is expected.
Mr. Rouhani, who presents himself as a moderate within Iran’s political system, has been involved in most of Iran’s important foreign policy dossiers. He faces enormous problems, many related to the economy’s weakness and the international sanctions.
But he gave no indication at the news conference that the uranium enrichment would be compromised.
One Iranian journalist, from the reformist Etemad newspaper, asked how Mr. Rouhani would handle the nuclear issue compared with his predecessors, arguing that the enrichment centrifuges were not worth the economic cost. Mr. Rouhani countered that the program had strong popular domestic support.