United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Rouhani’s Interviews

      New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Tehran wants to cut a deal on its controversial program in the next three to six months. “The only way forward is for a timeline to be inserted into the negotiations that’s short–and wrap it up,” Rouhani told The Washington Post on September 25.
     
Rouhani also signaled a desire to improve relations with the United States starting with the nuclear issue. He discussed other key topics such as Syria and domestic freedoms in interviews with an American newspaper and two television networks. The following are excerpted remarks. The video below is CNN's uncut interview with Rouhani.

 
Nuclear Program
            “If we are on the issue of the nuclear file, we need resolution in a reasonable time. Then the road will be paved for further activities. The only way forward is for a timeline to be inserted into the negotiations that’s short–and wrap it up. That is a decision of my government, that short is necessary to settle the nuclear file. The shorter it is the more beneficial it is to everyone. If it’s 3 months that would be Iran’s choice, if it’s 6 months that’s still good. It’s a question of months not years.”
            Sept. 25, 2013 in an interview for The Washington Post
 
            “On the nuclear issue, the first point is that the entire world must recognize that Iran does not seek a nuclear weapon, nor shall it seek a nuclear weapon. Iran rejects weapons of mass destruction based on its belief system, its religious belief system, as well as well as its ethical standpoint. And you're well aware that the supreme leader has, in fact, issued a decree that bans the production and the stockpiling of any weapons of mass destruction, specifically the nuclear weapon, as being haram [forbidden].”
            Sept. 24, 2013 in an interview with CNN
 
            “Well, the nuclear issue has turned into an issue of national pride and a symbol of the perseverance of our -- the people. And I want to say that the people really have never demanded anything beyond what the law designates. Nothing be over and above what is rightfully theirs. And therefore, the nuclear issue has become a symbol of development of sorts, in Iran. “
Sept. 25, 2013 in an interview with PBS
 
U.S.-Iran Relations
            “From the point of view of the Islamic Republic and the Iranian people, and the point of view of my government, when we look at U.S. policies for the region, we think they have been completely wrong. But having said that, if Mr Obama and I were to get together, we would both be looking at the future, and the prospects ahead and our hopes for that future. The notes and letters and exchanges between us are in that direction, and they will continue. We need a beginning point. I think that is the nuclear issue.
            “Once the nuclear file is settled, we can turn to other issues. After resolution of the nuclear issue there are no impossibilities in term of advancing other things forward. The foundation for all this is the confidence that has to be built. That clearly will help everything else. Everything is possible after the settlement.”
            Sept. 25, 2013 in an interview with The Washington Post
 
            “Now, we have to remember that when it comes to the United States, for 35 years, there has been no relations between the two countries, between Iran and the United States. The - the higher officials of the two countries have never spoken with one another, especially at a level of president. You know, they have for two presidents to sit down, this has not happened for 35 years. So necessarily, we must give time for diplomacy to - to work itself, for dialogue to come about, to - for circumstances to be laid properly. The supreme leader of Iran has said that should negotiations be necessary for the national interests of the country that he, in fact, is not opposed to it. He has specifically mentioned in a recent talk that he is not optimistic regarding the issue of talks with the United States, but when it comes to specific issues that, um, government officials may speak with their American counterparts.”
            Sept. 24, 2013 in an interview with CNN
 
Sanctions
            “We believe that unilateral sanctions violate international law, in fact. They violate free trade. They violate human growth and development, human development, and that when you actually sanction a bank of a country, the meaning of it is quite clear. You're sanctioning medicine for the people. You're sanctioning medical needs and tools for the people and you're even sanctioning food supplies for the people.
            This is inhumane. This violates all principles and rules and regulations of the international legal system or international law.
            We tell them that the pressure - pressures are pressure on the people of Iran. They are inhumane in our eyes. They are incorrect and the results are to create hatred in the hearts of that nation toward those who sanction it. The more hatred there is, the conditions become ripe – less ripe for creating peace, for creating security and friendship among nations.”
Sept. 24, 2013 in an interview with CNN
 
Domestic Freedoms
            “One of the programs and pledges on my campaign was to insist on bringing a cultural, social and political environment in Iran and diluting the security dimensions of society at the moment. Regarding the IRGC, it’s an important institution. It helped Iran emerge victorious from the Iraq-Iran war. What the Supreme Leaders said, and I have also said, is that the IRGC should understand and analyze political affairs. But it shouldn’t get itself involved in any political groupings or activities.
            Sept. 25, 2013 in an interview for The Washington Post
 
            “All my efforts are geared to ensure that the people of Iran will comfortably be able to access all information globally and to use it. There are large social networks at a global level around today. And I believe that all human beings have a right, and all nations have a right to use them.
“So one of my plans is to reduce the problems that people face currently on these issues, so that within those sort of moral frameworks that we have for ourselves, that we are able to access these social network sites.
            “You know that in the election campaign that recently took place, I insisted on an issue which I called the citizenship charter. I promised the people to put together and publicize a citizenship charter which I would then present as a bill to legislate on and to allow our society to settle many of the problems that it faces right now.
            “So basically I'm very sensitive about the question of citizenship rights, of the rights of minorities, the rights of the ethnic groups. I am glad that when every prisoner leaves the jail - the prison, I rejoice in that. I hope the day will come when our prisons will be empty, but knowing - recognizing that every country will still have its prisons and will have its criminals. But the fewer, the better. Uh, people in - in prison, it is better to have fewer. And that allows our government to rejoice in it, as well.”
            Sept. 24, 2013 in an interview with CNN
 
Syria
            “My government has full authority based on discussions with the Supreme Leader to negotiate  any issue  that is necessary to be negotiated to preserve Iran’s security and national-security interest. That includes any necessary cooperation at the international level to help settle the Syria crisis, ending the civil war there and to insure the right of self determination of the Syrian people.  We would enter in any talks or meetings including Geneva 2 as long as there are no preconditions for Iran’s participation.
            “We know that chemical weapons have been used. We don’t know by whom or which group. That is unclear. We do know that it has been used and we are happy that Syria has agreed to join the Chemical Weapons protocol, and that is one result of agreeing to negotiate.”
            Sept. 25, 2013 in an interview for The Washington Post
 
            “You know that there is a conflict in Syria. There are groups that are opposed to the gov - the Syrian government. The war in Syria today is not a war between the opposition and the government. It is a war between the terrorists and the Syrian government. And this is an issue that we must try to do, meaning silence that war, the flames of war have to be put out. We need to facilitate a Syrian-Syrian dialogue between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government that could lead eventually to an election.
            “I didn't say that all the opposition in Syria are terrorists. I said that those who are fighting the government are the terrorists. Those who are the opposition are not fighting. The opposition isn't the opposition. We are in touch with the opposition. We have contacts with the opposition. We are saying that the opposition and the Syrian government must negotiate. That negotiation must be materialized.”
            Sept. 24, 2013 in an interview with CNN
 
Role of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC)
            “The IRGC also has prerogatives that are clearly defined in the constitution. The IRGC is a force. Just as its name suggests, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps protects the revolution and protects the Islamic revolution and the country as well. And the IRGC constitutionally speaking has its own responsibilities. And the commander of the IRGC is a member of the Supreme National Security Council where the president is also a member, where the defense minister is also a member. And that explains that all the required coordination between these branches does take place in one unit. Therefore, the IRGC has no intention of intervention in political affairs, which has also been stressed and declared by the Supreme Leader, that the IRGC must understand politics, but it must not take sides, or be a member or part of any political grouping or parties.”
            Sept. 25, 2013 in an interview with PBS
 
The Holocaust
             “I am not a historian and when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust it is the historians that should reflect. But in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews, is reprehensible and condemnable.
            “Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews we condemn. The taking of human life is contemptible. It makes no difference if that life is Jewish life, Christian or Muslim. For us it is the same.
            “This does not mean that on the other hand you can say 'Nazis committed crimes against a group, now therefore they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it. This too is an act that should be condemned. There should be an evenhanded discussion.”
            Sept. 24, 2013 in an interview with CNN
 
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
            “When it comes to the issue of Palestine, we believe in the public vote, the ballot in a sense, is that vote for the people of that region that has to happen to settle the dispute that's been lingering for 60 years there.
            “We believe that all the Muslims, Palestinians that have been displaced or are refugees must have an opportunity to come and live where they like, alongside other people there. They should refer to the ballots and see what people say.
            “And we will submit to that will and to that ballot and accept it. Therefore, what I'd like to say here is that when it comes to the settlement and resolution of regional issues, we believe that the only path is through the ballot box, through democracy. And we believe that war is not an answer for any of our problems.”
            Sept. 24, 2013 in an interview with CNN
 
Click here for a full transcript of Rouhani’s interview with The Washington Post.
 
Click here for a full transcript of Rouhani’s interview with CNN.

 

Breakfast with President Rouhani

Robin Wright
 
            I had breakfast with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani this morning. He is personable and a striking departure from President Ahmadinejad. He entered the room with presidential flair; he wore a white turban and robes. (I had been early so I had to go through both American and Iranian security. I asked one of the young American Secret Service guys if he’d seen Rouhani—and if so, what he thought of him. He thought about it a few seconds and, with a smile, said he was impressed with Rouhani’s very neat beard. It is indeed quite smartly trimmed.) 

      Although much of the discussion was off-the-record, he made several notable comments on the record:

      On The-Handshake-that-didn’t-happen with Obama: The United States proposed the idea two days earlier and “we did were not opposed,” Rouhani said. “There are really no problems with shaking Obama’s hand or negotiating with him. But it’s more important that we have a plan of action to ensure that those negotiations lead to the conclusions that we want… We wanted to know where the negotiations might lead. The two countries have not talked for the last 35 years so if we don’t take our first steps carefully…We may not attain the mutual goals we seek.” He called the handshake “a symbolic issue.”

            Yet on his new pen pal Barack Obama, he noted that they are both committed to continuing the correspondence begun by Obama after Rouhani’s election. “We will continue exchanging letters.” So a dialogue has begun, albeit not in person. He also called for expanding relations between the Iranian and American peoples to help build confidence. He actually encouraged Americans to visit. (Needless to say, I asked him for a visa as he was walking out.)

            In a major reversal from his predecessor, Rouhani condemned the Holocaust. He called it a “massacre” against the Jews. “It can’t be denied that the Nazis carried out a massacre, a crime against the Jews.” And then he quoted the Koran, which says that the killing of any innocent is immoral – and is as if the entire human race is killed. He went on to add, however, that the victimization of one group of people does not justify the victimization of another group, a clear reference to the Palestinians.

            On the Big Issue – Iran’s controversial nuclear program – Rouhani insisted that Iran intends to be “more transparent” about its facilities. He was not specific and of course this is where Tehran really has a lot to prove! But he claimed that the issues could actually be addressed, questions about Iran’s facilities answered, and resolution achieved in the not too distant future. “Whether it’s 20 percent enrichment or 5 percent enrichment, all of those can be placed on the table and examined,” Rouhani said. “The endgame is the removal of everyone’s concerns, and the restoration of Iran’s rights” to enrich uranium.

            Needless to say, the US may think otherwise. And one of the big ironies is that both President Obama and President Rouhani would have a hard time selling any deal that the other country would buy to their own legislatures. In both countries, hardliners have a pivotal role and significant numbers in Congress/Parliament.

            But we can only hope something comes of this effort. I shudder to think about the alternatives.
 
Robin Wright spoke about U.S.-Iran relations immediately after the breakfast on The Diane Rehm Show. Click here to listen.

Robin Wright has traveled to Iran dozens of times since 1973. She has covered several elections, including the 2009 presidential vote. She is the author of several books on Iran, including "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and transformation in Iran" and "The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and US Policy." She is a joint scholar at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center.
 

World Reaction to Rouhani at UN

            Several world leaders have issued cautiously optimistic reactions to President Hassan Rouhani’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly and meetings with Iranian officials. British, French and German leaders saw Iran’s change in tone as a hopeful sign but emphasized that Tehran must follow up with concrete action. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called Rouhani’s address “a cynical speech that was full of hypocrisy.” The following are excerpted remarks by top leaders and officials.  

China
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei
            “Under the current circumstances, P5+1 countries [Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States] should resume dialogue with Iran as soon as possible, move forward such dialogue in a result-oriented manner, seek a win-win solution, make headway at an early date so as to create conditions for a comprehensive, long-term and proper settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue. We support all relevant parties in increasing dialogue, contact and mutual trust, which will facilitate the dialogue between P5+1 and Iran.”
            Sept. 25, 2013 at a press conference
           
European Union
High Representative Catherine Ashton
            “I've just had my first meeting with Foreign Minister Zarif from Iran. As you know, I've spoken to him several times over the summer but this was our first opportunity to meet face to face. We talked about a number of important issues but our focus was on the nuclear issue. We had a good and constructive discussion. Foreign Minister Zarif will join the E3+3 meeting later this week, which I will be chairing, in order to have a short discussion, and we have agreed that we, he and I, will meet with our teams in Geneva in October.
            “What I saw today was energy and determination to try and move forward in our talks. Many things flow from that, but this was the first meeting in order to establish how we will work together. We didn't talk about the details of what we will do. The purpose of this meeting was to establish how we would go forward. In terms of whether we're on the verge of a breakthrough, I would put it like this: that I was struck, as I said, by the energy and determination that the foreign minister demonstrated to me; that as you know, I have worked very hard to try and find a way in which we can address this issue of great concern; and that I will take every opportunity to try and do that, and I hope this will be one.”
            Sept. 23, 2013 in remarks to the press
 
France
President Francois Hollande
            “The statements by the new Iranian President represent the second ray of hope, because they mark a shift. I don't want to exaggerate, but the question now is whether these words might translate into actions, particularly on the nuclear front. Discussions have been stalled for 10 years, forcing the international community to adopt increasingly harsh sanctions. We all know this situation is dangerous. So France expects Iran to make concrete gestures proving that that country renounces its military nuclear programme, although it is perfectly entitled to pursue its civilian programme. That is why I have chosen to engage in a direct and candid dialogue with President Rouhani. But let me say here that as much as I am in favour of dialogue, I remain firm on the key issue of nuclear proliferation.”
            Sept. 24, 2013 in an address to the U.N. General Assembly
 
Germany
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle
            “This is a good day for all those who are committed to political and diplomatic solutions, because the tone we heard from President Rohani today is a new one. It stands in great contrast to what we have seen here in previous years. To that extent, we have grounds today for cautious optimism: Iran might be serious about taking a new, constructive approach. But of course great caution is still needed, because it is crucial that new offers are made in the talks when it comes to substance.”
            Sept. 24, 2013 in remarks to the press
 
United Kingdom
Foreign Secretary William Hague
            “I was pleased to meet my Iranian counterpart Mohammed Javad Zarif in New York today and to congratulate him in person on his recent appointment. We discussed a number of issues, including Iran’s nuclear programme, the terrible conflict in Syria, human rights, and bilateral relations between our two countries.
            “Foreign Minister Zarif and I agreed on the need for an early resumption of E3+3 talks on the nuclear issue. We talked about the need for peace in Syria, where Iran could play a constructive role, including by supporting the Geneva framework for a negotiation between the Assad regime and the opposition and stopping its direct support for regime forces. And while welcoming recent announcements on the release of some political prisoners, I raised our concerns about human rights in Iran.
            “The United Kingdom does not seek a confrontational relationship with Iran and is open to better relations. The United Kingdom welcomes President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif’s recent statements about Iran’s wish to improve its relations with the outside world. The time is now right for those statements to be matched by concrete steps by Iran to address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s intentions. If such steps are taken, I believe a more constructive relationship can be created.”
            Sept. 23, 2013 in remarks to the press
 
Israel
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
            “As expected, this was a cynical speech that was full of hypocrisy. Rouhani spoke of human rights even as Iranian forces are participating in the large-scale slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria. He condemned terrorism even as the Iranian regime is using terrorism in dozens of countries around the world.
            “He spoke of a nuclear program for civilian purposes even as an IAEA report determines that the program has military dimensions and when any rational person understands that Iran, one of the most oil-rich nations, is not investing capital in ballistic missiles and underground nuclear facilities in order to produce electricity.
It is no coincidence that the speech lacked both any practical proposal to stop Iran's military nuclear program and any commitment to fulfill UN Security Council decisions.
This is exactly Iran's strategy – to talk and play for time in order to advance its ability to achieve nuclear weapons. Rouhani knows this well. He bragged that a decade ago, he succeeded in misleading the West so that while Iran was holding talks, it simultaneously advanced its nuclear program. The international community must test Iran not by its words but by its actions.
            “The Israeli delegation absented itself from Rouhani's speech in order not to grant legitimacy to a regime that does not recognize the existence of the Holocaust and which publicly declares its desire to wipe the State of Israel off the map. As the Prime Minister of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, I could not allow the Israeli delegation to be part of a cynical public relations ploy by a regime that denies the Holocaust and calls for our destruction.”
            Sept. 25, 2013 in a statement
 

Rouhani Condemns Holocaust as Crime

           President Hassan Rouhani called the Holocaust a “reprehensible” crime against the Jewish people in a September 24 interview with CNN. “The taking of human life is contemptible. It makes no difference if that life is Jewish life, Christian or Muslim,” said Rouhani. His remarks contrasted sharply with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial. Rouhani actually brought Iran's sole Jewish lawmaker, Siamak Moreh Sedgh, with him to New York for the U.N. General Assembly opening. The following are excerpts from Rouhani’s interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

 

            “I am not a historian and when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust it is the historians that should reflect. But in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews, is reprehensible and condemnable.
            “Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews we condemn. The taking of human life is contemptible. It makes no difference if that life is Jewish life, Christian or Muslim. For us it is the same.
            “This does not mean that on the other hand you can say 'Nazis committed crimes against a group, now therefore they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it. This too is an act that should be condemned. There should be an evenhanded discussion.”

 

US Reaction to Rouhani at UN: Part 1

             Senior U.S. officials have welcomed signals indicating a conciliatory shift in Iran’s foreign policy. “What’s different about President [Hassan] Rouhani is not simply some matter of personality,” a senior administration official said in response to a question about Rouhani’s address to the United Nations. The difference is that Rouhani was “elected expressly on a mandate to pursue a more moderate foreign policy and to achieve a nuclear deal,” the official told the press on September 24.
            The Obama administration proposed an informal meeting of the U.S. president and his Iranian counterpart on the U.N. General Assembly  sidelines. But President Rouhani told CNN that the two sides “didn’t have sufficient time really coordinate the meeting.” Meeting with U.S. officials is a “very sensitive subject,” Rouhani told a group of American editors and columnists from top news organizations. “We have not talked at that level for 35 years. We must take these steps carefully,” he said on September 25.
            The Obama administration is trying to demonstrate openness “to any type of negotiation,” said a U.S. official in one of two briefings on Iran and the U.N. General Assembly. In a separate statement, a senior State Department official expressed hope that Iran can “chart a path forward” with the world’s six major powers — the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. “We are looking forward to having the political directors meet - on a date to be scheduled in October,” said the official. The following are excerpts from White House and State Department press releases.

Senior State Department Official
Sept. 24, 2013 
            President Obama and Secretary Kerry have long supported an effort to engage the Iranians through direct negotiations, including bilateral discussion in coordination with the P5+1 process, and they believe it is worth testing the potential for a new opening with new leadership in Iran. The President has asked Secretary Kerry to help play a leading role as we determine path forward.
            But actions speak louder than words, and the steps taken by the Iranians in the weeks ahead to show they are serious will determine how successful these efforts will be and how long they will take.
            While we do not anticipate that any issues will be resolved later this week during the P5+1 meeting that EU High Representative Ashton has organized, we are hopeful that we can continue to chart a path forward.  We  have had a number of communications with Iran over time and we are looking forward to having the political directors meet - on a date to be scheduled in October - for substantive discussions.
 
Senior Obama Administration Officials
 
Sept. 24, 2013 at 5:21 P.M.
           SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, first, let me step back and -- we believe that the new Iranian government under President Rouhani does present an opportunity to make progress on a diplomatic negotiation; that they’ve indicated a seriousness that we had not seen under the previous government.  And it’s precisely because of that that Secretary Kerry is going to be meeting with the P5-plus-1 and Foreign Minister Zarif, which is a uniquely high-level meeting for the United States and Iran to be participating in together.
            We indicated to the Iranians the same thing privately that we said publicly, which is that President Obama is open to a discussion with his Iranian counterpart.  We did not intend to have a formal bilateral meeting and negotiation of any kind.  This would have rather been them having a few minutes to have a discussion on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly.  That was done at the staff level directly with the Iranians, so not through any intermediary.  Particularly here in New York, it’s not difficult to communicate directly to the Iranians, as they’re coming to UNGA.
            In terms of complications, I think our assessment is while President Rouhani has been elected with a mandate to pursue a more moderate foreign policy towards the West and to pursue negotiations -- in part to achieve sanctions relief -- the issue of the relationship between the United States and Iran is incredibly controversial within Iran.  You heard the President speak to it today -- the decades of mistrust between our countries.  And I think that from the Iranian side, for them it was just too difficult for them to move forward with that type of encounter at the presidential level, at this juncture.  So we’re going to continue the negotiating track through our foreign ministers.
 
            QUESTION:  When did these conversations begin?  And when did you guys get final word that it wouldn’t happen?  Was it before the President addressed the Assembly this morning, or after?
            SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I think -- we’ve been having these contacts, I’d just say, while we’ve been here in New York.  Again, I think it’s important to note we never would have contemplated any kind of formal bilateral meeting, but were open to an encounter discussion on the margins.  It became apparent that that was not going to happen today after the President’s remarks, because that’s the window of time when he was going to be over at the U.N. 
           I’d also underscore -- since we came into office, one of the reasons that we’ve been able to maintain international unity among the P5-plus-1 and other countries, and build the sanctions regime that we have in place, is because the United States has indicated our openness to diplomacy with Iran, so that the issue in play is not whether the United States is being recalcitrant in refusing to negotiate, but whether the Iranians will do so.
           So I think it’s important for us to continue to demonstrate to the world that even as we see positive indicators from President Rouhani, that those words needs to be followed by actions.  And there is still clearly need to do more work in order to create the basis for not just a negotiation, but the type of encounter that we were contemplating today…
           Iran has a baseline set of positions that they have taken for a long time.  I think what's different about President Rouhani is not simply some matter of personality.  Clearly, he is not as bombastic as President Ahmadinejad.  He does not say things that are quite as inflammatory as his predecessor.  What's different is he was elected expressly on a mandate to pursue a more moderate foreign policy and to achieve a nuclear deal in order to achieve sanctions relief. 
           And this is the important point:  This is not something that we believe happens out of goodwill; we believe that Iran has an imperative to improve its economy, because every single economic indicator is negative for them.  The only way that they can improve the economy is through achieving sanctions relief.  So that's the context that's changed.  And so if President Rouhani is going to fulfill his commitments to improve the Iranian economy, he is going to need to achieve sanctions relief.  That can only be achieved through a meaningful negotiation and agreement with the international community.  So that's what I think gives us a sense that there's a basis for progress here. 
           So we'll have to continue to test whether those indications can be followed through with different negotiating positions from the Iranian side.  That will take place in the P5-plus-1, starting on Thursday, when Secretary Kerry sits down with his P5 counterparts and Foreign Minister Zarif.  But we would not expect them to shift their negotiating positions publicly on the front end of that process, just as we would not shift our commitment to maintain strong sanctions at the front end of any negotiation.
 
           QUESTION:  I’m curious, did you go into today thinking that there was a realistic chance that this encounter was going to happen? 
           SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I don’t think we had -- the interesting thing here is that it's difficult for the Iranians to take this step, given their history.  And so I think we always recognize that.  It was certainly not likely that they'd be able to get over that type of hurdle.  What we're in a position of saying is we want to test this diplomatic process in every way we can.  The substance will take place through the P5-plus-1 and through Secretary Kerry's efforts. 
           At the same time, it's important for us to demonstrate that we're open to any type of negotiation.  And, frankly, in our view, it's a demonstration of strength to say here's a new leader, he’s had some new things to say about this issue -- we're willing to hear him out.  And we'll do that at any time.  And the fact of the matter is we're going to continue to test this, because the achievement of an agreement on Iran's nuclear program, as the President said today, would address a significant national security concern in the United States and the world, and also potentially reduce tensions more broadly in the region.
           So we felt it was important to test today.  It was not something that we had any high degree of certainty would take place.  But we're going to continue to put the test to the Iranians -- because, frankly, ultimately, the onus is on them to demonstrate that this is a real change in course and a real opening.
           The only thing I’d note in that regard, though, is that just the foreign minister-level meeting on Thursday is a change.  Iranian foreign ministers have not sat down with American secretaries of state in any context in a very long time.  And, frankly, that’s where the substance of these negotiations will take place anyway.
 
           QUESTION:  Was there any concern that there was -- or some risks inherent in going ahead and doing the handshake? 
           SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, we’ve always rejected the premise that somehow just having an encounter with a foreign leader, even of an adversarial nation, is in any way a concession.  And, frankly, the very fact that they were unwilling to go forward with it demonstrates that they were the ones who had discomfort with it in terms of dealing with their own complexities back home.
           I think that it’s important for us to demonstrate to the international community that even as we hear some new things from this leader, we need to stay united in the enforcement of sanctions and the insistence that Iran undertake meaningful commitments as a part of a negotiation and an agreement.  They can't just say different things and expect to achieve a different result, unless they actually follow through with those actions.
           On his speech, look, the President reiterated today our determination to prevent them from developing a nuclear weapon, identified a core interest in the prevention of nuclear proliferation, indicated that all options are available in terms of how we carry out that core interest and protect it.  So I'm sure that's something that the Iranians would indicate has been something that they do not like in our rhetoric.
           The fact of the matter is these issues are going to have to be dealt with through negotiation.  And I think that we are moving with some urgency in that regard.  The Iranians have a sense of urgency, given the fact that the only way their economy can improve is through sanctions relief.  And I think the foreign minister's participation in these meetings indicates the seriousness with which they're approaching diplomacy.
           At the same time, we have a sense of urgency in no small measure because of our concerns about Iran's nuclear program.  And that's something that the Israelis frequently comment on and talk to us about.  We're in close coordination with both Israel and our Gulf allies.  I think they have recognition that it would be preferable to achieve a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue.  They're skeptical of Iranian intentions -- which is understandable, given their history with Iran -- but we do see the potential for progress, certainly more so than we have in the last several years, since we had a negotiation with them in 2009.  And we're going to test that in the weeks ahead. 
 
           SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  On today, I think what we learned is, as the President said in his speech, we are overcoming a significant history of mistrust, and that there are hurdles to achieving a diplomatic resolution; and that Iran has to do more to demonstrate that some of the conciliatory words that we’ve seen out of President Rouhani will lead to a different position at the negotiating table and different actions in terms of their foreign policy.
           Again, not surprising, but I think important to demonstrate to the world, that the U.S. is open.  The U.S. is ready to negotiate, and that the Iranians need to come seriously to the table.  And we hope that that will be the case beginning later this week, and we’ll continue to test this proposition going forward.
 
           QUESTION:  Can you help us understand better the complexities that you were sensing from them as to why they couldn’t come to the table?  Did the Iranians ask for anything specifically of the U.S. to have a meeting?  And also, just curious to get an understanding of why you're briefing all of us while Rouhani was speaking.
           SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I wouldn’t read anything into the latter.  We're just -- that’s purely a logistical issue, so in no way timed to his speaking. 
           On the former, I think we're just mainly speaking to the fact that even with a different Iranian president than President Rouhani -- who has made a central part of his campaign in his initial presidency outreach to the West -- I think given the history in Iran, has difficulty in going forward with this type of encounter.  Every leader has his or her own politics, and that’s certainly the case with President Rouhani.
           Again, I think our view is it's a demonstration of strength to say that you'll meet anytime, anywhere to discuss how to resolve an issue.  And the President is certainly -- will continue to be willing to do that.  I think President Rouhani and the Iranian side will need to determine how they can both move forward through a negotiation that will include the foreign minister level, and then ultimately, what types of changes that they're willing to make in their positions in order to achieve a new relationship with the United States, which depends upon resolving this nuclear issue.
           So it's something we'll continue to test.  This is already a different environment, given the seriousness of the Iranian side in pursuing negotiations in the level that will be started on Thursday.  But we don’t expect there to be an agreement reached on Thursday, either.  This is going to be a process that takes place over time, and that time is not unlimited by any stretch.  I think both sides feel some urgency.  But we'll just continue to test this diplomatic opportunity.
 
           QUESTION:  But to be clear, did they propose anything in exchange for a handshake today?
           SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I wouldn’t want to characterize their views too much.  I mean, obviously, they have a set of negotiating positions, but the fact of the matter is we were never contemplating any negotiation between the Presidents.  We were very clear in our discussions that this was not any venue, formal bilateral meeting, or nuclear negotiation; this would have been an informal encounter on the margins of the General Assembly.  And that’s precisely because we want to empower the P5-plus-1 process, the foreign ministers, Secretary Kerry, to be the ones negotiating substance.  That’s why the President announced in his speech that Secretary Kerry will be taking the lead in terms of pursuing this negotiation with the Iranians and the P5-plus-1…
           Well, look, we have a clear statement of policy, which is that we are determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.  Now, we've also made clear we have a preference to do that through diplomacy, but we're not going to change that policy simply because there's a new leader in Iran.
           Again, it's not surprising that the Iranian leader would condemn sanctions.  Sanctions are precisely what has significantly damaged their economy and I think invested them in trying to achieve a resolution through diplomacy.  But we are open to negotiation, open to find ways to build confidence with the Iranians.  As the President said, there's space for an agreement, given that both the Supreme Leader and President Rouhani have said that it is not their policy to pursue nuclear weapons, and the President has said that the Iranian people can have access to peaceful nuclear energy.  It's defining the space within those statements that is going to be the work of diplomats going forward.
 
           QUESTION:  Sorry if this has already been addressed, but one thing -- is there any reason why Ambassador Power didn’t stay in her seat for all of Rouhani's speech, number one?  Number two… was there something the Iranians wanted in return to make that handshake happen? 
           SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  On Sam Power, I don’t think she was there for the speech.  My understanding is that she was in the bilat with Foreign Minister Lavrov, which, obviously, we have a negotiation going on over the chemical weapons resolution.  But State can speak to that -- but that’s my understanding. 
           On the second thing, I think our point to them -- I wouldn’t want to characterize their side of the discussions other than to say that, in our view, this wasn't a negotiation over substance.  There was never going to be some type of agreement reached in the meeting in the first place.  So that wasn't a discussion we were having or entertaining with them in terms of what we agree -- any substantive agreement that would be reached out of the meeting.  This was more about whether or not the two leaders would get together on the margins of the Assembly.
 
           QUESTION:  Is there any sense of disappointment from the President that this did not happen?
           SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  No, I think -- look, the President has said for six years now that he's willing to meet the Iranian leadership.  And I think there's, frankly, not just a necessity of testing this proposition, but also demonstrating to the world that we're the ones who are open to negotiation.  That’s how we have maintained international unity.  Without a U.S. willingness to engage Iran, I don’t think we would have achieved the sanctions that we have.  I don’t think we would have maintained P5-plus-1 unity.
           So it's important for us to continue to send that signal.  President Rouhani had sent a number of signals through interviews that he had given leading into the trip that he's taken to New York.  At the end of the day, though, I think we want to demonstrate that the United States is certainly open to this.  But Iran has to change its policies, not just in atmospherics but in their actions.
 
Sept. 24, 2013 at 2:48 P.M
 
           SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  What we had indicated was the same thing we’ve been saying to you guys for the last few days and the President said for the last few years, which is we’re open to having discussion with the Iranians at any level.  We did not have any plan for a formal bilateral meeting here.  We indicated that the two leaders could have had a discussion on the margins if the opportunity presented itself.  The Iranians got back to us; it was clear that it was too complicated for them to do that at this time given their own dynamic back home.
           So we’re going to continue to pursue this through the channel that the President announced in his speech today, which is Secretary Kerry with Foreign Minister Zarif in the P5-plus-1.
     
           QUESTION:  When you say it’s too complicated for them, you’re suggesting that domestically, politically, it was not in their interest?  Is that what you mean?
           SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think you’ll have to ask them.  I mean, clearly, there are complicated dynamics in Iran surrounding the relationship with the United States.  Again, at the same time, I think part of what has strengthened the United States in the international community in terms of our unity is the President’s openness to engage Iran, and that’s what we’ve indicated from the beginning of the administration.  And I think that indicates that we’re ready to solve this problem, and that’s what we’ve indicated not just when we came into office, but most recently with President Rouhani...
 
State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki
 
Sept. 23, 2013
 
            We hope that the new Iranian government will engage substantively with the international community to reach a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program and to cooperate fully with the IAEA in its investigation.  We remain ready to work with Iran should the Rouhani administration choose to engage seriously.  Secretary Kerry welcomes the Foreign Minister's commitment to a substantive response and to his agreement to meeting in the short term with permanent UN Security Council members and Germany coordinated by EU High Representative Ashton to discuss the nuclear program.
 
 
*Emphasis added by Iran Primer
 

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