Rouhani at UNGA : On US Relations

During two meetings in New York, President Hassan Rouhani covered a range of issues from working with the United States to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, tensions with Saudi Arabia, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and more. On September 25 he met with journalists and on September 27 he met with American think tanks, academics and NGOs. The following are excerpted remarks on prospects of U.S.-Iran relations as translated simultaneously by the official Iranian interpreter.
Meeting with journalists
I think before talking about handshakes or meetings… we should put much more focus and concentration on how to resolve issues that can give a better future to both sides, to both nations… It is possible to find solutions and to realize this aim. … [S]ometimes President Obama writes me letters, sometimes I write him letters. This is not a problem… But these are not the fundamentals… [W]e must focus on the shared and common interests between Iran and the United States and the future of that relationship, and being able to distinguish what the problems are… how we can overcome these obstacles and these challenges. Of course it isn’t going to happen overnight... [W]e must work very hard on it, but not with a negative view. We must have a positive view towards the future…
Today, these conditions [for Iran-U.S. relations] are different from what they were two years ago, prior to my election. No one could have thought, prior to that, that … the foreign ministers of Iran and the United States would sit across from one another for – not just for days—weeks or months...
When can we say… that is the day or that is the year in which the fundamental, deeply rooted issues between the two countries can be resolved and put aside? I think trying to foresee that is quite difficult. Two years, three years. It is quite difficult. But I do believe that we can point to the tangibles, which is the main step forward that I’ve been taking during the past two years. But there’s still quite a long road to travel. I do believe that we can resolve and fill these gaps, or decrease this gap, on a step by step basis. It cannot be done at once. We cannot determine a specific timeframe for that that – two years, three years, five years…

[I]t is very important… concerning public opinion both in the United States and Iran, for the people to believe that their shared interests dictate cooperation between the two countries… This must be explained to people on both sides. Perhaps in the United States there are those who say if Iran can be kept at arm’s length… it’s better. There are some Iran who may say the relationship with the United States is dangerous for Iran.  

We must work steadfastly towards creating… a more realistic understanding of the general population on both sides... I do think that the media, think tanks, research institutes, universities and academia members can all play a vital role here towards the betterment of public opinion.
Perhaps, now there might be dialogues here and there. So, again, the issue of the prisoners of both sides is an issue that may happen [to be discussed] from time to time between different sides-- how we can help them with their prisoners and how they can help us. So not everything is in a holding pattern, waiting for the implementation of the JCPOA. But, of course, the proper implementation of the JCPOA can bring about many more collaborative opportunities.

Meeting with think tanks, academics and NGOs

(Questions): On the issue of the relationship between the United States of America and Iran, can this new environment and atmosphere help in the expansion of these collaborative efforts?
Hassan Rouhani: I think the relationship between the United States of America and Iran, well it is a relation that was ceased, was halted 37 years ago. It wasn’t done by us, it wasn’t initiated by us. The Americans chose to do so. In subsequent times, sanctions were set up by the Americans targeting us, not the other way around.
Even economic relations that we had – not vast but nevertheless we did have – with America came to a halt as well. The selling of petroleum from Iran to the United States ceased as well. And then the possibilities of investing in oil and natural gas and the energy sector as a whole ceased as well. More sanctions were added on as well.
So I think the best thing that we obtained [in the JCPOA] is the environment that was created as a result of the almost constant contact between the teams from the two sides. And everyone agrees that the most important roles were played by Iran and the United States of America. Of course the other members of the 5+1 were present as well, they were giving their input. But the two principal countries that had the most important roles to play were Iran and the United States of America.
Whether there is this hope, there is this positive outlook, now as a result of the JCPOA, whenever some effort was undertaken to bring Iran and America closer, unfortunately history has shown us during the last 37 years that an extremist group – whether from here or there – disrupted the environment and brought that to a screeching halt. I don’t want to go back and rehash history and remind everyone what days and what chances and what great occasions and opportunities we had that could have led to a much more improved level of relations. Not only we didn’t obtain those, but the extremists – the hardliners, excuse me – the hardliners came into the scene in such a way that not only they ceased any forward progress, conditions went back to much worse situations than we were experiencing before. It didn’t benefit anyone. We all agree on that.
Those who are extremists in the expression of their thoughts, their values, their opinions – we have those both in the United States as well as inside Iran. And the extremists have a knack for getting to know one another quite well, no matter where they’re from.
So in this story of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, this was the first time in which both countries were able, were committed—through a great, a deep, political will—to move forward. A lot of folks tried to disrupt this forward progress. At the end of the day, we also witnessed the fake threat of the Congressional vote which the filibuster took care of it quite swiftly, thankfully.
So we are facing all of these challenges, yes. When the relations between the two countries leaves the path of tensions and it moves onto another track, of course people are going to start to think, ‘Listen, maybe we can resolve other issues as well.’ And quite frankly, those who oppose this agreement and this way of doing things use the harshest of language and expressions of sentiments when talking about this agreement.
Folks on our side say America can never be reformed, and the extremists on this side say the Iranians are never going to be reformed. So, they keep saying that Iran will always be a threat for Iran [the translator said Iran here, but likely misspoke and meant America] and the extremists — the hardliners —in Iran say well America has and will always be a danger and a threat to Iran. So, if one side has a thought that a power completely threatens its very existence and independence, then of course the will for rapprochement will always be addressed as someone who is easily fooled, someone who is gullible, someone who is simplistic. So this is natural…
Some say that the issue will never be resolved between the U.S. and Iran. Iranians say this as well as Americans, but thankfully not a large percentage of either population. This was a signal—a signal that showed us perhaps there are issues between two sides, a very complex set of issues between the two sides, deeply embedded for a long time between all sides, but there is the possibility to find a solution. There is a possibility of an analysis, of good will and commitments, sustained commitment. At the end of the day it will not yield anything but successful results.
So, but on the other side this [JCPOA] roadmap has not yet reached the end of its path. It is true we have overcome many hurdles and challenges thus far. However, it has up to today not been implemented, not been enacted.
There are some in America who say, ‘If we win such and such political campaign, the day we reach office we are going to tear it to shreds.’ These are political and partisan statements. I do believe that in the very first few months of putting into action the terms of the JCPOA we must take a lot of care, bring to bear a lot of focus, so that it’s done well, so the foundation is laid properly. That will make it very tough for anyone to disrupt it.
Common consensus throughout the world has been support, undeniable support, great support for the JCPOA. Throughout my visits with folks in the United Nations, from leaders from around the world, the very first sentence that the world leaders tell me without exception is, “Congratulations for this great achievement.” Hundreds of letters poured into my office, dozens from world leaders, congratulating me for the JCPOA.
So if anyone is against this JCPOA, [he] will be an outcast… A couple of countries did express their opposition to it, but they’ve come to the side of this decision as well. So it only goes to show that it is a good agreement. Had it not been a good agreement, so many, the overwhelming majority of the world’s countries would not have backed it and supported it. In our region, we can say that the greatest, the absolute greatest majority of countries in our region support this agreement.
But for us to think that we can immediately set on the path to resolve every outstanding issue between the two countries – that is not going to happen, that’s not realistic through a number of sustained meetings and negotiations. We have a number of very complex issues intertwined at times. So this is not doable overnight. Our past was extremely difficult. I don’t believe in losing hope in the future – absolutely not. Quite the contrary. I don’t believe that there is a single issue or problem in the world that cannot have a solution. Some solutions are tougher to achieve and reach, some are easier.
But for us to think that until the end of the world this animosity and tension between, and lack of relations between, the two countries will continue, that is an impossibility. The world of politics, as history has shown us, has its own sets of ups and downs for us to see and analyze quite clearly. But because the problems are complex, we should not expect the resolution in a brief period of time…
For the members of academia to be able to come and go and visit one another, academic exchanges, scientific, technological exchanges, these are all very welcome. The expansion of tourism from both countries to both countries is also very welcome. And even the economic sector, in the financial sectors, the legal parameters inside of America vis-à-vis investments and sharing of technology, and marketing of technology, and joint ventures with Iran in Iran, if these sets of rules and laws forbidding American entities from doing so are lifted or changed, of course this is going to bring about a positive change and forward progress for both sides. Absolutely. Just as when athletes get together, they don’t talk or even think about politics. Business can do the same.
Academic exchanges of course can do the same. We can and we have to be involved with one another as we move into the future, but it will be a bumpy road, it will not be an easy journey that we have embarked upon by any stretch of the imagination.
Another question posed about helping prisoners held in both countries—it’s a very good proposition. If the Iranian administration, if my government, the Iranian government, can take any steps to improve the conditions of any prisoners to bring about the swift resolution of their legal case, we won’t hesitate from aiding in bringing those conditions about. But it would be good for the other side to commit itself to doing that as well. In Farsi, we say “Good comes not on a one-way street but on a two-way street.”
We do have prisoners being held here as well, and in our opinion they are completely, unequivocally innocent. And because they were arrested and imprisoned, prosecuted and imprisoned in America, because they tried to circumvent the sanctions – and the sanctions, again, are soon to be resolved through the JCPOA, so if anything, they tried to do something for which, very shortly God willing, there won’t be any punishment. So if we can help to free the folks who are detained there, and they can take reciprocal steps on this side, we would welcome those efforts.
On the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
I will tell you with utmost certainty and clarity that the Islamic Republic of Iran, for everything that is contained within the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is committed to its full implementation and will remain so, and does believe that its implementation will benefit everyone involved, and the world at large.
I know that some have doubts. I know that some have their own skepticisms. Some tend to express their skepticisms even where they’re unwarranted. In the past few weeks, we’ve heard many comments, many strange comments, from U.S. Senators, U.S. members of Congress. In my opinion, it was very interesting, because when we look at it, as their counterparts, we see that the ones doing so much talking and speaking do so because they have been influenced by their wrong understanding, their misinformation, where the eyes cannot see with precision and the ears hear without precision, judgment will be affected.
They would say a lot of strange, and sometimes comedic things. They would say, you would give so much money to the Iranians. God knows what they’re going to do with it. It’s as though we are trying to give money to a teenager or a little child who may go on a candy-buying binge and get sick because of it. They may not believe … that there is maturity throughout the world, that a nation has made its own decision and remains committed to that decision, and especially [in] a country whose budget reflects every single cent and dollar of expenditure. And it makes it imperative upon the administration proposing that budget and giving it to the parliament, which is then printed and published for public consumption in the media, not one cent is dedicated to anything that is illegitimate. And in fact there are a lot of discussions [about the budget] in the media, in the print media, broadcast live by radio, by television, everyone can hear what is going on. There are no closed door sessions, if you will, [about] where the money has come from, where we will spend it, where we have spent it. So this is a very important point for all of us to understand…
I’m not trying to say that there is no difference in opinion between the United States and Iran. I’m not trying to say that in cultural, political, regional issues, economic issues, we see just like the Americans do and vice versa. That’s not what I’m trying to say at all. But many of the differences of opinion are falsely built up, are untruths. It is very important not to make this mistake in judgment and viewpoint. It is very important for all of us to strive in order to resolve this and correct this. It will benefit all of us to get to know one another on a deeper level, in a more precise manner. And this more precise knowledge of one another can help and benefit all of us. And certainly, a gap between two nations, two peoples, two governments will be decreased as a result of this.
Do we wish for this gap and this difference to remain forever? Absolutely not. What I promised to my people during the presidential election campaign was the following. With the nations with whom we have tensions, my administration will seek to decrease that tension, to rein in that tension. And we do believe that if we can decrease the distances and the gaps, it will benefit all of us with the hope of one day completely eliminating these distances and these gaps. Of course it will take time, of course it is not doable overnight. Two countries which have had tensions and problems with one another for multiple decades, they cannot, during the course of a few days, weeks, months, or even years get over those issues and grievances.
But this is what’s important: Do we even wish to start, or no? This is of utmost importance. Do we ignite this engine, or no? Who can insert the key into that switch? Who can turn the switch from an off position to an on position one day? Who? All of you, all of you, the thinkers, the scholars, the elites. All of you who use your pen to communicate, who speak and make other people enlightened. Those of you who are relied upon for forming public opinion. Those of you have to carry a much heavier burden because of your knowledge, because of your resources. And I think in Iran, those who have the same position as you do are respected by the nation, are respected by the people, and are trusted by the people. And I have no reason to believe that in America it’s different. You’re thought of as the subject matter experts.

You must take the first step in bringing a more tangibly realistic level of knowledge to the people and the nation. Conditions are very different from yesterday--just the fact that we can hear each other’s voice with a great deal of ease. At the same time we speak, others can hear us, simultaneously, across the globe. This means that certain new opportunities have been extended to us, have been put at our disposal. And if it is so that modern media has shortened so many distances, so many tens of thousands of miles, and the new technologies have made these distances ever and ever closer, why can we not decrease the distances and gaps that exist between nations, between peoples. So I do think that the nuclear agreement has created a new environment, a new atmosphere, a new foundation, and has set a new path in front of us. And we must make the best use of this opportunity in order to address and resolve other issues and challenges.


Photo credit: Robin Wright