President Hassan Rouhani Declares 'New Chapter' In Iran's Relations With World

"We will not forget the past, but we do not wish to live in the past," he tells U.N.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke Monday at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke Monday at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

UNITED NATIONS -- In his first major public address since the nuclear accord was finalized, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani conveyed an optimistic, forward-looking approach to relations with the rest of the world, defying expectations that he would be pressured by domestic conservatives to adopt an increasingly hostile position toward cooperation with the U.S. and its allies.

Rouhani pointed to the recently negotiated nuclear agreement as a sign of an era of enhanced cooperation between Iran and the international community.

"I am speaking on behalf of a nation that, two years ago, again voted for constructive engagement with the world,” he said Monday at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, referring to his unexpected victory in the 2013 elections. "I can now proudly announce that today, a new chapter has started in Iran's relations with the world."

"For the first time, two sides, rather than negotiating peace after war, engaged in dialogue and understanding before the eruption of conflict," Rouhani declared, referring to what was previously a mounting threat of a U.S.-led military campaign against Iran.

His speech comes shortly after the nuclear agreement negotiated in July between Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers cleared its final hurdle in the U.S. Congress. Having survived a two-month effort by some lawmakers to scrap the agreement, the nuclear accord is now set to move into the implementation phase. Over the next six to nine months, Iran will begin dismantling the bulk of its centrifuges, shipping out stockpiles of uranium, and filling the center of the heavy-water reactor in Arak with concrete so it can no longer produce plutonium that could be used as nuclear weapons fuel.

Once the International Atomic Energy Agency declares that Iran has lived up to its end of the deal, the U.S., the European Union and the U.N. will begin to lift sanctions, providing Iran with over $50 billion.

In the immediate aftermath of the agreement, some feared conservative elements in Iran's leadership would revert to a hostile attitude toward the West in an effort to mitigate the notion that they made concessions to the U.S. and its allies.

These concerns were stoked by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who earlier this month reminded Iranians that the U.S. remains the “Great Satan.”

“Some want to show this Satan as an angel, but the Iranian nation has pushed this Satan out,” he said. “We should not allow it to sneak back in through the window,” he continued, ruling out future negotiations with the U.S. on issues unrelated to Iran’s nuclear program.

But on Monday, Rouhani urged the international community to move beyond past conflicts.

"We will not forget the past, but we do not wish to live in the past," he said, a possible reference to the U.S., which has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979.

While all parties insisted during nuclear negotiations that the final agreement would be limited to Iran's nuclear program, Rouhani said Monday that he was always seeking something greater: "Through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, we were not solely seeking a nuclear deal. We want to suggest a new and constructive way to re-create the international order."

The U.S., for its part, is not vying for extensive cooperation with Iran. While Europe and the United Nations are lifting sanctions against Iran as part of the nuclear accord, the U.S. trade embargo remains in place indefinitely. The White House has confirmed that President Barack Obama will not meet with Rouhani while the two leaders are in New York, although their respective foreign ministers met to discuss implementation of the nuclear deal, the ongoing civil war in Syria and the four American prisoners held in Iran.

Despite the mutual mistrust between Iran and the U.S., Obama has acknowledged that an end to the four-and-a-half-year war in Syria cannot be reached without buy-in from Iran, which is currently contributing fighters and weapons to sustain Syrian President Bashar Assad’s rule.

Though the U.S. has limited its intervention in Syria to targeting Islamic State fighters, it has trained a small number of fighters who oppose the regime and it conducts daily airstrikes in Syria.

On Sunday, Rouhani criticized the American operation as one that would ultimately empower the Islamic State. “If we are to succeed in fighting terrorism, the government in Damascus cannot be weakened. It must be able to carry on the fight," Rouhani told a group of academics and journalists.

National Iranian American Council founder Trita Parsi, who attended Sunday's meeting, said Rouhani compared the U.S. airstrikes in Syria to another country identifying terrorists in Oklahoma and bombing them without approval from the American government.

But in Monday's public remarks, Rouhani was more vague on the subject of Syria. He echoed Russian President Vladimir Putin's suggestion that efforts to fight the Islamic State be coordinated under an international document to ensure "that no country be allowed to use terrorism for the purpose of intervention in the affairs of other countries," a thinly veiled critique of the U.S. military campaign in Syria.

In a more overt attack on American foreign policy tactics, Rouhani reminded delegates,“We must not forget that the roots of today’s wars, destruction and terror can be found in the occupation, invasion and military intervention of yesterday. If we did not have the US military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the US’s unwarranted support of the actions of the Zionist regime against the oppressed nation of Palestine, today the terrorists would not have an excuse for the justification of their crimes."

But even Rouhani's most potentially inflammatory comments were relatively restrained in comparison to those of his predecessor, which, in the past, prompted American and Israeli diplomats to exit the room.

Notably absent from Rouhani's remarks was any mention of the four American prisoners held in Iran.

Tehran claims the U.S. is holding at least 19 of its citizens in the U.S. for sanctions violations and made several suggestions in recent days that he would be amenable to a prisoner exchange.

During a dinner gala Friday evening at a hotel near the United Nations, Rouhani said he wished for both governments to work toward the release of the captives.

On Sunday, he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour, "If the Americans take the appropriate steps and set them free, certainly the right environment will be open and the right circumstances will be created for us to do everything within our power and our purview to bring about the swiftest freedom for the Americans held in Iran as well."

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