By Samira Damavandi and Caroline Cohn

At his first press conference as Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani indicated his willingness to reengage in diplomatic talks with the West, raising hopes for finding a solution to the current standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.

Rouhani replaced outgoing President Ahmadinejad, whose bellicose anti-U.S. and anti-Israel rhetoric only exacerbated the already tense relationship between the U.S. and Iran. The election of Rouhani, a centrist candidate who pledged “constructive interaction” with the world, was a rare positive sign for a potential easing of tensions between the two estranged nations.

Of Rouhani’s news conference on Tuesday, the Washington Post noted that  “It was certainly a remarkable tonal departure from Ahmadinejad, with lots of talk about compromising with the West.” As Rouhani fielded questions from the media – which included reporters from both inside and outside of Iran, including the U.S. – he made several positive remarks indicating his plans for steering Iranian foreign and domestic policy in a more conciliatory direction.

Diplomacy

In response to several questions about his plans for renewing nuclear negotiations, many posed by Western news correspondents, Rouhani reaffirmed his plans to pursue a more diplomatic approach to foreign policy, starkly opposite from the approach of his predecessor.  “As I have said earlier, our main policy will be to have constructive interaction with the world,” said Rouhani.

He expressed an eagerness to reengage in direct talks with the P5+1, which is made up of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, who are spearheading the sanctions efforts against Iran. “By God’s grace, we will have more active negotiations with the P5+1,” Rouhani said, noting his belief that “the nuclear issue can only be resolved through negotiations” and building up “mutual trust,” rather than through increased sanctions or threats on either side.

However, Rouhani was also clear that Iran’s willingness to reengage would be dependent on reciprocal gestures from the West, the U.S. in particular. “Any talks with the United States have to take place based on mutual respect, mutual interests, and mutual stances. It definitely depends on certain conditions,” Rouhani noted, conditions which he said include the U.S. pledging non-interference with Iran’s internal issues, official recognition of Iran’s right to nuclear enrichment, and that the U.S. “avoid unilateral or bullying policies against Iran.” Rouhani concluded his answer by noting that “of course, under such circumstances, the grounds [for holding talks] would be ready.”

As for the content of an agreement between Iran and the West, Rouhani was firm that complete suspension of enrichment is not something he could agree to. But he also noted that there are other ways of “building trust” even while enrichment in Iran continues, such as increased oversight mechanisms to put in place verifiable limitations on Iran’s enrichment program. Such a deal would be similar to the one Rouhani made with former French president Chirac in 2005, in Rouhani’s former role as Iran’s nuclear negotiator. Rouhani highlighted this deal during the press conference as one that could serve as a useful model for future settlements, noting that the 2005 deal between France and Iran, which was also supported by Germany, only fell through due to resistance from Great Britain and the U.S.

Sanctions

Less optimistic, from a diplomatic standpoint, Rouhani also drew attention to what he referred to as recent “contradictory behavior and messages” emanating from the U.S., which may undermine diplomatic prospects.

Referencing the U.S. sanctions bill passed in the House last week — which, if enacted into law, will impose the harshest sanctions on Iran yet, essentially bringing Iranian oil exports down to zero — Rouhani noted his concern over the inconsistency between the positive tone of the Obama administration’s official statements upon his inauguration, and the message emanating from Congress with their march forward with draconian sanctions legislation against Iran.

While Rouhani asserted that Iran “will respond accordingly and similarly to any constructive and meaningful move,” he also made known his concerns about other forces in U.S. politics he views as working against prospects of achieving a negotiated settlement. “Unfortunately in the U.S. there is the pressure group, the war-mongering group, that stands opposed to constructive talks and pursues the interest of a foreign country, and receives most of the orders from the same country.

Human Rights

During Rouhani’s campaign, he condemned the securitized environment in Iran and pledged to work on freeing members of the Green Movement and other political prisoners detained after Iran’s 2009 elections. Rouhani has therefore been viewed by many in Iran as a source of hope for improving its human rights policies, and it was a topic that received considerable attention during his news conference.

One Iranian newspaper reporter prefaced his question “Mr. Rouhani, you returned hope to Iran.”  He continued by telling Rouhani, “The expectation of journalists is that you return their only hope back to them,” as he asked Rouhani whether he had any plans to reopen the currently closed Iranian Press Union.

“I believe all unions, not only Press Unions, should be active within the framework of law,” answered Rouhani. “I will try my best to make this happen.”

Asked about his plans to “remove the restrictions imposed on certain political figures, who were revolutionary leaders,” Rouhani indicated a more cautious approach to the issue. “We have to give them time [to be resolved]. Many affairs cannot be handled by one president and the executive power alone.… But I’m totally optimistic that the atmosphere will change.”

Students’ and Women’s Issues

One of Rouhani’s campaign promises was to create a women’s ministry, something Iran has not had since its revolution in 1979. Many Iranian women and  female activists were discouraged when Rouhani released his cabinet picks, which did not include a single woman. (Former President Ahmadinejad’s cabinet had included one — Minister of Health Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi).

Rouhani addressed this issue during the news conference. “A promise that I made, was that my government would work to create equal opportunities for women,” he stated. “I will remain truthful to this promise and I have not changed my position on this matter.”

In regards to the lack of women chosen for positions in his own cabinet, he stated that women will have a role in his cabinet in advisory positions, and their expertise will be used. He went on to say that “even if there is one woman as a minister in the cabinet, women should not be pleased and content with just this,” and he discussed the importance of advancing opportunities for women at several administrative levels, noting, “we shouldn’t think that if one woman is chosen to be a minister in the cabinet that women have reached their goals in women rights and equality.”

A student reporter from Iran’s Students News Association pressed Rouhani on several issues related to students’ rights, which have been controversial in Iran particularly since university student activists have historically been largely repressed. Rouhani was asked how far he and his administration would go to meet university students’ demands, specifically in relation to some recent action taken in support of future segregation of male and female university students as well as the cancellation of some majors, which has specifically affected women.

President Rouhani expressed his support for a more open atmosphere at universities. “There should be a sense of security, freedom for expression of opinions, and a more enthusiastic and lively atmosphere”, changes many Iranians have already started to notice taking place.

Rouhani certainly raised hopes during his news conference that, as Iran’s new president, he intends to deliver on the many promises he made during his campaign. During his conference, Rouhani reaffirmed his commitment to improving the Iranian government’s relationships with people at home and the international community. However, just as Rouhani noted during his conference that the U.S.’s actions speak louder than its words, this is a sentiment likely shared by many observers toward Rouhani as well. Both in the U.S. and in Iran, many wait with “cautious optimism” (in the words of Obama)  to see whether Rouhani’s actions will indeed match his rhetoric.

Posted By Caroline Cohn

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