As Pope Francis stood before the General Assembly last Friday, and praised the Iran nuclear deal, a passel of journalists and editors gathered across the street in the aptly named “Diplomatic Ballroom” of the UN hotel for a breakfast meeting with Iran’s President Rouhani.
What a difference a year makes. Many of the same journalists and editors had gathered last year—same month, same ballroom. This time, as Rouhani noted in understated style, “conditions are somewhat different then when we met last year.” In a wide-ranging conversation, he offered a bracing assessment of US-Iranian relations, the Syrian crisis, the threat from ISIS, and conditions in the Middle East.
While the success of the Iran nuclear deal holds out the possibility of improved relations with the United States, Rouhani insisted that the next question must be “whether the deal will be implemented?… Can it be built upon?… Will it be a roadmap we can emulate regarding resolution of other issues?” Responding to a question about “roadblocks” to implementation, Rouhani spoke of “opposition on both sides.” But, he added, “we should start seeing implementation and tangible results maybe as soon as November…. Not everything is in a holding pattern.” Implementation of the deal, Rouhani noted, would improve what he described as an “atmosphere of trust”—if it fails, we might see a “permanent [trust] gap.”
Rouhani was sardonic in criticizing US senators and other opponents of the deal: “From the other side of the pond, so to speak, these critics look as though they are living on another planet,” and their comments were “very comedic, very strange.” Some of them, he understood, could not even locate Iran on a map. Challenged as to how to explain to Americans chants of “Death to America” heard during weekly prayers and sanctioned rallies in Iran, Rouhani said such slogans are more an expression of “the depth of opposition to the policies of US in the region. Yes, those who have ill will toward US exist…. there have been bitter events in the past.… but the meaning of those chants is not animosity toward the people of the US…the people of Iran are angry about the policies of the US in the Middle East.” He insisted, “We must change the atmosphere” and end tensions and animosities. “Certainly, we cannot live in the past forever.”
When asked how much freedom he has to govern—aren’t there forces prepared to undermine his reformist movement, especially on the eve of his country’s parliamentary elections?—Rouhani spoke, elliptically at first, of the tension between the executive and judiciary in Iran that, he argued, has impeded the release of journalists and others imprisoned in Iran’s prisons. Asked specifically about the chances of freeing Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has been held for over a year in an Iranian prison on charges including espionage, Rouhani said he favored freeing US prisoners in Iran and all Iranians held in US jails, but again said the matter was largely in the hands of his country’s judiciary. But he urged “quicker” efforts to free citizens held in both Iran and the United States. Referring to the government’s role as custodian of the Constitution, Rouhani added, “It is important to me to find a way, if there is a way, to set them free quicker. I wish to set as many people free as possible.”