New York, September 24 – Exercising the prerogative of potentates to steal time from the lives of the little people, President Hassan Rouhani arrived 35 minutes late to the "conversation" arranged by the New America Foundation think tank at the New York Hilton on Sixth Avenue. In his opening remarks and the subsequent "conversation" with journalist Fareed Zakaria, Rouhani concentrated on giving the United States advice on how not to handle terrorism and responded to concerns about his country's nuclear program. He also deftly avoided answering questions about recent arrests of American-Iranian journalists, the youthful producers of a video celebrating Pharell William's song Happy, and a woman watching a men's volleyball game.
Rouhani is in New York for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly. Rouhani's remarks included diplomatic bromides about the need to end "artificial and unnecessary" tensions while following "the path of constructive engagement" and "mutual trust-building." More substantively, Rouhani offered his views on the continuing negotiations with the so-called P5+1 group (Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, China, France and Germany) over Iran's nuclear program and how to handle the ISIS terrorist group and the situation in Syria.
Rouhani praised the results of the negotiations with the so-called P5+1 countries so far, declaring that they had served as a good "opportunity to decrease a great deal of the misunderstandings" about Iran's nuclear program. He stated, "Under no circumstances will we try to build, deploy, or stockpile any kind of nuclear weapons."
Zakaria noted that the Western negotiators are asking Iran to limit the number of the centrifuges used to concentrate fissionable uranium to 1,500 whereas Iran is operating 9,400 now. Zakaria asked if Rouhani would consider splitting the difference and compromise at 5,500 centrifuges? Rouhani responded that there is no need to limit "civilian" centrifuges. As a justification for such a large program, Rouhani mentioned that Iranian energy experts are projecting that his country would need 20 gigawatts of additional electric generation in the future. Currently, Iranian generation capacity stands at about 70 gigawatts. In comparison, U.S. electric generation capacity is more than a 1,000 gigawatts.
He also reiterated Iran's right as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to develop civilian nuclear power. The treaty does indeed guarantee "inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination." Signatories also agree to undertake such development in accordance with safeguards established by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran, however, hid its nuclear program from the IAEA for 18 years before it was revealed by an opposition group in 2002.
Rouhani was not shy about lecturing Western countries on their failure to stem the rise of Islamic extremism. Instead, he argued that the developed nation strategy of imposing economic sanctions and engaging in military interventions has backfired, stimulating extremism rather than dampening it. He excoriated Western attempts to help "client dictatorships" to repress "moderate Islamic movements" like Iran's own 1979 Revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also arouse extremist passions. "More repression produces more extremism," declared Rouhani. "We should always remember that extra-regional intervention provides an excuse for terrorism." He added that the U.S. bombing in Syria violates international law.
Rouhani added, "Our region expects that the Western world will place itself on the side of the true supporters of democracy." Keep in mind that the last Iranian national election, some 686 aspirants sought to enter the race for president, but the Council of Guardians composed of conservative religious figures and jurists disqualified 678 as not being sufficiently dedicated to Islamic values and allowed only 8 candidates to run. In addition, Rouhani's definition of democracy was somewhat flexible. For example, Zakaria asked Rouhani if the 2014 Syrian elections were free and fair. Rouhani responded that he cannot pass judgment on elections in other countries, but added that Iranian envoys reported nothing wrong with the Syrian results. As it happens, Bashar al-Assad "won" re-election in a landslide, securing 88.7 percent of the vote.
Similarly, Zakaria asked Rouhani if he thought that the current Egyptian government headed by former general Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is legitimate. Al-Sisi won election in May after ousting of Egypt's first democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi. Morsi was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political movement that had long been outlawed in Egypt. Under questioning, Rouhani again refused to pass judgment on another country's elections, but added that he disagreed with the current government's characterization of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group.
Toward the end, the conversation turned toward specific examples of internal repression in Iran. Zakaria asked Rouhani about the prosecution of six Iranian youths who put together a YouTube dance video to the tune of Pharrell William's song "Happy" as part a fad sweeping the globe. The seven youths were initially sentenced to six months in prison and 91 lashes for their offense, but those punishments have been suspended on condition that they commit no more offenses in the next three years. Oddly, at the time of the arrest Rouhani's twitter account noted, "Happiness is our people's right. We shouldn't be too hard on behaviors caused by joy." Rouhani responded to Zakaria that Iran has an independent judiciary, and if what the youths did was legally not allowed in Iran, then they broke the law. "What happened, happened," said Rouhani.
Zakaria then pressed him on the arrest of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and his wife, Iranian journalist Yeganeh Salehi, both of whom are being held incommunicado without charges. Rezaian and his wife are dual American-Iranian citizens. Zakaria asked Rouhani if he could give us hope that the case will be dealt with fairly and speedily? Rouhani again noted the independence of the Iranian judiciary and that considerations of "leniency" would have to await the filing and possible prosecution of the case.
As Rouhani was being ushered out of the hotel conference room, a member of the audience yelled a question asking the president about the incarceration of Ghoncheh Ghavami for trying to attend a volleyball match between Iranian and Italian teams in June. While women in Iran have been banned from attending soccer matches, volleyball games were still open to both sexes until recently. Ghavami is a 25 year-old woman who is a dual British-Iranian national. Ghavami was arrested for trying to spread "propaganda against the regime" and held in solitary confinement for 41 days. She is still in prison.
As Rouhani departed, I believe that I heard him say, "As Salaam Alaikum." Peace be upon you.