November 30, 2013
Rouhani Takes Firm Stand on Nuclear Sites
By Roula Khalaf, Lionel Barber and Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran and Geoff Dyer in Washington
Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, has insisted that Tehran will not dismantle its nuclear facilities, as advocated by Israel and US hawks but has held out hope for an end to its long estrangement with Washington.
In an interview with the Financial Times in Tehran, Mr Rouhani struck a tough line on Iran’s expectations over a comprehensive nuclear deal to be negotiated following last weekend’s landmark interim pact.
“One hundred per cent [no],” he said when asked about dismantling nuclear facilities.
While the centrist president, who was elected in June, said nuclear weapons had no place in Iran’s defense strategy, he made clear that Tehran was determined to maintain a uranium enrichment program for peaceful purposes.
Mr Rouhani was speaking during a momentous week that capped his 100 days in office and delivered the six-month interim nuclear deal. He said the negotiations were “the best test” of whether trust could be restored between the US and Iran.
Recalling his telephone conversation with President Barack Obama during Mr Rouhani’s recent visit to the UN in New York, he said: “I found him someone with very polite and smart language”.
“Iran-US problems are very complicated and cannot be resolved over a short period of time. Despite the complications, there has been an opening over the past 100 days, which can widen later,” he said.
The US and Iran broke diplomatic relations after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The nuclear deal has started to shift the mood of despair in Iran, where an oil-rich economy has been ruined by the populist policies of the predecessor administration of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, as well as by crippling US and European financial and oil sanctions.
Mr Rouhani’s comments contrast with the views of many in the US Congress who believe that a final-stage deal would need to include the closure of the Fordow enrichment facility, built beneath a mountain, and the Arak heavy water reactor, which could be used to manufacture plutonium.
A US Senate aide said of the Iranian president’s remarks: “This is precisely the sort of comment that is going to make some people in Congress very nervous.”
Although the interim agreement says the US will not impose new nuclear-related sanctions during the next stage of talks, there is strong support in Congress for the introduction of further measures that would take effect if the negotiations collapsed.
Robert Menendez, a senior Democrat and chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, said on Thursday that such an approach would allow the Obama administration to say to Tehran: “Hey look, this is what’s coming if you don’t strike a deal.”
In the interview at his presidential palace, Mr Rouhani said the removal of sanctions would help his team’s economic efforts, but much could be achieved before a lifting of the restrictions through more efficient management.
“If you go through my program, you will see that under the existing sanctions we have managed to lower the inflation. Under the existing sanctions we have predicted that our economic growth rate will be positive [in the next Iranian fiscal year],” he said. “But, at the same time, if sanctions are lifted or eased, we can naturally see its impact on the economy.”
The interim nuclear deal freezes Tehran’s atomic advances in return for a modest relief in sanctions. Iran and world powers are seeking to complete a comprehensive agreement in the next six months. The deal is expected to include further and more permanent curbs on Iran’s program and tough monitoring to ensure that no nuclear material is diverted to weapons use.
Among the most contentious issues will be the size of any low-level uranium enrichment facilities that Iran will be allowed to keep, and the fate of some of the plants that pose the greatest worry. Mr Rouhani said the size of the nuclear program should be determined by his country’s energy needs.
In the US, Mr Menendez has been openly critical of the interim agreement. “We basically have the Iranians running in place,” he told the NPR network. “We are going to roll back some of our sanctions, but they are rolling back nothing.”
He said the White House had been guilty of “fear-mongering” when it suggested that those who supported new sanctions were engaging in a “march to war”.
Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, has said the chamber will “take a look” at the proposal for new sanctions when Congress returns on December 9. But he has been vague about whether he will allow sanctions legislation to proceed.