NEW YORK — In his first speech at the United Nations, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani on Tuesday railed against the “violence and extremism” plaguing the Middle East, and pushed for negotiated conflict resolution — particularly concerning his country’s unsanctioned nuclear program. He expressed willingness to build bridges with the West while warning that Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear drive can’t be halted.
From the pulpit of the General Assembly in New York City, Rouhani denounced international economic sanctions levied against the Islamic Republic of Iran as belligerent, blamed “outside actors” for fanning the flames of civil war in Syria, and condemned the “institutionalized aggression against the innocent Palestinian people.”
“Palestine is under occupation,” he said.
In a possible veiled reference to Israel, Rouhani added: “Let me say this in all sincerity before this august world assembly, that based on irrefutable evidence, those who harp on the so-called threat of Iran are either a threat against international peace and security themselves or promote such a threat. Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region. In fact, in ideals as well as in actual practice, my country has been a harbinger of just peace and comprehensive security.”
He added: “Securing peace and democracy and ensuring the legitimate rights of all countries in the world, including in the Middle East, cannot – and will not – be realized through militarism.”
The bulk of the president’s 25-minute speech, however, related to Iran’s controversial and unsanctioned nuclear program. The president voiced willingness to engage the West in negotiations, but said that “acceptance of the inalienable right of Iran” to develop what it claims is a peaceful project “constitutes the best and easiest way of resolving this issue.”
“Iran seeks to resolve problems, not create them,” he said, adding that the Islamic Republic is an “anchor of stability” in a violence-fraught region.
The Israeli delegation left the plenary ahead of Rouhani’s speech, on the instructions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the American delegation appeared uncomfortable as the newly elected Iranian president delivered a speech notable for his adoption of US President Barack Obama’s emphasis on the central role of “hope.”
After a lengthy discourse that drew on post-colonial conceptions of world power dynamics, Rouhani began to deliver what could be interpreted as thinly veiled warnings.
“Any miscalculation of one’s position and of course that of others will bear historic damages. A mistake of one actor will have a negative impact on others,” he said. He warned that outdated mindsets – of the hegemony of the global north, of the division of the world into a bipolar “Cold War structure” of good and bad, and the efforts of nameless actors “to redraw borders and frontiers” – would have dangerous results.
“Iran’s nuclear program, and for that matter all other countries’, must pursue exclusively peaceful purposes,” he said, declaring that “notwithstanding the position of others, this has been and will always be the objective of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction “contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions” and “have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine,” Rouhani said.
The only way to achieve nuclear nonproliferation, he noted, was “acceptance of and respect for the implementation of [uranium] enrichment inside Iran” for what he stated were non-military purposes.
Nuclear enrichment in Iran has already reached “an industrial scale,” the president said, and called it an “illusion” to halt Iran’s nuclear program through “illegitimate pressures.” He lambasted Western economic sanctions for causing “belligerence, warmongering and human suffering” throughout Iranian society and abroad.
He noted, however, that Iran “is prepared to engage immediately in time-bound and result oriented talks to build mutual confidence and removal of mutual uncertainties with full transparency” to keep its non-military program active.
Rouhani added that Tehran does not seek to increase tensions with the United States. “We can arrive at a framework to manage our differences,” he said in response to US President Barack Obama’s statements before the assembly earlier in the day.
By the mid-point of his speech, the Iranian leader was sweating heavily before a silent and engaged plenary. Throughout the UN building, members of other delegations stopped in front of large television screens to watch one of the most significant speeches of the gathering.
UN veterans, who were accustomed to the brash statements and theatrical antics of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, found themselves listening to a strategically considered speech. Even his references to the Palestinian issue were minor compared to those of Ahmadinejad.
He went on to complain about the assassination, believed to be at the hands of Israel, of Iranian nuclear scientists, and called on the United Nation’s Security Council to condemn these murders.
In an unexpected turn, Rouhani closed by quoting a passage from the Quran (The Prophets [Al-Anbiya'] 21:105) which mentions the Jewish Bible, the Torah. “Before this We proclaimed in the Psalms, after the Torah: ‘My servants, the righteous, shall inherit the earth,’” the president said in closing.
With numerous references to a religiously ambiguous “Creator,” Rouhani’s speech touched upon a number of liberal values.
“Intolerance is the predicament of our time,” he proclaimed. “Human society should be elevated from that of mere tolerance to collective collaboration.”
“People all over the world are tired of war, violence and extremism,” Rouhani added. “Warmongers are bent on extinguishing all hope, but hope for change for the better is a widespread concept… Hope is the greatest gift.”