Iran has reached out to the long-estranged rulers Saudi Arabia, praising the Sunni kingdom as a friend of the Shiite Islamic Republic and dismissing his country’s ongoing strife with Riyadh as “trivial tensions.”
Speaking at a gathering of Hajj officials in Tehran on Thursday, new President Hasan Rouhani continued with the conciliatory tone he has adopted of late in dealing with the West, saying Saudi Arabia was a “friend and brother of Iran” and asserting that the two countries were “willing to remove trivial tensions from the path (of bilateral ties) in order to fulfill bilateral and the Islamic world’s interest,” the Iranian news agency Tasnim reported.
Rouhani, who is considered by many to be more moderate than his combative predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is reported to have assented to a scaled-back nuclear program in exchange for reduced sanctions on his country. There have also been rumors of a possible meeting between him and Obama on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, a possibility that the White House has not ruled out.
On Thursday, he said that Iran and Saudi Arabia share many common interests and should focus on upgrading diplomatic ties.
“This issue has been emphasized both in the Saudi king’s congratulatory letter to me and in my letter to thank him,” Rouhani was quoted as saying.
Saudi Arabia, a key regional ally of the US, has long pushed for action against Iran’s controversial nuclear program, cautioning that nuclear weapons would afford Iran a hegemonic position in the Middle East.
Rouhani’s tone toward Israel has been less conciliatory.
In an interview with the NBC aired Thursday, he accused Israel of doing “injustice to the people of the Middle East and… [bringing] instability to the region with its war-mongering policies.”
Asked about criticism from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Iran’s policies and plans, Rouhani said he didn’t understand how an “occupier” nation could be in a position to lecture another country.
Rouhani said Israel “shouldn’t allow itself to give speeches about a democratically and freely elected government.”
He sidestepped a question about whether the Holocaust was real. And he said that his authority is genuine and lasting, even though Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is known to control all matters of state, including nuclear.
Asked by network correspondent Ann Curry about statements that Ahmadinejad had made questioning the Holocaust, Rouhani said only, “I’m not a historian. I’m a politician. What is important for us is that the countries of the region and the people grow closer to each other and that they are able to prevent aggression and injustice.”
“What we wish for in this region is rule by the will of the people,” he said. “We believe in the ballot box. We do not seek war with any country. We seek peace and friendship among the nations of the region.”
In the wide-ranging question-and-answer session of which the first part was aired Wednesday night, Rouhani said that Iran has “never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb and we are not going to do so.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.