WASHINGTON — Israel is a nation that “does injustice to the people of the Middle East and has brought instability to the region with its war-mongering policies,” Iranian President Hasan Rouhani said in the second part of an interview he gave to NBC News broadcast Thursday.
Asked about criticism from Israeli 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 side-stepped 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 predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 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.”
On Wednesday, the head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission accused Iran of “deception and concealment,” warning the international community that the Islamic Republic was looking to buy time for its nuclear program.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Shaul Chorev said, “The picture that the Iranian representatives are portraying regarding openness and transparency of their nuclear program … stands in sharp contradiction with Iran’s actual actions and the facts on the ground.”
On Tuesday, Netanyahu announced that he would meet with US President Barack Obama in Washington DC later this month, ahead of his scheduled address at the UN General Assembly in New York, and will urge a stepping up of pressure on Iran to abandon its nuclear drive.
“I intend to focus on stopping Iranian nuclear program. Really stopping the nuclear program,” Netanyahu said at a cabinet meeting Tuesday, adding his criteria for efforts to do so.
In the NBC interview — a portion of which was broadcast Thursday on the “Today” show — Rouhani also said his people should be free to think, speak and seek information on the Internet, subject to “the protection of our national identity.”
Rouhani said that a “commission for citizens’ rights” will be established “in the near future.” He said the viewpoint of the government on censorship issues should be based “on our morals.”
“We want the people in their private life to be completely free. In today’s world, having access to information and the right of free dialogue and the right to think freely is the right of all people, including the people of Iran,” Rouhani said, according to an NBC translation of the interview.
With respect to the Internet and censorship, Rouhani said, “The viewpoint of the government is that people must have full access to all information worldwide. Our opinion on this should be based on the protection of our national identity and on our morals.”
Rouhani spoke to the American television network just days before he is to make his first appearance as president on the world stage when he attends the United Nations General Assembly in New York. US officials will be watching next week’s visit closely for signs that Rouhani will warm relations with the West and take a more moderate line in the next negotiations on Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday there were no current plans for Obama to meet Rouhani at the UN General Assembly. But he did not rule out a meeting, saying, “We remain ready to engage with the Rouhani government on the basis of mutual respect to achieve a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue,”
“We have never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb and we are not going to do so,” Rouhani said. “We have time and again said that under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever.”
It was a claim Iran has made before, that its nuclear activities are purely peaceful. However, the US and its allies suspect Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon, a feat some experts say the country might be able to accomplish as early as next year.
Rouhani also addressed a question that many in the US have been asking: Does he really have the power to make major decisions and concessions on the nuclear issue?
“In its nuclear program, this government enters with full power and has complete authority,” he said. “We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem.”
Rouhani is considered a relative moderate in Iran’s hard-line clerical regime. He campaigned on a promise to seek relief from punishing US and Western sanctions that have slashed Iran’s vital oil exports by more than half in the past two years, sent inflation soaring and severely undercut the value of its currency.
On Tuesday, Ayatollah Khamenei said Iran was not opposed to dialogue with the West concerning its nuclear program, did not seek the bomb, and would show flexibility in negotiations.
“I am not opposed to correct diplomacy,” Khamenei said. “I believe in what was named many years ago as ‘heroic flexibility.’”
Khamenei’s comments came a day after German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that Rouhani was prepared to shut down Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Fordo in exchange for eased Western sanctions. The report was later denied by Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi.