Chuckling Rouhani bids for better ties with all, except Israel

At Davos summit, Iranian president says nuclear program is peaceful, laughs as he says he wants good relations with all countries ‘that we recognize’

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Hassan Rouhani speaking at Davos Thursday. (Screenshot: Davos World Economic Forum)
Hassan Rouhani speaking at Davos Thursday. (Screenshot: Davos World Economic Forum)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reached out for improved relations with the world Thursday, telling the World Economic Forum in Davos that his country had never sought to develop a nuclear weapon. He also said Iran sought ties with all countries it recognizes, thereby excluding Israel.

“Nuclear weapons have no place in our society” or “our security strategy,” the Iranian leader said. “Iran has no motivation to move in that direction.” He also claimed that Iran had never launched “any aggression” over past centuries and that it would always “respond positively” to reductions in animosity to it.

He said, however, that Iran would not back down from its nuclear program. and insisted on its right “to access peaceful nuclear technology… We will not give up our right to develop our peaceful nuclear reactors,” he vowed.

Rouhani called for increased economic cooperation among countries across the globe, and said his country was ready to engage in diplomatic relations with all countries — with an important caveat.

During the brief question and answer session after the speech, WEF founder Klaus Schwab focused on Rouhani’s stated desire to work toward better relations with the rest of the world.

“Do you include all countries?” Schwab asked, presumably intending Israel. There was a hum of laughter and expectation from the audience.

Rouhani paused for a moment and laughed. “There are no exceptions; we wish for a better future and to have beneficial relations with all that we recognize,” he then said with a smile.

Rouhani’s statements thus evidently excluded Israel, which is not recognized by the Islamic Republic.

“We’ve had disputes with certain countries, but we would want to see a better future, and achieve peace with everyone,” he also said.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani laughs after he is asked at the Davos forum if he would reach out with all countries in the region (screen capture: Channel 2)
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani laughs after he is asked at the Davos forum if he would reach out with all countries in the region (screen capture: Channel 2)

In an immediate response to Rouhani’s address, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also in Davos, said that the Iranian president was continuing “Iran’s deception show” and that the international community “mustn’t be fooled and must prevent Iran’s capability to produce nukes.”

“While Rouhani condemns the killing of innocents, dozens of innocent people were executed in Iran in the last few days,” Netanyahu said. “While Rouhani talks about no foreign involvement in Syria, Iran arms Assad and orders Hezbollah to massacre innocent people there. While Rouhani talks about peace in the Middle East, he refuses, even today, to recognize Israel, and his regime calls for its destruction. Therefore, the international community must not fall for this deception; rather it must prevent Iran from acquiring the capacity to create nuclear weapons.”

In his remarks, Rouhani claimed that, under the terms of the recently signed nuclear deal with six world powers, the world recognized Iran’s right to develop a peaceful nuclear program. He added that his country was willing to allow certain international oversight to assure that no weapons were being developed.

“We are carrying out all international laws and regulations with regard to our peaceful program. Forty countries have such capabilities, and we will not accept discrimination on that matter,” he said.

“What we have achieved is a prelude to future agreements. What we agreed on was not temporary but rather the beginning of a long-term process.” Rouhani remarked.

The Iranian president also discussed his country’s emerging economy and said excluding nations from the world market would result in regional instability.

“Security in the Middle East cannot be achieved by ignoring people; we must spark hope among young people in the Middle East,” he said.

“If we want everyone to contribute to security, everyone must feel safe. If certain countries are ostracized from the international community for no clear reason, everyone will suffer. It is important for all countries to be involved.”

The appearance in Davos was the first for a sitting Iranian president since Mohammad Khatami’s in 2004, and marked Tehran’s new drive for greater detente with the West.

Rouhani made no mention of Israel, but called on the world to recognize the Palestinian people’s rights.

He also said the world must act in order to resolve the ongoing conflict in Syria.

“We must dismantle all terrorist activity in the region. They are a threat to world security,” he said.

He also invited “all distinguished participants” in the Davos event to come to Iran, “make contact with Iran’s private and public sector,” learn about Iranian culture and “experience first-hand Iran’s hospitality.”

Israel has charged that Rouhani’s overtures to the West are part of a duplicitous “charm offensive” design to obscure its ongoing progress towards nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu, who addressed a WEF session later Thursday, earlier this week dismissed the notion of a meeting with Rouhani. “Would you meet with somebody who calls for your annihilation?” Netanyahu told Canadian television station CTV. “If Rouhani said that, OK, we recognize the Jewish state; we, Iran, are prepared to have peace with Israel [and that] Israel will be here forever — that would pique my interest, in Davos or anywhere else. But so far, they say the opposite.”

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