Iran, displaying new missiles, calls Israel a ‘regional threat’

Ahead of trip to UN General Assembly, Rouhani repeats Tehran will not seek nukes; projectiles on show can reach Israel, US bases

Iran's new President Hasan Rouhani speaks after his swearing-in at the parliament in Tehran, Iran on Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013. (photo credit: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)
Iran's new President Hasan Rouhani speaks after his swearing-in at the parliament in Tehran, Iran on Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013. (photo credit: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

Iran’s president called Israel a threat to the region Sunday while insisting his own country is “loyal” to its pledge not to seek nuclear weapons.

The comments by Hasan Rouhani came on the eve of his trip to New York to attend the UN General Assembly, and amid a charm offensive aimed at thawing ties with the West.

Speaking at a military parade to mark the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war, the recently elected president also said that he seeks to resume talks with world powers to settle the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.

Rouhani did not mention Israel by name at the military event — which displayed missiles capable of reaching Israel and US bases in the region — but the reference was clear.

“A regime is a threat for the region that has trampled all international treaties regarding weapons of mass destruction,” he said, noting Israel’s undeclared but widely presumed nuclear arsenal. “No nation will accept war and diplomacy on (the same) table.”

Among the displayed weapons were 12 of the surface-to-surface Sajjil, a two-stage, solid-fuel ballistic missile that has a 2,000-km (1,200-mile) range.

There were also Qadr-F and Qadr-H missiles, which have a similar range and are capable of carrying a “smart warhead” with “excessive explosive” power, according to the announcement in the parade.

Shorter-range missiles in the parade included the Fajr-5, which Palestinian groups have used against Israeli targets in attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza.

The comments by Rouhani about nuclear talks do not break new ground — he has repeatedly urged the revival of the stalled talks with world powers since his election in June — but they take on added weight before his attending his first gathering with Western leaders.

Rouhani has said he wants to use the sidelines of the UN agenda to win agreements on restarting the nuclear dialogue, whose last rounds in April ended without any significant progress. Rouhani has insisted on the same concessions from the West as before: easing sanctions as a first step in bargaining.

But the important difference appears to be Rouhani’s backing from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who decides all Iran’s key policies and strategies. This potentially gives Rouhani’s government more room to offer proposals to the six-nation negotiating group, the permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany.

Rouhani’s predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suffered a political meltdown over his attempts to challenge the supreme leader’s power, leaving his government severely weakened and potentially stymied at the nuclear talks.

Rouhani and US President Barack Obama are both scheduled to attend the General Assembly’s annual meeting this week, setting up the possibility of the first exchange between American and Iranian leaders in more than three decades.

“The Iranian nation is ready for negotiation and talks with the West,” Rouhani said at a military parade for the 33rd anniversary of Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran, which set off a ruinous eight-year war. The speech was carried live by state TV.

The president has promised to abandon the bombastic approach favored by Ahmadinejad, but continues to assert Tehran’s position that it has the right to conduct nuclear activities that the West fears could be a step toward weapons development, especially the enrichment of uranium. Iran says its program is peaceful, intended for purposes including research and cancer treatment, and enrichment is necessary for purposes including the fueling of reactors.

“Iran has joined all treaties including the non-proliferation treaty, or NPT, and it is loyal to it,” Rouhani said. Khamenei also issued a religious decree nearly a decade ago declaring nuclear weapons as contrary to Islamic values.

He added that if Western countries acknowledge Iran’s “rights” — a reference to uranium enrichment — it would be a path toward mutual “cooperation, logic, peace and friendship.”

“Then we will be able to resolve regional, even global, problems,” he added.

Iran and the United States are also at odds over the civil war in Syria. Tehran backs President Bashar Assad, while Washington supports rebels trying to oust him.

Rouhani urged the West not to look at Syria and the region “through a policy of expanding war.” He repeated Iran’s call for the Syrian opposition and government to hold talks.

But Iran has faced a potential quandary over Western claims that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in an attack last month. Iran has strongly opposed chemical arms since suffering attacks with mustard gas and other agents by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s military in the 1980s.

Rouhani also insisted that the US forswear a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program as a way to move ahead nuclear talks. It’s unlikely, though, that Washington would make such a declaration, which would risk a strong backlash from its key ally, Israel.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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