NPR logo Transcript: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's Full NPR Interview

Transcript: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's Full NPR Interview

Hassan Rouhani, Iran's president, speaks with NPR's Steve Inskeep in New York on Saturday. Rouhani offered his thoughts on Syria's future, the recent nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, freedom of expression and other issues. i

Hassan Rouhani, Iran's president, speaks with NPR's Steve Inskeep in New York on Saturday. Rouhani offered his thoughts on Syria's future, the recent nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, freedom of expression and other issues. Bryan Thomas for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Bryan Thomas for NPR
Hassan Rouhani, Iran's president, speaks with NPR's Steve Inskeep in New York on Saturday. Rouhani offered his thoughts on Syria's future, the recent nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, freedom of expression and other issues.

Hassan Rouhani, Iran's president, speaks with NPR's Steve Inskeep in New York on Saturday. Rouhani offered his thoughts on Syria's future, the recent nuclear deal between world powers and Iran, freedom of expression and other issues.

Bryan Thomas for NPR

In an interview in New York with Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, discusses the landmark nuclear deal, prospects for resolving the crisis in Syria and issues of freedom of expression in Iran.

Inskeep's questions to Rouhani were translated from English to Farsi, and Rouhani's responses were translated from Farsi to English.

STEVE INSKEEP: I'm aware that before you left, Mr. President, you performed one of the annual duties of the president of Iran. You met with students and gave them a question to ponder in the months ahead. And as we understand it, the question you asked them to ponder was to think about what opportunities might lie ahead for them because of the nuclear deal. Why was that particular question on your mind?

HASSAN ROUHANI: Well, usually in Iran at the beginning of the new school year, it has been a tradition for some time for the president to give a question, to pose a question, so that those who wish to do so among the student body can ponder about this question and come up with a response. Usually millions of students respond to the questions, between 3 to 4 million of the students ponder their response and give their response to the question.

And of course, it is interesting for us for them to have an opportunity to do some in-depth thinking about the question proposed. And also, when we receive the responses to the question posed, we learn more about their parameters, their thinking parameters and their analysis.

And I asked the students the question that, "Following the nuclear agreement between Iran and 5+1, what opportunities, what new opportunities, do you feel that have been created for our nation and how these opportunities can be put to good use?" Naturally, they will give their own response whatever they think, however they think. But generally, this agreement, in my opinion, has, in the region as well as internationally, as well as for Iran, of course, has created a new environment, a new atmosphere. And that new environment has shown that no matter how complex a problem or a challenge may be, with patience and fortitude, that issue can be resolved through negotiation and dialogue.

This is a very important message for the world. It means that a very complex, intertwined issue that has been the topic of discussion and problematic discussions for many years, many were under the impression that it could not be resolved through dialogue and negotiations. We did indeed, though, see that even though it took over almost two years to bear fruit, it finally did resolve peacefully through dialogue.

Many people in the United States are interested to learn how it is that Iran intends to spend the tens of billions of dollars in assets that will be unfrozen as part of this deal. Can you give me an idea of what your top priority is?

In reality, our priorities have been proposed to the parliament in these very days, in the framework of the sixth proposal which is a yearly proposal, budgetary purpose of spending and parameters of spending and budgets to the parliament so that they can approve it and vote on it.

And of course, we have specified our priorities for the next five years. We have set out the number of the investments required by the nation during the upcoming years.

You do know that we have a very young population. Sixty-five percent of the population in Iran is under 35 years of age. And many of them today are students. You do know that 4.3 million students are currently studying in our institutions of higher learning in our universities. And every year, many of these students will graduate, so they will need to enter the job market.

And generally speaking, this very year, this calendar year, we have had 1.3 million new students who have entered elementary school, first-graders. So that's a good indication of the numbers, 1.3 million students going to first grade for the first time, of course. So that means that during the upcoming decade all of them will complete their primary education and go on to either secondary or into the job market. It has been quite the same during the previous years as well — they go through the process of education and graduate.

So for us to be able, according to our population's demands and necessities, to create the needed jobs and alleviate the problem of unemployment, we do need a growth rate of 8 percent. And this 8 percent growth rate in our economic calculations requires a yearly new investment, every single year, of $150 billion. And for this investment to be realized, Iran does not have the wherewithal to invest every single calendar year $150 billion equivalent.

So there are now many international firms, companies, producers from various European countries, from Asia, are coming to Iran as part of delegations, economic and political delegations, and we're conducting discussions and negotiations so as to make it easy for their investments to enter the country, so as to create economic progress and realize the goal of 8 percent growth rate, so as to create the needed job basis for our youth.

That is our priority — job creation is our priority, and to decrease unemployment.

So you've said that the economy is your top priority, job creation. As you know, Mr. President, critics of this deal abroad have expressed the concern that Iran will spend its unfrozen assets and other wealth in other ways. Particularly, they're concerned that Iran will spend money supporting armed groups outside the country.

Given that you've said your priority is at home, is the economy, can you reassure the world by stating here today that Iran's new wealth will not go to support armed groups abroad, such as Hezbollah?

The topic is quite clear and transparent. Our nation does what it does transparently. We do have a yearly budget that encompasses all of our earnings, petroleum and non-petroleum-related, so that budget is the income of the government and all of the sources are clearly set forth.

According to the Constitution, the government is not allowed to spend any money unless those sums of monies are clearly outlined in the yearly proposal to the parliament, every year, at about November time — when we convert the Persian calendar to yours, it would be roughly about November time — when we have to submit the yearly budget to the parliament. And we will do this year, of course, again. It is very clear and transparent, according to that budget, how much income we have from what sources: petroleum, non-petroleum-related, tax income, tax collection and the aggregate of our incomes, what are they composed of, what are the aggregate of our expenditures.

So these talks are mostly slogans or partisan slogans, if you will. In America, perhaps there is some partisan bickering, and these are slogans that folks attach themselves to in order to justify their thinking. In Iran, it's very transparent where does the income come from, how we earn it and how we spend it.

Given what you say, would you be willing to respond to those critics by simply saying, "Don't worry, Iran is going to be spending its added wealth at home"?

I do believe that sincerely they're not that worried. These are political — this is nothing more than political bickering. They do know that Iran is in such conditions where it needs economic growth because during the past two or three years, our economic growth was sometimes at a negative rate. So we need to make up for those years.

And I do know that our youth who are graduating from institutions of higher learning, they do need jobs to rely upon. So any and every country, job creation and creation of prosperous jobs and careers for its youth is of utmost importance, for it is the No. 1 priority for it to create an environment in which the youth can be productive. Otherwise, we're endangering our own national security. So it is quite crystal clear what we intend to do, what our priorities are. Also, keep in mind that our budget and the income derived to spend on that budget is completely transparent.

Mr. President, as you know, Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials have spoken in recent days of taking the opportunity to find out if the United States and Iran can agree on a common strategy to resolve the war in Syria. At the same time, Iran's supreme leader, Khamenei, has been quoted as saying that cooperation with the United States is limited to the nuclear issue, that there will not be cooperation on other issues.

Can you clarify this for us? Is Iran ready, if it is possible, to work out a common strategy with the United States to resolve the war in Syria?

Two points we must pay close attention to, one of which is that the issue of stability and security in the region is of utmost importance for us. Lack of security in neighboring countries not only harms all of the surrounding countries and creates lack of stability, but it creates insecurity as a whole in the region, which always comes back to our borders and frontiers as well, since we do reside in that region.

So the security of Syria or Russia, and the stability in those two countries, is of utmost importance for us. And that same reasoning goes for every country in the region. And any solution that can lead to peace, stability and security, we will pursue that solution.

The other issue is that the Supreme Leader touched upon what you quoted him within the framework of a speech, which consisted of, "We will wait and see how the United States performs in the adherence to this agreement."

You do know that in Iran there are two different viewpoints. Some of them have a very negative viewpoint: They say that our counterparts, including the United States, will not live up to their commitment. You do know that some of the congressmen and -women, some of the senators here in the United States, have said very clearly, or written letters to that effect, that after the end of the Obama administration, we will not keep the government's commitment to this agreement.

So all of these are things that preoccupy and worry some folks back in Iran as well. They question whether a real political will to adhere to the letter of this agreement does exist over the long term or not.

So during his speech, the Supreme Leadership announced clearly that if the nuclear issue, the nuclear agreement is adhered to and lived up to and implemented, and we see that the United States remains committed to the letters of the agreement, perhaps we can put other topics on the table for discussion.

So assuming, God willing, that everything moves forward in a positive manner, there are opportunities in the future for us to hold a dialogue, at the very least, about other topics.

Although Syria is in crisis now and millions of people have been forced to flee that country now, is there nothing you can do now, in concert with the United States, to at least begin to resolve that crisis?

Of course, vis-a-vis the Syrian crisis, we have been and we are in constant contact with regional countries as well as other countries from outside the region, including those members of the European Union with whom we do conduct this conversation continuously, so it's not that we are indifferent. We do care about the situation in Syria, we do worry about the people of Syria, we do worry and our hearts bleed for so many people that are killed on a daily basis, who are driven from their homes.

And you do know that archaeological and cultural remains in Syria have been destroyed on an almost daily basis by the terrorists. So all of this worries us. Iran has always and will continue to do everything it can to create stability and security, and return it to Syria.

I'm glad you mentioned the archaeological sites, because they were lost from the control of the government of Syria, as that government has lost ground. As you know, Mr. President, a fundamental difference between the U.S. and Iran is what to do, what attitude to take toward, the governor of Bashar al-Assad. Both countries oppose ISIS. Iran supports Assad; the United States opposes Assad.

I'd like to ask you, though, Mr. President, President Assad has been losing ground, has not been able to regain control of his country — do you believe that Iran is pursuing a winning strategy at this time?

That is not so much the equation as to determine whether the Syrian government has embarked on the right path or not. That's a different topic of conversation. But what matters today is that today two-thirds of the Syrian territory is in the hands of the terrorists and one-third remains under the control of the Syrian government.

So do we want to also turn over the remaining one-third to the terrorists? If we say that this government is not a sustainable government and it must be done away with, there is no one to step in and fill in that vacuum now. So in reality, it will only lead to the remaining territory being ceded to the terrorists.

Do we wish for the terrorists to have complete control, unabated control, over a country to hold the reins of the government of that country? Then let's imagine and picture what type of an unprecedented tragedy we will face. We do have a saying that we say: between worse and bad we must choose bad, or in other words, we choose the lesser of two evils.

So if we leave a scenario, the composition of which we know full well, what formula will we pursue? So everyone — we have reached a conclusion that everyone must help the Syrian government in Damascus now so that the Syrian army can succeed in driving out the terrorists. Only then, the time will be at hand for the opposition to the Assad government to have a role so that they would come and, within the framework of the constitution, to hold dialogue and negotiations between the opposition and the government and to reach a conclusion, an agreement. We don't believe in having a single voice in a country; we do believe in a multitude of different viewpoints participating.

So what is the priority today in Syria? Is it to fight against terrorism, or is it political reforms in Syria? Perhaps political reform is needed. However, is that today's priority? We believe that it's driving out the terrorists.

When you say what formula do we pursue in the event that Assad were to go, are you personally prepared to open the discussion with the United States, with Russia, with other concerned powers, as to what that formula might be?

Yes, that is not a problem for us from right now to start holding discussions and dialogues, so as to determine and reach the conclusion of the next plan of action after the terrorists are driven out of that territory. But we must all act in unison and have a formula that is required to drive out the terrorists, immediately after which, the following, the subsequent steps will come.

We can right now, absolutely we should, speak about the upcoming options. And the Syrian government can also step in and give its opinion, so that we have all of the interested parties expressing their opinions so that in aggregate, we can reach a plan of action. But of course, we do believe that at the end of the day, the last word and the most important word is spoken by the people of that nation.

Mr. President, I'd like to emphasize for Americans that there is a range of political opinion in Iran, that we could describe two very large camps who we might call conservatives in the United States, who are deeply suspicious of the West and wish to pursue certain policies at home, and another group who have been labeled as reformers.

I want to understand where you are on the Iranian political spectrum, because you've become associated with the movement for change and reform. But as many people will know, you've spent many years in senior government positions. Where are you on the Iranian political spectrum? How would you define yourself?

You do know that during the presidential elections about two years ago, during that campaign, this was a daily topic of discussion in a multitude of ways. Folks from different political parties, different candidates would propose, they would express their opinions, and I would always choose a middle-of-the-road path between these two camps that you've described, because my opinion has and is that we can use both reformists and those who are conservatives, as you've described. Because my current administration is actually composed of both ends of the spectrum, even in my previous political career, previous to the presidency, I made good use of both sides, of both camps, as you said.

So what is of utmost importance for me is to say that conservatives and those who move ahead, those who are not extremists, can do much better for their country. Those who have their own opinions or differing opinions as far as social issues or cultural issues are concerned, we need to hear everyone's voices when it comes to that. And the nation can always only benefit from those who are not extremists, and those who wish to move down the middle of the road and encompass both views and all views.

I'm interested, Mr. President, to hear you say that you need to hear all voices. As a past visitor to Iran, I've discovered that there is a very vigorous political debate among ordinary people on the streets, and yet the Internet is restricted. I've noticed that some of the great films being made in the world today are made by Iranian — there's a wonderful cinema — and yet some films, many films are banned. I've also noticed, in the same vein, that there are newspapers, and brave journalists who write newspaper stories in Iran, but newspapers are often shut down. Can you address Iran's internal problems in the way you want to do without allowing a freer debate?

My opinion has always been this: which is that we must always hear from everyone, everyone's voices, and choose the best one. We have a verse in our holy book, the Holy Quran, which is our holy book, which says on behalf of the Creator, the Creator, the Omnipotent, says let all speak because I hear everyone's voices, but for their own benefit, I will choose the wisest, the best for them. So it is very transparently, even in the message of God, that even the Omnipotent — let alone ordinary human beings like us — even the Omnipotent chooses to listen to everyone's voices, yet pick the best one for our own benefit. So we must follow the same path. We must be willing to emulate the same.

But that doesn't mean that the legal framework or the laws of a certain nation can be trampled upon or not respected. Everyone is obliged to respect the laws, but within the framework of the constitution. And those laws express their opinions.

What concrete steps, if any, do you plan to take to ensure the free debate you just described?

Well, you are certainly aware that conditions during the past two years, two-plus years, of my administration have changed fairly dramatically compared to the previous years. If you go to the university campuses now in Iran, talk to members of academia, talk to the movie producers, the film directors, talk to the journalists, talk to the editors — those who express their opinions through their pen — if you ask them, they will tell you in no uncertain terms that today's environment is quite different, better than we previously had. Now in the universities across the country, a lot of groups are free — all groups, as a matter of fact — are free to conduct their political debates and political activities. All of them do not have a single opinion, of course.

So in a society, if there is to be forward movement, if there is to be realized progress in their social activities, in their cultural activities, it will move somewhat slowly. But we must see where this trend is pointing to. Is it towards creating more problems or towards creating more stability? And during these past two years, I see a very positive trend having taken place.

Have you privately been advocating for people who have been imprisoned for what might be described as inappropriate speech, to be freed?

Well, you do know that vis-a-vis trials, detention or imprisonments, all of this falls under the purview of the judiciary in the Islamic Republic of Iran and is not under the control of the executive branch.

However, according to the constitution, the president, in executing the laws of the constitution, has foremost responsibility, wherever a trampling of these laws, a stepping upon of these laws, a breaking of these laws is witnessed, the president is responsible to bring that up and warn the appropriate authorities. And I have always and will continue to give the appropriate warning to whomever I deem that has been trampling upon or on the verge of breaking those laws.

The diversity of opinion in Iran was also evident recently, when you gave a speech to leaders of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose leaders have been described as very skeptical of the nuclear deal. And I will simply summarize that you were reported as defending it by stating that the deal was necessary in order to bring "vital improvements" inside Iran. What concerns did they express to you in return?

Of course, some in Iran were against this agreement, and their analysis and their reasoning and justification was that the implementation of this agreement can have an unwanted negative impact on the defensive capabilities of the nation, create problems for the defense of the nation. So based on a multitude of reasons within this framework, they were against it, or some of them may still be against it. But my position was that we did not accept any limitations that would impact, negatively impact, the defensive capabilities of our nation. Any and every country does have its defensive doctrine based on real, as well as perceived, threats. So Iran is no different than any other country.

So given the explanations that were given to them, today the atmosphere reigning in Iran is much calmer, is much better, because they were made crystal clear in a tangible way that we did not accept any setbacks or limitations that would impact our defensive capabilities.

It's easy to see a potential confrontation coming, because a time may come soon when under this agreement nuclear inspectors will ask to see an Iranian military site. And of course, the agreement provides a process to determine if the inspectors should be allowed into the site or not. If and when that moment comes, do you have any assurances that the Revolutionary Guard Corps, and other key security agencies, will proceed in a manner that is cooperative rather than confrontational?

Well, my country, my nation, if it accepts an agreement, if it signs an agreement, if it gives its commitment to live up to the terms of an agreement, it will certainly do so. In Iran, throughout the history of Iran, whether it was a financial, economic agreement or a security agreement, anything that Iran has signed up to, it has always lived up to. We have never broken our commitment. This is our cultural framework, this is our comportment, this is our religious duty.

So what we have accepted is to implement the additional protocols. The additional protocols, there are a number of countries throughout the world, over 120 countries, have accepted the additional protocols within the framework of inspections. Our nation will not be an exception to that.

So in the same fashion that the International Atomic Energy Agency's inspectors conduct inspections in other countries, Iran can be the 121st country on that list, not that it belongs on a different list with a different set of criteria. I do believe that all nations do wholeheartedly wish to conserve the secrecy of their defensive doctrine and capabilities. And of course, the International Atomic Energy Agency must be aware of this, and keeping this in mind conduct its inspections, because we all know that if they behave any differently, then no country would live up to the commitments of the additional protocols. But we fully intend to fully collaborate and cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

It is possible, though, to foresee that moment, when there is a difference of opinion about whether a military base should be visited or not. How do you intend to manage that moment which could be a moment of confrontation?

I do not see any challenges in the implementation. If we get to the point of implementation and if our counterparts fully live up to the letter of the commitments signed, we are fully capable of adhering to the letter of the agreement implemented, and live up to our commitments.

Even though you are not directly in command of the military forces, you are able to assure that the military forces will comply with this agreement in an acceptable manner?

Well, of course, I am not the commander in chief, but I propose the laws of the nation, even those pertaining to the armed forces. Those are given by the office of the presidency. The budget of the armed forces are within the purview and control of the administration, and they are the ones who give the budget and set the parameters of the budgets. Yes, the president is not the head of the armed forces, but it does have legal control parameters. So that's why I said and stressed that according to the framework of our constitution, the president is the chief executor of the laws within that constitution.

Mr. President, is there a fear among some in the leadership of Iran that the changes and reforms that you have proposed will go too far, will get out of control, that there could be a catastrophic collapse at some point of the Iranian system as once happened with the Soviet Union?

Our country is completely different than the makeup of the former Soviet Union. Our nation enjoys a free electoral process; different political parties are active, and participate in these processes. It is not a one-party-rule government. If political competition and rivalries in a healthy fashion are free in any country and if folks are certain that every four years it is the ballot box that determines their fate and the fate of their nation, we will never have such problems.

But if a nation is disenchanted or becomes disenchanted with the ballot box, or sees it only as a puppet show, then they will turn away from it. But today in Iran, the reality, the tangible reality, is that there is a healthy political competition between political parties, and folks wholeheartedly believe in that ballot box.

Do you face, though, officials in senior positions of power who have said, in effect, don't go too far, be careful here, you could change too quickly and destroy us?

In Iran, having been there, you're fully aware that criticism is voiced of any administration, including mine, in a very official capacity as well through the media, radio, television, newspapers, articles. On a daily basis when you look at the news media sites, domestic Iranian news media sites, you see a multitude of them voicing criticisms of the administration's actions. However, those who make up my administration are experienced people and are fully aware, and feel duty-bound to follow the letters of the laws in implementing and carrying out their duties.

Are you concerned about going too far, too fast?

I have no such worries. That doesn't mean that the administration, my administration, this government, doesn't have its own problems or set of challenges, and it doesn't mean that anything that we wish to implement or execute we can do so quite freely and easily.

It is natural the reforms that we wish to bring about and implement, and the changes that must come about in a tangible way, may at some point on that path reach a stumbling block. But these stumbling blocks will not be something that will deter us from pursuing these changes and reforms or from never attempting those.

Mr. President, one final question, it involves Jason Rezaian and other Americans who have been held in Iran. You've been asked about them and you have said, I believe, in general terms, first, that it's the responsibility of the Judiciary, but that you have, in certain instances, advocated for the freedom of some individuals.

I would like to ask if you can be more specific. Have you advocated specifically for the release of Jason Rezaian? And if so, what have you said, what arguments have you made, and what happened?

Of course, my advice that I give on a daily basis, on a continuous basis, to the Judiciary, is never about a specific individual. I have given different sets of advice, and I do believe that the prisoners who have dual citizenship — even though, let's remember, that according to the laws of my country, my nation we do not accept dual citizenship — however, I have proposed that the folks who have dual citizenship and are in Iran, the government must render all possible aid in resolving their issues. And simultaneously, there would be a natural expectation from the United States government to take reciprocal actions, in order to carry forward the same legal files of the Iranians who have been unfairly incarcerated here.

Mr. President, it's been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you very much.

I also thank you. God bless you. I wish you continued health and success.

Thank you.

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