Rouhani Addresses U.N. Amid Iranian Charm Offensive

Tuesday was the opening day of the UN General Assembly in New York City. President Obama opened the session. His speech was followed by addresses from a number of foreign dignitaries, including Iranian president Hassan Rouhani.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

As Ari mentioned, Secretary of State John Kerry is testing what could be a diplomatic opening with Iran. And Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, made his U.N. debut this afternoon. Speaking through an interpreter, he said Iran is prepared to engage immediately in talks on the nuclear issue.

PRESIDENT HASAN ROUHANI: (Through translator) Islamic Republic of Iran is a regional power and will act responsibly with regard to regional and international security; and is willing and prepared to cooperate in these fields, bilaterally as well as multilaterally with other responsible actors.

BLOCK: That's the Iranian president, Hasan Rouhani, speaking through a U.N. interpreter. NPR's Michele Kelemen is at the U.N., and she joins us now.

And first of all, Michele, there was no handshake today. President Rouhani and President Obama didn't even see each other there today. Why not?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: That's right. The White House says that it was actually talking with the Iranians and was open to some sort of encounter between the two presidents, but they say it proved to be too complicated for the Iranians because of their own domestic political considerations. Iranian Press TV says that Rouhani skipped the U.N. luncheon where this handshake might have occurred because alcohol was being served.

BLOCK: Well, President Obama says he's looking for Iran to take steps to clear up questions about its nuclear program, so what was Rouhani's message to the General Assembly today?

KELEMEN: He talked a lot about hope and moderation - those were words he used often. He said Iran will act responsibly. It's prepared to remove any and all reasonable concerns about what he called Iran's peaceful nuclear program. He said nuclear weapons have no place in Iran's defense doctrine.

Rouhani said he thinks that Iran can manage differences with the U.S. if Obama doesn't succumb to - as he put it, the short-sighted interests of war-mongering pressure groups. He did complain a lot that the U.S. has been talking a lot about the military option being on the table. He railed against coercive economic and military policies of the U.S. And he complained that the U.S. often justifies its actions by what he dubbed the imaginary Iranian threat. So he was definitely striking a balance between being more open to talking with the West, but also standing firm on some of the themes that Iran always brings up here, America's dominance at the U.N.

BLOCK: Well, Rouhani has been heralded as something of a reformist, as the new Iranian president. How has he been received at the U.N. today?

KELEMEN: Well, I have to say, it's so much different than those years when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were here, when delegations boycotted or sent low-level officials, only to walk out when Ahmadinejad denied the Holocaust or said other offensive things. This year, Israel was still boycotting, but the U.S. had its deputy ambassador in the room, at the table.

And Rouhani has had, you know, high-level meetings here. He met today with the French president, Francois Hollande. Hollande says that he wanted to show that France is open to dialogue but also firm on the question of nonproliferation; and he was talking not just about the nuclear issue but also about Iran's role in Syria, supporting the Syrian regime.

BLOCK: Well, Secretary of State John Kerry is going to be at a meeting later this week with other security council members, and with the Iranian foreign minister. What are the expectations for that meeting?

KELEMEN: The State Department is already tempering expectations for that meeting, saying the U.S. doesn't anticipate that any issues will actually be resolved. But the U.S. is hopeful that the diplomats can chart a path forward. The real work is going to probably happen next month, when lower-level officials meet. But this is a big chance for Kerry, alongside his security council counterparts, to meet with Iran's new foreign minister.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Michele Kelemen, covering the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Michele, thanks very much.

KELEMEN: Nice to be here.

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