In one signal from the “moderate” new head of government that will not be well received in the West, President Hasan Rouhani found time during his first day in office to reiterate Tehran’s strong support for the Assad regime in Syria, and at a meeting with a senior North Korean official to pledge solidarity for Tehran-Pyongyang ties.
“No power in the world can destabilize or undermine the deep-rooted, historic and strategic relations between the two friendly peoples and countries,” Syria’s state news agency SANA quoted Rouhani as telling visiting Syrian prime minister Wael al-Halqi.
According to SANA, Rouhani condemned foreign interference in Syria’s internal affairs and said that “what is happening in Syria is a failed attempt to undermine the axis of resistance and steadfastness against the Zionist and U.S. plots in the region through supporting terrorism and takfiris.”
Takfiris is a term for Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy; President Bashar Assad and his Shi’ite allies charge that the opposition fighting to topple the regime is dominated by radical Sunni takfiris, including al-Qaeda.
Rouhani has been characterized as a pragmatist in the Iranian political context, and his election prompted calls from some policy analysts and mostly liberal lawmakers for the Obama administration to seek fresh openings for outreach.
White House press secretary Jay Carney in a statement said his inauguration “presents an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.”
“Should this new government choose to engage substantively and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, it will find a willing partner in the United States.”
While campaigning for office, Obama expressed willingness to hold talks with Iran without preconditions, and shortly after his inauguration he undertook to engage with Iranian leaders who were willing to “unclench their fist.”
That offer and others over the years – contained in Persian new year messages and verbal and written messages to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – brought no progress. The U.S. has accused it of continuing to defy the international community over its nuclear activities, while sponsoring terror abroad.
‘Stalling for time’
Carney’s statement was issued hours after Rouhani, in an address after being sworn-in, laid out conditions for engagement.
“Constructive interaction on equal footing and based on mutual respect and common interests will be the basis of our foreign relations with the other countries, and we will move to enhance our ties proportionate to the behavior and attitude of the other sides,” he said in a message directed at Western governments.
“I frankly say that if you want a proper response, speak to the Iranian nation not with the language of sanction, but with the language of respect.”
Rouhani pledged to take “new steps on the scene of international relations in a bid to enhance Iran’s dignity and position based on national interests and removal of the present cruel sanctions.”
The U.S. and European Union have imposed a broad array of sanctions on Iran, targeting the banking, oil and shipping sectors and contributing to severe economic difficulties that featured prominently during the recent presidential election campaign.
Last week the U.S. House passed new legislation seeking to toughen the existing punitive measures. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the administration had “some concerns” about aspects of the bill but declined to elaborate. She said it would “keep working closely with Congress” on the issue.
Signaling strong support for the House bill, 76 senators signed a letter due to be delivered to the White House on Monday, calling for tougher sanctions and stating that “Iran needs to understand that the time for diplomacy is nearing its end.”
Skeptics have pointed out that Rouhani has historically been supportive of the nuclear program. Moreover the supreme leader, not the president, directs Iran’s nuclear and foreign policy.
“Iran has used negotiations in the past to stall for time,” the senators warned in the letter to Obama, adding that “Khamenei is the ultimate decision maker for Iran’s nuclear program.”
Still, Rouhani’s early moves will be closely watched for indications of how his style will compare to that of his often combative predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
On Sunday he presented his proposed cabinet including Mohammad Javad Zarif, a U.S.-educated former ambassador to the United Nations, as foreign minister. Cabinet nominees require parliamentary ratification.
The U.S. has led efforts to isolate Iran in the international community, with mixed results. Iran’s foreign ministry was at pains Sunday to underline the fact that 52 countries had been represented at Rouhani’s inauguration, at levels ranging from minister to head of state.
Among the attendees were Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Pakistan’s outgoing President Asif Ali Zardari, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, the presidents of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, former European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and Kim Yong-nam, a senior figure in the North Korean regime.
The official IRNA news agency quoted Rouhani as telling Kim in a bilateral meeting he was confident longstanding strong ties between Tehran and Pyongyang would further strengthen during his presidency
For his part, Kim said the two countries enjoy “a common anti-imperialism stance,” and underlined North Korea’s support for Iran’s “peaceful nuclear activities.”