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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani; Imagine a World

Aired September 25, 2013 - 14:00:00   ET



HASSAN ROUHANI, IRANIAN PRESIDENT: I bring peace and friendship from Iranians to Americans.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

That was a rare message in English from an unexpected source, Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani.

Tonight, his first interview on U.S. soil on his first visit to the U.N. General Assembly right here in New York, a visit that was heralded by a blitz of tweets, social media and statements about wanting though show the, quote, "true face of Iran" to the world, a visit that has also raised expectations abroad and among the Iranian people that maybe, just maybe, Rouhani's election offers a rare and small window to resolve the nuclear crisis peacefully and also to start getting biting sanctions lifted from Iran and perhaps even chart a new course of mutual cooperation with the United States after 35 years of enmity.

This is all a very tall order and the road ahead is littered with incredibly high hurdles. For instance, the much anticipated handshake between himself and President Obama didn't happen when both spoke at the U.N. yesterday.

But President Rouhani tells me that the 35-year thick ice between them is already breaking. And there will be direct talks for the first time between both countries' foreign ministers.

So I put all of this and all of these questions to the new president in a wide-ranging discussion about the nuclear program, the Holocaust, human rights and also whether Rouhani plans to unblock social media and allow the Iranian people to see their own president's blizzard of tweets.


AMANPOUR: Mr. President, welcome to the program. Thank you for joining us.

ROUHANI (through translator): I thank your program and you for preparing this interview.

AMANPOUR: I want to ask you what it feels like to be what some people have called the "It" man of this UNGA, highly anticipated. You seem to be the focus of attention, and unusually for Iranian presidents, people are looking at you with some, at least, cautious optimism.

What does it feel like to be in this position?

ROUHANI (through translator): Before beginning to respond to your question, I would like to actually say my greetings to the people of America, who are very dear and near to the hearts of the Iranian people, and to wish them a good time and good times ahead.

Now for any president, in order to use an opportunity to the benefit of others would require him to use the platform given by his people to project that in places such as the United Nations.

AMANPOUR: There was a lot of expectation, maybe too high expectations, that you and President Obama might at least shake hands today at the United Nations.

Nobody thought there was going to be a formal meeting. But perhaps you would at least say hello, shake hands, break the ice.

But you didn't. Why didn't you?

ROUHANI (through translator): There were some talks about it, in fact, to perhaps arrange for a meeting between President Obama and myself so that, given the opportunity, we can talk with each other.

And the preparation for the work was done a bit as well. The United States declared its interest in having such a meeting and, in principle, Iran could have, under certain circumstances, allowed for it to happen.

But I believe that we didn't have sufficient time to really coordinate the meeting to the full extent that we needed to. But speaking of the icebreaking that you mentioned, in my opinion, it's already beginning to break because the environment is changing.

And that has come about as a result of the will of the people of Iran to create a new era of relations between the people of Iran and the rest of the world. Our hope, our expectation, in fact, indeed, is that all nation and this nation as well will respond positively to the people of Iran.

AMANPOUR: Are you authorized to start talking, negotiating, with the United States?

Are you authorized by the Supreme Leader back in Iran?

ROUHANI (through translator): Now we have to remember that when it comes to the United States, for 35 years, there have been no relations between the two countries, between Iran and the United States. The higher officials of the two countries have never spoken with one another, especially at a level of president.

You know, they have for two presidents to sit down. This has not happened for 35 years. So necessarily we must give time for diplomacy to work itself, for dialogue to come about, for circumstances to be laid properly.

The Supreme Leader of Iran has said that should negotiations be necessary for the national interests of the country, that he, in fact, is not opposed to it. He has specifically mentioned in a recent talk that he is not optimistic regarding the issue of talks with the United States. But when it comes to specific issues, government officials may speak with their American counterparts.

If an opportunity had risen today, and the prep work for that had been done, probably the talks would have taken place, primarily focused on the nuclear issue or on developments on the Middle East. And therefore the Supreme Leader has, I can tell you, given the permission for my government to freely negotiate on these issues.

AMANPOUR: So you do have that authorization?



President Obama today, in his speech to the United Nations, said that he had authorized and placed Secretary John Kerry at the head of the negotiating team. They're going to meet with your foreign minister, Mr. Zarif, in terms of the nuclear issue.

Are there other issues, too, bilateral issues that you can start discussing?

Or your representatives with the United States?

Or is it just nuclear, and, as you said, other Middle Eastern issues?

ROUHANI (through translator): There are numerous issues that could be discovered by the two governments. But my principle has been from the outset that the nuclear issue can be an important test for the two governments to fulfill their negotiations and to reap the benefits of it.

So for the benefit of both nations, I believe that both our priority and perhaps possibly the priority of the other side, the United States, is the nuclear issue. If the nuclear issue is settled conclusively, I believe that that will pave the way for numerous other issues that can be discussed.

AMANPOUR: You spoke in your address to the general assembly about a peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue.

Can you give me the framework, the principles of what you would see as the possibility of a deal?

ROUHANI (through translator): On the nuclear issue, the first point is that the entire world must recognize that Iran does not seek a nuclear weapon nor shall it seek a nuclear weapon. But at the same time, it would insist that it will seek its rights like any other nation within the framework of international law and exert its will to fulfill those rights for its nation.

AMANPOUR: You say -- and you've said many times and every Iranian president has said and so has the Supreme Leader said it, that Iran does not want nuclear weapons. However, you know the issue is a confidence issue and that, frankly, many people don't believe it. They want to know what you can do to raise the confidence level.

As you know, sir, every U.N. resolution uses the word "confidence." It's all about confidence.

So what can you specifically do?

What is Iran prepared to do to inspire confidence in its nuclear program?

ROUHANI (through translator): The IAEA, after hundreds of hours of numerous inspections and continual work, did, in 2004, issue a clear resolution stating that there was no evidence with regards to Iran's nuclear program, of a deviation to that program. And that resolution was actually endorsed and approved by all members of the board of directors of the IAEA, including the United States of America.

Now the second path for confidence is really a political path. When there are no ties between two countries, where the two countries are not talking and negotiating with one another, it's possible that some lack of confidence could emerge.

AMANPOUR: Will you freeze enrichment at 20 percent?

Will you trade your existing 20 percent enriched fuel for buying it or accessing it from outside the country?

ROUHANI (through translator): These are talks that countries will engage in through negotiations. But there shouldn't be any prerequisite to build that confidence, to sit at the table. If that prerequisite is a threat of military action, that, to us, implies that the negotiations are not for real.

So if we speak of confidence, confidence must be mutual for certainty. This is the foundation of confidence building, its foundation to be created by both sides. And it should be built by both sides. The building of confidence cannot be built unilaterally.

AMANPOUR: What about the Iraq heavy water facility where people are worried that you could start extracting plutonium? That's yet another danger and a worry for the rest of the world. It's due to come online perhaps in the spring.

Will you delay putting it online, the Iraq facility?

ROUHANI (through translator): You are aware that the Iraq site is there to meet the medicinal needs of our country, and that was the case from the outset when we announced the site. Therefore, as long as Iraq becomes operational, there is still a significant amount of time left until it actually becomes fully operational.

Now it is possible that in the future such talks could take place between Iran and the P5+1 on such issues. But so far, the issue of Iraq, Iraq was never on the negotiating table.

AMANPOUR: But it could be?

ROUHANI (through translator): Anything is possible in negotiations. It's possible to talk about anything.

AMANPOUR: And what are you looking for in return?

I know you want sanctions lifted. Do you think you'll get them all at once?

Or what are the most important things you want?

ROUHANI (through translator): We believe that sanctions are illegal and inhumane, and therefore we certainly believe that the sanctions must be removed. We believe sanctions have no effect. The goal of those who sanction us, whatever it may be, they will not reach that goal.

The only path ahead is negotiations. We must sit down and talk and settle this for once and finally.


AMANPOUR: And although there may be a new conciliatory spirit coming from Iran and, in fact, from the West, the graffiti on the walls back in Tehran suggest that reconciliation with the U.S. won't happen overnight.

This mural, depicting the Statue of Liberty as an angel of death has adorned the wall of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran for the last many years. It's been closed ever since the hostage crisis three decades ago.

And while President Rouhani's predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was notorious for denying the Holocaust, what does the new president believe? His answer may surprise you. That's when we come back.


AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. Now as we continue to explore the possibility of a turn in Iranian relations with the West, here now is more of my in-depth interview with the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. His surprising comments about the Holocaust and the big Twitter question: will he unblock social media sites for all Iranians?


AMANPOUR: You have presented a different face of Iran, a different face than we've had certainly for the last eight years. You came here saying you wanted to present the true face of Iran.

You have been busy tweeting, at least your office has; you have been giving interviews. You've been giving statements, a real media blitz, some might call it a PR blitz, spin job.

What is your answer to tweeting and posting on social media when the people of Iran don't have access to that?

You have said that you would work to reduce censorship inside Iran.

Will you do that?

ROUHANI (through translator): All my efforts are geared to ensure that the people of Iran will comfortably be able to access all information globally and to use it. There are large social networks at a global level around today, and I believe that all human beings have a right and all nations have a right to use them.

But at the same time my efforts are geared for the next few months to deliver all the promises that I made during my election campaign, to make them happen and, as you've said, during the election campaign, my supporters actually used them a great deal.

And today those supporters -- and even those who criticize me -- are still on the same social networks and use them. And I always welcome their views on these networks as well as those who criticize me, because the government does need to be open to criticism.

So one of my plans is to reduce the problems that people face currently on these issues so that within those sort of moral frameworks that we have for ourselves, we're able to access those social network sites.

AMANPOUR: One of the things you did, and also your foreign minister did, was to tweet New Year greetings to Jews in Iran and around the world, Rosh Hashanah greetings.

You also brought with you on this delegation the only Jewish member of the Iranian parliament.

Why was it important for you to bring him here?

ROUHANI (through translator): Our effort here is to tell the world public opinion that Iran is not only not anti-Semitic, but rather than it respects the customs and beliefs of the Jewish people. You will know that we respect the divine book of the Jewish people. We respect their prophet Moses.

And therefore, this Jewish representation can actually speak to the reality of the lives of the Jewish people in Iran. We are proud of our history of peaceful coexistence with followers of all belief systems.

One of the things your predecessor used to do from this very platform was deny the Holocaust and pretend that it was a myth. I want to know, you, your position on the Holocaust.

Do you accept what it was?

And what was it?

ROUHANI (through translator): I've said before that I am not a historian personally, and that when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust as such, it is the historians that should reflect on it.

But in general, I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that the Nazis committed towards the Jews as well as non-Jewish people is reprehensible and condemnable as far as we are concerned.

And just as even such crimes were to happen today against any creed or belief system or human being, we shall again condemn it.

So what the Nazis did is condemnable. The dimensions of whatever it is the historians have to understand what it is, I am not a historian myself. But it must be clear here that where there is an atrocity, a crime that happens, it should not become a cover to work against the interests or justify the crimes against another nation or another group of people.

So if the Nazis, however criminal they were, we condemn them; whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn because genocide, the taking of a human life, is condemnable and it makes no difference whether that life is a Jewish life, a Christian or a Muslim or what.

But this does not mean that on the other hand you can say, well, the Nazis committed crimes against, you know, a certain group; now, therefore, they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it, this, too, is an act that should be condemned, in our view.

So there should be an evenhanded discussion of this.

AMANPOUR: Another thing that your predecessor used to do, and, in fact, President Obama referred to it today in his speech, was threaten Israel with destruction. He used the world "wipe Israel off the map."

The President of the United States today said we cannot allow any country to threaten our ally with destruction.

Is it the policy of Iran to threaten Israel with destruction?

ROUHANI (through translator): You are aware that not only in these past 35 years, but in the past 200 years or so Iran has never attacked another country. We have no intention of attacking any country or getting into a war with any country. Even if our armed forces are built up, it is for defense purposes alone.

You are fully aware that there was an eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, during which Saddam Hussein attacked us and we were forced to defend ourselves. And we learned how important defense is and therefore how important it is not to wage war.

When it comes to the issue of Palestine, we believe in the public vote, the ballot, in a sense, is that vote for the people of that region that has to happen to settle the dispute that's been lingering for 60 years there?

And we will submit to that will and to that ballot and accept it.

AMANPOUR: On the issue of human rights, just before you came, there was an announcement that 80 prominent human rights activists were released from jail in Tehran, many of them having been taken into jail in the dispute in 2009 after the reelection of President Ahmadinejad.

One of them was Nasrin Sotoudeh; I spoke to her and she said to me, "It's great that I'm free. But how about all the others that are still in jail?"

What is your government going to do to release prisoners of conscience and particularly two politicians, opposition politicians, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi who are still being held?

What will your government do to work for their freedom and to enable them to continue their political activities?

ROUHANI (through translator): You know that in the election campaign that recently took place, I insisted on an issue which I called the citizenship charter. I promised the people to put together and publicize a citizenship charter, which I would then present as a bill to legislature on and to allow our society to settle many of the problems that it faces right now.

So I have actually authorized the legal department that works under me to create a committee working on this issue in specific. And I believe that very soon this charter, this citizen charter, will be ready, which I can present to the public opinion. And there's a team that's putting it together.

So I will spare no effort to ensure that those who are currently in prison will see an opening door.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about Syria.

You have said that you've exchanged letters with President Obama on the issue of Syria. Isn't Iran a direct participant in this war? A key commander, General Suleimani, is in there. He's got his men in there. There's many, many men, maybe more than thousands of Iranians in there, fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad.

You have written an op-ed saying that you want to use your government to try to resolve this issue.

But isn't one of the resolutions also to take out your fighting men?

ROUHANI (through translator): The thousands that you speak of is an incorrect figure. Even if you say hundreds, it's an incorrect figure. It is not what is correct as far as the reality on the ground is concerned.

We have close relations with Syria from a long time ago. We've had defense agreements with the Syrian government, some of our army and military officials have assisted Syria or helped in the upkeep, actually, or repair of the weapons that we've had from years ago given to Syria.

We have people who are military attaches and military experts who are stationed there. They are the liaisons, the military liaison between our country and Syria, a liaison that has existed from years ago.

AMANPOUR: They appear to be directing the war on behalf of President Assad. People do say very serious military people, diplomatic people say that if it wasn't for your military help -- planes bringing weapons and personnel flying over Iraq, members of the Revolutionary Guard there, that President Assad's regime would have fallen already.

Do you agree?

ROUHANI (through translator): You could say that we are assisting Syria militarily. Could you clarify what you mean?

AMANPOUR: Weapons, planeloads (sic) of them.

ROUHANI (through translator): Well, I understand what you're saying.

What I'm really questioning is the source of it. Again, there's a level of propaganda involved that I would caution you about that is baseless here. You are aware that there are planes that left Iran to Damascus that were actually forced to land in Baghdad, not only once or twice, but on numerous occasions, under pressure by the Americans. And they couldn't find anything on those planes.

AMANPOUR: Are you encouraging the regime to give up its chemical weapons as the deal between the U.S. and Russia says?

ROUHANI (through translator): We believe in general that the entire region of the Middle East, as far as that region is concerned, all weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, have to be eradicated from the region. We are glad that Syria has submitted to the convention for the prohibition of chemical weapons, committed itself to that convention.

And we actually encourage everyone to submit to this, as laid down by governments as such through those conventions in the hope that our region will be a region free of weapons of mass destruction.


AMANPOUR: And finally, after a break, imagine 20 words that begin to bridge decades of mistrust and misunderstanding, breaking down the information blockade with Mr. Rouhani when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, imagine a world where the message of peace takes a little practice. I had a wide-ranging conversation with Mr. Rouhani, and you've seen and heard the president greet the American people in English.

What you haven't heard is what came just before that. Take a listen.


AMANPOUR: And finally, we end where we began.

Can you give me a sentence in English that you would like to say to the American people?

This is your first interview here in the United States.

ROUHANI (through translator): Well, I have to begin by saying that I have not spoken English for years now. I'm talking about a long many years that I have not practiced my English.

ROUHANI: I would like to say to American people I bring peace and friendship from Iranians to Americans.

Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Mr. President, thank you very much indeed.

ROUHANI: Thanks.


AMANPOUR: Now, ironically, that message wasn't heard officially in Iran, where it was blocked on the Internet there.

Until the Internet blockade does come down, every day Iranians will keep up the game of cat-and-mouse to get around their government's firewall.

Meantime it seems that everyone in Iran is savvy enough to get around it, to use Twitter and Facebook, even some of the country's top leaders.

And that's it for tonight's program. Remember, you can always contact us at our website,, where I am now going to post the entire transcript of my interview with President Rouhani. Enjoy the read. And thanks for watching. Goodbye from New York.