TEHRAN, Iran — For more than a year, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani had been walking a tightrope by trying to restore relations with the country’s archenemy, the United States. His hard-line opponents pelted him with eggs, but those who voted for him hoped for a possible thaw.
Mr. Rouhani, a Shiite cleric nicknamed the “diplomatic sheikh” in Iran because of his skills in dealing with foreigners, even held a historic phone call with President Barack Obama, later saying he found him polite and intelligent. Since then he has publicly pleaded to explore open discussions and at least some cooperation with the United States.
But on Saturday,Mr. Rouhani struck a starkly different tone, making him sound more like the conservatives who have long criticized him for being too soft on the United States.
In a news conference on the occasion of being more than a year in office, Mr. Rouhani echoed the long-standing Iranian viewpoint that the United States can never be trusted.
Not only did he rule out any cooperation on fighting regional terrorist groups like the fiercely anti-Iranian Islamic State, he also hinted that America’s actions were responsible for creating the group, as well as al-Qaida and the Taliban, a mantra among the Iranian leadership.
He criticized the United States for not taking action on the militants when Syrians were being killed, and only taking steps when it felt Americans and their interests were threatened. “Now they say: ‘We want to defend our embassy and consulate in Iraq.’ This is not fighting terrorism,” he said. “The Americans should be ashamed of their words.”
In the complicated world of Iranian politics, it is difficult to know if Mr. Rouhani’s statements — his toughest on the United States in a year — represent a shift in his thinking or are tailored to a domestic audience where hard-liners have been criticizing him harshly for months.
It is also possible the speech was a tactical move to strengthen Iran’s position before renewed talks on its nuclear program.
Mr. Rouhani’s statements came just a day after the Obama administration imposed new sanctions on Iran, blacklisting 30 people and entities it said are linked to the country’s nuclear program.
In a statement, the White House said the sanctions were a continuation of its strategy to crack down on groups suspected of seeking to avoid or violate existing sanctions, even as “the United States remains committed” to striking an accord by late November that includes “a long-term, comprehensive solution that provides confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.”
But the sanctions appeared to upset Mr. Rouhani.
“Yes, of course, we bypass the sanctions,” Mr. Rouhani said during his news conference. “We believe they are illegal and crimes against humanity.”
He added that for relations to improve, the United States must make the first move.
“Our people distrust Americans,” he said. “It would be better if Americans could do something that could help to build some trust in the future. Unfortunately, their moves only deepen distrust.”
The latest U.S. sanctions against Iran won’t directly affect talks with world powers to reach an agreement over the Islamic republic’s nuclear program, Mr. Rouhani said.
And although he was one of the political stars of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September, hobnobbing with international leaders who had long shunned Iran, he said Saturday that he had not yet decided whether he would make the trip to the United Nations headquarters in New York. “And I have no plans to meet with Mr. Obama,” he added.
Mr. Rouhani’s statements come after months in which Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has stepped up his criticism of the United States and said he is pessimistic that the nuclear talks and direct talks with the United States will lead to anything.iran - United States - North America - Middle East - Barack Obama - Nouri al-Maliki - Ali Khamenei - Iran government - Hassan Rouhani
Bloomberg News contributed.