Iran’s president does an about-face and takes a hard line against U.S.

Anniversary speech may be appeasing his critics at home

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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.


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