UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is holding out the possibility for improved relations with the United States if the international nuclear deal that has caused controversy in both the U.S. and Iran gets fully implemented later this year.
Asked specifically about the possibility of freeing Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, who has been held for over a year in an Iranian prison, Rouhani said he favored freeing U.S. prisoners in Iran and all Iranians held in U.S. jails, but the matter was mainly in the hands of Iran's judiciary.
Speaking to a group of editors Friday after arriving for the annual U.N. General Assembly, Rouhani said implementation of the nuclear deal would improve the atmosphere to allow progress to be made.
Rouhani started his meeting with editors by pointing out the July nuclear framework agreement reached among Iran, the European Union, Germany, the United States and other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council had altered the diplomatic landscape for Iran at this year's assembly. The deal lays out a plan of action for Iran to eliminate nuclear stockpiles and enrichment capacity for the next 15 years in exchange for lifting most economic sanctions against Iran.
"This year, we have passed the threshold," Rouhani said.
He also said that Iran can play a constructive role in addressing the threat of the Islamic State group, which has seized control of large swaths of Syria and Iraq, and that world powers were wrong to try to keep Iran out of the discussions on how to deal with the threat.
A U.S. official said Friday that the Obama administration expects Syria to be on the agenda when Secretary of State John Kerry meets at the U.N. with the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Such a dialogue "makes sense," said Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.
Iran is "a powerful and effective country in the region, this is undeniable," Rouhani said. Without Iranian intervention on the side of the Baghdad government at a crucial juncture last year, he said, the Islamic State might already have taken over all of Iraq.
Regarding the Post's Tehran correspondent Rezaian, who was imprisoned in July 2014 and has since been tried on charges that include espionage, Rouhani said he did not wish to use the word "exchange," but said that as president he was personally concerned about the issue of prisoners held in Iran and in the United States. He also said that under Iran's constitution, the executive branch can only be so active in dealing with the judiciary, controlled by conservative clerics often critical of Rouhani's administration and loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini.
The vague charges against the 39-year-old Rezaian, a dual U.S.-Iranian national covering Iran, have been denied and sharply denounced by the Post and international journalist organizations. His case and those of other Americans held in Iran remains one of the biggest obstacles to better relations between the two countries. Meanwhile, there have been hints from some Iranian officials that he continues to be held as a bargaining chip to win release of Iranians in U.S. custody.
Rouhani, however, spoke more broadly about how both countries should try to create an "atmosphere of trust" to solve a host of problems by implementing the nuclear accord.
"The nuclear issue is a big test." He said. "If we see that we can reach success in good faith, perhaps we can build on that."
He noted there were people in both the U.S. and Iran who bitterly oppose the deal and prefer to cling to old grievances, but he said neither country can afford to live in the past.
"If we continue this animosity, this tension, what is the result? Have a war? ... We must think of the future. A renewal of tension and animosity will not benefit anyone," Rouhani said.
Challenged about routine chants of "Death to America" during weekly prayers and rallies in Iran, Rouhani said such slogans are not intended to say that Iranians want the U.S. to be destroyed or that Iranians are hostile to the American people. Rather, he said, the chants are an expression of "the depth of opposition to the policies of the United States in our region."
Asked about recent reports of a Russian military buildup in Syria, Rouhani cited Moscow's longtime close relationship to the Damascus government and their common opposition to the Islamic State group in the country. He said President Vladimir Putin had told him Russia wants to be more active in opposing terrorism in Syria, a goal shared by the Syrian government and Iran.
But even though the countries have mutual interests and are exchanging information, Rouhani said he did not expect an anti-IS alliance. "I do not see anything resembling a military coalition with Russia in Syria," he said.
Rouhani defended the government of President Bashar Assad from charges of brutality in dealing with its opponents. He denied any knowledge of the use of "barrel bombs" against civilians in Syria's civil war, but suggested that Damascus was entitled to use whatever it has at its disposal to counter terrorists. Citing the beheadings of women and children and other atrocities by Islamic State extremists, he said, "With such a savage, inhuman, subhuman group, how should we fight them?"
In the wake of the nuclear deal, he said, a door has opened for foreign investment in Iran.
"I think there are great opportunities, unrivaled opportunities, for American investment in Iran," if the U.S. government permits, he said.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.