NEW YORK - Hassan Rouhani, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, called for "time-bound" talks on its nuclear program with the West while harshly criticizing US interference in the Middle East in his first speech to the United Nations on Tuesday afternoon.
The speech was a resounding defense of the governing model of the Islamic Republic and a forceful rebuke of its detractors, with many veiled references to the "mistaken" policies of the United States, which has sanctioned Iran punishingly for continuing to develop a nuclear program.
He said that all nuclear programs must be peaceful in nature, and said that any military element to such a program in Iran "would contradict our religious convictions."
But he said that nuclear energy was Iran's inalienable right, as were the qualities of life being deprived of ordinary Iranians by "unjust" Western sanctions that are "intrinsically inhumane."
"Sanctions, beyond any and all rhetoric, create belligerence, warmongering and human suffering," he said.
Rouhani called for "immediate, time-bound, results-oriented" negotiations in "full transparency," as the US and Israel continue to point to the clock on Iran's uranium enrichment program and voice skepticism of its recent "charm offensive," as one senior State Department official referred to Iran's recent overtures on Monday.
Rouhani said that his own election to the presidency represented a rare "peaceful transfer of executive power" in a tumultuous region, "the realization of democracy consistent with religion."
He called Iran an anchor of peace in the ocean of instability that is the Middle East.
"The age of zero-sum games is over," he said, echoing very similar words from US President Barack Obama in his speech earlier in the day
. He said that Iran wanted peace with the West, and the rest of the world, and called the fear of Iran an "imaginary threat."
"Faith-phobic, Islamophobic, Shia-phobic and Iran-phobic discourses" has reached "dangerous proportions," Rouhani told the UN General Assembly, calling it "xenophobia."
"My country has been a harbinger of just peace and comprehensive security," Rouhani said.
He spoke just hours after Obama laid out his own policy toward Iran, and the Middle East as a whole, in which he reiterated the threat of military force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.
But Rouhani said that "nuclear knowledge had already been domesticated" in Iran, and that its program was too far along to be disrupted by military force.
He said Iran is ready to work bilaterally with responsible actors just hours after denying an offer of a bilateral encounter with Obama
by the US government.
"We indicated that the two leaders could have had a discussion on the margins if the opportunity presented itself. The Iranians got back to us; it was clear that it was too complicated for them to do that at this time given their own dynamic back home," a US official said.
The official emphasized that "nobody contemplated a formal bilateral meeting or a negotiation of any sort."
"We’re not prepared for heads of state to negotiate or Presidents to negotiate on the nuclear issue," the official continued, saying that the Iranians have their own "internal dynamic" to manage politically at home.
The entire diplomatic effort was conducted on site in New York over the past two days.
In a veiled mock of American exceptionalism, Rouhani said that the perception of superiority was unhealthy for the region. He directly and harshly criticized "coercive economic and military policies" as doomed and unproductive, and went through various US military operations as examples, including its support of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, the Gulf War and Afghanistan.
"Efforts to deprive regional players from their natural domains of action, containment policies, regime change from outside, and the efforts to redrawing of political borders and frontiers is extremely dangerous and provocative," Rouhani charged.
While he did not mention Israel or refer to "the Zionist state," as did his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, repeatedly throughout his tenure as president, Rouhani called the plight of the Palestinian people "nothing less than structural violence."
Despite a plea for peace through talks, and not strength, the speech surprised many as more combative than expected from the perceived moderate, who won the Iranian election this year by a large margin.
And although the 2013 election was indeed peaceful, as described by the new leader, Iran's last election in 2009 resulted in the Green Revolution, in which the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei suppressed protests by force and killed over 80 people.