Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday denounced the proliferation, use and stockpiling of nuclear weapons in his first extensive speech on the issue since assuming office.

Calling for a “nuclear-free zone” in the Middle East, Rouhani told the UN Highlevel Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament that Israel was the only country in the region that had not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and requested that it do so “without delay.”

“Almost four decades of international efforts to establish nuclear weapons-free zones have regrettably failed,” he said. “Urgent, practical steps toward the establishment of such a zone are necessary. The international community has to redouble efforts in support of the establishment of this zone.”

The developed world focuses on preventing states without nuclear weapons from acquiring them, Rouhani said, but the international community should also focus on disarming countries that have stockpiled hundreds or thousands of them since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

“Nonproliferation derives its legitimacy from the larger objective of nuclear disarmament,” he said, calling for a “high-level” conference within five years geared toward the “complete elimination” of the greatest weapons.

In a veiled reference to a Russian-brokered deal that is to rid Syria of its massive chemical weapons stockpile, Rouhani said “all weapons of mass destruction” should be eliminated in the Middle East.

While the Prime Minister's Office had no direct response on Thursday night to Rouhani’s call for a nuclear free zone in the region, this is an idea that is constantly aired in international forums dealing with proliferation issues.

Ten days ago Shaul Chorev, the head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, addressed the matter in Geneva at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s general conference meeting in Geneva.

Summing up the government’s position on the idea, Chorev said, “Israel believes that the gloomy regional realities, together with the notorious reputation of some of the regimes in the Middle East, mandate a prudent and gradual security and arms control process.

More so when it comes to an initiative to establish the region as a WMD-free zone, an idea that has never been attempted elsewhere, even in the most peaceful regions of the world.”

A WMD-free zone was a goal attainable at the end of a process that brings about a change in attitudes toward Israel, not at the beginning of that process, Chorev said. “Lasting peaceful relations, reconciliation, good neighborliness, open borders and trust among the regional parties” would be “key milestones in the route to a joint regional endeavor to create a mutually verifiable zone, free of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.”

Progress toward that goal “cannot be made without a fundamental change in regional conditions, not the least, without a significant transformation in the attitude of states in the region toward Israel,” he said.

Rouhani made his first speech to the UN General Assembly on Tuesday afternoon, opening with the words “in the name of God” in aggressive remarks that chastised the West for making war in the region, while floating the prospect of a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff.

The speech was a resounding defense of the governing model of the Islamic Republic and a forceful rebuke of its detractors, with references to the “mistaken” policies of the United States, which has sanctioned Iran punishingly for continuing to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels.

Rouhani said that all nuclear programs must be peaceful in nature and that any military element to such a program in Iran would contradict its religious convictions.

But he reaffirmed his government’s position 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 program and voice skepticism of its recent “charm offensive,” as one senior State Department official referred to Iran’s Monday overtures.

Rouhani said that his 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 US President Barack Obama‘s speech earlier in the day. Rouhani said 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” have reached “dangerous proportions,” Rouhani told the UN General Assembly, labeling such speech as “xenophobia.”

“My country has been a harbinger of just peace and comprehensive security,” he said.

Hours earlier, Obama laid out his own policy toward Iran and the Middle East as a whole, reiterating 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 was ready to work bilaterally with responsible actors, 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,” a senior administration official said. “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.”

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 had 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.

Mocking the philosophy 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 of their natural domains of action, containment policies, regime change from outside and efforts at redrawing political borders and frontiers is extremely dangerous and provocative,” Rouhani charged.

While he did not mention Israel or refer to “the Zionist state” – as his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, did 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.

While in New York, Rouhani granted interviews to Christiane Amanpour of CNN, Charlie Rose of PBS and the Council on Foreign Relations.

The interviewers pressed the Iranian president to recognize the Holocaust. While he acknowledged the mass killing of Jews at the hands of Nazis and condemned all such crimes against humanity, he said that the historic event could not be used to justify the founding of a Jewish state in the Middle East, which he also called “a crime.”

“This does not mean that, on the other hand, you can say, well, the Nazis committed crimes against, you know, a certain group,” and “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,” Rouhani told Amanpour.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a statement following Rouhani’s speech on Tuesday, saying that, “as expected,” it was “a cynical speech that was full of hypocrisy.”

“Rouhani spoke of human rights, even as Iranian forces are participating in the large-scale slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria,” he said.

“He condemned terrorism, even as the Iranian regime is using terrorism in dozens of countries around the world. He spoke of a nuclear program for civilian purposes, even as an IAEA report determines that the program has military dimensions, and when any rational person understands that Iran – one of the most oil-rich nations – is not investing capital in ballistic missiles and underground nuclear facilities in order to produce electricity.”

Netanyahu, slated to address the UN General Assembly on Monday and to focus on the Iranian nuclear issue, said Rouhani’s speech lacked any “practical proposal” to stop Iran’s military nuclear program and “any commitment to fulfill UN Security Council decisions.” Tehran’s strategy was to “talk and play for time” to advance its nuclear program, a strategy Rouhani deployed a decade ago when he was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, he said.

“The international community must test Iran not by its words but by its actions,” he said.

Netanyahu said he instructed the Israeli delegation to absent itself from Rouhani’s speech.

“As the prime minister of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, I could not allow the Israeli delegation to be part of a cynical public relations ploy by a regime that denies the Holocaust and calls for our destruction,” he said.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger