Editor’s note: In his latest column, David Ignatius writes about his one-on-one interview with Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani. A transcript of the full interview is below:
Q: U.S. officials say that you have been given full authority by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to negotiate the nuclear file. I would like to ask you if that’s true, and what instructions you have been given from the Supreme Leader in these negotiations?
A: In general I would tell you that settlement of the nuclear file is one of the responsibilities of my government. It is regarding the general strategy on the issue that the Supreme Leader also has his own views. You know that since I myself led the nuclear negotiations for several years, I’m quite fully cognizant of the general framework, in terms of strategy. So within that political framework, my government is fully empowered to finalize the nuclear talks. I have delegated the task to the foreign minister.
Q: On the issue of transparency, should we understand you to be saying that Iran is prepared for full transparency including the additional protocols of the IAEA and also inspections dealing with “possible military dimensions” as they’re called, as part of this transparency effort?
A: You are aware that from 2003 to 2005 Iran had actually committed itself to the additional protocol. And it was because the nuclear dossier went to the Security Council that the [Iranian] parliament decided to withdraw from the additional protocol. In my opinion, this was the juncture where the West was mistaken on how to proceed. The reason the decision was made to transfer the nuclear file to the Security Council in 2005was simply because Iran had operationalized the Isfahan site. Isfahan, as you know, is a UCF site in which the yellowcake is converted into UF6. The Isfahan site, you will be interested to know, from Day One came under the supervision of the IAEA, even when the building of the site started. And the IAEA itself had declared that as far as the Isfahan site was concerned there had been no deviation whatsoever.
Q: To get away from the old question of Isfahan and look forward, should I understand that when you speak of the additional protocols and “other military dimensions” that is part of the standard IAEA language, that this is what you mean by transparency, yes?
A: I understand. I just want to make sure that you also recognize that the point I was trying to make was that in 2003 Isfahan was actually adhering to the additional protocol. The sole purpose of its withdrawal was that mistakenly the West chose to transfer the nuclear dossier to the Security Council, even though the activities at the Isfahan site were clearly not controversial activities. It was a mistake that created this misunderstanding over the additional protocols to begin with. You might also be interested to know that with reference to sites with certain alleged “military dimensions” that between 2003 and 2005 and we actually gave the IAEA authority to supervise a number of our military sites that they were concerned about, as well. If the IAEA or the West sought to clarify or shed light on our activity we would be transparent. And why is it that when we go through transparent steps it is only Iran? I would say that in fact one principle issue on our mind is: Is the sensitivity of the nuclear issue just an excuse, or is it really a real question? There are those in Iran who believe that, should it be an excuse, then what’s the purpose of going further [in cooperation]? Therefore we expect that one of the purposes of us getting together with P5+ 1 group can demonstrate that the issue is a real concern. If that’s the case, I can guarantee that it can be settled very quickly.
You need to recognize the severity [for Iran] of the nuclear file. It’s a file under the UN Security Council, with sanctions and unilateral sanctions. From Iran’s perspective these were all illegal under international law. Iran feels it’s a very heavy file. If the West recognizes Iran’s legal rights then there’s really no hurdle in creating full transparency that’s necessary to settle this case.
Q: Do you have authority from the Supreme Leader to settle other issues outside the nuclear file, such as Syria? What if Iran were invited to Geneva 2, would you participate?
A: My government has full authority based on discussions with the Supreme Leader to negotiate any issue that is necessary to be negotiated to preserve Iran’s security and national-security interest. That includes any necessary cooperation at the international level to help settle the Syria crisis, ending the civil war there and to insure the right of self determination of the Syrian people. We would enter in any talks or meetings including Geneva 2 as long as there are no preconditions for Iran’s participation.
Q: The UN inspectors have delivered a powerful report on use of chemical weapons that describes how missiles carrying chemical weapons were fired from government positions toward rebel positions. What is your view of the chemical weapons issue?
A: Well, let me just say we know that chemical weapons have been used. We don’t know by whom or which group. That is unclear. We do know that it has been used and we are happy that Syria has agreed to join the Chemical Weapons protocol, and that is one result of agreeing to negotiate.
Q: I want to ask you to look more broadly about the turn in U.S.-Iranian relations that may now be possible, and the opportunity for normalization of relations. What is the path to normalization? Should it include opening embassies, for example, as is normal with countries?
A: From the point of view of the Islamic Republic and the Iranian people, and the point of view of my government, when we look at U.S. policies for the region, we think they have been completely wrong. But having said that, if Mr Obama and I were to get together, we would both be looking at the future, and the prospects ahead and our hopes for that future. The notes and letters and exchanges between us are in that direction, and they will continue. We need a beginning point. I think that is the nuclear issue.
Q: What is the time frame for resolving the nuclear issue? There are reports that you would like to get it done quickly, even by the end of the year.
A: If we are on the issue of the nuclear file, we need resolution in a reasonable time. Then the road will be paved for further activities. The only way forward is for a timeline to be inserted into the negotiations that’s short–and wrap it up. That is a decision of my government, that short is necessary to settle the nuclear file. The shorter it is the more beneficial it is to everyone. If it’s 3 months that would be Iran’s choice, if it’s 6 months that’s still good. It’s a question of months not years.
Q: What about negotiating other bilateral issues, such as reopening Embassies?
A: Once the nuclear file is settled, we can turn to other issues. After resolution of the nuclear issue there are no impossibilities in term of advancing other things forward. The foundation for all this is the confidence that has to be built. That clearly will help everything else. Everything is possible after the settlement.
Q: You spoke during the campaign about your desire to prevent “securitization” of the Iranian state. And the Supreme Leader said on Sept 17: “There is no need for the Guards to exercise leadership in the political field. What does this mean?
A: One of the programs and pledges on my campaign was to insist on bringing a cultural, social and political environment in Iran and diluting the security dimensions of society at the moment. Regarding the IRGC, it’s an important institution. It helped Iran emerge victorious from the Iraq-Iran war. What the Supreme Leaders said, and I have also said, is that the IRGC should understand and analyze political affairs. But it shouldn’t get itself involved in any political groupings or activities.
Q: If you had met with President Obama, what would you have said to him?
A: It didn’t happen. But if it had happened we would have talked about opportunities and hopes for the future.