NEW YORK — Iran’s president on Friday urged “quicker” efforts to free citizens held in both Iran and the United States, offering potential new signals on the fate of a Washington Post journalist and other Americans in Iranian hands.
The comments by Hassan Rouhani, who is in New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly, followed earlier suggestions from Iranian officials about the prospect of prisoner exchanges.
Rouhani told journalists he “doesn’t want to talk about the word ‘exchange’ ” but said he could explore channels to “move the legal files forward” in Iran with an aim of the joint release of those detained in both countries.
“It is important to me to find a way, if there is a way, to set them free quicker,” Rouhani said. “I wish to set as many people free as possible.”
Although Rouhani has limited sway over Iran’s judiciary — which is controlled by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — he said he could use unspecified leverage such as “suggestions and various legal actions.”
The Post’s Tehran correspondent, Jason Rezaian, has been detained since July 2014 and was tried this year on charges including espionage. He is awaiting a verdict from Tehran’s Revolutionary Court.
At least two other Americans are held in Iran: Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor imprisoned for conducting Bible studies, and Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine accused of spying. Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, disappeared in Iran in 2007, but his whereabouts are unclear.
Rezaian, 39, who has dual Iranian and American citizenship, has strongly denied the charges against him. His case has drawn appeals for his release by senior U.S. officials, media freedom groups and The Post.
Earlier this month, the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, dropped hints about a prisoner swap, telling NPR that there were “practical ways” to deal with Americans held in Iran and mentioning “a number of Iranians in prison” in the United States. Iranian officials have called for freeing 19 Iranian citizens in U.S. custody on what Iran claims are unfounded charges of violating sanctions.
In a wide-ranging interview in New York with U.S. media outlets, Rouhani said a nuclear deal reached in July with the United States and other world powers has helped offer room for greater dialogue between Tehran and Washington. He said implementation of the pact can lead to other agreements.
Rouhani also said Washington now sees that Iran can contribute in the fight against terrorism, especially against the Islamic State, whose behavior he described as “inhuman, subhuman.” Iran already has been helpful in Iraq, he said, asserting that Baghdad and the Kurdish regional capital, Irbil, would have fallen to the Islamic State without Iranian assistance.
“The nuclear issue is a big test within the framework of issues” between the United States and Iran, he said. If there is success in implementing the agreement, “then perhaps we can build on that.”
He spoke of “great opportunities” in Iran for U.S. companies after the nuclear deal and said they would face no obstacles from Iran.
Despite past U.S.-Iranian tensions, “we must all think about mutual interests,” Rouhani said. “Certainly . . . we cannot live in the past forever.” The two countries, he said, need to change their attitudes toward each other and leave “the heavy burden of this past” behind.
In sharp contrast to Rouhani’s remarks, Khamenei, the supreme leader who wields ultimate political and religious authority in Iran, has vowed that the nuclear agreement would not change Iran’s policies toward the United States or facilitate negotiations on other matters. He has described the nuclear accord as an exception to his refusal to have any dealings with what he calls the “arrogant” government in Washington.
Regarding that sort of hostility and the ubiquitous “Death to America” chants that are a staple of officially sanctioned demonstrations in Iran, Rouhani said: “The meaning is not that the people of Iran have animosity to the people of the U.S.”
Americans could go to Iran as tourists and “will see the warmth with which they will be greeted,” Rouhani added. “The people in Iran are angry at the policies of the United States of America. They primarily are targeting with this slogan, the policies of the U.S.”
Asked whether he might shake President Obama’s hand if they cross paths at the United Nations, Rouhani said there were more important things to focus on.
“Sometimes, President Obama writes me letters,” he said. “Sometimes, I write him letters.” He suggested that they can discuss issues that way for now.
Rouhani was sharply critical of U.S. senators and others who criticized Iran during congressional debate over the nuclear agreement. These critics are “living on another planet,” and their comments were “very comedic, very strange,” he said, adding that some of them could not find Iran on a map.
At the same time, Rouhani said, people in Iran need a better understanding of the United States: “The truth of the United States must be made known to them.”
William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.