NEW YORK — The jailing of a Washington Post reporter without public charges in Iran is not evidence of a power struggle between moderate and conservative political forces, Iran’s president said Tuesday.
President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, expressed optimism that the generally conservative Iranian judiciary would “comport itself in a fair manner” in the case of reporter Jason Rezaian and his wife, Iranian journalist Yeganeh Salehi, who was also arrested.
“I do not believe this was something preprogrammed against my administration,” Rouhani said Tuesday.
Rouhani called for a “resolute fight” against Islamic State militants but denounced the U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria as violations of international law and unwelcome Western interference in the Middle East.
He expressed hope for a comprehensive accord with world powers that would govern Iran’s nuclear program, although prospects for an agreement before a November deadline have appeared dim.
Rouhani spoke to U.S. editors and reporters ahead of his address to the U.N. General Assembly this week. The annual U.N. gathering is the only time an Iranian leader is allowed to visit the United States, and the Shiite power broker and U.S. adversary has routinely used the platform to explain its foreign policy and tweak American leaders.
A meeting with President Obama is unlikely this year, Rouhani said. Such a meeting would be historic after more than three decades of enmity between Tehran and Washington. Obama called Rouhani during last year’s General Assembly and has said he would be open to a meeting under the right circumstances.
Rouhani is considered a political reformer, and he charmed some in the United States last year with cordial political overtures and a pledge to work for better relations. He has at least a limited mandate from Iran’s supreme religious leader to pursue a deal that would curb the country’s nuclear program, which the West sees as deeply suspect, in exchange for the lifting of crippling international sanctions.
Iranian hard-liners are skeptical of the negotiations and Rouhani’s intentions. That internal political tension has led to speculation that Rezaian’s arrest was an attempt by hard-liners to embarrass Rouhani before his visit to New York and complicate chances for the nuclear accord.
Rezaian has been detained by the judiciary, Rouhani said, which has “not yet made a determination” about his case.
He said he was “hopeful and quite optimistic” that the judiciary would resolve the case fairly.
Rezaian is a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen, but Iran has refused to allow diplomats representing the United States to visit him since he and Salehi were detained July 22. Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, considering anyone holding an Iranian passport to be Iranian only.
The Iranian government has said little about Rezaian’s case since he was picked up in Tehran. Rezaian and Salehi have not been permitted access to a lawyer, according to Rezaian’s family. His mother and brother say they have not been allowed to communicate with him.
In the interview Tuesday, Rouhani suggested that Iran has worked aggressively to fight “terrorists” in the region. The United States has sought at least a tacit commitment from Iran to play a helpful role in confronting Islamic State militants, but Rouhani did not make any commitment.
“Terrorist and extreme violence is a serious threat for all of us,” he said. “These groups need a resolute fight to be carried out against them.”
Iran is a leading opponent of the Sunni-led militants but is unwilling to line up with an international coalition that is led by Washington and that includes Tehran’s regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia.
“Who is best qualified to lead such a coalition?” Rouhani asked. “Is it possible to do so without knowing the Middle East region extremely well?”
He added that the U.S.-led attacks in Syria “do not have any legal standing” without U.N. approval.
Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and must now calibrate its policies to balance its desire to defeat the Islamic State against its interests in keeping Assad in power.
U.S. and Iranian diplomats are meeting this week on the stalled nuclear accord, amid wide pessimism that Iran is willing to accept the deep cuts to its uranium-enrichment that the West demands.
Rouhani expressed hope for a deal but said that his country must be able to “maintain a peaceful nuclear program” — a reference to uranium enrichment.
Iran insists that it does not seek a nuclear weapon and that it produces nuclear fuel to power reactors for energy production and medical research. The West and its allies fear that Iran could use its enrichment program to someday create warhead-grade nuclear material.
Rouhani acknowledged that U.S. and international sanctions have squeezed his nation’s economy but said Iran has been able to soften the blow through stepped-up trade with countries that disregard the measures. China and central Asian nations, for example, have boosted their economic links with Iran.
“Is this to the benefit of the American economy, the American people, the world at large?” he said, calling the sanctions “inhumane and against human rights.”
Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.