Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged the United States on Thursday to “cease this policy of maximum pressure” on his nation, saying it was driving the possibility of negotiations even further away.
Rouhani stuck to his insistence that U.S. sanctions must be lifted before he would talk with U.S. President Donald Trump, although he did not explicitly rule out such a meeting if they remain in place. He spoke about discussions with the leaders of France, Japan and Pakistan about trying to promote talks, and he made clear that such contacts are continuing.
At a wide-ranging news conference a day after his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, he said the Americans are still using “more pressure aimed at reaching discussions, which is the same thing that is taking them farther and farther away from discussions and negotiations.”
“Cease this policy of maximum pressure and pursue a policy of dialogue and logic and reason,” Rouhani said. Moving in that direction, he said, “would be a different set of circumstances and a different atmosphere.”
Iran has been accused by the U.S., Britain, France and Germany of carrying out drone and missile strikes against key oil facilities in Saudi Arabia on Sept. 14 that temporarily knocked out nearly 6% of daily global crude production and rattled oil markets.
Rouhani again denied any Iranian involvement. “As we say in Persian,” he said, “we’re not the top end of the onion or the bottom of it, so we have nothing to do with it.”
In discussions with some European countries that made the “wrong” conclusion, Rouhani said he asked for their evidence, and they offered no documentation. Saudi Arabia has invited U.N. investigators to assess where the strikes were launched. It says Iranian weapons were used.
Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf told the General Assembly later Thursday that “we know very well who stood behind this aggression.” He explicitly named Iran.
“Utmost pressure with every tool available should be applied to end the terrorist and aggressive conduct of the Iranian regime,” al-Assaf said. He urged the international community to cut off Iran’s sources of finance “to compel the regime to renounce its militias, prevent it from developing ballistic missiles and put an end to its destabilizing activities in the region and the world.”
Iran’s economy has been buckling under the weight of the sanctions. Trump added to them on Wednesday, targeting Tehran’s ability to sell its oil by imposing penalties on six Chinese companies and their chief executives for continuing to transport Iranian crude.
Rouhani called for an end to the war in Yemen, noting the rebel Houthis’ recent offer of a cease-fire, which he said went unmatched by the Saudi-led coalition that backs Yemen’s internationally recognized government.
“If there is a cease-fire in Yemen, in my opinion, our problems with Saudi Arabia, in a more expedient fashion, can be resolved,” the Iranian president said. Such a statement could be interpreted as a possible olive branch toward Riyadh.
Tensions in the Middle East have risen as the 2015 nuclear deal unraveled and Iran turned back to expanding its nuclear enrichment program, despite complying with it for up to a year after Trump’s withdrawal from the accord.
Rouhani made clear Thursday that Iran could reach a new agreement with the United States that goes beyond the 2015 nuclear deal — but only after the U.S. implements all provisions of the accord.
Trump pulled Washington out of the deal last year and re-imposed sanctions. Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia remain in the accord.
In his own U.N. address Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called on the international community to support Trump’s “maximum pressure policy” against Iran, its archenemy.
“They promote terror in the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and all over the world,” he told the U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting of global leaders. “And the world must stop them.”
In his news conference, the Iranian leader also touched on a host of other issues.
French President Emmanuel Macron has been talking both to Washington and Tehran about a proposal to create a $15 billion line of credit for Iran to entice it to remain in the nuclear deal. “In our opinion, that is still on the table,” Rouhani said, though he said it would be a temporary measure and would probably evolve.
On the issue of prisoners, Rouhani said the Trump administration had said if at least one American was freed by Iran, then Washington would reciprocate. He cited the release in June of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese and permanent U.S. resident detained in 2015 and sentenced to 10 years in prison on accusations of spying for the United States.
“They only thanked Iran,” Rouhani said. “The ball stands in America’s court.”
As for the British-flagged tanker oil tanker Stena Impero seized by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz in July, Rouhani said, “the case file is going through its last stages in the court system, and I foresee that it will be freed.”
The United States delayed issuing Rouhani’s visa, and a Russian journalist, noting that Russians and others seeking to come to the General Assembly were denied visas, asked whether the Iranian president thought U.N. headquarters should be moved to another country.
“If we are ever asked, we will of course vote for it,” Rouhani said. He said it should move to “a more secure and better country that does not have the narrow viewpoints that we have been witnessing.”
Edith M. Lederer, chief U.N. correspondent for The Associated Press, has covered international affairs for nearly a half century. Aya Batrawy covers the Persian Gulf for the AP and has reported from the Middle East for the past 15 years.