Not only did President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani fail to shake hands on Tuesday in this month’s second most anticlimactic foreign relations moment (after the U.S. deciding not to bomb Syria), the two leaders didn’t even bother to watch each other’s speeches before the U.N. General Assembly. Obama was a few blocks away chatting with Bill Clinton about Obamacare as Rouhani took the stage on Tuesday afternoon, but as it turns out, he didn’t miss much. Despite his friendly overtures to the U.S. in recent days, Rouhani offered no new concessions, though he did tone down Iran’s usual anti-Western rhetoric and attacks on Israel just a tad. But Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, told the AP that Iran’s new president only sounded more moderate because Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “set an incredibly low bar for dignified behavior.”
While insisting that Iran “poses absolutely no threat to the world or to the region,” and is ready to work with the U.S.“to manage our differences,” Rouhani offered several digs at the U.S. in a speech that seemed partially aimed at placating his audience back in Iran. Rouhani said he hoped Obama wouldn’t be influenced by “the short-sighted interests of warmongering pressure groups,” and complained that the sanctions placed on his country are “violent, pure and simple,” and violate the “inalienable human rights” of ordinary Iranians.
While Ahmadinejad had used the U.N. address to declare Israel should be “eliminated,” Rouhani never mentioned the nation specifically. Though, he did prompt a walk out by the Israeli delegation by decrying the “structural violence” against Palestinians. “Palestine is under occupation,” he said. “The basic rights of the Palestinians are tragically violated and they are deprived of the right of return and access to their home’s birthplace and homeland, a concept can hardly describe the crimes and institutionalized aggression against the innocent Palestinian people.”
In an interview that aired on CNN after his somewhat confrontational speech, Rouhani was back to trying to win over the American people, this time by denying the Holocaust a little bit less. While he referenced his previous “I’m not a historian” dodge, he told Christiane Amanpour, “in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime the Nazis created towards the Jews, is reprehensible and condemnable. Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn.”
Lest anyone misinterpret his condemnation of one of the worst atrocities in human history, he added that such crimes don’t give anyone the right to “usurp the land of another group and occupy it.”