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Showing Openness to U.S. Overtures, Iran’s President Tries to Recast Perceptions

September 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani told the UN his nation "seeks constructive engagement with other countries," but delayed meeting President Obama. Gwen Ifill attended a meeting with the Iranian leader. She and Judy Woodruff discuss the significance of Rouhani's efforts to cast himself in a different light than his predecessors.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We return to Iran.

A short time ago, the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, sat down for an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose. He talked about the meeting and handshake that never happened with President Obama.

CHARLIE ROSE: What’s necessary for you to have a bilateral meeting with the president?

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI, Iran (through interpreter): Well, after all, we’re speaking of two countries who have had no relations for 35 years.

So it’s clear that to begin talks requires some preparation work. And whenever the prep work is completed, I believe that it’s possible to have a meeting. We must all admit, I believe, that the principle of the meeting of the two sides is indeed important, but perhaps more important than that is the result of such a meeting.

So we must make every effort so that first high official meeting between two countries will definitely yield positive results.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Gwen, you were also in New York this morning, part of a breakfast that President Rouhani had. Tell us, did you get a sense of whether the Iranians viewed what they were doing when they turned down President Obama’s request as a snub, whether they meant it that way?

GWEN IFILL: Well, it’s important to remember that Hassan Rouhani is, among other things, a self-described politician who is being very shrewd about this. It was clear to him that the U.S. was making the overture. It was also clear to them they were not ready. That’s what the U.S. said yesterday.

It’s also what Rouhani suggested today, that they need time in order to decide what’s the proper thing to do. And I think what they wanted to happen was the meeting on Thursday with Kerry and Zarif first, before they have a chance…

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how seriously…

GWEN IFILL: … to meet the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Excuse me.

How seriously are they viewing these talks between their foreign minister and our secretary of state?

GWEN IFILL: I sensed that they’re taking it very seriously.

Rouhani was very open to this idea of meeting with the president. He said it wasn’t about ego, it wasn’t about playing games. But he also really wants these crippling sanctions which the international community has imposed on Iran taken off. That’s the only time he got emotional during his talk today.

And the only way to do that is to get people to sit down at the table and talk.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we were talking earlier, and we talked about whether this really is a charm offensive that they’re trying to put together. Is that how it came across when you were across the table with him this morning?

GWEN IFILL: Oh, absolutely, and not only across the table. Not only was he speaking to leaders in the U.S. media. Not only was he talking to Charlie Rose at PBS and Christiane Amanpour at CNN. He’s — and Ann Curry last week at NBC.

He’s doing his best to get in front of the eyeballs of the American people and say, I’m a different kind of Iranian leader. I’m not that guy who came here last time and denied the Holocaust. I’m someone who believes that way you believe and who can — actually you can do business with.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet they must know that Americans view him and other Iranians now through the lens of what’s happened with U.S.-Iranian relations over the last 30, 35 years.

GWEN IFILL: Absolutely.

If they view the — Americans view Iranians at all, it’s not in a good way. He’s aware of that and feels that there has got to be some way to close that gap. What they want to do to close that gap is first to open our minds to the possibilities of a conversation.

And what they have in that is an American president, an American administration which is saying, well, let’s see. Let’s see. And they’re saying, let’s see, which is so much farther than they have been so far.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One last thing I’m curious about, Gwen. We know that he does speak some English. How much English did you hear from him?

GWEN IFILL: I heard two words of English today. He spoke entirely through an interpreter. He’s more comfortable. I was actually talking to the interpreter, who said to me he’s just much more comfortable that way, even though he can express himself in English. He can engage better speaking in Farsi.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fascinating.

GWEN IFILL: It was.