Rouhani said that while weapons of mass destruction were not on Tehran’s agenda “as a matter of principle,” it would go on enriching uranium to meet its energy needs.
He spoke less than a week after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif signed a deal with the P5+1 limiting its ability to install new centrifuges and enrich uranium beyond 5 percent.
Referring to Western concerns about the scale of the country’s nuclear program – “or, as you put it, how big the ‘size’ is going to be” – Rouhani said it would depend on “our needs for nuclear fuel.”
Though he spoke in Persian, the Iranian president used the English word “size” in an imitation of Western leaders and negotiators, a slight smile on his face.
Rouhani said the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program could be confirmed by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) cameras monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities.
The IAEA has inspected parts of Iran’s program regularly over the past decade, submitting its findings to the IAEA’s 35-nation board and the UN Security Council.
The interim nuclear agreement sealed between Iran and world powers in Geneva on Sunday boosts the scope and significance of the agency’s monitoring activities, making it the chief arbiter of whether Iran is keeping its end of the bargain: capping its nuclear program in exchange for some sanctions relief.
Under the Geneva deal, inspectors will be able to visit Iran’s Natanz and Fordo enrichment sites daily and have greater oversight elsewhere. They will monitor Iran’s commitment to dilute or downgrade its stock of enriched uranium that is closest to weapons grade; to enrich only to levels far lower than weapons grade, and to turn all material it is enriching into oxide, which is difficult to reconvert.
Even then, the agency’s expanded role has its limits.
The IAEA shares fears by Washington and its allies that Tehran worked on a nuclear weapons program until 2003. And agency reports, based in part on US and other intelligence, say some activities may have continued beyond then.
Iran denies such work. But it still declines to answer related IAEA questions or give agency experts access to sites, people and documents allegedly connected to such activity. And it refuses to give the IAEA authority to turn its inspectors into nuclear sleuths and allow them to roam the country in search of possible undeclared sites.
During Friday’s interview, Rouhani seemed undeterred by the doubts clouding the Geneva deal, expressing optimism about Iran’s increased engagement with the West and particularly with Washington, as well as about its prospects for financial growth as sanctions ease.
The recently elected leader, described by the FT’s Lionel Barber as the “friendlier face” of the Tehran regime, commented on the “serious economic problems” his government had inherited from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but said the situation was markedly improving.
“This government has inherited serious economic problems … but we are very hopeful about the future of the country’s economy,” he said, citing his government’s success in curbing inflation in the three months since he took office.
He added that one of his top priorities as Iran’s president was to decrease tensions vis-à-vis Washington and create mutual trust, step by step.
“Problems of 35 years cannot be resolved in a short period of time,” Rouhani said. “If the steps taken in [the interim nuclear deal agreed in] Geneva are implemented carefully and precisely, it would mean that we have taken one step forward towards trust.”
Praising the “change in atmosphere” he had felt during his visit to New York to address the UN General Assembly, Rouhani said he had found US President Barack Obama to be “someone with very polite and smart language.”
He added, however, that US-Iranian relations were still “very complicated.”
Regarding the protracted civil war in Syria, Rouhani said he was concerned about the presence of terrorist groups on Syrian soil.
“I basically consider the continuation of bloodshed and civil war in Syria to be against the region’s stability,” Rouhani said.
He added that he was working with regional and European powers towards reaching a political solution to the conflict.
“Whatever Syrian people wish for in the election, we all have to surrender to,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.