In NBC Interview, Hassan Rouhani Can’t Stop Lying

In an interview two weeks ago, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani consistently lied and evaded questions put to him by NBC News’s Chuck Todd.

Todd first asked why Iran was claiming that the United States was not living up to the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Rouhani responded that the deal states “that all nations involved in this agreement must free the path, pave the way for resumption of normal activities with the Islamic Republic of Iran, such as banking transactions, insurance transactions, and the likes.” Not only is that not correct, it fits a pattern described earlier this week by analysts from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in which Iran hopes to gain additional concessions by threatening to walk away from the deal unless the West provides every economic concession that it believes it is owed.

The United States was only required to suspend its nuclear-related sanctions, not sanctions placed on Iran due to its history of terror financing and money laundering. (The United States has seen to it that the global watchdog against money laundering, the Financial Action Task Force, relaxed some restriction on Iran despite Iran’s continued presence at the top of the list of money launderers.)

When asked by Todd whether that was a misinterpretation of the deal’s sanctions-related clauses, Rouhani evaded the question, instead accusing the United States of blocking access to large financial institutions. Then he added that “the other breach of the agreement on the side of the United States, it has been brought into the JCPOA that airplanes intended for civil aviation only must be freely sold to Iran.”

But the airplanes that Iran wants are likely not “intended for civil aviation only.” As Emanuele Ottolenghi of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has shown, Iran Air, Iran’s national airline, which is seeking to purchase planes from Boeing and Airbus, is using planes to transport arms and troops to Syria to support the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Transporting soldiers and materiel is not “civil aviation.”

Todd later asked Rouhani if the world should be concerned about Iran’s intentions once most nuclear restrictions on Iran are lifted. Rouhani responded that Iran has adopted additional anti-weaponization safeguards as per the JCPOA, and even if these measures weren’t in place, “within the doctrine or within the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran to include the fatwa issued by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran…the building or pursuing or obtaining and using any type of weapons of mass destruction are strictly and unequivocally forbidden by Islamic law.”

The Middle East Media Research Institute has searched for a record of Khamenei’s nuclear fatwa and found no such fatwa. Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), wrote in a 2011 study (.pdf) “no written texts exist for the Supreme Leader’s fatwas.” But as WINEP research director Patrick Clawson observed in the preface to Khalaji’s analysis, even if Khamanei had issued such a fatwa, “past proclamations about the matter, like all fatwas issued by Shiite clerics, can be revised under new circumstances.”

Furthermore, Rouhani himself said in a 2005 speech (.pdf) that “having [nuclear] fuel cycle capability almost means that the country that possesses this capability is able to produce nuclear weapons, should that country have the political will to do so,” suggesting that he believes the decision to develop nuclear weapons to be a political, not religious, decision.

Todd followed up by asking Rouhani why Iran has deployed a missile defense system at the Fordow nuclear site if its purpose is strictly civilian. Rouhani cited the need for Iranians to “defend ourselves,” but didn’t fully address the question. When Todd persisted, Rouhani stated that “Iran has always maintained her commitment to any agreement it has become a signatory of. You will not find any instances during the past 38 years of the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran in which a bilateral agreement or an international agreement has been signed and Iran has broken its commitment.”

This is blatantly false. Iran, a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty refused to end its uranium enrichment program despite the threat of being sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council. The JCPOA allowed Iran to maintain a portion of its enrichment capacity, which it had maintained despite being repeatedly sanctioned. Being forgiven for the breach of an agreement is not the same thing as having abided by it.

Then Rouhani added, “What we were accused of for years, called ‘possible military dimensions,’ the International Atomic Energy Agency eventually reached the conclusion that that file must be closed for good and announced that the activities of Iran were solely for peaceful purposes.”

This is also false. The IAEA report (.pdf) last December did not find that Iran’s nuclear activities “were solely for peaceful purposes.” Rather, it found that Iran had a military nuclear program until at least 2009, though it found “no credible indications” that its military nuclear program continued after this point. It’s true that the IAEA closed down its investigation of Iran’s past nuclear work, but as the Institute for Science and International Security assessed, “the IAEA’s report can be viewed, at best, as a document that closes the process set forth by terms of the Roadmap” to the nuclear deal, but not as a clean bill of health.

Rouhani’s protestations of abiding by the deal also must be viewed with a certain amount of skepticism based on his own record as Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator more than a decade ago. In 2006, after he left the position, Rouhani boasted in a meeting with Islamic clergy and scholars that he had duped the West. Rouhani claimed that Iran had continued installing equipment for converting yellowcake, one of the ingredients necessary for creating nuclear fuel, even as he told his European counterparts that there was no nuclear work being performed at that time.

“When we were negotiating with the Europeans in Tehran we were still installing some of the equipment at the Isfahan site,” Rouhani told his audience. “There was plenty of work to be done to complete the site and finish the work there. In reality, by creating a tame situation, we could finish Isfahan.”

Similarly, when he was running for president in 2013, Rouhani said in an interview that he used the earlier negotiations to advance Iran’s clandestine, illicit nuclear work, boasting, “We halted the nuclear program? We were the ones to complete it! We completed the technology.”

Todd then asked Rouhani about Iran’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War, starting with a question about the recent Russian bombing of a humanitarian convoy, which killed 20 aid workers and which one United Nations official called a war crime. Instead of condemning the attack, Rouhani pointed to a mistaken American airstrike on a Syrian army position—as if an accidental bombing somehow excuses a deliberate one. Rouhani also claimed that since the Syrian soldiers were fighting ISIS (also known as Daesh), the United States was involved in “a direct defense of the Daesh terrorist group.” The charge is outrageous. Even though Syrian troops have been targeting civilians, the United States said that it was an accident and apologized.

Rouhani went on to state that Israel had also attacked some Syrian positions, though he neglected to mention that it was in response to shells being fired into Israel. He allowed that a ceasefire would be beneficial because “food stuff and medicines can get to those who are in need and have been waiting for those supplies for months.” But he didn’t mention that the party engaging in the sieges is Assad, with Iran’s backing.

In response to Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent call for a halt to all flying above Syria, Rouhani stated that “any proposal can be coordinated in order to avoid the targeting of humanitarian convoys.” But a general from his own country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) boasted last month that Iran provides intelligence on the ground to guide Russia’s bombing campaigns. Given this, and the ensuing possibility that Iranian troops were complicit in the bombing in question, Rouhani’s assurances that convoys can be protected are glib and meaningless.

The portrait that emerges from Rouhani’s interview is of a man who lies and distorts to defend Iran’s illicit behavior— with its domestic nuclear program and in Syria. Simply put, Rouhani is not a “moderate,” as he is so often described, but an apologist for Iran’s revolutionary regime that operates in defiance of international law and norms.

David Gerstman is Associate Editor of The Tower. Follow him on Twitter @soccerdhg


[Photo: NBC ]