In a reception at a U.N. Plaza hotel in Manhattan on Monday for media executives held as part of the kickoff of the United Nations General Assembly high week, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi surprised those in attendance—and apparently his staff—by telling the journalists they could quote his remarks, contradicting the terms of the invitation to the event.
Raisi told the journalists that he was “seeking to explain” and provide “answers to longstanding questions,” adding that he wanted his answers “distributed to your audiences and colleagues.”
Among the many topics he discussed, which ranged from a recent prisoner swap conducted with the United States to the civil unrest that has emerged in the Islamic Republic, was Tehran’s position on the ongoing war in Ukraine, where Iran has been accused of supplying Russia with loitering munitions, also called “suicide drones,” which have proven a devastating addition to Moscow’s arsenal.
Raisi acknowledged that the Iran-Russia relations “encompass a multitude of angles, from economic cooperation and development, and event cooperation, to cultural exchanges, to research,” but he emphasized that each of these dynamics “predates the Ukraine war.” He argued that no documents have ever been produced to support the allegations that Iran has provided Russia with such weapons since the onset of the conflict more than a year and a half ago.
The Iranian leader also asserted that “we are against the war in Ukraine, period,” and offered to help bring an end to the conflict.
“We have announced repeatedly that we are willing to mediate in order to bring a cessation of hostilities between the Russian Federation and Ukraine,” Raisi said.
He argued that Washington, on the other hand, was playing a destabilizing role by supplying Kyiv with large amounts of military aid.
“And our question remains for the United States,” Raisi said, ‘Why such eagerness in supplying military hardware and bringing in the dollar amount from those supplies and sales, rather than vigorously entering the arena in order to promote the cessation of hostilities and promote peace?'”
Iran isn’t the first to offer to facilitate dialogue between Moscow and Kyiv. Turkey played an early role in bringing the two sides to the table and, though the conflict would only intensify, Ankara managed to secure a U.N.-endorsed deal between the two that allowed for the export of grains through the Black Sea until Moscow suspended the initiative in July.
China and a group of six African heads of state are among those who have made overtures to both sides in a bid to bring an end to a conflict that has ravaged Ukraine.
Beijing did, however, manage to successfully broker a deal between two other bitter rivals, Iran and Saudi Arabia, who agreed to resume ties in March with support from the People’s Republic. The deal emerged as part of a growing trend of reconciliation measures in the region, with Iran seeking to rebuild ties with Arab countries that had grown critical of Tehran as a result of its support for militias in Syria—where Russia too intervened in support of the government—and other regional states such as Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.
Responding to Newsweek’s question regarding the future of Iran’s regional ties, Raisi was optimistic, but cast blame on the U.S.
“Our policy in the Islamic Republic of Iran has been in having good neighborly relations with all countries in the region, tying to strength,” Raisi said.
“If there has been weakness,” he added, “it is because of meddling by the United States and other countries. If the meddling stops, this relationship will improve.”
Even the dynamic with Washington, which first broke off diplomatic ties with Tehran after its 1979 Islamic Revolution, has undergone recent developments. Officials from both sides announced that they had conducted a prisoner swap that resulted in the release of five U.S. nationals and the anticipated release of five Iranian citizens, along with the return of $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets held by the U.S.
Asked if Iran would use the money solely for humanitarian purposes as reportedly outlined in the terms of the agreement, which have not been made public, Raisi stated that “the funds were unjustly confiscated from the people of Iran,” and “will be solely spent to meet the needs of the people of Iran.”
Raisi also acknowledged the role of other nations in making the prisoner exchange possible, expressing his “gratitude for the engagement and the assistance and the involvement of the countries that set foot in the arena in order to accomplish this,” with the deal being put together through Qatar.
Still, he argued that the swap “could have been accomplished much sooner had it not been for the wrong calculus of the other side in thinking that instead of choosing the table, pausing the conversations, they are better off betting on the dead horses of rioters and those who cause instability.”
He also suggested the deal could “lead to other humanitarian actions” between the U.S. and Iran.
But U.S.-Iran frictions have otherwise only worsened over the past year, especially since the collapse of an abortive effort to revive a 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by Washington in 2018 and the eruption of nationwide protests last year. The demonstrations were sparked by the death of a woman held in police custody for allegedly failing to adhere to strict standards that mandate female citizens cover their hair in public.
President Joe Biden‘s administration has repeatedly accused Raisi and his government of committing human rights abuses in cracking down on demonstrations.
The Iranian president acknowledged the protests, noting such demonstrations take place in all countries, including those in the West. But he said he and his administration “differentiate very strictly between rioters and protesters.”
“The United States and European countries fan the flames of fires that I mentioned they had set themselves,” Raisi said, “and we are widely disappointed in this plot that they have sent against the people of Iran, aimed at disruption and [creating] instability.”
“And we see the overcoming of the riots in Iran, and the chaos that was caused by those rioters last year—we took that as a victory for the people of Iran, because they came out victorious in a war that was waged against them,” he added. “It was an economic war as well, waged in the media, it was a psychological war effort aimed against them—it was defeated—just as sanctions that have been imposed harshly against the people of Iran have been defeated.”
Raisi was confident that Iran would find “a way forward” through its current challenges both internal and external, and all of which he tied to the U.S.
“Hijab, human rights, nuclear issues—these are all pieces that are moved around … at the hands of the United States of America against the Islamic Republic of Iran because it is a nation that has sought to live peacefully and independently with strength yet not under the dominance of anyone,” Raisi said. “So this has been the plan set forth, and these have been the various excuses, the various tools, if you will, in their toolbox.”