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Rouhani: Economy and Foreign Policy are My Priority - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, left, during a session of Assembly of Experts  in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013 (AP Photo)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, left, during a session of Assembly of Experts in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013 (AP Photo)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Hassan Rouhani delivered his first speech as president to Iran’s influential Assembly of Experts on Wednesday morning, allowing observers a glimpse into his political priorities and attempts to negotiate the country’s complex power structure.

The Iranian president outlined his government’s priorities, and said tackling Iran’s economic problems and foreign policy issues were of paramount importance for his administration.

Rouhani’s emphasis on the need to deal with economic and foreign policy issues contrasts with the views of many of his opponents within the ranks of Iran’s clerics, who want him to focus on preserving cultural and religious norms instead of taking an aggressive and popular stand on foreign policy challenges.

According to the IRNA news agency, Rouhani, a long-serving member of the Assembly, which is charged with choosing and overseeing the country’s supreme leader, said that the state was now held in higher esteem in public opinion after the June election, and was seen as more responsible to the will of the people.

This was also reflected in international perceptions of Iran, Rouhani added. “Following the election, the world looks differently upon Iran and the Islamic Republic,” he was quoted as saying by IRNA. According to the news agency, Rouhani also said that June’s presidential election demonstrated the success of Iran’s political system, and was “a response to many doubts, ambiguities and anti-Iran propaganda about religious democracy.”

Rouhani also expressed hope that the changes taking place in Iran’s domestic politics as the result of his election would bring about “change in the international outlook towards Iran,” according to IRNA.

Rouhani’s comments reflect the fact that positive changes in the tone and attitude in the West’s engagement with Iran are potential bargaining chips in his struggles with his domestic opponents, according to many analysts.

Rouhani reminded the clerical members of the Assembly that the country is facing a massive budget deficit and an explosion of unemployment. He said that this year’s budget, proposed by the previous administration, is unrealistic.

Speaking on the issue of Syria, President Rouhani restated Iran’s support to the Syrian people through providing humanitarian assistance, but stopped short of explicitly endorsing the Syrian government.

Rouhani nonetheless warned the US and its allies that there would be dire consequences to intervention in the war in Syria, which he said would spill over its borders.

“We strongly condemn any hostile measure against regional countries, particularly Syria,” Rouhani added.

In a parallel development, controversy continues to surround comments attributed to former president Hashemi Rafsanjani on the Syrian crisis, which prompted heated speeches in Iran’s parliament.

Comments attributed to Rafsanjani during his summer holiday at a northern village of Savad Kooh in the Alborz mountains made the headlines earlier this week, after recordings emerged of a speech in which he is reported to have said: “The Syrian government has bombed its own people with chemical weapons.”

Iran has backed the government of Bashar Al-Assad throughout its conflicts with the armed rebel groups fighting to overthrow it, offering its full support for the Damascus regime. However, the issue of chemical weapons remains sensitive in Iran, given Saddam Hussein’s employment of poison gas on the battlefield in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.

Alireza Zakani, a conservative MP requested an official investigation to be launched to verify the authenticity of such comments.

Hashemi Rafsanjani’s official website has neither confirmed nor denied the comments.