Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that his government would never develop nuclear weapons, in what may be his strongest signal yet that he is seeking a diplomatic thaw with the West after decades of acrimony.
Rouhani’s remarks appeared to be another sign of his willingness to work toward a diplomatic solution to Tehran’s bitter standoff with the United States and its allies over the nature of Iran’s nuclear program.
Speaking with NBC News just days before he was set to attend the U.N. General Assembly in New York and to make his first appearance as president on the world stage, Rouhani said: "We have never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb and we are not going to do so."
"We have time and again said that under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever," he said.
While Rouhani’s comments were similar to assertions Iran has made before -- that its nuclear activities are solely for peaceful purposes -- an expression of willingness by a newly elected president to rule out nuclear arms could help provide a new opening in long-stalled international nuclear talks.
Rouhani also addressed the question of whether he really has the power to make major decisions and concessions on the nuclear issue, given that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is believed to control all important matters of state, including those related to the country’s nuclear program.
"This government enters with full power and has complete authority," Rouhani said. "We have sufficient political latitude to solve this problem."
Khamenei, for his part, has said that nuclear weapons development would be inconsistent with Islamic values.
However, the U.S. and its allies suspect Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapon, a feat some experts said the country might be able to accomplish as early as next year.
The White House responded cautiously Wednesday to Rouhani’s remarks, saying it hoped the Iranian government would "engage substantively" to reach a solution and address concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
"The world has heard a lot from President Rouhani's administration about its desire to improve the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran's relations with the international community, and President [Barack] Obama believes we should test that assertion," a White House spokeswoman said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama had no plans to meet Rouhani at the U.N., though in the NBC interview Rouhani did not rule out meeting Obama.
Rouhani also said he had received a "positive and constructive" letter from Obama congratulating him on his election in June. In it, he said that Obama raised some issues he was concerned about and that he had responded to the points that were raised.
Since Rouhani was elected president in June, the centrist cleric has called for "constructive interaction" with the world -- a dramatic shift in tone from the strident anti-Western rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Meanwhile, Iranian authorities on Wednesday released a prominent human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was arrested in 2010 and convicted of spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security.
Rouhani had pledged during his election campaign to ease some political and social restrictions at home.