DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The president of Iran says his country has a religious duty to follow its nuclear agreement. Hassan Rouhani made that remark during an interview with NPR News. His pledge comes just before his address to the United Nations today. The question now is whether Rouhani can nudge his whole country to go along with him.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We met Iran's president over the weekend in New York. He is trying to conclude historic change. And what you think of his chances depends in part on what you think Hassan Rouhani is up to and who you think he really is. When we met in New York, we posed a simple question, which caused the president to smile.
Where are you on the Iranian political spectrum? How would you define yourself?
HASSAN ROUHANI: (Foreign language spoken).
INSKEEP: "People kept asking that during my election campaign," he said with a smile. He is one of Iran's ultimate insiders - a white-turbaned Shia cleric. He served for years in senior positions under Iran's conservative supreme leader. Yet, Rouhani campaigned in 2013 promising change and is now associated with opening up his nation.
ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) I will always choose a middle-of-the-road path between these two camps that you've described because my opinion has and is that we can use both reformists and those who are conservatives as you've described.
INSKEEP: Speaking through an interpreter, Rouhani referred to two great political camps in Iran. Conservative clerics and military figures hold ultimate power. Reformist groups are sometimes allowed to win elections and agitate for change. Rouhani's task is to bridge them all, as we could hear in our conversation. At one point, he sounded like an advocate for free speech.
ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) Those who have their own opinions or differing opinions, as far as social issues or cultural issues are concerned, we need to hear everyone's voices.
INSKEEP: Iranian society has opened a little in the past two years, yet basic rules of censorship and clerical guidance have not changed. And Rouhani insists he will enforce the laws. His balancing act is even more stark when it comes to the nuclear deal. The other day, Rouhani addressed leaders of a powerful military force - Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Under Iran's complicated system, that force does not report directly to the president. And their commander has said the nuclear deal is unacceptable.
You were reported as defending it by stating that the deal was necessary in order to bring vital improvements inside Iran. What concerns did they express to you in return?
ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) Of course, some in Iran were against this agreement. And their analysis and the reasoning and justification was that the implementation of this agreement can have an unwanted negative impact on the defensive capabilities of the nation. My position was that we did not accept any limitations that would impact negatively - impact the defensive capabilities of our nation. So given the explanations that were given to them, today the atmosphere reigning in Iran is much calmer, is much better, because they were made crystal-clear in a tangible way that we did not accept any setbacks or limitations that would impact our defensive capabilities.
INSKEEP: It's easy to see a potential confrontation coming because a time may come soon when under this agreement, nuclear inspectors will ask to see an Iranian military site. And of course, the agreement provides a process to determine if the inspectors should be allowed into the site or not. If and when that moment comes, do you have any assurances that the Revolutionary Guard Corps and other key security agencies will proceed in a manner that is cooperative rather than confrontational?
ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) Well, my country, my nation, if it accepts an agreement, if it signs an agreement, if it gives it's commitment to live up to the terms of an agreement, it will certainly do so. In Iran, throughout the history of Iran, whether it was a financial economic agreement or a security agreement, anything that Iran has signed up to, it has always lived up to.
INSKEEP: In truth, Iran has been caught in the past conducting undisclosed nuclear activity. Although more recently, Iran is broadly credited with keeping an interim nuclear agreement.
ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) We have never broken our commitment. This is our cultural framework, this is our comportment, this is our religious duty.
INSKEEP: It is possible, though, to foresee that moment when there is a difference of opinion about whether a military base should be visited or not. How do you intend to manage that moment, which could be a moment of confrontation?
ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) I do not see any challenges in the implementation. If we get to the point of implementation, and if our counterparts fully live up to the letter of the commitment signed, we are fully capable of adhering to the letter of the agreement implemented and live up to our commitments.
INSKEEP: Even though you are not directly in command of the military forces, you are able to assure that the military forces will comply with this agreement in an acceptable manner.
ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) Well, of course, I am not the commander in chief. But I propose the laws of the nation, even those pertaining to the armed forces. Those are given by the office of the presidency. The budget of the armed forces are within the purview and control of the administration. And they are the ones who give the budget and set the parameters of the budgets. Yes, the president is not the head of the armed forces, but it does have legal control - parameters. So that's why I said and stressed that according to the framework of our constitution, the president is the chief executor of the laws within the constitution.
INSKEEP: That Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, in a conversation in New York. He is hoping to use the power of the purse to keep security forces in line in his country. He does have access to a greater power - it's his long relationship with Iran's supreme leader. Unlike Rouhani, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei does command Iran's armed forces. When inspections begin, it will be up to Khamenei to decide how much to accept. We have a lot more with Hassan Rouhani in today's program and at npr.org. Today on All Things Considered, we ask if he will pledge not to spend Iran's new wealth on Hezbollah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.