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Iran denies it staged attack on Saudi oil sites, demands proof

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Image: Hassan Rouhani
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani arrives for a news conference in New York on Sept. 26, 2019. -
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Mary Altaffer
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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday denied his country was behindthe recent attack on Saudi Arabia's oil facilities, saying the United States and European governments needed to offer up evidence after blaming Tehran.

"We have nothing to do with it," Rouhani told a press conference.

The Iranian presidentsaid in his meetings with European representatives this week during the United Nations General Assembly in New York that he had asked to see any information that would justify the accusations leveled at Tehran.

"Those who make the allegations must provide the needed proof to back up such allegations," he said.

Yemen's Houthi forces claimed responsibility for the attacks.

The U.S. and European governments needed to take into account the military capabilities of Houthi forces in Yemen, Rouhani said, citing the rebel forces' arsenal of long-range missiles.

Hours after the attacks, which caused major damage at crucial oil sites in Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration pinned the blame on Iran. Britain, France and Germany this week said they shared the same assessment. U.S. officials say the sophistication and precision of the strikes — and the fact that the missiles and drones came from a northerly direction — all pointed to Iran.

Rouhani repeated his vow that Iran would not enter into talks with the U.S. unless President Donald Trump first lifted oil and other sanctions that have severely squeezed Iran's economy.

The Trump administration needed to "cease this policy of maximum pressure" in favor of "dialogue, and logic and reason," he said.

Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers that had eased U.S. sanctions in return for limits on Tehran's nuclear program.

The Trump administration has called for negotiating a new agreement that would address Tehran's ballistic missile program, its support for proxies across the Middle East, as well as the country's nuclear activities.

Asked if he was open to a broader accord that went beyond nuclear issues, Rouhani said the 2015 deal — known as the JCPOA — would first need to be fully implemented as a foundation for wider negotiations.

"The JCPOA is not a maximum form of an agreement. It is what was possible in its time, what was attainable at its time and it must be implemented," he said.

Rouhani expressed disappointment with Britain, France and Germany for failing to provide more economic benefits to Iran under the 2015 agreement after Washington withdrew.

"So unfortunately when it comes to actions, Europe has demonstrated its lack of ability or lack of willingness," he said.

Nevertheless, Iranian officials would continue to hold discussions with their European counterparts, Rouhani said.

He criticized Trump for repeatedly expressing his dislike of the 2015 deal negotiated by his predecessor. "An agreement reached by governments is not an item on a food menu to be liked or not liked."

Even as Rouhani repeatedly called for lifting U.S. sanctions, the Trump administration this week announced more punitive measures, slapping penalties on six Chinese companies and their executives for transporting oil from Iran despite the U.S. sanctions.

The Iranian president, who gave interviews to American television networks and met with foreign policy experts during his visit this week to New York, said his government would be open to talks on a possible swap of Americans imprisoned in Iran and Iranian nationals under U.S. detention.

He said that such talks have taken place successfully with previous administrations and that Iran had taken a first step by releasing a Lebanese businessman and U.S. legal resident in June. But he accused the U.S. of failing to take reciprocal steps.

Iran was open to discussing the issue, "but the ball stands in America's court," he said.

Rouhani's comments marked the first time Iran has portrayed Nizar Zakka's release as a goodwill gesture directed at the U.S. Previously, Tehran described the move as a result of discussions with Lebanon.

U.S. officials say Americans held in Iran have been detained on baseless charges and Iran should release them and other foreigners it holds without conditions. Washington says Iranians in U.S. prisons have been lawfully convicted in legitimate legal proceedings.

The Trump administration announced Wednesday that senior Iranian officials and their immediate family members would no longer be granted visas to travel, study or work in the U.S. The move came after families of detained Americans had pressed the White House for the action to raise the cost on Iran for its detentions of foreigners.

Rouhani said the ban would have no practical effect, though he warned Washington against preventing Iranian diplomats from attending U.N. meetings in New York.

The Trump administration has said it will abide by its obligations under the U.N. charter.

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