NEW YORK — Iranian president Hassan Rouhani claimed not to know the details of the case against a group of young Iranians arrested for making a video to the Pharrell song and dodged questions about a jailed Washington Post reporter during an appearance in New York Wednesday.
In a lengthy onstage interview with Fareed Zakaria at the Hilton hotel in midtown Manhattan, Rouhani was extremely vague on the topic of the young "Happy" dancers and of Jason Rezaian, the Tehran-based Washington Post reporter who was arrested in July.
"I'm not certain what this thing you're referring to was, how many people danced," Rouhani told Zakaria, who asked about the harsh treatment of the "Happy" dancers. They have been sentenced to 91 lashes and six months in jail because of the video, though the sentence is a suspended for three years contingent on good behavior. Rouhani had appeared to refer to the case (and side with the dancers) in a tweet from May: "#Happiness is our people's right. We shouldn't be too hard on behaviors caused by joy."
"I as the president of Iran have been sworn and put there by the will of the people to protect the constitution," Rouhani said. "If the constitution is violated, it is my legal responsibility to implement appropriate steps."
But "we do have an independent judiciary," Rouhani said. "Perhaps an individual does something that legally may not be allowed in Iran, whether I like it or you like it or not."
Rouhani is in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, where he will make a speech on Thursday. His visit last year made headlines for breaking a longtime barrier: He and President Obama spoke on the phone. In the year since, the United States and its negotiating partners have attempted to eke out a nuclear deal with Iran — a project that has required more cooperation with Iran than there has been in decades, and one that some on both sides argue must be dealt with separately from human rights concerns. Rouhani's appearance on Wednesday, which was attended by protesters demanding the release of political prisoners, underscored the tension between these issues.
Rouhani did not say Rezaian's name, though Zakaria asked him directly about the reporter.
"The individual you named is being investigated," he said. "At a time when a case is being built and the prosecutor is working hard to send that case file to the appropriate court, only then will everyone be informed as to what the actual charges are."
"We must not prematurely express opinions about a case file that hasn't reached the court yet," Rouhani said.
During the part of the interview that dealt with "Happy" and Rezaian, two young men held up sheets of paper with the images of the Green Movement leaders who have been under house arrest since after the elections and mass protests in 2009.
Ali Abdi, an activist who was a student organizer in 2009 and is now a PhD student at Yale, stood up at the end of the interview and shouted at Rouhani about Ghoncheh Ghavami, the 25-year-old British-Iranian woman who was arrested for trying to watch a volleyball match and has been put in solitary confinement in Tehran's notorious Evin prison.
"She is 25 years old, and she is now in prison for the act of trying to watch volleyball," Abdi said as Rouhani started to leave the stage.
Rouhani responded to Abdi in Farsi; according to Abdi, he said, "Yes, we can discuss it later sometime if you come to us."
"Really not a very concrete and productive response," Abdi said.
"Of course I know that President Rouhani is facing so many challenges inside the country and from Parliament, from the judiciary, but at the same time many of us who voted for him expect him to be a little more serious in pursuing those promises he made before the elections," Abdi said.
President of the National Iranian American Council Trita Parsi argued that from a political standpoint, Rouhani can't criticize the actions of the judiciary that sentenced the dancers and is investigating Rezaian in the setting of an interview in New York the same way he could if he were back in Iran.
"He can use very harsh language against [his domestic political opponents] in Tehran and he has, and he's been criticized for it as well, but it's a very different thing for him to do so while sitting in New York being interviewed by a very famous American journalist," Parsi said. "So I'm not surprised that he's giving an answer like that."