President Obama's spokesman won't call Iranian President Hassan Rouhani a "moderate," but he still has enough confidence to negotiate with Iran about its nuclear program, despite the human rights abuses that have taken place since Rouhani came to power.

"We're not in the business of assigning labels to leaders of any country, we're in the business of assessing how they lead and the actions they take," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Friday.

And what actions have been taken since Rouhani's election?

Iran continues to have the highest execution rate per capita in the world. "There were at least 400 executions carried out in 2013, an increase on 352 executions in 2012," according to a report from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as a reporter reminded Carney. "In August, 35 executions were reported in one week. The true figure is probably far higher, but reports of secret executions and a lack of clarity about official figures make it difficult to give an accurate number."

Obama spoke to Rouhani about the release of three Americans jailed in Iran, but they remain imprisoned. And the administration has so far refused to link their fate to the nuclear talks.

Carney argued that the Iranian president is a credible negotiating partner, despite such human rights abuses. "What we haven't done is change our view of Iran's objectionable practices in a whole range of areas, including its abuse of human rights within Iran itself, including its support for terrorist organizations, including its support for the Assad regime," Carney said.

"What is certainly the truth is that in the wake of his election, an opening appeared to see if we could in a verifiable way produce an agreement with Iran for Iran to forsake its nuclear weapons program, and it is in the interests of the United States, the region, and the world that we pursue that opportunity."

Rouhani has bragged in the past about "creating a calm environment" that kept Western leaders from pressuring Iran too much about its nuclear weapons program.

"He will continue making on-again, off-again gestures seducing the West into protracted negotiations. Meanwhile, Iran's nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs will proceed unimpeded in unknown, undisclosed locations. This was his 2003-05 playbook," former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed after noting Rouhani's history. "Extended negotiations will enable Mr. Obama to argue that a 'diplomatic process' is under way to resolve the Iranian nuclear threat. No phrase is more beloved at the State Department. Mr. Obama will then use this process on Israel to prevent pre-emptive military action against Iran's nuclear program."