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Rouhani Looks to Warmer Ties with Saudis, Tepidly Criticizes US Syria Strikes

At a press breakfast during his trip to New York for the UN General Assembly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani questioned the legality of U.S. strikes on Syria, expressed hope for reaching a nuclear agreement with the P5+1, and called for warmer ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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On his second trip to the UN General Assembly as Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani said he looked forward to better relations with regional rival Saudi Arabia and only tepidly criticized the US attack on Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS) and Khorasan targets in Syria.

Speaking at a press breakfast with about two dozen media representatives, Rouhani expressed hope that the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China plus Germany) and Tehran will conclude a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program by the current Nov. 24 deadline but noted that differences remain and that this week’s series of meetings in New York are likely to be critical.

Failure to reach an agreement, he said, will not necessarily result in a rapid uptick in tensions between Washington and Tehran.

“If there [is] no final agreement, there will perhaps be another way to go,” he said.

“For now, everything is based, God willing, on reaching an accord. [But failure to meet the deadline] doesn’t mean we will go back to the way things were before.”

He also suggested that the Obama administration should accept Iran’s role as a regional leader in the fight against ISIS, stressing that, while Washington justified its initial military reaction to the Sunni group’s sweep last month across much of central and northern Iraq largely in terms of protecting US personnel and property, Iran was already taking action to bolster anti-ISIS forces on the ground.

“Americans are very aware that the country that prevented the [Baghdad] government from falling was Iran,” he said. “Iran’s role has been undeniable.”

“Countries in the region are much more qualified to lead [the anti-ISIS] efforts than those who are outside and don’t know the region as well,” he said through a translator.

This press breakfast marked the first of a series of events featuring Rouhani, who will address the UN General Assembly and hold a more general press conference. It came amidst intensified diplomacy between the P5+1 and Iran, which included a meeting lasting more than one hour between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, who had already arrived in New York.

The breakfast, in which Rouhani answered questions in Farsi, also came in the immediate aftermath of the Pentagon’s confirmation that it had attacked targets of Khorasan, an al-Qaeda offshoot that Washington claims is actively planning and preparing attacks against western states, including the US, inside Syria.

Khorasan is not known to have links with ISIS, whose recent military successes in both Syria and Iraq prompted Obama’s decision to dispatch some 1,600 US trainers and advisers to Iraq and to authorize air strikes against ISIS forces in both countries.

US Anti-ISIS Campaign

Rouhani did not explicitly address Khorasan during the breakfast, focusing instead on ISIS, as well as other groups he referred to as “terrorist.”

As to the US air strikes in Syrian territory, Rouhani questioned their legality but did not explicitly denounce them. He stressed, however, that any military action within a country’s borders should either be authorized by the UN Security Council or by the country whose territory is subject to attack. “[It’s not] legal, particularly without the authority of the government,” he said.

“…Everything that does take place must take place within the legal framework,” he said later in reference to US counter-terrorist actions in Iraq and Syria, and possible coordination between Tehran and Washington in that effort.

Perhaps his most significant remarks, however, came in response to a question about relations between Iran and its regional rival, Saudi Arabia. It came in the wake of a meeting between Zarif and Riyadh’s foreign minister, Prince Saudi al-Faisal in which the latter reportedly invited Zarif to visit the kingdom.

Many observers have commented recently that any effort to isolate and defeat ISIS and eventually reach a political settlement to the civil war in Syria will require understandings worked out between Tehran and Riyadh.

“Saudi Arabia is an important country in our region, and we believe that the relationships between [Iran and the Gulf] countries must be very dignified and very strong,” Rouhani said. “Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is not within the level that our people expect. I believe relations deserve to be warmer.”

He went on to say that he believed Riyadh was moving “closer and closer with us” as a result of a conditions in the region, an apparent reference to ISIS’s advances. “Within the next few months, I believe our relations will grow warmer,” he added.

Rouhani also repeatedly stated that Iran’s role as a leader in the anti-ISIS fight should be given more recognition, noting that he had spoken at length about the dangers posed by “extremism and violence” in his speech to the General Assembly a year ago.

“Perhaps this [ISIS] threat and danger were not crystal clear when I spoke,” he observed.

And he questioned Washington’s claim to leading the international fight against ISIS. “Can countries [carry out this effort] without cooperation and coordination and succeed,” he asked.

“Is a coalition needed? If so, who is best suited to lead? …Is it possible [to defeat extremism] without [addressing root causes and] without knowing the region very well?” he asked rhetorically.

“Countries in the region are much more qualified to lead…,” he said.

“The Americans are free (to make their own) judgment, but people are aware that the strongest government that has taken the strongest fight against terrorism has been Iran,” he said.

Without citing the United States by name, Rouhani also implicitly criticized Washington’s strategy in Syria, noting that it was not “easily digestible” for Iranians to accept the leadership of countries which had supported anti-Assad insurgent groups, some of which have been associated with ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate.

He also complained that “a country” that says it wants to fight against a terrorist group but, at the same time, forms, arms and trains an anti-government group in a third country (a reference to Saudi Arabia) and then sends them back in hopes it will fight the terrorist group was “nebulous and ambiguous at best” and constituted a “very confusing behavior and policy.”

Nuclear Talks

On the nuclear negotiations, Rouhani broke no new ground but suggested that current differences between the P5+1 and Iran went beyond the size and scope of Tehran’s uranium enrichment program and included the timeframe of any comprehensive agreement and the lifting of sanctions as well as what changes will be made to the Arak reactor.

“This week will clarify many things as to whether we will reach an agreement in two months,” he said, adding that both sides agree that the “continuation of the current agreement doesn’t benefit anyone.”

If an agreement is indeed reached, relations between Iran and the US will be “completely different” and will constitute a “win-win for all sides,” he said, noting that he and President Obama had spoken “in depth about a number of issues of co-operation” once the nuclear issue had been resolved during their ground-breaking phone conversation one year ago, as Rouhani was being driven to the JFK airport after the General Assembly.

Rouhani also acknowledged that there was domestic opposition to an agreement and rapprochement between the US and Iran, noting that various sectors in both countries had opposed the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) reached in November last year. “But after the dust settled,” he noted, Iranians “…saw only roses, not thorns, on the path.”

Detained Washington Post Reporter

A number of attendees at the breakfast raised the plight of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian and his wife who have been detained in Iran for more than two months without formal charges.

Rouhani insisted that the case was in the hands of the judiciary and that he hoped it would be resolved very soon.

“The judiciary has not yet made a determination,” he said.

Asked whether their detention may have been designed to sabotage the P5+1 talks and weaken his government, Rouhani said he didn’t think the action was “premeditated” (the translator said “pre-programmed”) with that intent, although his answer fell short of a categorical rejection of that notion.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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