As Pope Francis stood before the General Assembly last Friday, and praised the Iran nuclear deal, a passel of journalists and editors gathered across the street in the aptly named “Diplomatic Ballroom” of the UN hotel for a breakfast meeting with Iran’s President Rouhani.
What a difference a year makes. Many of the same journalists and editors had gathered last year—same month, same ballroom. This time, as Rouhani noted in understated style, “conditions are somewhat different then when we met last year.” In a wide-ranging conversation, he offered a bracing assessment of US-Iranian relations, the Syrian crisis, the threat from ISIS, and conditions in the Middle East.
While the success of the Iran nuclear deal holds out the possibility of improved relations with the United States, Rouhani insisted that the next question must be “whether the deal will be implemented?… Can it be built upon?… Will it be a roadmap we can emulate regarding resolution of other issues?” Responding to a question about “roadblocks” to implementation, Rouhani spoke of “opposition on both sides.” But, he added, “we should start seeing implementation and tangible results maybe as soon as November…. Not everything is in a holding pattern.” Implementation of the deal, Rouhani noted, would improve what he described as an “atmosphere of trust”—if it fails, we might see a “permanent [trust] gap.”
Rouhani was sardonic in criticizing US senators and other opponents of the deal: “From the other side of the pond, so to speak, these critics look as though they are living on another planet,” and their comments were “very comedic, very strange.” Some of them, he understood, could not even locate Iran on a map. Challenged as to how to explain to Americans chants of “Death to America” heard during weekly prayers and sanctioned rallies in Iran, Rouhani said such slogans are more an expression of “the depth of opposition to the policies of US in the region. Yes, those who have ill will toward US exist…. there have been bitter events in the past.… but the meaning of those chants is not animosity toward the people of the US…the people of Iran are angry about the policies of the US in the Middle East.” He insisted, “We must change the atmosphere” and end tensions and animosities. “Certainly, we cannot live in the past forever.”
When asked how much freedom he has to govern—aren’t there forces prepared to undermine his reformist movement, especially on the eve of his country’s parliamentary elections?—Rouhani spoke, elliptically at first, of the tension between the executive and judiciary in Iran that, he argued, has impeded the release of journalists and others imprisoned in Iran’s prisons. Asked specifically about the chances of freeing Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has been held for over a year in an Iranian prison on charges including espionage, Rouhani said he favored freeing US prisoners in Iran and all Iranians held in US jails, but again said the matter was largely in the hands of his country’s judiciary. But he urged “quicker” efforts to free citizens held in both Iran and the United States. Referring to the government’s role as custodian of the Constitution, Rouhani added, “It is important to me to find a way, if there is a way, to set them free quicker. I wish to set as many people free as possible.”
On Syria: “Syria must face the new conditions. The government in Damascus cannot continue to govern in the way it has, it must create conditions and space for opposition.” But he pivoted quickly to identifying the terrorists, ISIS, as the ones destroying homes and creating the refugee crisis.
“Stability can be imagined with democracy,” Rouhani argued, ”but democracy cannot be imagined without stability…. You cannot put ballot boxes out on a battlefield.”
He said the United States was wrong to try to keep Iran out of negotiations to address the threat of ISIS. Iran can play a constructive role, Rouhani argued, and it is high time that Washington understands that “we are a powerful and effective country in the region, this is undeniable,” and that the United States must seek Iran’s participation in any resolution of the crisis.
As to whether he might shake hands with Obama if they crossed paths at the UN, Rouhani said there should “be less focus on a handshake and more on finding solutions and policies…. Sometimes President Obama writes me letters, sometimes I write him letters.” He seemed to say that for now they can discuss issues in that way. But, he added, there must be “a fundamental focus on the future of the relationship.”
On Russia and shared objectives: “We share objectives with Russia, and we certainly have the same opinion about fighting and ejecting terrorist groups from Syria…. also that the central authority must remain in Damascus; if weakened it will only empower terrorists.… We know that Russia and Syria have had a long and close relationship. Putin told me in our last meeting that Russia wants to be more active in the region fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups—a goal we share.” However, Rouhani appeared to rule out lending Iran’s military support to a Russian coalition: “I do not see a coalition between Iran and Russia on fighting terrorism in Syria.”
Rouhani did not conceal Iran’s growing animosity toward Saudi Arabia. “Our relationship is not a good one.” Speaking of the more than 130 Iranians who were killed in the Mecca Pilgrimage the other day, Rouhani suggested that inexperienced Saudi security units may have been deployed for the hajj because other personnel were involved with Saudi-led attacks in Yemen against rebel forces, which the West and its allies believe are backed by Iran. Rouhani spoke angrily of “ineptitude by the government of Saudi Arabia.” He added, “If we see conditions for dialogue with Saudi Arabia, we will pursue them, but we do not see them at this time…they would benefit the entire region.”
On Iraq, he insisted that without the help of Iran, conditions inside Iraq would be much worse. “Baghdad would have fallen to the Islamic State. Erbil would have fallen,” but Iran, at Iraq’s request, “rendered help swiftly.”
Only once did Rouhani display a flash of anger—in defending the Assad government from charges of brutality in dealing with its opponents. Asked about Assad’s barrel-bombing of his own people, he retorted, “I do not know where you are getting your information? Maybe he used them against terrorists, but not civilians…. How is it possible for a government to kill its own people?” Citing the beheadings of women and children and other atrocities by ISIS, Rouhani asked, “With such a savage, inhuman, subhuman group, how should we fight them?”