NEW YORK — Overshadowed by the pope, Vladimir Putin and a tragedy in Mecca that called him home early, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attracted less attention at the annual UN General Assembly meeting than he has in previous years.
This was in part a reflection of the progress that has been made in resolving one of the world’s chronic crises — the Iranian nuclear program. The recent conclusion of a landmark agreement between Iran and major world powers has put that issue aside for most of the world for the time being.
Instead, the focus at the General Assembly has turned to other issues, particularly the war in Syria. In several public appearances, Rouhani appeared to double down on support for the Syrian regime, arguing that combatting terrorism — in particular the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) — must be the world’s No. 1 priority. While he acknowledged during an appearance Sept. 27 before a large group of academics, think-tankers and journalists that political reform in Syria might be necessary, he said this could only happen “after we succeed” in defeating IS.
Rouhani did not mention Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by name, however. The Iranian leader referred instead to “the government in Damascus.” He also said that he detected a change in Western opinion about Syria in recent months. The idea of changing the Syrian regime quickly “no longer has that many fans, even in the West,” Rouhani said, because of the territorial advances of IS and other terrorist groups.
Indeed, there appeared to be some hints of potential middle ground on the Syrian crisis. While Iran was not invited to a meeting on Syria in New York on Sept. 28 hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry and attended by the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, Kerry did discuss Syria on Sept. 26 in a separate meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
President Barack Obama, in his speech to the UN General Assembly a few hours before Rouhani spoke, harshly criticized any unspecified “dictator [who] slaughters tens of thousands of his own people.” However, Obama added, “Realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out [IS]." This realism, Obama said, “requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild.”
Asked about possible synergy between the views of Iran — and Russia, which has recently increased its military support to Assad — and a US-led coalition against IS, Richard Haass, a former director of policy planning at the State Department who heads the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al-Monitor that there is “still a contradiction in Iranian and Russian policy” between opposition to IS and support for the “‘legitimate government’ of Syria, which is a pretty good recruiting tool for IS.”
Haass acknowledged, however, Obama’s mention of a “managed transition” as a possible compromise. “The devil is in the details,” Haass said. “What kind of political transition? What do you do before it happens or after?”
Haass, who sat in the front row at Rouhani’s meeting with American academics Sept. 27, said it was also unfortunate that the Iranian leader, in responding to a question about US-Iran relations, spoke only of Iranian grievances and not about the reasons for them. For example, Rouhani said that the US broke relations with Iran in 1980 without mentioning the cause — the seizure of the US Embassy and the prolonged captivity of US diplomats.
“To me, this suggested that certain subjects are still too hot to handle in the Iranian political context,” Haass said, but “it doesn’t help in the American political context” where the focus following the nuclear deal has been on Iran’s regional intervention and the arrest and detention of Iranian-Americans, including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian.
In his speech to the General Assembly, Rouhani praised the nuclear agreement as a model for resolving other crises but also criticized the United States for military intervention in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which he said had fueled the growth of terrorist groups.
Rouhani also made several references to Israel as the “Zionist regime” after avoiding the subject during his appearances before Americans. In his speech, he singled out the Israelis for their nuclear program, which he said inhibits creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. He also criticized Israel for its “oppression of the nation of Palestine,” which Rouhani said had also fed the growth of terrorism.
US government officials had no immediate response to Rouhani’s speech and only a low-level note taker remained in a half-empty General Assembly hall to hear it. Indeed, the sparse crowd was another indication that Iran is no longer such a big issue for an international community that accepts the nuclear deal and looks forward to renewed economic relations with a major world energy supplier.
William Luers, a former US diplomat who has led an effort at US-Iran reconciliation for many years, told Al-Monitor prior to Rouhani’s arrival in New York, “This could be the first normal visit of an Iranian president in memory. Given that virtually every other country welcomes the [nuclear] agreement, he will be able to have conversations with a lot of other governments on other issues.”
While in New York, Rouhani met with the presidents of France and China and the prime minister of Britain. But hopes that Rouhani and Obama might finally meet face to face — or at least exchange a handshake — faded after Rouhani announced via Twitter that he was going home early to deal with the deaths of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims in Saudi Arabia. Anger at the Saudis for what Rouhani called in his speech “incompetence and mismanagement” of the hajj was probably the main message of his visit, at least for a domestic audience.
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