Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged regional powers to come together to stamp out the violence erupting across the Middle East. But while he emphasized the important role of diplomacy and collaboration — exemplified by the recently signed Iran nuclear accord — Rouhani reaffirmed Tehran’s opposition to U.S. foreign policy in the region, particularly in regards Syria.
Rouhani spent much of his address praising the diplomatic breakthrough reached in July between his country and six world powers, including the United States, over Iran’s nuclear program. He urged all parties to comply with the agreement, which places curbs on the country’s atomic capability in exchange for sanctions relief, and to implement it without delay.
Rouhani held up the agreement as a model for other conflicts in the Middle East, saying that governments should go beyond their unresolved differences to focus on what he described as the top priority — “eradication of terrorism” across the region.
“I can now proudly announce that today a new chapter has started in Iran’s relations with the world,” he said. “The key point regarding the success of dialogue is the fact that any actor in the international system who pursues maximalist demands and does not allow space for the other side cannot speak of peace, stability and development.”
Despite Rouhani’s warm words for the wisdom of diplomacy, his speech also threw into sharp focus several thorny issues vexing relations between Tehran and other states, particularly the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
Picking up on Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s recent comments that the Iran nuclear deal should not be understood as a broader détente with Washington, Rouhani blasted U.S. policy in the region.
He laid most of the problems in the Middle East on its doorstep. “If we did not have the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the U.S.'s unwarranted support for the inhumane actions of the Zionist regime [how Iran’s government refers to Israel] against the oppressed nation of Palestine, today the terrorists would not have an excuse for the justification of their crimes,” he said.
But while the U.S. and Iran have been at odds in Syria and in Yemen — where the U.S. has supported a Saudi-led bombing campaign against Houthi rebels allied to Iran — the two erstwhile foes have a tacit understanding about the common threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the region.
Both the U.S. and Iran see the defeat of ISIL as a vital regional goal and have said communication between them remains open on efforts to seek a diplomatic solution in Syria. "The United States is willing to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran,” President Barack Obama said earlier at the U.N.
Western officials have said the U.S. hoped to use the U.N. General Assembly to try to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict, which has taken on new urgency in light of Russia's military build-up in support of Assad alongside Iran.
Nevertheless, Obama reaffirmed that the U.S. is opposed to Iran and Russia's steadfast support for the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
There are also thorny bilateral issues between Washington and Tehran that remain unaddressed. No mention was made Monday of three Iranian-Americans being held in Iranian jails. Questioned by reporters about their fate on Sunday, Rouhani said they could be released at some point in the near future. “If we can help free folks who are detained there and they [the U.S.] can take reciprocal steps, we’d welcome that approach,” Rouhani said to a group of journalists, according to the Washington Post.
Iran has held Jason Rezaian, a dual Iranian and American citizen who is the Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief, since June 2014.
The two other Americans are Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine who was charged with spying, and Saeed Abedini, a convert to Christianity who gathered a Bible study group.
The U.S. is holding an unspecific number of Iranians on charges of violating sanctions rules that were instituted against Iran as a result of the dispute over its nuclear program.
With additional reporting by wire services