What ‘Axis of Evil’? Iran’s President Makes Nice in New York – Newsweek

by Newsstand

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani projects an almost jovial demeanor as he sounds forth to a ballroom full of journalists on Friday in New York, where he will address the U.N. General Assembly next week. His round, smiling face is nothing like that of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a small, wiry man whose movements seemed almost robotic, and whose jaw was always clenched, as he endured questions from the Western media in New York in years past.

In power since 2013, Rouhani comes to America boosted by the successful completion of negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program, which he said could pave the way toward further cooperation between the countries after more than three decades of bitterness and tension. There is plenty of bitterness remaining on both sides, he said, but he suggested opposition to the accord was more prevalent in the United States than in his country.

The nuclear accord signed in July between Iran and seven world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain, the United States and the European Union) commits Iran to curbing its nuclear program in return for the easing of sanctions. U.S. Republicans have denounced the deal as caving to a country that still supports terrorism and seeks the destruction of Israel, and warned that it is naive to see Rouhani as a moderate who can be trusted.

Rouhani said some of the “bitter extremist judgments” of the deal voiced by members of the U.S. Congress had surprised Iranians. “It was as if they were on another planet,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. At the same time, he said Americans should not be concerned about the continued use by some Iranians of the slogan “Death to America.” Such sentiments, he said, were directed at U.S. policy in the Middle East, not at the American people.

Asked if he was ready to shake hands with President Barack Obama if they happen to meet at the United Nations, the Iranian president said there were still issues to resolve before talking about handshakes, but he said the two countries should look to the future rather than the past.

“The nuclear issue is a big test within the framework of issues between the United States and Iran,” Rouhani told a group of senior editors with media organizations. “If we can see that we can reach success…and both sides have contributed to that success in good faith, then perhaps we can build on that.”

He said he hoped implementation of the deal would start before the end of the year, perhaps as soon as November.

Already, Rouhani noted, much has changed in the Middle East in the past year, and Iran has been instrumental—to the point where the United States now recognizes the need to include Tehran in discussions about the future of Syria, he said.

In Iraq, in particular, Rouhani took credit for reversing the advances of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh. “Had it not been for Iran’s help, Baghdad would have fallen and certainly Daesh would have been ruling in Baghdad,” he said.

The clear implication was that the United States is going to have to do a lot more talking to the Iranians if it wants to resolve the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

Among the first things on the U.S. agenda for Iran is its detention of Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, a dual citizen of Iran and the United States who has been jailed for 14 months without being convicted. The first question at Friday’s meeting was from The Washington Post, asking about reports that a prisoner exchange was in the cards.

Rouhani’s answer was a mixed message: On the one hand, he said Iran doesn’t recognize dual citizenship and considers Rezaian Iranian, and that it was up to the judiciary to decide; on a more promising note, he said several Iranians were being held in the United States and “both governments have to help to move these legal files forward.”

The one time Rouhani did sound very like his predecessor was when he was asked about his ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, using barrel bombs against civilians. “I don’t know where you’re getting your information,” he said. It would be against Assad’s interest to bomb his own people, Rouhani argued; of course he’s not using barrel bombs; or if he is, it’s against terrorists. And anyway, Rouhani said, the United States uses all sorts of weapons against terrorists so what’s the difference? “I have not heard that the Syrian government is using barrel bombs against the civilian population,” he concluded.

Rouhani spent much of the news conference discussing Syria and the fight against ISIS, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin had told him that Moscow wanted to play a more active role in fighting terrorism in the Middle East. Russia has been building up its military presence in Syria, but Rouhani said it was wrong to speak of a “coalition” there between Iran and Russia.

Asked whether Iran was wedded to its support for Assad, Rouhani said the priority in Syria was to fight terrorism and deal with the humanitarian and refugee crises. “You can’t put ballot boxes out in the middle of a battlefield,” he said.

Rouhani is due to address the U.N. General Assembly on Monday morning on what promises to be a busy day. He shares the billing with Obama, Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. There was a time when an Iranian president could be expected to offer the most drama at the U.N.’s annual jamboree. This time, it’s likely to be the Russian. And Rouhani is probably fine with that.

What ‘Axis of Evil’? Iran’s President Makes Nice in New York