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The Art of No Deal

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Published on September 23rd, 2014 | by Jim Lobe

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

by Jim Lobe

New York — On his second trip to the UN General Assembly as Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani Tuesday 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.

Tuesday’s breakfast marked the first of a series of events featuring Rouhani, who will address the UN General Assembly Wednesday morning and hold a more general press conference Friday. 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 last week, Monday.

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 Monday 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.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrives in New York on Sept. 22, 2014 ahead of his address to the United Nations General Assembly

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

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  1. avatar Norman says:

    This will be an interesting time, let’s hope sanity will rule the day, not some bombastic rhetoric from the neocons, Israels Netanyahoo, or any other right wing nuts.

  2. avatar Virgile says:

    Saudi Arabia is terrified by ISIS and by Al Nusra that it considers to be the military wing of the Moslem Brotherhood. That is why, despite Qatar’s objection Al Nusra troops were bombed by the US-Sunni Arab coalition in Syria. It seems that any Islamist group with any affiliation with Al Qaeda or ISIS will not be tolerated in the region anymore, even if they are allies to the Syrian rebels.

    The protests are already fusing from the shocked Syrian opposition who are watching their brothers in arms, the Al Nusra fighters been crushed by the coalition they thought would bomb the Syrian army instead.
    Obama took the precaution of using exclusively Sunni countries in the coalition to discourage any criticism that it is a Christian-Shia war against Sunnis.
    Iran and Turkey did well in staying in the background. It is Arab Sunnis vs Sunnis war and their intervention would have disturbed many Arab Sunnis. Once the fog of war would be over then they can intervene.,
    As Turkey is a open supporter of the Moslem Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia knows that the only guaranteed protection against Sunni terrorism in the region can only come from the Shias. Therefore they now consider Iran and Hezbollah as potential allies against ISIS and the Moslem Brotherhood and are ready to make efforts to mend the relation with Iran.

    That will positively affect the situation in Lebanon and Syria where the Syrian opposition will be forced to reconcile with the Syrian government. The new UN envoy went to Syria to prepare the ground for that.

  3. avatar Robert says:

    The Americans are effectively going to be fighting ISIS on their own, as they will not cede Geo Political control in the Levant, especially to Iran or give them anything special in the present negotiations.

    While the US will be banging its head on a brick wall, (ISIS) that leaves the other regional players to talk together on the side lines. But don’t expect anything much to come out of any talks between Iran and the Gulf States.

    Even if Riyadh does not like ISIS, ISIS is in the end weak and the one thing that the Saudis know for sure is that they do not want Tehran dominating the Levant.


About the Author

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Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



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  • Named after veteran journalist Jim Lobe, LobeLog provides daily expert perspectives on US foreign policy toward the Middle East through investigative reports and analyses from Washington to Tehran and beyond. It became the first weblog to receive the Arthur Ross Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs from the American Academy of Diplomacy in 2015.

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