Rouhani at UN: Region burning in fires of extremism

Iranian president blasts West for ‘putting blades in hands of mad men,’ says will cooperate with US on security only if sanctions lifted; unlike Ahmadinejad, makes no mention of Holocaust

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly September 25, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/Don Emmert)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly September 25, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/Don Emmert)

The Middle East is “burning in the fires of extremism and radicalism,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Thursday at his UN General Assembly speech.

In a wide-ranging address, Rouhani focused on the threat to the region posed by the Islamic State, what he perceived to be the West’s erratic strategic approach in the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear program and the ongoing talks with the P5+1 countries about a compromise.

Rouhani said a nuclear deal was possible before the November deadline if the West wanted a deal and showed flexibility, adding that a nuclear agreement would create a new environment “for cooperation at regional and international levels, allowing for greater focus on some very important regional issues such as combating violence and extremism in the region.”

Rouhani intimated that Iran would cooperate with the West on security only after sanctions are lifted, in reference to reports last week that the US was interested in having Tehran participate in the international coalition against the Islamic State terror group in exchange for an easing of sanctions.

In his UN speech, the Iranian president warned against the spread of extremism “posed by the inadequate understanding and incorrect approach [by the West] to this phenomenon [terrorism], adding that if the world fails to unite against radicalism and “entrust the job to the people in the region who can deliver, tomorrow the world will be safe for no one.”

In a noted departure from past speeches at the UN by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani made no mention of the Holocaust and did not attempt to deny that it happened.

Rouhani also moderated the volume — if not the tone – of critique of Israel, which he only mentioned indirectly in one sentence. In discussing improved relations in the Middle East, he lamented that “had we had greater cooperation and coordination in the Middle East, thousands of innocent Palestinians in Gaza would not have fallen victim to Zionist regime’s aggression.”

The Iranian president’s Twitter account live-tweeted the speech, which was attended by many countries, including the United States.

The US delegation listens as the president of Iran Hassan Rouhani addresses the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly September 25, 2014 at the United Nations in New York. (Photo credit: AFP/Don Emmert)
The US delegation listens as the president of Iran Hassan Rouhani addresses the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly September 25, 2014 at the United Nations in New York. (Photo credit: AFP/Don Emmert)

Rouhani blasted Western “intelligence agencies for putting blades in the hands of mad men who now spare no one,” a reference to the recent spate of beheadings of Westerners carried out by the Islamic State and its supporters.

Iran, which is strongly allied with the regime of Bashar Assad and is militarily involved in the Syrian civil war, has routinely criticized countries that have provided aid to Syrian rebels who seek to topple Assad, whether moderate or extremist.

“All those who have played a role in founding and supporting these terror groups must acknowledge their errors that have led to extremism,” he said.

Rouhani said all countries that supported terrorists must apologize, not only to the “past generation but to the next generation.”

“To the East and West of my country, extremists threaten our neighbors, resort to violence and shed blood. The basis of all divine teachings, from Abraham, Moses and Jesus to Mohammed: taking a single innocent life is akin to killing the whole humanity,” he said.

Rouhani said the Islamic State was not Islamic and that Western media’s repetition of this “false claim” leads to “the hatred of all Muslims.”

Calling for world unity against extremism, Rouhani said it was now clear that terrorism has become globalized. “From New York to Mosul, from Damascus to Baghdad…from Al-Qaeda to Daesh [the Arabic acronym for Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq wa al-Sham].”

Rouhani blamed “colonialism” and Western “racism” for the anti-Western sentiment growing in the Middle East and criticized the notion that democracy can be “imported from the West to the East.”

“In an underdeveloped society, imported democracy leads only to a weak and vulnerable government,” he warned.

“The military aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq the improper interference in Syria are clear examples of the erroneous strategic approach in Middle East,” he went on, repeating a sentiment made earlier in the day in which he said wrong US policies, including the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, likely led to the birth of the Islamic State group by creating power vacuums exploited by extremists.

Rouhani said that Iran was prepared to play a “positive role” in the global coalition against the violent extremist group.

Rouhani urged the United States on Wednesday to move beyond “insignificant” fears that his country seeks nuclear arms and challenged it to join his country in battling what he described as the global threat of Islamic extremism.

During a speech and question-and-answer session hosted by the New America think tank, Rouhani urged the US government to “let go of pressure politics toward Iran” — a reference to Iranian complaints that Washington’s demands at the nuclear talks are unrealistic. Repeating that Iran is not interested in nuclear arms, he urged the US to “leave behind (this) insignificant issue.”

Instead, he said, the two countries must focus on the fight against the Islamic State group and other extremist groups, the “real and serious common challenges which … threaten the entirety of the world.”

At the same time, he was critical of the US bombing campaign of Islamic State strongholds in Iraq and Syria and the growing coalition of countries seeking to stop the terrorists by military means. “Bombing and airstrikes are not the appropriate way,” he said, warning that “extraterritorial interference…in fact only feeds and strengthens terrorism.”

Rouhani also suggested it was in the West’s interest to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, freeing Tehran to play a more active role in creating and maintaining stability in the Islamic world.

The nuclear talks appear stuck two months before their extended November 24 deadline.

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