Driving Out IS Key to Syria’s Future

Driving Out IS Key to Syria’s FutureDriving Out IS Key to Syria’s Future

President Hassan Rouhani argues that the most important issue regarding Syria is destroying the so-called Islamic State militant group.

"Perhaps political reform is needed. However, is that today's priority? We believe that it's driving out the terrorists," he said in a recent interview with NPR on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

"The issue of stability and security in the region is of utmost importance for us," he emphasizes. Americans may not like Syria's government, he says, but Iran needs to back it to avoid a dangerous leadership vacuum. If Syrian President Bashar Assad goes now, Rouhani says, extremists will step in.

Here's the basic difference between the United States, Russia and Iran: The US wants Assad to go. Russia and Iran, Assad's allies, want him to stay.

Iran is collaborating with Syria, Russia and Iraq against IS. An intelligence-sharing agreement among the four countries was announced by Iraq on Sunday.

***Formula for Replacement


Where Syria is concerned, "It's not that we are indifferent," Rouhani says. "We do care about the situation in Syria, we do worry about the people of Syria, we do worry and our hearts bleed for so many people that are killed on a daily basis, who are driven from their homes. And you do know that archaeological and cultural remains in Syria have been destroyed on an almost daily basis by the terrorists. So all of this worries us."

Rouhani maintains that world powers need a "formula" for who or what might replace Assad. He says he is prepared to open the discussion with the US, Russia and other concerned powers as to what that formula might be.

"That is not a problem for us from right now, to start holding discussions and dialogues so as to determine and reach the conclusion of the next plan of action after the terrorists are driven out of that territory," he says. "But we must all act in unison and have a formula that is required to drive out the terrorists — immediately after which the following, the subsequent steps will come."

He's the man whose election two years ago paved the way for Iran's historic nuclear deal with the US and other world powers. Now, Washington and others want more cooperation. But Iran wants to hold off cooperating with the US on Syria until it sees how the accord works out.

***History of Compliance

Rouhani says his country has a "religious duty" to follow its nuclear agreement.

"My country, my nation, if it accepts an agreement, if it signs an agreement, if it gives its commitment to live up to the terms of an agreement, it will certainly do so," he says. "We have never broken our commitment. This is our cultural framework, this is our comportment, this is our religious duty."

Iran accepted time-bound limits on its nuclear program. The US and other nations agreed to lift economic sanctions. They also plan to return billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets. Critics in the US say Iran will use that wealth to finance resistance groups like Hamas and Hezbollah abroad.

Rouhani insists that he wants to spend those billions at home.

"You do know that we have a very young population," he says. "Sixty-five percent of the population in Iran is under 35 years of age. And many of them today are students. ... And every year, many of these students will graduate, so they will need to enter the job market."

He says Iran needs billions in investment to keep up with its growing population. "That is our priority, job creation is our priority, and to decrease unemployment," he says. "Otherwise, we're endangering our own national security."

***Domestic Front

On domestic politics, Rouhani said, "I would always choose a middle-of-the-road path ... because my opinion has [been] and is that we can use both reformists and those who are conservatives."

Rouhani made it clear that he is an advocate for free speech, saying, "Those who have their own opinions or differing opinions as far as social issues or cultural issues are concerned, we need to hear everyone's voices."

But sometimes the dissenting voices can include those disagreeing with him when it comes to the nuclear deal. The other day, Rouhani addressed officials of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, whose commander has expressed reservations about the pact.

"Of course, some in Iran were against this agreement, and their analysis and their reasoning and justification was that the implementation of this agreement can have an unwanted negative impact on the defensive capabilities of the nation," Rouhani says. "But my position was that we did not accept any limitations that would negatively impact the defensive capabilities of our nation."