Islamic State: Iran's Rouhani warns of 'blades in the hand of madmen'

In a speech to the UN, the Iranian president blamed 'certain intelligence agencies' for fomenting extremist groups in the Middle East. He said a nuclear deal with Iran should mean more security cooperation.  

Jason DeCrow/AP
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran addresses the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani today called for global unity to fight the “fire of extremism and radicalism,” blaming the West’s “strategic blunders” for creating fertile ground for Islamic State jihadists.

In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Mr. Rouhani also said that a nuclear deal with world powers that respected Iran’s nuclear “rights” and continued uranium enrichment would result in an “entirely different environment” for cooperation.

The speech was something of an “I told you so” moment for Rouhani, who used his appearance at last year’s summit to warn about the spread of radical violence, and proposed a project called the “World Against Violence and Extremism.” 

During that visit, he spoke by phone with President Barack Obama – the first such high-level contact since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, and an indication of a potential thaw between the two countries.

Since then, Islamic State (IS), a Sunni jihadist group, has spread in Syria and Iraq and declared a caliphate that has put the words “terrorist threat” back on the lips of every regional leader. Mr. Obama’s UN speech yesterday focused on fighting the IS “network of death” one day after US-led warplanes expanded their bombing of IS targets from Iraq into Syria.

“Perhaps in the past year, few people could forecast the fire that would rage today,” Rouhani told the UN. “Today, again, I shall warn against the spread of extremism and the danger posed by the inadequate understanding and incorrect approach.”

For now, Iran and the United States are on the same side in Iraq, with Iranian advisors on the ground and American jet fighters in the air, in parallel helping the Iraqi military push back IS gains.

But in Syria the battle lines are drawn very differently. Iran supports President Bashar al-Assad’s fight against IS, which is one of several anti-Assad rebel groups. The US has, in fits and starts, supported those anti-Assad rebels – though not the IS or other Islamist ones.

Moreover, one of Assad’s key battlefield allies is the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah. While Hezbollah is fighting anti-Assad rebels in Syria, the fact it also battles IS – like the US – underscores both the murkiness of the Syria conflict, and the variable definitions of “terrorism.” The US considers Iran a state-sponsor of terror, partly due to its support of anti-Israel groups like Hezbollah, just as Iran criticizes the US for its unconditional support of Israel. 

'Improper interference'

Iran also believes that Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are running bombing missions over Syria as part of a US-led coalition, enabled IS to thrive in the name of overthrowing Assad.

“Certain intelligence agencies have put blades in the hand of madmen, who now spare no one,” said Rouhani. “All those who have played a role in founding and supporting these terror groups must acknowledge their errors that have led to extremism. They need to apologize…to the next generation.”

Rouhani criticized Western military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, and “improper interference” in Syria, for fomenting extremists.

In sharp counter-point to Mr. Obama’s 40-member coalition to fight IS – which does not include Iran – Rouhani said regional powers should lead their own coalition, “since the pain is better known” to them.

“I warn that if we do not muster all our strengths against extremism and violence today, and fail to entrust the job to the people in the region who can deliver, tomorrow the world will be safe for no one,” said Rouhani.

Nuclear talks

He also linked Iran’s security cooperation to progress on a nuclear deal, which faces a Nov. 24 deadline. Iran has been holding talks with the US and other world powers on the sidelines of the UN summit. On Wednesday, Rouhani met British Prime Minister David Cameron, the first such bilateral since 1979. 

Both Iran and the US have insisted that the nuclear talks are being negotiated separate of any other regional or bilateral issue. The night before his UN speech, Rouhani reminded an audience of a Persian saying that it was better to first raise a baby just born before starting on a second one.

Yet in his speech, Rouhani said a nuclear deal “can carry a global message of peace and security, indicating that the only way to attain conflict resolution is through negotiations and respect and not through conflict and sanctions." 

Still, after years of US-orchestrated sanctions, said Rouhani, Iranians “cannot place trust in any security cooperation…with those who have imposed sanctions and created obstacles in the way of satisfying even their primary needs such as food and medicine.”

Iranians are “devoted” to the values of “independence, development and national pride,” added Rouhani. “If this obvious national fact is not understood by our negotiating partners and they commit grievous miscalculations in the process, a historic and exceptional opportunity will be lost.”

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