During two meetings in New York, President Hassan Rouhani covered a range of issues from working with the United States to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, tensions with Saudi Arabia, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and more. On September 25 he met with journalists and on September 27 he met with American think tanks, academics and NGOs. The following are excerpted remarks on the Syrian conflict as translated simultaneously by the official Iranian interpreter.
Meeting with journalists
So the Russians have decided that they want to have a more active role, a more effective role in fighting terrorism, in particular Daesh. So, with Russia, we have a close relationship and, vis-à-vis Syria, we continue to speak with one another. But there’s no coalition between us vis-à-vis Syria. But we do confer, we do exchange information. And, vis-à-vis the future of Syria, we do speak about a multitude of topics.
At the very least we both share the same opinion about fighting terrorist groups and ejecting these terrorist groups from Syria. Under the current conditions, if we want to fight terrorists in Syria, we cannot do so while weakening the central government in Damascus. So the central government, the central authority, must remain in Damascus. But if it continues to be weakened, then it will only encourage the terrorists. They will find more fertile ground within which to commit their murderous and savage acts.
Vis-à-vis the Syrian government, and there was a question as to whether they’re using barrel bombs against the people of Syria. I don’t know where you are getting your information vis-à-vis that. I don’t have any such information. Perhaps some form of weapons system, such as you alluded to, may have been used to defeat terrorists, which is very well justified. But if used against civilians, I have no such information. Would a central government that seeks its legitimacy and its security in the arms of its own people, would they be crazy use something like that against civilian populations? Why is it today that the people of Damascus and other big cities, even in parts of Aleppo that you alluded to, are stern supporters of Assad and his government? Is it possible for a government to kill its own people? Of course, there must be ongoing fighting with the objective of being victorious against terrorists. Even the Americans, are they not bombing terrorists every day as they claim? Do they use anything else? They conduct air raids. They bomb terrorist targets.
You touched upon the refugee crisis, most whom are from Syria. So who was it that drove them from their home? Was it the central government in Damascus or the terrorists? It’s very important for media representatives such as yourselves to use words precisely… because they do carry a heavy weight.
Meeting with think tanks, academics and NGOs
One of the important issues of our region is Syria. Syria has its own set of very unique complications, because Iraq is now going through some problems; however, they differ from the ones faced in Syria. No one says that the Iraqi central government must change, or that the Iraqi prime minister must be changed and someone else must replace him. They say that we must fight terrorism in Iraq.
But vis-à-vis Syria, very differing viewpoints keep being talked about, and become topics of conversation. Whoever we meet and ask about whether there should be a concerted fight against terrorism in Syria, they say, of course, yes. And then we ask, do you accept the current Syria government? Some say yes, some say no. Then we ask, what must we do in Syria? Everyone talks about a different set of priorities, according to their viewpoints…
So I do believe that vis-à-vis the Syrian problem, it is very important for us to say what is the first priority? As far as I’m concerned, both the Syrian government needs reforms, and in Syria there must be a concerted counterterrorism effort, a battle against terrorism. But how do we prioritize? Where is the starting line? This is of utmost importance.
Two-thirds of the Syrian territory today is held by the terrorists. And you do know that in Syria, the terrorists extract petroleum from the ground, they sell that petroleum. It is very important to answer this question, how do they sell that petroleum? Whom do they sell it to? How can, in the face of Iran, that has tried to sell a single barrel of oil, has been stopped from doing so, because they’ve said, well, Iran can only sell one million barrels if it wants to sell 1.1, we will stop it from doing so. And this is a legitimate government chosen by the people of the nation. How is it that a terrorist group can get away with doing something that the legitimate government of an independent nation cannot? They have been extracting oil in Bayji, in various parts of Syria. They are extracting it from the ground and selling it. How does that happen? Those who keep talking about building coalitions against Syria through aerial bombardments know prior to the aerial bombardments, prior to the air campaign, [they] should have dried up the revenue source…
So how does Daesh remain alive? And do those who claim that they wish to fight Daesh and eliminate it, do they want Daesh to cease existence? Or do they want it to stay alive but remain weak? As we have experienced for many years, there were many who wanted Saddam Hussein to remain – however, not a very strong Saddam Hussein. Saddam should stay, but [he would be forced to] listen to them much more than to act independently. When Saddam Hussein was taking directions from them, he wasn’t a bad person. But when he didn’t listen to their directions, he was a threat to society and humanity, he was very dangerous.
So if today Daesh cuts off the heads of the people of Iraq and Syria, there’s not a whole lot of worry. However, if a number of Europeans, Americans, or people from other countries are there, and one of them is decapitated, everyone’s voices will go to high heaven: Tese are very dangerous people, these are savages, and so on and so forth. We must all have a set of coordinated views and priorities. We should not differentiate between those who are killed, between those who are terrorized, because so-and-so is Christian, or Muslim, or Sunni, or Shiite, or Buddhist, or Jewish. Killing, we’re talking about life. We’re talking about existence. What does it matter whom this person is, what citizenship they hold, what passport they have in their pocket, what color their skin is, what faith they follow, what leanings socially and culturally they have? What does that matter? What matters is that life must be protected, the sanctity of life must be protected.
If it is so, we must first reform our own thoughts and views in this field so that we all perceive danger equally, at the same level, but I will come back from these long remarks to the point contained in one of the questions, which was that what does Iran wish to do, intend to do in Syria. What is our take going back a few years about Syria? What are the Russians doing there? Will Iran and Russia do something concerted against Daesh, and the fact that France took military action. I think we need to revert back to the point of origin. What is the priority? If the priority is to change the Syrian government, then that offers only a specific set of paths to follow. So we go and train new armed forces, we equip them, we train them, we vet them, and we insert them into Syria, and we tell them that you are legitimate – not illegitimate, legitimate terrorists. You can, because you have been trained by us, you have been equipped by us, you have been vetted by us. You have the right to fight against the Syrian army, you have the right to enter Damascus city, because everything that you have came from us. When the part of Daesh was trained in another country, was equipped in another country, and vetted by another country, then that becomes a problem, but not this face of Daesh, so again, let’s go back to priorities regarding in which we need an agreement of opinion, a unison of opinion.
So we do believe that if the priority is not combating terrorism and defeating terrorism today in Syria, then we’ve all made existential mistakes. Because in my experience, if the Syria government is taken out of the equation, what we all foresee will happen is that the terrorists will enter Damascus immediately. The handful of cities that are remaining outside the control of Daesh, will fall prey to Daesh as well. The massacre that took place in Aleppo, and Latakia, will take place in Damascus at well. So the whole country will become controlled territories, a safe haven for the terrorists.
This doesn’t mean the Syrian government doesn’t need to be reformed, that’s not what I mean at all, this doesn’t mean that in Syria, everyone accepts the legitimacy of the government currently in power, that’s not what I mean. This doesn’t mean that the future form of government in Damascus should not be thought of, of course it has to be thought of.
Again, I go back to what the priorities are. How do we determine the priority, and then where to start from? In Syria, we do believe that the duty of any country that sincerely believes the utmost priority is to fight and defeat terrorism, we’re willing to cooperate and collaborate with them. But if a government says, listen, I’m against terrorism as well, but my priority is to change the government in Damascus, we cannot work with that government. We cannot stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them.
But if a government says I want to accomplish both of these tasks simultaneously, I want to kill and defeat the terrorists at once while simultaneously changing the government in Damascus, in our opinion, this will be a futile effort, will not reach any tangible results. What we speak of to our friends in the region are nations and countries that think in the same fashion as we do, have the same opinions as we do.
In the past two days I’ve been in New York, I’ve spoken even to some leaders of Western countries who …all agreed with my opinion. Some chose to stay quiet, which meant they haven’t reached a decision as of yet when it comes to prioritizing.
Within the last few months, the Russians… told us that they wish to enter this scene with every new determination to fight Daesh and the terrorists. The Russian president, Mr. Putin, told me personally, “I have made this decision and I wish to confer with you about it.” We spoke at length that same day. When we spoke, President Putin told me that the previous day he had spoken with President Obama by telephone. And [he said] I’ve spoken to such and such country and named a few countries and said I’ve talked to them as well and I’ve received their feedback and opinions as well.
So what Russia is announcing is its readiness and willingness for a renewed, more concentrated efforts in fighting terrorism. And also, a renewed effort in equipping and supporting and fortifying the government in Damascus. And we all do believe, and we also, excuse me, believe that if we are to succeed in defeating terrorism, the government in Damascus cannot be weakened. It must be able to carry on the fight.
So where do we gain the legitimacy of to allow ourselves to enter Raqqa or Aleppo or Latakia or wherever it may be, to enter the soil of another country without the authority of the legitimate government of the country, based on what laws do we do this? Based on what international parameters do we do this? Either all of the people of that nation must come to the ballot boxes, vote, give us their mandate to enter their country, which is clearly not was has occurred, or the government that exists there, even though you might say that, well, this government needs to be reformed, you’re right, but this government has been there, and it’s the most legitimate form thus far. So we do believe that it must remain in place. What other way do we all see logically as feasible?
Can one person, one nation, get up in the morning and say I want to enter country A, B or C and combat terrorism? Would the United States allow anyone to violate its airspace and carry out a bombing raid, saying, “Listen Mr. President of the United States, I have found a terrorist cell, for example, in Oklahoma, I need to target it and bomb it into oblivion.” Would that be allowed? Of course not. So why should that not apply everywhere else?
We do believe that Syria does have a legitimate army, not something that was created within the last few years. It has been for many decades. Its generals and general officers have been serving for over 30 years, for over three decades, as general officers and general staff officers in the Syrian army. So it does have a history, it does have a record to stand on. So is it that army that has the right to fight terrorism or is it me that is duty bound to get up from Tehran, go to Damascus and start fighting terrorism? Which scenario is more truthful or more palatable for all of us, and more realistic for all of us?
I do believe that if all of us can reach an agreement on the priority, it is acceptable that we will have differences of opinion, and that’s why I do believe in continuous dialogue… Iran and the Russians are almost compatible, have almost a compatible mindset and opinion about this because they have the same goal of fighting and defeating terrorism. Perhaps there are other countries that see it the same way we do and agree with us, and some may not.
Today, I spoke to, I met with and spoke to the French president about Syria…In fighting terrorism, defeating terrorism, no one country has an exclusivity, a monopoly in saying “We’re the only ones who can do this,” or “Our people are the only ones who can do this.” It must be a concerted effort.
What I can say, frankly, about the Syrian issue, is not so much whether we share the same opinion and priority with the West about Syria or with Russia about Syria. In my opinion, whomever, whichever country sets priority number one as combatting and defeating terrorism, and after we succeed in that task and accomplish that objective, immediately after that, we can pursue political reforms vis-à-vis the Syrian government, reforms that must take place through whichever channel or pathway. There are many channels through which to conduct those reforms. We can work together. And our path is one in the same. This is my feeling. This is my thought.
In the past few months, I do believe that the West’s opinion vis-à-vis Syria has changed somewhat, up to a certain level. And that insistence that was here before that insisted upon, was keen upon changing the Syrian government as number one priority and then pick up the fight against the terrorists and aim to defeat the terrorists, so that opinion no longer has that many fans even in the West.
And the last point vis-à-vis this topic that I’d like to share with you is that [when] fighting terrorists and counterterrorism efforts, even by military means, it is not feasible through air operations only. Terrorist groups cannot be defeated by helicopter gunships or missiles or aerial bombardment. This is simply not possible.
We have the most tangible experience of all countries in our region in fighting against terrorism. We have been fighting in Iran for the last 37 years against terrorism. From the very first year of the revolution, we were facing and combatting terrorism. Some of the terrorists, some of the very strong terrorists were totally, completely, driven out of Iran and now they are either, some are in Iraq or in the United States or in some European countries. But none of them remain in Iran, and this shows, and is a testament to the power of the Islamic Republic of Iran that shows to fight, sustainably, strongly against the terrorist group and defeat it and drive it out. It’s not that I’m saying that they’re no longer in Tehran, they’re not in the Iranian territory anywhere. And many other groups that were fighting us, are no longer in Iran today. They may be in Pakistan, they may be in other countries, in Turkey. But they’re no longer in our territory.
We have a great deal of experience, very rich and vast experience in counterterrorist operations and defeating these terrorist groups. Be sure that what some folks say, that “We will form a coalition, air raids will take place,” and they showed the video footage that resembles a satellite feed or jets with special effects taking off from aircraft carriers with a great deal of speed that would give goosebumps to anyone watching, zooming on the target, and so fantastically releasing a missile that is guided precisely down a chimney.
This is not the true face of combating and defeating terrorism. This is not realistic. Terrorists go in the heart of villages, in the rural areas, in peoples’ homes, in the back streets and alleyways in the bazaars. They fool people. They draw people to themselves. Sometimes they affect them ideologically. Sometimes they recruit them through ideology and ignorance…It is possible that a terrorist blows him or herself up, being willing to be blown to pieces to achieve that objective. The person may have grown up in Belgium, in Holland, in London or Paris, and now is in Iraq or in Syria next to Daesh voluntarily.
Volunteering to conduct a suicide mission in a truck laden with explosive material, this person cannot be taken out through aerial bombardments or remote targeting. We must do a lot of things to combat and defeat terrorism. But even if we intended to do so militarily, it must be done and accomplished through ground operations, not by air operations.
I do hope that we can better understand the tangible realities, help one another, and truly and wholeheartedly share the same objective and same number one priority of defeating and wiping out terrorism, and not change horses in midstream if you will or change priorities or objectives and not come out with excuses that first we need to change such and such government, and then we’ll get to our priority.
The question that you asked about Iran, Iran does have a foundational belief. It hasn’t announced it openly, and it is talking about the four part proposal the ambassador referred to, when we do reach some conclusions with the countries with whom we’re speaking, we will then inform everyone officially.
Photo credit: Robin Wright