Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took the podium at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday to berate the West for "strategic mistakes" and to ask the international community to leave the fight against Islamic extremism to regional powers.
Rouhani painted a bleak picture of the political landscape in the Middle East. "I am coming from a region of the world whose many parts are currently burning in the fire of extremism and radicalism," he said. "To the east and west of my country, extremists threaten our neighbors, resort to violence, and shed blood. They, of course, do not speak a single language, they are not of a single skin color, and not of a single nationality; they have come to the Middle East from around the world. They do, however, have a single ideology: violence and extremism."
He spent some time placing part of the blame for the region's violence on external actors. "Today's anti-Westernism is the offspring of yesterday's colonialism," Rouhani said. "Today's anti-Westernism is a reaction to yesterday's racism."
While Rouhani did not name any Western powers specifically, he did make some thinly veiled references to U.S. covert action in the region. "Certain intelligence agencies have put blades in the hands of madmen who now spare no one," Rouhani said.
Rouhani emphasized that the campaign against extremism should be taken on by countries in the Middle East, not by Western powers. He said that Islamic nations must take the lead in fighting the threat, but he welcomed help from the international community. "The right solution to this quandary comes from within the region," he said, "in a regionally provided solution with international support, and not from outside."
But even for his criticism of the West, some of Rouhani's remarks echoed those of President Obama, who spoke in front of the same body Wednesday morning. Like Obama, Rouhani emphasized a need to get at the root causes of extremism, which Rouhani identified as "poverty, unemployment, discrimination, humiliation, and injustice." And he said that extremist groups like the Islamic State are misinterpreting Islam and cannot be called Muslim, a statement Obama also made on Wednesday.
Rouhani's speech comes a year after he and President Obama were rumored to meet in the halls of the U.N. at the 2013 General Assembly. They did not meet in person, but they did speak by phone before Rouhani left New York, marking the first time Iranian and American leaders talked since Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Rouhani also discussed the ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. The deadline to reach a nuclear agreement is Nov. 24, and recent progress has been slow. But Rouhani expressed confidence that negotiators could make a deal before that date, saying that Iran is serious about the process. "If our interlocutors are also equally motivated and flexible," he said, "we can reach a longstanding agreement within the time remaining."
The negotiations over Iran's nuclear program have run up against the question of its involvement in the fight against Sunni extremism. These are issues the U.S. side has insisted on keeping separate, but Iranian officials have sought to link. Iran offered to help in the campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria in exchange for concessions on its nuclear program, an offer which U.S. officials publicly turned down.
The final round of negotiations began last Friday. "Coming into New York, I think many of us were not very optimistic," a senior U.S. official told the The Wall Street Journal last week. "But clearly, over meetings over the last two days both with Iran and with my P5+1 and E.U. colleagues, it is clear that everyone has come here to go to work."
In a historic encounter, Rouhani met U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in person on Tuesday, but he is unlikely to cross paths with Obama in New York. "The conditions do not dictate such a meeting," Rouhani told CBS This Morning earlier this week.
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