"Things Have Changed" — Rouhani Interview After Landmark European Trip

Following the first trip to Italy and France in 16 years by an Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani talks about terrorism, trade, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Rouhani in Rome
Rouhani in Rome
Christophe Ayad

PARIS â€" Iran President Hassan Rouhani has just concluded a momentous trip to Italy, the Vatican and France, the first such visits by an Iranian leader in a generation, and the first since the accord between Tehran and the West to end sanctions in exchange for limits to Iran's nuclear program. Following meetings with Pope Francis, as well as Italian and French government leaders, Rouhani granted an exclusive interview with Le Monde, France 24 satellite television network and France Culture radio station. Here are key excerpts:

LE MONDE: Is Iran no longer a pariah on the international stage?

HASSAN ROUHANI: Iran has never been a pariah, before or after the nuclear deal. In 2013, my initiative for a world without violence and extremism was adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly. On that occasion, I spoke with many European leaders. They were all against the sanctions, and I had the feeling that there were few countries that wanted to isolate Iran.

Is there a turning point in U.S. policy towards rapprochement with Iran while creating a greater distance with Saudi Arabia?

America has played an active and important role in establishing the nuclear deal. The fact that we have passed this agreement with Group 5 + 1 the United States, Russia, China, France, UK and Germany is a step forward. Regarding Syria, we participate in the same meetings alongside the Americans, something that was inconceivable a few years ago. Things have changed a great deal. The Americans have found that Iran is the only country in the region capable of combating terrorism. We hold regular elections in Iran, while our neighboring countries very rarely conduct democratic elections.

Iran's relationship with Saudi Arabia has been broken off since its execution of an important Shia imam followed by the burning of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran ...

Some events occurred between our countries that we disagree on. First, there was the killing of a prominent Shia cleric who campaigned against discrimination. The Iranian people were very saddened, and even Western countries have condemned the act.

On the other hand, you know what happened in Tehran at the Saudi Embassy. We have not approved these acts. I was the first to condemn them, and I gave the order to arrest the culprits. They are in prison and will be tried. But the reaction of Saudi Arabia was disproportionate. This makes me think of someone who has acted wrongly and sows chaos to avoid liability. Saudi Arabia is our neighbor and our brother in religion. We do not want tension between our countries, therefore we must deal wisely with problems that separate us from one another.

You regularly accuse the Saudis of financing terrorism and the Islamic State (ISIS). What is your evidence?

It's not difficult. Just ask the governments and people affected by terrorism: Iraq, Syria. Where does the idea of violence originate? Who led the first terrorist actions, what nationality? All of this is easy to verify. But the problem does not reside here. We need everyone in the region to combat terrorism, which is a threat to them but also to the entire world.

Are you ready to work with the international coalition against ISIS?

There is also a coalition between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Russia. There are many coalitions. We have always fought terrorism and, without our help, other Iraqi cities like Mosul would have fallen. What matters is not names but actions. States must engage, and If we want to act in Iraq, we have to coordinate with the Iraqi government.

It seems that Western leaders are increasingly willing to accept Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite the crimes he has committed.

In Syria, the ones who commit crimes are the terrorists. They behead the innocent, commit massacres. They are the real criminals. We must destroy them, eradicate them. As for the future of the Syrian government, it's no use discussing it at this time. For the moment, there is no alternative to Assad. If we want to fight terrorism, we must help the Syrian Army, which cannot operate without a strong central government. This Bashar/No Bashar dilemma does not reflect the reality on the ground. Western countries have to accept that they cannot make a choice for the Syrian people. We must first restore security in the country. Without that, how do you organize proper elections when 60% of the territory is occupied by terrorists? The fight against terrorism must be the basis for everything.

You have promised improvements in human rights and freedom of expression, but the imprisonment of journalists and the execution of minors continue.

The government is acting within its powers and the people know its limits. The judiciary is independent, the legislature as well. It may be that these three powers do not share the same view. I can propose laws to the Assembly, which does not adopt them. I can have my opinion on this or that issue, but it is essential that we respect the law. As president, even though I do not agree with a measure passed by the Assembly and ratified by the Guardian Council, I am obliged to apply it.

As for promises, I have honored a large part of them. For the remaining ones, I make every effort. The economic situation has improved, but it will be a difficult year because of oil prices. Nevertheless, the current situation is very different from that which prevailed before I arrived, and nobody can criticize me. In fact, today, many people can criticize the government freely. In universities, political groups express themselves freely. I hope to honor my promises in the time I have left.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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