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.
PARIS — 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.