UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Iran's new president told world leaders Tuesday that the biggest danger in the Middle East is chemical weapons falling into the hands of "extremist terrorist groups" in Syria and he blamed the countries backing the opposition for fueling the civil war there.
The comment by Hasan Rouhani, in his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, closely mirrored language used by the Iranian-allied Syrian regime, which refers to the opposition as terrorists. The U.S. and its allies, including Gulf nations Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been supplying the Syrian opposition with weapons, aid and training.
Rouhani praised Syria's willingness to accept the international treaty barring the use of chemical weapons. And without naming nations, he warned that the "illegitimate and ineffective threat" to use military force in Syria "will only lead to further exacerbation of violence and crisis in the region."
Just a few weeks ago, President Barack Obama was considering launching a military strike on Syria to retaliate for a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21 that the U.S. blamed on Bashar Assad's regime. But a U.S.-Russia deal to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control averted military action, at least for now.
Even as he sided with the Assad's regime, Rouhani also sent signals that Iran might be ready to negotiate with the West on its disputed nuclear program and talk to the United States after decades of frozen relations. He said "peace is within reach."
Rouhani spoke hours after Obama also addressed the General Assembly, saying the U.S. prefers to resolve its concerns over Iran's nuclear program peacefully but is determined to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Obama said he was "encouraged" that Rouhani received a mandate from the Iranian people to pursue a more moderate course, but added that "the diplomatic road must be tested." Rouhani's "conciliatory words will have to be matched by actions that are transparent and verifiable," Obama said.
Rouhani called his election over the summer a "wise choice of hope, rationality and moderation" and said every issue can be resolved through mutual respect and rejection of violence and extremism.
He is considered a relative moderate amid the hard-line clerics who control Iran. But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei holds the real power, deciding all important matters of state including the nuclear program.
Elements of Rouhani's speech were reminiscent of the anti-American rhetoric of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was critical of how America projects power and called for a new world order without the U.S. as a superpower.
Like Ahmadenijad, Rouhani called for a new world order and criticized "the persistence of Cold War mentality and bi-polar division of the world into 'superior us' and 'inferior others." He criticized "the prevalent international discourse" that favors rich countries over poor.
This has led to the prevalence of "violent forms of xenophobia," Rouhani said, adding that "propagandistic and unfounded faith-phobic, Islamo-phobic, Shia-phobic, and Iran-phobic discourses do indeed represent serious threats against world peace and human security."
There had been some expectations that with both Obama and Rouhani addressing the U.N. on the same day, the two might meet briefly and even exchange handshakes and pleasantries — something that may have been seen as a dramatic step forward in relations that have been frozen since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution
That didn't happen.
But Rouhani said he listened to Obama's speech to the General Assembly and is open to talks.
"Commensurate with the political will of the leadership in the United States and hoping that they will refrain from following the short-sighted interest of warmongering pressure groups, we can arrive at a framework to manage differences," he said.
"To this end, equal footing, mutual respect, and the recognized principles of international law should govern the interactions," he said, repeating themes often heard in Iranian political discourse.
Unlike Ahmadinejad, who denied the Holocaust and called for Israel's destruction, Rouhani never mentioned Israel by name in his speech. But he was highly critical of the "occupation" of Palestine, saying: "Apartheid as a concept can hardly describe the crimes and the institutionalized aggression against the innocent Palestinian people."
Israel's delegation walked out of Rouhani's speech in protest, as it had done in previous years when Ahmadinejad spoke at the U.N.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Rouhani of "hypocrisy." He said in a statement after the speech that Iran participates in the slaughter of civilians in Syria — a reference to its support of Assad's regime — and in carrying out terrorist attacks around the world.
The United Nations has imposed four rounds of sanctions on Iran for its refusal to halt uranium enrichment — a process that can be used to make fuel for both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. The U.S. and its allies have taken even more devastating measures targeting Iran's ability to conduct international bank transfers and to export oil.
"Unjust sanctions ... are intrinsically inhumane and against peace," Rouhani said. "It is not the states and the political elite that are targeted, but rather, it is the common people who are victimized by these sanctions."
The U.S. and its allies accuse Iran of seeking to develop a nuclear weapon. But Iran insists its nuclear program is purely peaceful — a point Rouhani reiterated by saying: "This has been, and will always be, the objective of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers have been stalled for months but Iran agreed to a new meeting this Thursday on the sidelines of the General Assembly.
Rouhani reiterated Iran's right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium.
On the conditions that world powers recognize that right and insist that all nations' nuclear programs are for peace purposes only and Iran "is prepared to engage immediately in time-bound and result-oriented talks," he said.
"Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran's security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions," he claimed. "Our national interests make it imperative that we remove any and all reasonable concerns about Iran's peaceful nuclear program."