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Iran's president spoke to the United Nations today. He offered a warning and some hope. President Hassan Rouhani said Middle Eastern terrorism has been globalized, partly because of mistakes by Western powers. Rouhani also said talks on Iran's nuclear program could bring an era of cooperation in solving the region's problems. From New York, NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Last year, President Rouhani was greeted at the U.N. as a welcome change from his combative predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This year, Rouhani told the General Assembly that he brings greetings from a part of the world that's burning in the fires of extremism and radicalism. He said the world now faces terror from New York to Mosul, from Damascus to Baghdad. Heard here through U.N. translation, he openly challenged the U.S.-led response to the threat, which excludes Iran's ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.
PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: (Through translator) Extremists of the world have found each other and have put out the call - extremists of the world unite. But are we united against the extremists?
KENYON: Far from it, said Rouhani. In an apparent reference to efforts by the West and Persian Gulf states to arm Syrian rebels, Rouhani suggested that clinging to old colonial responses to modern terrorism would surely backfire.
ROUHANI: (Through translator) Today's anti-Westernism is a reaction to yesterday's racism. Certain intelligence agencies have put blades in the hands of madmen, who now spare no one.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS: No Rouhani, no, no, no.
KENYON: Neither rainy skies nor Rouhani's engaging manner kept his critics, especially the opposition group known as the MEK, from gathering outside the U.N. to protest. MEK supporter Hamid Azimi traveled from Northern California for the event. He says the West needs to see through Rouhani's charm to the ongoing oppressive policies beneath, comparing Rouhani to past Iranian moderates, Azimi mustered his best Yogi Berra imitation.
HAMID AZIMI: It's deja vu all over again. And this time around Rouhani is even worse. The first year that he's been in power, we've had over 1,000 people executed in Iran. That's about every seven hours a person is getting executed. Things have not changed in Iran for the better.
KENYON: Human rights groups cite lower figures but have expressed alarm at what they call a surge of executions during Rouhani's tenure. In New York, Rouhani's been urged to release a number of prisoners, including Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian and his wife.
But Rouhani is also seen as a driving force behind the biggest potential policy shift in Iran's recent history - its willingness to restrict and open up its nuclear program in an effort to get crippling sanctions lifted and rejoin the world economy. In his speech, Rouhani offered no new positions on those talks, but held out hope that a nuclear accord could lead to cooperation on a range of issues.
ROUHANI: (Through translator) If our interlocutors are also equally motivated, and we can overcome the problem and reach a long-standing agreement, then an entirely different environment will emerge for cooperation, allowing for greater focus on some very important regional issues, such as combating violence and extremism in the region.
KENYON: Former National Security Council staff member Gary Sick, now at Columbia University, says while the consequences of failing to reach a nuclear accord may be dismaying to many, what really alarms hard-liners in Tehran is the prospect of successful nuclear diplomacy.
GARY SICK: That doesn't mean that Iran would suddenly become a really nice guy if we had an agreement with them. But - and this is the thing that the hard-liners in Iran fully understand this - that if they make an agreement with the West, then all these old revolutionary slogans - death to America and so forth - don't make any sense anymore.
KENYON: Those nuclear talks moved to a higher level today with Secretary of State John Kerry joining the discussions. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, New York.
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