Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: 'Driving Out The Terrorists' Is Key To Syria's Future : Parallels Iranian President Hassan Rouhani reaffirms his commitment to the nuclear deal and tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that Iran is willing to discuss Syria's future with the U.S. — only after ISIS is defeated.

Iran's President: 'Driving Out The Terrorists' Is Key To Syria's Future

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a basic difference between the United States, Russia and Iran. The U.S. wants Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go. Russia and Iran are his allies and want him to stay. Over the weekend, we sat down with Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani. Through an interpreter, Rouhani argued that the most important issue for everyone is destroying ISIS.

HASSAN ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) So what is the priority today in Syria? Is it to fight against terrorism or is it political reforms in Syria? Perhaps political reform is needed. However, is that today's priority? We believe that is driving out the terrorists.

INSKEEP: Rouhani is in New York, and people are closely watching him as he addresses the United Nations today. He's in his mid-60s. He wears a gray beard and white turban. When we met on Saturday night, he relaxed in his chair and when asked tricky questions, he smiled. He's the man whose election paved the way for Iran's historic nuclear deal with the United States. Now the U.S. and others want more cooperation, which led us to this question.

Is Iran ready, if it is possible, to work out a common strategy with United States to resolve the war in Syria?

ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) Two points we must pay close attention to. One of which is that the issue of stability and security in the region is of utmost importance for us.

INSKEEP: Maybe Americans don't like Syria's government, he says, but Iran needs to prop it up. In fact, Iran is now collaborating with Syria and Russia and Iraq against Syria's enemy, ISIS. Iran is not yet collaborating with the United States. And that was the president's other point. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wants to hold off cooperating with the U.S. He first wants to see how the nuclear deal works out.

Although Syria is in crisis now and millions of people have been forced to flee that country now, is there nothing you can do now in concert with the United States to at least begin to resolve that crisis?

ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) It's not that we are indifferent. We do care about the situation in Syria. We do worry about the people of Syria. We do worry, and our hearts bleed for so many people that are killed on a daily basis, who are driven from their homes. And you do note that archaeological and cultural remains in Syria have been destroyed on an almost daily basis by the terrorists. So all of this worries us.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned the archaeological sites because they were lost from the control of the government of Syria as that government has lost ground, as you know, Mr. President. President Assad has been losing ground, has not been able to regain control of his country. Do you believe that Iran is pursuing a winning strategy at this time?

ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) That is not so much the equation as to determine whether the Syrian government has embarked on the right path or not. That's a different topic of conversation.

INSKEEP: Which is why President Rouhani contends world powers need some formula for who or what would replace Assad.

ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) We do have a saying that we say - between worst and bad, we must choose bad. Or in other words, we choose the lesser of two evils.

INSKEEP: Which is why President Rouhani contends world powers need some formula for who or what would replace Assad.

When you say what formula do we pursue in the event that Assad were to go, are you personally prepared to open the discussion with the United States, with Russia, with other concerned powers as to what that formula might be?

ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) Yes, that is not a problem. For us, from right now to start holding discussions and dialogues so as to determine and reach the conclusion of the next plan of action after the terrorists are driven out of that territory. But we must all act in unison and have a formula that is required to drive out the terrorists immediately after which the following - the subsequent steps will come.

INSKEEP: This is news. Iran is ready to talk with the United States about Syria's future. But notice also the qualifiers. Iran is ready to talk about what may happen with Assad after the defeat of ISIS. For now, Iran has not quite given up on its old ally, Bashar al-Assad. We've been listening to part of a talk with Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani. Elsewhere in today's program, we ask how his country might change at home. And there's much more at npr.org.

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