NEW YORK — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday appeared to shut the door to Iran’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, blaming the U.S occupation of Iraq for the rise of the brutal al-Qaida spinoff and asserting that it will be defeated only if the world supports the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
While he didn’t explicitly rule out Iran joining the U.S.-led coalition, his comments left little doubt that it wouldn’t. At the same time, Rouhani didn’t precluded Iran’s coordination with the U.S.-led campaign, something that occurred when U.S. airstrikes and a ground offensive by Iran-backed Iraqi troops and militias ended the Islamic State’s siege of a town populated by an ethnic minority last month.
“The right solution to this quandary comes from within the region and a regionally provided solution with international support and not from outside the region,” Rouhani said in a speech sponsored by the New America Foundation, a policy institute. It was his first public appearance on the sidelines of the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly.
Rouhani’s comments were significant in that they came only two days after the start of U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State targets inside Syria — which the Iranian leader said wouldn’t work — and hours after President Barack Obama urged the yearly U.N. gathering of presidents, prime ministers and monarchs to unite behind the U.S.-led campaign to defeat the group.
The Iranian president’s speech drove home some of the serious political and sectarian conundrums that Obama’s strategy faces.
Shiite Muslim Iran is the main backer of the Assad regime, which is dominated by a Shiite sect, in its more than 3-year-old war against Sunni Muslim insurgents, some of whom have been aided by Sunni Muslim states. The United States, meanwhile, is aiding some moderate rebel groups and has called on Assad to leave power, holding him responsible for the conflict that has claimed an estimated 200,000 lives and driven some 9 million people from their homes.
The Islamic State is by far the strongest insurgent group, and Obama’s plan calls for building a moderate Syrian rebel force to fight it that Iran fears will be used to oust Assad.
At the same time, the Obama administration and Iran support the new Iraqi government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. But an Obama administration push to persuade minority Sunni Arab tribes to fight the Islamic State is seriously complicated by sectarian tensions created by Iran-backed Shiite militias mobilized to fight the extremists.
In his speech, Rouhani took aim at the United States and its Sunni allies, blaming them for creating the violence that nurtured the rise of the Islamic State, which grew out of the al-Qaida affiliate founded in Iraq during the eight-year U.S. occupation.
“How this group came into being and how it developed must inform our path forward. Daash’s predecessors were created in the security vacuum during the years of occupation of Iraq and benefited from the help of those who have sought to destabilize democracy there,” said Rouhani, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
The Islamic State “did not exist and would likely have never existed if not for the 2003 invasion of Iraq,” he said.
Rouhani also accused Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regional Sunni regimes — although he didn’t name them — of sharing responsibility for the Islamic State’s takeover of about one-third of Syria and the same amount of territory in Iraq.
“Daash’s activity in Syria and its resuscitation with funding, recruits, facilitated transit passage and weapons were fostered by certain nations in the region who sought to install their clients in Syria,” he said. “Regrettably, some of these countries have historically seen extremist groups as a tool for gaining influence and imposing their agenda on the region.”
His comments were ironic, as Iran also has long used extremist proxies to advance its interests in the region. They include Hezbollah, the Shiite militia movement that dominates Lebanon and has sent fighters to Syria to aid Assad, and Shiite militias that killed hundreds of U.S. troops during the U.S. occupation of Iraq and have committed countless atrocities against Iraqi Sunnis.
Rouhani contended that the Islamic State “won’t be uprooted” by airstrikes alone, something that Obama acknowledges.
But Rouhani’s solution would effectively place Iran in charge — instead of the United States — by putting Tehran’s clients at the forefront of any campaign against the Islamic State.
The extremists can only be defeated from within the region, he said in calling for international backing for the Iraqi and Syrian governments.
“For this effort to succeed, it must be Iraqis and Syrians to band together and lead the international community,” he said. “They are the ones that can address this issue in any conclusive way. They must lead the way and we must advise and coordinate our efforts with them.”
His assertion echoed Obama’s contention that the group can only be defeated by local forces, albeit those backed by the United States and in coordination with U.S.-led airstrikes.
Rouhani’s visit to New York early in his second year in power stands in marked contrast to his trip last year. Last year, the Shiite cleric was fresh from a surprise election victory powered by his vows to resolve the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, lift devastating economic sanctions and end the country’s isolation.
His election gave a major boost to negotiations over the nuclear program, producing an interim accord with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany that allowed Iran some sanctions relief in exchange for measures that restricted its ability to use the program to produce weapons.
Rouhani’s visit this year, however, comes amid serious differences that forced the negotiators to extend their talks on a final accord and fierce opposition to a deal from his political adversaries back home.