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Rouhani Signals New Cooperation Possible Between Iran And U.S.


The president of Iran says his country is ready to discuss the future of Syria with the United States. President Hassan Rouhani talked about Syria's war in an interview with NPR News. His remarks, while subtle, suggested some openness to new cooperation between Iran and the U.S. That is meaningful because Syria has become a global humanitarian disaster. Rouhani took questions from NPR's Steve Inskeep in New York, which is where we find Steve this morning.

Hi, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel, great to be here.

MARTIN: Nice to have you with us. So let's just start off with the big question - are the U.S. and Iran ready to resolve Syria's war?

INSKEEP: No, but Rouhani said the U.S. and Iran could at least start talking about this. And that matters because we know the U.S. also wants to talk with Iran, and we know that they are both vital influencers in this nightmare civil war.

MARTIN: But they're on different sides in that civil war?

INSKEEP: Absolutely, except when they're on the same side. The United States, let's remember, supports some Syrian rebels. Iran supports the government of Bashar al-Assad, so they're on opposite sides. They both fought against the Islamic State, so there they are on a common side. And these are two countries that are at the edge - or seem to be on the edge - of plausible cooperation after signing that big deal on nuclear issues recently.

MARTIN: OK, so what would have to happen to get them to align more closely?

INSKEEP: They would need to agree on what to do about Syria - some common approach - especially what to do about the government of Bashar al-Assad. He doesn't seem to be close to regaining control of the country. The United States has wanted him out for a very long time, sooner or later. Iran is wanting to keep Assad. He's a key ally of Iran. Now, U.S. officials have talked in the last few days of trying to find some common strategy.

So when I met President Rouhani here in New York in a hotel, I asked if Iran is ready to talk about the future of a Syria without Assad. And he responded, reasonably enough, you can't replace Assad with nothing. That would be chaos. We need a formula for what comes after. So I then said, all right, is Iran ready to discuss the formula? And through a translator, Rouhani said this.

HASSAN ROUHANI: (Through interpreter) Yes, that is not a problem for us for 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: Oh, Rachel, you notice so many subtleties here. He's a subtle talker. He gives and takes away - yes, yes, we can talk about a formula for Syria's future without Assad, but first things first, let's drive out the terrorists, meaning drive out ISIS and worry about Assad later, which is just the way Iran would prefer. But I think if you drew one of those Venn diagrams, you know with the overlapping circles, you would find at least a little overlap between the positions of these two countries.

MARTIN: So, Steve, is the Syrian war - is this some kind of bigger test of whether the U.S. and Iran can work together in other ways?

INSKEEP: Absolutely, after this big nuclear dear, although I have to stress Iran has sent signals it's in no rush. It's the United States that's conveying a sense of urgency right now. John Kerry, the secretary of state, met his Iranian counterpart over the weekend and made it clear that Syria was one of the things they were going to discuss.

President Obama is meeting Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, at these big United Nations meetings in the coming days. Russia is also a powerful player supporting Assad. But these are all countries that still see Syria's war very differently, see Syria's Assad very differently. And on top of that, Iran's supreme leader has been in no rush at all. He's been saying, wait, let's see how this nuclear deal goes before we try collaborating on anything else. And let me mention one other piece of news, if I can, Rachel.

This weekend, Iran has said it's joined forces with Russia and Iraq and Syria's government on some kind of intelligence-sharing operation. We don't want to overplay the significance of that, but suddenly, there's this little symbol of shared interests between those countries that leaves the United States out. So they're still not on the same page. And while they're not on the same page, you have millions of people who continue to suffer and flee Syria and, in great many cases, die.

MARTIN: NPR's Steve Inskeep. Thanks so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: Glad to do it, Rachel.

MARTIN: Steve will have more from his interview with President Rouhani tomorrow on MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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