By John Irish
PARIS, Jan 29 – The Syrian people must be left to decide their own future, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Thursday, adding that defeating terrorism was Syria’s main problem and not who is running the country.
On the first official visit to France by an Iranian president since 1999, Rouhani also said Tehran would keep to commitments it made under a nuclear agreement with major powers, but that major powers would also have to keep their end of the bargain.
The visit came as global diplomats are trying to arrange the first peace talks in two years to end the Syrian civil war.
Shi’ite Muslim Iran is the strongest ally of President Bashar al-Assad, while European countries back his mainly Sunni Muslim opponents, and want the Syrian leader to step aside.
“It is up to the Syrian people to make decisions for their country,” Rouhani said at a news conference with President Francois Hollande when asked whether he was ready to compromise on the future of Assad.
“Today, the problem in Syria is not a question of people, but terrorism, Daesh and the people who are buying oil from it, the same ones who are giving them weapons and supporting them politically.”
France took a hard line in the nuclear negotiations, has been outspoken in its condemnation of Iranian support for Assad, and has close ties with Sunni Arab states, so the Paris leg of Rouhani’s European trip was lower key than his trip to Italy earlier in the week.
While Hollande urged French firms to return to Iran and called for a new era in their relationship, he said it did not mean the countries did not have differences which he said was their joint responsibility to help resolve.
“We spoke about everything because that’s the rule in France,” Hollande said, adding he had reminded Rouhani of “France’s attachment to human rights and freedoms.”
Paris has been a key backer of Syrian opponents to Assad. It has been advising them ahead of the talks with the government in Geneva that had been due to begin on Friday. Hollande said it was urgent to put in place humanitarian measures and also negotiate a political solution.
“It is possible … We must support this discussion,” he said.
In an interview with France Culture radio, Rouhani appeared pessimistic.
“I would be surprised if these negotiations succeeded quickly,” he said. “I think the solution must be political, but it’s difficult to reach a conclusion in a few weeks or a few meetings. It’s too complicated.”