CNN speaks with Fareed about Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's speech to the United Nations and Tehran's potential role in tackling ISIS. Watch Fareed's interview with Rouhani this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN.
What struck you most about Rouhani’s speech?
It wasn't a particularly interesting or dramatic speech. It repeated themes that the Iranians have been saying for a while. Rouhani has been more forthcoming in interviews he's done – I had an opportunity to do one of them. In those, what becomes clear is the Iranians believe that they can be part of the solution in Iraq, in Syria, with regard to ISIS, even in Afghanistan. But first the nuclear deal has to be achieved. They are putting a lot of hope and a certain amount of pressure on the West to produce a nuclear agreement, a compromise that everyone can live with, and then they say they could be helpful for issues of shared interest, common interests in the fight against ISIS.
Certainly coupling issues that the West, the U.S. does not want to have coupled there. You spoke with him yesterday. He's critical of these air strikes in Syria. What did he tell you?
Well, he's critical of them, but I think it's important to note the criticism is very muted. It's of two forms. One is what you heard in the speech – this is all the West's fault. You invaded Iraq. You created instability. You created a haven for this kind of activity.
The second is rather technical grounds, which is that it's technically not something that can be sanctioned by international law because it doesn't have U.N. approval and it didn't have the Syrian government's approval. He moves off that pretty quickly. He's in favor of battling ISIS – there's no condemnation of U.S. air strikes. I think that they would very much like – the Iranians, that is – to have the United States take an active part in the struggle against ISIS. They just want to make sure they get the nuclear deal.
In your interview with Rouhani, he was smirking at the suggestion that the rebels, that the U.S. is now overtly arming, are a real ally when it comes to combating ISIS in Syria.
Exactly right. Remember, the Iranian government supports the Syrian government, so it takes the Syrian government's position that those rebels, the Free Syrian Army, are a bunch of terrorists. It highlights what is going to be the thorniest aspect of President Obama's strategy against ISIS, which is that in Syria, the president is saying he's going to fight ISIS. But then he's going to somehow not let that benefit the main adversary of ISIS, which is the al-Assad government, by helping the third group, the Free Syrian Army, that's weak, disorganized and so far hasn’t been able to hold significant territory.
And so if the Iranians push very hard against that Free Syrian Army, it's going to make it much, much harder. And somehow, it feels to me the United States has to get engaged with Iran in a conversation about what Syria is going to look like politically, because if everybody from the outside is supporting one or the other group, you have a 12-cornered civil war, and maybe we won't defeat ISIS and certainly we will create a hell of a lot of chaos in Syria.
Iran has more influence on the Syrian government than any government in the world. It feels to me like the path to some political progress in Syria is going to have to run through Tehran.