TEHRAN — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Saturday his government is prepared to assist Iraq in its fight against al-Qaeda-inspired militants and did not rule out cooperating with the United States against the new wave of extremism in Iraq.
“We are ready to help Iraq within the framework of international law, and if the Iraqi government and nation ask us to do so, we will consider it. But as of today, they have not asked us for any specific help,” Rouhani said, describing his relationship with Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, as “close and intimate.”
Rouhani said he and President Obama use official and unofficial channels of communication, although they have not done so regarding the current crisis in Iraq.
“America hasn’t acted on this situation yet. Whenever the United States makes a move on the ISIS, then we can think about cooperation with them in Iraq,” Rouhani said, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has seized several cities in Iraq’s north.
Despite reports that members of the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, had been deployed to Iraq, Rouhani said Iran wanted to stay out of the fray if possible. But he called on other regional countries and international powers to help end the violence in Iraq, which he said was in part a reaction to the recent election there, the results of which had angered Sunni militant groups.
“Democracy says a country should be ruled by the ballot box, but terrorism says it is the box of ammunition that rules,” Rouhani said.
Rouhani delivered his remarks at a news conference marking the first anniversary of his surprising and resounding election victory. It was only the second time he has taken questions from foreign journalists in Tehran since assuming office in August.
Since then, the Islamic republic has made progress toward ending its international isolation, something Rouhani spoke of repeatedly in the session with reporters, but many here are still waiting to see what tangible results improved relations might bring.
With another round of negotiations set to begin Monday between Iran and world powers over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and a July 20 deadline to end the decade-long standoff looming, hope remains that an agreement will be reached, fulfilling one of Rouhani’s key campaign promises.
“If we are not able to reach a deal by the deadline, our situation will not go back to the way it was before,” Rouhani said, referring to the period before an interim deal was struck in January to halt some of Iran’s most sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for modest relief from international economic sanctions.
But so far, many here say that they feel no connection between their country’s improved image abroad and their prospects for the future, and express impatience with a president who they say is not succeeding in reducing the pressures of daily life. To those who have long struggled with the consequences of the sanctions, including reduced spending power and a jump in the already high unemployment rate, diplomatic successes mean little.
“I see him on TV all the time saying he’s done a lot for the economy, but I haven’t felt it yet. My income hasn’t improved,” said Afsaneh Zamani, 31, an office worker. “Maybe his slogans were bigger than what he could actually do, or maybe he didn’t realize how big our problems are.”
One misstep by Rouhani’s administration, according to analysts, was its inability to manage expectations after his election, perhaps overestimating the effect that an improvement in Iran's international perception would have on the economy and other domestic challenges.
“Solving Iran's internal problems through improving perception and relations was not realistic. It can help, but it can't fix everything. It would be better for Rouhani to continue to acknowledge and act on problems that people can see clearly,” said Amir Mohebbian, a conservative political commentator.
The renewed sense that Iran is respected internationally, however, matters to many Iranians.
Before Rouhani’s election, it was unfathomable that representatives from Tehran and Washington would engage in bilateral negotiations. That taboo is now broken, although the reason for the meeting — deep divisions over what a comprehensive nuclear deal would include — is a reminder of how far the two sides must go to mend relations.
“We have disagreements, but only on the details,” Rouhani said Saturday. “If the other side is willing and serious, we can reach a deal in the remaining five weeks. And this deal would be the first step in building constructive interaction with the rest of world.”
On social issues, however, Rouhani has yet to deliver on what many of his supporters hoped would be key components of his domestic policy.
Dozens of political prisoners are still behind bars, the execution rate has risen since Rouhani took office and the freedom of expression he touts has not materialized, as the Internet and other forms of communication remain heavily restricted.
So far, Iran’s security and legal forces appear intent on maintaining the status quo and not allowing Rouhani’s administration to make major changes in these areas.
While the change in Iran’s leadership has resulted in a revamped image internationally, at home many are still dissatisfied with the direction their country is headed.
Earlier this month, Gallup published survey results that listed Iranians as second only to their neighbors in Iraq in terms of negative experience and emotions.