Very few people paid attention to what Iranian President Hassan Rowhani actually said as he took the stage at the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s Annual Meeting in Davos.
With his elegant robes, turban, radiant smile, soft-spoken approach and carefully chosen words, I can understand why an international audience would be mesmerized by Rowhani. Although it really doesn’t take much to leave a positive impression if your predecessor was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad!
However, as appealing and eloquent as he was, and underneath all the smiles and the heart-warming calls for building bridges and “constructive engagement”, one only needed to listen carefully to what Rowhani DIDN’T say to understand that he is best described as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
To his credit, Rowhani managed to strike a nuclear deal rather quickly with the six world powers last November. And in Davos - where his real agenda is to lure investors back to his country to help save its crumbling economy - he reiterated that Iran’s nuclear ambition was and always will be peaceful.
Of course, many people don’t buy this but for now, let us take it at face value.
Position on Syria
What was worrying on the other hand was Rowhani’s response to WEF founder Klaus Schwab’s question on what the Islamic Republic intended to do “soon” to stop the humanitarian disaster in Syria.
The ever-so-articulate Rowhani, whose government continues to support Assad’s brutal regime, said that it was sad to see Syria being engulfed in catastrophe.
His words describing the situation of refugees and all the aid and support Iran was giving them almost brought tears to people’s eyes.
However, what he failed to say was that these millions of Syrian refugees were forced to leave their homes, villages and cities BECAUSE of Tehran’s stance on the Syrian crisis.
Rowhani also made no indication that he was even considering pulling out his Revolutionary Guard units (which continue to fight alongside Assad’s troops against his own people) nor did say he would instruct Hezbollah fighters which Iran controls to withdraw from Syria. Instead, he attempted to blame the deteriorating situation in Syria on terrorism.
Let us not be fooled
Let us be clear here: we all agree that ISIS is a terrorist group and that both Syria and the world would be better off without the likes of it. (Let us not forget that the Free Syrian Army is actually fighting against both ISIS and Assad’s troops.) However, let us also not fool ourselves or allow Rowhani to fool us!
First of all, ISIS doesn’t represent the Syrian opposition. Second, the rise of terrorism in the Levant region didn’t cause the plight and disparity of the Syrian people; it was BECAUSE of it.
I am not sure if Rowhani forgot or chose not to remember that the Syrian revolution started as a peaceful one; and it was the bloody retaliation of Assad, whose family has been in control of Syria for 43 years, which forced members of the opposition to carry arms - and some of Assad’s own army to defect.
Iran supports terrorism
Rowhani also subtly criticized “countries that support terrorists” - in reference to some GCC countries - warning them that they might be the next target of terrorism.
Recent reports have shown that it was in fact Iran which was supporting Al-Qaeda and ISISFaisal J. Abbas
Again, Rowhani is right - terrorist groups should not be supported and we should all be wary as to where they might hit next.
However, the Iranian president should be giving this wise advice to his own government; after all, recent reports have shown that it was in fact Iran that was supporting al-Qaeda and ISIS to worsen the situation in Syria and make it more difficult for the opposition to win.
With well over 100,000 Syrians killed and millions of refugees dispersed across the region, the community of global investors, business executives and influencers whom Rowhani is seeking to woo in Davos should remember that, until he takes affirmative action to put an end to the suffering in Syria, the Iranian president’s hands are soaked in blood.
Faisal J. Abbas is the Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya English, and a renowned blogger and an award-winning journalist who is working on an upcoming book on Arab Media. Faisal covered the Middle East extensively working for Future Television of Lebanon and both al-Hayat and Asharq al-Awsat pan-Arab dailies. He blogs for The Huffington Post since 2008, a recipient of many media awards and a member of the British Society of Authors, National Union of Journalists, the John Adams Society as well as an associate member of the Cambridge Union Society. He can be reached on @FaisalJAbbas on Twitter.