Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned Thursday that Syria could become an extremist haven like Taliban-era Afghanistan as he called for cooperation to end the civil war.
Iran considers Syrian President Bashar al-Assad its closest regional ally and has not accepted US intelligence that the regime killed some 1,400 people in a chemical weapons attack last month.
“My government strongly condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria,” Rouhani told a New York think tank forum, without assigning blame.
“I am also concerned about the breeding ground created in parts of Syrian territory for extremist ideology and a rally point for terrorists, which is reminiscent of another region adjacent to our eastern borders in the 1990s,” he said.
“This is an issue of concern not only to us but also to many other countries, which requires cooperation and joint efforts aimed at finding a durable, inter-Syrian political solution,” he said.
Iran, led by a Shiite theocracy, opposed the 1996-2001 rule in Afghanistan of the Taliban, who welcomed Al-Qaeda militants and enforced an austere brand of Sunni Islam.
The secular-minded Assad belongs to the heterodox Alawite community and is battling rebels who include Sunni hardliners.
Rouhani, elected in June on a platform of moderation, is on a visit to the United Nations aimed largely at easing tensions with Western powers over Iran’s contested nuclear program.
In an earlier false start of better ties, Iran and the United States briefly cooperated in 2001 when a US-led campaign ousted the Taliban.
Rouhani welcomed the US-Russian agreement for Assad to give up chemical weapons, which halted a push by US President Barack Obama for a military strike on Syria.
“We are pleased that diplomacy… and sober judgment prevailed over saber-rattling,” Rouhani said.
Iran itself was a victim of chemical weapons used by Iraq, a history acknowledged by Obama in his address to the United Nations.
Western powers largely supported Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in his 1980-88 war against Iran.