UNITED NATIONS — Iran has a unique chance to win respect in the Arab world if it pushes Syria's regime toward peace, Tunisia's president said Monday.
President Moncef Marzouki also renewed his offer of asylum to Syrian President Bashar Assad as a last-ditch option to stop the 2 1/2 -year civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people.
Marzouki, at the United Nations for its annual General Assembly meeting beginning on Tuesday, called new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani a "key player" in efforts to negotiate a political settlement in Syria. Iran is Syria's main benefactor, but the newly elected Rouhani is a political moderate who has impressed the West by offering to facilitate negotiations between Assad and the Syrian rebel opposition.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Marzouki said he plans to meet with Rouhani during the weeklong meetings in New York, and "I will tell him Iran would be much more respected, accepted, in the Arab world if they put the pressure on their man in Damascus."
He added, "Backing Syria means they are losing the whole Arab world."
Marzouki defended his asylum offer to Assad – whom he called a criminal – as a desperate attempt to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
"If we can avoid more massacres, if we can prevent thousands of Syrian to die, why not?" Marzouki said. "It's a terrible, terrible decision, but why not? I am a physician, and life is much more important than anything, even justice."
Marzouki also warned about the return of dictatorships to the Mideast, two years after Arab Spring uprisings across the region that demanded democracy.
He said political unrest and a rise in extremism in Tunisia has cost his country a year's worth of progress.
Tunisia is considered the birthplace of the Arab Spring after a frustrated fruit seller set himself on fire there in December 2010 during a wave of anti-government anger. The Tunisian dictator at the time, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted a month later after 23 years in power.
Since then, Tunisia has been beset by a cratering economy and a sharp rise in extremism. Together, they have roiled the nation's political process. Efforts to produce a new constitution have been pushed back, faith in the transitional government has dwindled and the assassination of two opposition politicians this year has thrown the process into chaos.
Both assassinations are believed to have been carried out by the al-Qaida-linked extremist group Ansar al-Shariah.
"They didn't assassinate one person, one human being – they did assassinate the whole nation," Marzouki said. "The whole trouble we have had was because of these political assassinations. If we didn't have them, I am quite sure that today we would have our constitution, a new government."
He accused the extremist group of seeking to "make the situation in Tunisia like in Egypt – but fortunately, this was not the case."
Marzouki said he was greatly concerned about unrest in Egypt, where the military ousted the country's first democratically elected president in July, and in neighboring Libya, where the government has relied on militias for security since the 2011 civil war that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi.
He predicted Tunisia's government will survive and that another coup is not likely.
However, "democracy cannot be an island in the ocean of dictatorships," Marzouki said. "This is why it is very, very important for us to have democracy succeed in Libya, in Egypt, everywhere."
Marzouki said investigations are ongoing into the July killing of opposition politician Mohammed Brahmi and into last year's attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. He expressed embarrassment about both events.
The CIA had warned Tunisian officials before Brahmi's death that he was a potential target, and Marzouki said "some people probably will pay" for the security lapse. In the case of the embassy attack last September, Marzouki said he was displeased with court decisions to suspend the sentences of 20 people who were convicted in the riot, and he attributed the lax sanctions to a government that did not take terror threats seriously.
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