ISIS Is a Snake
Idealism with a healthy dose of realism. This can be the best description for the performance of Iran's diplomatic apparatus throughout the past two years. Iran's foreign policy has embarked on smart approaches which have created new diplomatic opportunities for the country in the Middle East and the global stage. Conclusion of the nuclear marathon and its constructive outcomes, nowadays manifested in the 'diplomatic traffic' of Tehran, is the outcome of two years of dialogue, that has replaced belligerence, with the P5+1 (five global powers plus Germany). The government's adoption of the win-win policy is a clear sign that rationalization is ruling the diplomatic apparatus of the country at a juncture where international affairs are replete with misunderstanding. Despite criticism by the opposition, Zarif and Rouhani are pioneers in solving regional crises through their tactful strategies.
We interviewed Mohammad Javad Zarif amid ISIS' rampage in Paris, the dire situation in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and Riyadh's revengeful confrontation with Tehran:
VE: During the recent Syria talks in Vienna, there were ample opportunities for bilateral talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia. John Kerry made several attempts to broker a dialogue between Iranian and Saudi diplomats. But it seems that you rejected his efforts.
MJZ: We are living in the Middle East region and we need to maintain our ties with other Muslim countries of the region. I have always stressed that Iran's priority in its foreign policy should be relations with neighbors based on mutual respect.
VE: Then why did you not accept Kerry's efforts to talk to Saudi Arabia?
MJZ: We need no mediation. I spoke to the Saudi FM in the Vienna II talks and told Adel al-Jubeir that Iran regards Saudi Arabia's security as its own security.
VE: But Riyadh's behavior reveals their absolute distrust in Iran. Their coordination with Israel shows their attitude towards Iran.
MJZ: I believe that the Saudis' behavior will pass . The sudden change in relations between Iran and the West has made them nervous. They have become used to the previous state of affairs, where they could blame everything on Iran and call us the main cause of instability and lack of peace in the Middle East. But they can't claim anymore that regional developments, ISIS and the domestic situation of Arab countries is Iran's fault. Saudi Arabia's behavior is because they are trying to reinstate the previous situation in regional affairs.
Naturally, these efforts come with a level of belligerence. We should understand the root of their behavior. As a great country, we see how their belligerence stems from the change in political and economic relations in the Middle East. They are worried that their game has changed. Our responsibility is to understand the behavior of neighbors and give them the opportunity to change. We should remove the grounds for concern among the Saudis. They should not feel that Iran wants to marginalize them in regional affairs. However, as I said, this is a temporary phase. Circumstances will convince Saudi Arabia and its allies to accept the new situation of Iran.
VE: How would this change occur?
MJZ: Saudi Arabia's behavior will change through our behavior, our rhetoric and through our efforts to neutralize efforts by those who want to keep alive the Iranophobia project at any price.
VE: Don't you think that part of our problem in the Middle East stems from the relative ineptitude of our diplomats?
MJZ: No. On the contrary, our Middle East diplomats are pretty active. Engagement of various bodies in foreign policy does not mean a lack of discipline if there is coordination in the general aims. Foreign policy is not the territory of a single entity. What makes foreign policy successful is the existence of a clear, coordinated framework. As you saw in the case of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), there are differences of opinion inside the country, but that does not mean different foreign policies are applied. The general line that we follow in the region is that external powers should not interfere in regional affairs. For every country in crisis, it is the citizens who should make the final decision. We are against foreign intervention in the domestic affairs of countries and believe that popular vote should be the basis for restoration of peace.
VE: What is your prediction of Syria's future?
VE: Syria needs a diplomatic solution. What we predict is that there is a political solution based on participation of all Syrian citizens, otherwise the country will move towards collapse. My concern is that some countries in possession of certain military equipment will opt for a military solution. I hope they have learnt from the case of Yemen where military intervention has borne no fruit and has only brought massive death.
VE: Looking at the photos published from the Vienna II talks, we see that you and the Saudi FM Adel al-Jubeir have sat in different positions. Why was your positioning at the table of negotiations different? Was that deliberate?
MJZ: There are certain etiquettes to be observed in diplomatic meetings. The arrangement of seats usually follows either of these two rules: it is either according to alphabetical order, or according to the seniority of the diplomats. Seniority is not a big deal. A foreign minister may have been in office for 20 years, and another foreign minister may have held the position for two months. So the minister with 20 years of experience is definitely the senior. The same case is true in diplomatic missions. If you have served as ambassador to the UN for five years, you will occupy a higher seat. If Saud al-Faisal was still the Saudi Minister, he would sit higher. You saw that Oman's Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alwi had occupied a senior poisiton. So I had a rank of 7 or 8, but the Saudi Foreign Minister Mr. Adel al-Jubeir had a lower ranking since he has been in office for a few months. But such issues should not be made prominent or be used to humiliate others.
VE: Some Saudi officials claim that Iran is meddling with Arab countries' internal affairs. They say that to solve the Syrian crisis, Iran should change its behavior.
MJZ: Such claims have rhetorical purposes. Our friends know better that these are false claims. What needs to change is the mentality of Saudi officials who think there is a military solution for Syria. I think the sooner they reach this conclusion, the lesser the risk for themselves and the region. A sustained solution is one which relies on popular support and the Syrian crisis definitely needs a political solution. Unfortunately, I found a serious concern in the Vienna talks. I think some of our neighbors have not yet come to the beliefe that ISIS is a real threat for them. They view ISIS as a leverage or a card they can play with. ISIS is a serpent, you can't play with it. This serpent is mainly vying for Arab countries and particularly the Hijaz region. Therefore, we think that Saudi Arabia needs to change its attitude. That has not happened so far.
* This piece was originally published in Vaghaye' Ettefaghieh Daily. The newspaper, owned by Sadegh Kharrazi, former ambassador to the UN and France, published its first edition today.