Iranian Foreign Minister: ‘Arab Affairs Are Iran’s Business’
Foreign meddling has wrought a fractured Middle East
Mohammad Javad Zarif
Oct. 9, 2017
- With possible decertification looming for the Iran deal, Javad Zarif argues that his country has been unfairly maligned.
Iranians live in a troubled and unstable region. We cannot change geography, but our neighborhood was not always so stormy. Without delving too far back into history—although as an ancient peoples our memories are measured in millennia, not decades or even centuries—it’s safe to say that our region began to experience insecurity and instability when foreign, indeed completely alien powers, arrived and began interfering. The discovery of oil, a drug the West soon became addicted to, only strengthened colonial power projection into our region, and subsequently Cold War rivalry—both major factors in the U.S. and U.K. decision to overthrow the legitimate and democratic government of Iran in 1953—provided the fodder for further meddling by foreign powers and superpowers.
Today, what that meddling has wrought is a fractured Middle East. Steadfast allies of the West, rather than considering the plight or aspirations of their own peoples, spend their wealth arming themselves, sending to the West the riches their natural resources provide. They spend billions more of that wealth spreading Wahabbism—a medieval ideology of hate and exclusion—from the Far East to the Americas. They support organized non-state actors who wreak havoc through terror and civil wars. In the case of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE went as far as officially recognizing the Taliban as the government—becoming two of only three countries in the world that did so. The U.S., meanwhile, turned a blind eye to the ideology and funding that led to the creation of al-Qaeda—and its more recent offshoots of ISIS, Nusrah, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish-al-Islam, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and the list goes on—and to the worst terror attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. The U.S. military presence in the region now aims to counter not just threats to America’s own interests, but also supposed threats to the very same allies that have supported the kind of terror now being visited on the cities of Europe and the United States.
These allies of the West—throughout their brief history as nations hostile to my country—pounced on Iran in the aftermath of our Islamic Revolution, which freed us from a dictatorship not unlike theirs and allowed us to set our own course in history, independent and peaceful but allied to neither East nor West. While we voluntarily set aside a domineering role in the region, they funded, armed, and supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran. His eight-year war against us resulted in nothing but death and destruction, including the first battlefield use of chemical weapons since World War I—by Saddam against our soldiers, as well as against civilians—which was met with deafening silence by the international community.
We Iranians, punished for having the gall to declare ourselves free of domestic tyranny and foreign dominance, were denied even the most basic defensive weapons, even while missiles rained down on our cities to the cheers of our Arab neighbors. One of those neighbors, Kuwait, a major funder of Iraq’s war on us and the facilitator of its oil sales, shortly afterward became the victim of Saddam’s ambitions itself. Yet in the interest of regional peace and stability, we chose to support Kuwait’s sovereignty in the face of Iraqi invasion, despite Saddam’s offer to share the spoils with us; he even sent his fighter jets to Iran, ostensibly for safe-keeping, but really in an attempt to lure us to his side. Our leadership firmly rejected this offer despite the hostility, both overt and covert, some Persian Gulf states had shown us since the revolution. We preferred for our Persian Gulf neighbors to remain stable, functioning, independent countries, rather than enjoying the certain but brief satisfaction of seeing them receive their just deserts.
Our interest in our region’s affairs, though, is not malevolent. On the contrary, it is in the interest of stability. We do not desire the downfall of any regimes in the countries that surround us. Our desire—in principle and practice—is that all the nations of the region enjoy security, peace, and stability. Unfortunately, this is not the desire of some of some of our neighbors, whose untried leaders cherish the delusion of regime change in Iran, and support terrorist groups that seek to overthrow our government or create fear for the sake of wounding the nation. Our neighbors do this even while saying that Iran’s influence is spreading—especially since the conclusion of the nuclear agreement of 2015.
Iran’s influence, though, has spread not at the purposeful expense of others, but as a result of their and their Western allies’ actions, mistakes, and wrong choices. After the downfall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it was inevitable that Iran, which had housed those countries’ refugees and provided asylum to their political figures, would have greater “influence” with the friends who took over than would those who supported and financed the atrocities of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein against their own people. It was not Iran that prevented a churlish Saudi Arabia from opening an embassy in Baghdad for a decade after the fall of Saddam, nor was it Iran that insisted on war with Yemen or an embargo of Qatar.
Qatar, a country that we differ with on a number of serious issues, is a neighbor we do not want to see unstable. Nor do we want to see its independence questioned while it suffers under the thumb of its bigger Saudi brother. Since we could not allow its besiegement and suffocation, we have provided it with much-needed ports and an air corridor. We similarly showed immediate support for the democratically elected government of Turkey, which also differs from us on some issues, when it suffered a coup attempt. We brought our influence to bear in Lebanon, a troubled land where a unity government was formed after two years of objections by Saudi Arabia, which seemingly preferred the instability of infighting and sectarian divisions in the Levant to a functioning, successful state.
In Syria, we came to assist the people when, in the guise of mass protest following the Arab Spring, terrorist groups—including some aligned to al-Qaeda and Daesh—took up arms to seize power and establish a monstrous terrorist state characterized by mass and bloody beheadings. Some of the terror groups have at some point been directly or indirectly funded and armed by some of our neighbors, and in some cases by the United States itself. The millions of Syrian refugees fleeing their homes are not fleeing a man, a sect, or a government; they are fleeing war and terror. But no country has done more than Iran in the fight against Daesh and in preventing the formation of an anti-Islamic caliphate from Damascus to Baghdad.
Saudi Arabia spends over $63 billion on defense annually, ranking 4th in the world behind only the U.S., China, and Russia. The UAE, a country with less than 1.5 million citizens, ranks 14th, with over $22 billion in annual defense spending. Iran doesn’t even make the list of the top 20 spenders: Its $12 billion puts it in 33rd place. It is hardly ramping up to be the new hegemonic bully in the neighborhood. Our goal is not to have the biggest or best-equipped military, or to possess trillions of dollars worth of weapons, but to have the minimum materiel required to deter and to counter threats and armed attack. Our biggest asset for stability, security, and independence is our people, who—unlike the citizens of some U.S. allies in the region—choose their government every four years.
We patrol the waters of the Persian Gulf—so named by Westerners centuries ago given that its longest shore by far is Iran’s—because Iran’s right to defend its territory from sea attack or subterfuge cannot be questioned. (Presumably, likewise, the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy have not stopped patrolling the Gulf of Mexico, or the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards.) If there are accusations warranted about “provocative behavior” in the Persian Gulf, Iran is surely the party to make them. U.S. warships and aircraft carriers the size of cities routinely bear down on Iranian naval vessels in waters that are only 10 kilometers wide in some parts. No one should expect us to ever forfeit our rights in this important waterway, which is central to our economic and national-security interests.
The Iran-phobia perpetuated by some of our neighbors—which in the age of rule by political neophytes has become a kind of hysteria—is now influencing the outlook of the U.S. This is true of the nuclear agreement and is evident more generally in the kind of open hostility toward Iran President Trump expressed in his 2017 UN speech. But the evidence for “bad behavior” by Iran is nonexistent. Iranian “aggression” is a myth, easily perpetuated by those willing to spend their dollars on American military equipment and public-relations firms, and by those promising to protect American interests rather than those of their own people. In the end, they serve neither.
The successful implementation of the nuclear deal—by Iran, at least—is proof of Iran’s good will and peaceful intentions. If we had hegemonic ambitions, an agreement would never have been reached. The JCPOA can in fact be a model for the diplomatic resolution of crises, and for peaceful outcomes in regional disputes. Rather than look at its shortcomings—for in any deal or bargain, there are shortcomings from the perspective of either side—it would behoove other countries beyond to look at its benefits. For there are also benefits for all sides, including for our immediate neighbors.
New leaders in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, exhibiting the impetuosity of inexperience—as well as the hubris bred through a supremely sheltered and privileged upbringing—have embraced an aggressive regional stance. Fearing shame or failure, they may find it difficult to back down. But insisting on the wrong course won’t make it right. Vietnam should have taught that to America, and Afghanistan to the former Soviet Union. Our regional trouble should be teaching that to our neighbors. The right approach is not difficult to uncover—it just requires open eyes, an open mind, respect for the opinions and positions of others, and a willingness to engage and search for a mutually acceptable solution to any problem. We Iranians pledged to do that with six countries when we restarted negotiations on the nuclear issue in 2013. Even if one or more of the parties abrogates the deal without reason, or refuses to fully implement its side, the approach itself was the right one. Any failure, in the end, will not come from an inherent defect of the agreement, but from a lack of good faith that will only globally discredit the defectors.
But in thinking about how to move past regional stalemates—especially with regard to the spread of terror—it might be useful for our neighbors and their Western backers to take another, more careful look at past Iranian initiatives. Iran proposed a “Dialogue Among Civilizations” in 1998, well before 9/11 and before any notion of a “clash of civilizations” took hold among the general public. In 2013, President Hassan Rouhani proposed a “World Against Violence and Extremism” (WAVE), before Daesh became a household name. Both initiatives accurately diagnosed the enabling social, cultural, and global conditions that have encouraged the formation and spread of extremist violence—conditions that are too often forgotten in otherwise laudatory pledges to eradicate the scourge.
While clearly such forces as Daesh and its offshoots need to be defeated and their false promises exposed, a meaningful restoration of peace and stability to the Persian Gulf region hinges on the promotion of mutual understanding and regional security cooperation, which some of our neighbors have so far rejected. But there’s no reason we can’t cooperate. The ancient Persian game of chess requires either a winner, a stalemate, or surrender by one opponent in the face of defeat. It is a magnificent game, but it is just a game. In the real world, other outcomes are possible—there can be a “win-win” solution that doesn’t result in defeat for any side. To achieve this outcome, we should be erecting a working regional mechanism rather than laying more bricks in the wall of division. We can start with a regional dialogue forum, something Iran has always been—publicly and privately—in favor of.
Such a forum should naturally be based on respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of all states; the inviolability of international boundaries; non-interference in others’ internal affairs; the peaceful settlement of disputes; the impermissibility of threats or use of force; and the promotion of peace, stability, progress, and prosperity in the region. A forum based on these principles could eventually develop more formal nonaggression and security cooperation arrangements between all the parties, ensuring that the Persian Gulf does not remain a synonym for implacable troubles.
Iran will in the meantime continue on its own path of dialogue, mutual respect, and understanding. In that vein, in early October I held successful top-level meetings in Qatar and Oman, followed by a summit with Turkey in Tehran, addressing issues of paramount importance to the peace and stability of our neighborhood. It should be everyone’s fervent hope that we can have similar interactions with our other neighbors.
Source: The Atlantic