Iran’s Deputy foreign minister for Arab and North African affairs Hussein Jaberi Ansari has criticized the Saudi regime for its brutal crimes in the region, Yemen in particular, stressing that the Saudi rulers won’t come off the Yemeni war victorious just as the Soviet Union failed to win in Afghanistan.
The Iranian diplomat made the remarks in a recent interview with the English language daily Tehran Times.
The full text of his interview, appeared on the newspaper on Wednesday, follows:
Q: Sometimes, support for terrorist groups in today’s Middle East is compared to that of for the Taliban and its outgrowth al-Qaeda years ago. Do you agree?
A: Indeed, that’s the point. History offers numerous lessons to learn from. Take Saudi Arabia, for instance. Had the Saudis been familiar enough with the history of Yemen and the fate of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, they wouldn’t have invaded the country.
Similarly, had the international community taken lessons from the evolution of the Taliban and its acts of violence as well as from 9/11, they would have stopped looking at the Islamic State as leverage in Iraq and Syria. History tells us that Saudi Arabia won’t come off the Yemeni war victorious just as the Soviet Union failed to win in Afghanistan. Historical lessons show how impervious the Yemeni people have been to external meddling over the past centuries. Riyadh should have known that beforehand.
Some Arab and non-Arab countries backed the Taliban, thinking the group’s sway would be restricted to Afghanistan. Also, these countries thought of Taliban insurgents as a tool to pursue their own agenda in the region and considered themselves to be the ultimate victor. And any possible threat from the terrorist circle would be directed toward Iran.
In fact, their calculations were premised upon two prepositions. Emergence of the Taliban as a religious, radical, Sunni current would be a response to the increasing impact of the Shiite Islamic republic in the region; as it could be utilized to tilt the playing field in Afghanistan that was growingly out of control and beset by heavy fighting led by mujahideen groups.
However, in their calculations they were unmindful of two points. First, the Taliban was itself part of the social fabric of Afghanistan.
Second, a temporary overlap of interests with the Taliban leadership didn’t mean that the Taliban wouldn’t pursue an independent agenda to fulfill its ambitions once it could extend its influence and geography.
Although the two groups had some interests to begin with, once the Taliban extended its influence and gained ground, it sought an independent agenda from mujahideen. And in practice this took place. Afghanistan was catapulted into a war and what Taliban militants did in the battlefield was quite the opposite of what its regional supporters had expected.
Q: Some analysts believe that Turkey seems to have plans to reiterate the Northern Cyprus experience in the northern city of al-Bab. What’s your assessment?
A: Well, one possible scenario could be that. And Turkey may have such intention to repeat its Cyprus experience in the Syrian city of al-Bab. However, the question arises as to whether it would be possible for Turkey to succeed. To come up with a tentative answer to that possibility, one has to act comparatively, taking into consideration situational differences and various actors. Syria and Cyprus are incomparable in terms of situation, status, and of course, geography.
Q: What do you say when Saudi Arabia keeps claiming that it’s one of the leading countries in fighting ISIL?
A: This is one of those cases when what you see is not what you get. Saudi Arabia has to prove it in practice. Saudi Arabia has been the ideological fountainhead of terrorist groups over the past decades and been providing them with financial and arms backing. We shouldn’t forget that ISIL is the outgrowth of the Salafi takfiri ideology of al-Qaeda and the radical, violent Baathi current in Iraq. The post-Saddam era along with the changes in the country was a nightmare for Arab countries in the region that have been in a state of stagnancy for decades now. So, these countries, led by Saudi Arabia, did their best to destabilize Iraq after Saddam.
The international community can trust Saudi Arabia only when the Saudis shift policy and their view of terrorist groups in the region.
Q: Saudi Arabia, coupled with Turkey and ‘Israel’, is creating a new wave of Iranophobia. The Trump administration has also emboldened Riyadh in its efforts to present a wrong image of Iran. People familiar with the issue say Iran has no countermeasure to prevent the Saudi-led efforts since it’s isolated in the region. They argue that Tehran has no ties with the U.S. and doesn’t have high-level relations with Egypt as an important Arab actor. What can we do to thwart the formation of such anti-Iran coalition?
A: To come up with a nuanced understanding of regional developments over the past years, we should take few issues into account.
I don’t think Iran is an isolated country in the Middle East. And even now some Arab countries are reluctant to cut ties with Iran and interested in having normal relations with it. The letter delivered to Iran by the Kuwaiti foreign minister and the later visits to Oman and Kuwait by President Hassan Rouhani are strong hints that this is wrong to claim that Iran is alone in the region.
Interjection: But during the eight-year Iraqi invasion of Iran, these Arab countries took side with Iraq and we were practically isolated.
A: That’s a different thing at least in that context. Four decades back after the revolution, we could stabilize the movement in spite of being isolated. Even at that time, we didn’t choose to be an isolated country. Foreign countries were against the revolutionary movement as Iran, which was until then obedient to world powers, had a U-turn and became a strong voice in the region for independence as manifested in its motto “Neither the East nor the West.”
The big headline, so to speak, was a distinction of the fledgling revolution. But we left behind all the hardships of eight years of war due to our intrinsic and historical capacities. Over the past nearly 15 years, Iran’s influence in the region has soared in the eye of the world, turning Iran into a key player in the region.
But back to your question. The efforts now being made in the region by certain countries is a compulsive move to limit Iran’s growing influence in the region. Although at first look it may be comparable to the conditions we faced in the beginning years of the revolution, there are significant thematic differences. Today, Iran is no longer a country shaken up by domestic issues. It’s not in a flux of change as it was the case in the revolution era. It’s now a leading and influential country and that’s why it’s in the spotlight. A second point is that the present anti-Iran coalition is not as strong as it was in the years after the revolution. It’s now a hollowed-out one held together forcefully by Saudi Arabia. A historical lesson.
While Kuwait was one of those countries who backed Saddam Hussein in the 1980s-war, Iran was the very first country sympathizing with Kuwait after Iraq invaded the country in 1990. This is deeply manifested in Kuwait’s policies now. Due to some limitations and excuses, the country on the one hand sides partially with Saudi Arabia, but on the other hand is looking for ways to play a positive role in finding solutions to the current impasse as it knows how trustable Iran is.
Fears over the increasing influence of Iran in the region have been a unifying force between opponents. But we should remember that each of these players has their own interests and the anti-Iran front lacks a unanimous, consistent fabric. Turkey, for instance, is different from Saudi Arabia as the two states have their own priorities, far from a one-to-one correspondence. Hence, components of the game we are talking about are quite different.
Of course, the Zionist regime has been the only actor in the region that has kept creating new challenges over the past decades and after the occupation of Palestine. The only nation who has failed to form a government in modern history is Palestine. To defocus the issue, Israel has done its best to create and fan crises in the region. Even the so-called Israeli-Arab coalition is not a genuine one simply because an Arab can’t identify with an Israeli who has violated his rights and rejected his.
The current situation is propaganda and part of a psychological warfare, as well. However, relative success has been achieved. Saudi Arabia and other countries under its sway look at ‘Israel’ as a tool to disguise their internal, structural discrepancies with regional and international norms in such a way that benefits them.
We should not forget that Saudi Arabia has been, since its establishment, reliant on the U.S. as a Western power. However, over the past decade, those connections and channels have quietly, yet continuously, undergone deep conceptual and meaningful shifts, reaching a climax as Washington okayed the Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). Passing such a law, which was by no means possible previously, indicates a shift in the West and the U.S. toward Saudi Arabia.
In seeking an alliance with Israel, Saudi Arabia tries to revive and keep its historical relation with the West and the U.S. Also, Riyadh tries to align with regional actors as leverage against progressive Iran.
Q: How do you see the prospect of relations between Iran and Arab countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia? Do you expect any change in Saudi Arabia’s behavior in the future?
A: Geographical proximity means neighbors have no choice but to co-exist on the basis of friendship and bilateral relations. Over the past fifteen years, Saudi Arabia has failed to adjust itself to changes happening in its surrounding. The country’s traditional establishment is ruled by a family. It lacks even a constitution as such. So, Riyadh’s foreign policy is mainly built upon a policy of initially preventing any change to take place and secondly, confronting change once it’s made. The ultimate outcome of Saudis’ performance in Yemen, Bahrain, and Iraq is to clamp down on the nations’ will. Saudi Arabia sees itself a defender of the previous situation and tries to preserve it as it used to be.
I think in the future Saudi Arabia has to unavoidably recognize immediate realities. Saudi Arabia will stop resisting contextual realities only when costs are not affordable. It’s not possible to fight realities.
On the opposite, Iran doesn’t pursue such policy and has adjusted itself to the changing situation in the region. Take Iran’s reaction to the U.S. attack on Iraq back in 2003. Actually, it could have had quite immense consequences for Iran as the invader, the U.S., has been in a state of confrontation and conflict with Iran for nearly four decades. However, after the attack and the collapse of the Iraqi government, Iran reconsidered its strategies wisely vis-à-vis the changes to defend its national interests and those of the Iraqi nation.
Resisting current regional realities, incurring attrition costs, and delaying regional developments all have resulted from Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to be open to regional dynamics. Meanwhile, the country has failed to stop the flow of events in regional states such as Yemen, Iraq, and Bahrain.
There are signs that Saudi Arabia is changing, including the recent visit to Iraq of the Saudi foreign minister, acceptance of the new political scene in Lebanon, and the OPEC oil freeze deal.
In the case of Iraq, the visit, made for whatsoever reasons and intentions, had at least one message. That is, it questioned all policies followed by Saudi Arabia toward Iraq since the U.S. attack in 2003 and showed that Riyadh has begun to recognize the new Iraq and that relations with the new Iraq was unavoidable.
In the case of Iran, the Saudi has no other choice but to accept Iran as it’s in the region. The sooner Saudi Arabia chooses to befriend with Iran again, the better. Never have we had strained relations with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is in war with itself and the whole region. Neighbors have to join hands and work together in line with their national interests.
In politics, it’s the practical implications of actions and decisions, rather than intentions, which matter. Saudi Arabia has so far signaled degrees of flexibility and change. Saudis used to be against any sort of change in the Arab world. But Syria was an exception. Damascus was the only capital in the Arab world disobeying Saudi Arabia while pursuing independent policies that benefited its national interests.
So, Saudi Arabia had decided to topple the Syrian government over the past years. But now Saudi Arabia altered its perception of the Syrian crisis due to the recognition that it won’t be viable to overthrow the Syrian government because a large number of the people back the Syrian government.
But the question we face here is whether Saudi Arabia continues to accept regional realities or get back on the previous track. I hope the changes we have seen over the past year are not just a short-term tactic or strategy and are a starting point for more changes on the part of Riyadh. If that latter is the case, it reduces costs for both Saudi Arabia and the region.
Q: Can we imagine an end to the Syrian crisis and what is the envisioned end for Iran? What will be Iran’s role in a post-Syria war?
A: It’s obvious that there will be an end to the crisis in Syria despite all complexities. There will be an end to all crises as no crisis lasts forever. However, there are some examples like the occupation of Palestine whose consequences have lasted over six decades.
The complicated and multi-layered Syrian crisis has occurred at three levels: inter-Syria, regional and international and that is why the conflict has lasted over six years.
There are numerous dimensions to the Syrian crisis. And the actors involved don’t share that same objectives and approaches. The geopolitics of the region further complicates the conflict.
The crisis in Syria will come to a halt when the actors, not necessarily all of them, reach an agreement on most of the issues cited above. This could be a starting point to stop the conflict. That’s why we attach importance to the process of the Astana talks.
The Astana talks are a platform for key players in the Syrian crisis to sit around the same table to negotiate despite having various approaches. If the process of the Astana talks leads to a result, an end to the crisis can be envisioned.
Q: Are Iran and Russia cooperating with Turkey to fight terrorism in Syria to avoid attritional war?
A: This is kind of selective view on the issue. No one favors being trapped in an erosive war. The same holds true for the Syrian conflict. All sides in the crisis tend to help end the crisis within the framework of their objectives.
Some players in the Syrian battleground may have no worry about getting bogged down in an erosive war simply because they may exerts more sway over the Syrian situation without being influenced by the crisis themselves. Only those actors will be worried which influence and are influenced by it.
All countries, be it in the region or outside, are influenced by crisis in one country and no state survives the impact of a war regardless of geographical considerations.
In practice, all nations are influenced by extremism and terrorism.
One of the complexities of the Syrian crisis is that all the actors who used terrorism instrumentally to fulfill their own objectives now are facing the consequences of terrorism. Perhaps, that’s why Turkey join the Astana talks and cooperated with Iran and Russia in fighting terrorism.
It should be borne in mind that terrorist movements have independent projects for themselves which are not restricted to just one region and carry out their operations at various levels.