As such, he found himself close to the center of the storm that followed the capture of the American embassy in Tehran, an event which led to the poisoning of relations between the US and Iran and the downfall of the government of which he was a part.
Today, almost 35 years later, Iran faces a series of harsh choices in its foreign policy. Its only Arab ally, the government of Bashar Al-Assad, is locked in a bloody struggle for survival with its domestic opponents, yet at the same time Iran’s bitterest foe, the US, seems ready for the first time in years to reach some kind of accord with the Islamic Republic.
In this exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Yazdi explains his views on the path Iran should take in respect to these two crises, and why he believes Iran has an important role to play in ending Syria’s devastating civil war.
The following interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: These days, we regularly hear speculation about changes in Iran’s foreign policy. Has Iran’s foreign policy really changed, or is the government simply trying to have sanctions relaxed?
Ebrahim Yazdi: It seems that Iran’s foreign policy has shifted from a negative approach to a positive one to be in more harmony with the world, in a bid to pursue the country’s interests. Naturally, getting rid of sanctions is the most important motivation for this change in approach. But that is not just a game, and the current administration of Iran has realized how much slogans and irrational tendencies cost the country. Therefore, it is trying to demonstrate the benefits and rationale of its decisions in foreign policy to the world.
Q: What will be the result of this new approach for Iran’s foreign policy? Will it secure the full normalization of ties between Tehran and Washington?
If a desire for change has been created in the leaders of both countries and they can reach agreement on a roadmap acceptable by both, normalization of ties cannot be ruled out. In a wisdom-oriented foreign policy with an interest-maximizing approach, [the idea of a] “permanent enemy” does not exist. Neither does a “permanent friend,” and Iran’s relations with other countries may change given new circumstances. The Iraqi government, which was once at war with Iran, is today a close friend of the Iranian government. The same could happen for other countries.
Q: How could Iran’s new foreign policy affect the wider Middle East?
Generally speaking, any improvement in Iran–US relations will be in the interest of peace and calm in the region. In the Gulf, besides Iran and Saudi Arabia, the only government whose presence is decisive is the United States. In the event of a change in relations between Iran and the US from hostility to normality, other countries in the region will definitely welcome stability, detente and the withdrawal of trans-regional forces from the Middle East.
Iran wields much clout in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and no plan can be implemented easily in the region without Iranian support. That is why the Middle East’s governments have always been willing to have Iran on their side. . . . Now, Iran can adopt new national policies to play its instrumental role in restoring calm to the region.
Q: A senior Iranian diplomat told me in private that Iran has to try its best to become the main US ally in the Middle East and replace Israel. Do you think that is possible, given conditions in Iran and the region? Is such a decision touted by Iran’s foreign policy decision-makers?
I don’t think so—I don’t think such an intention is envisaged. Iran neither wants, nor can it take, Israel’s place as the main ally of the US in the Middle East. The spread of peace and better relations between regional countries will blunt the role of foreign powers in the Middle East, and that will undermine Israel’s position. Therefore, Israel will try its best to ensure the continuation of tensions in the Middle East.
Q: What consequences would rapprochement between Iran and the US have for Israel? Would Israel be happy with cooperation between Iran and the West?
The Israeli government is the main opponent of the normalization of ties between Iran and the US. Israel’s motivation for this opposition is related to its refusal to reach peace with the Palestinians and recognize an independent Palestinian state.
In his important book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Former US president Mr [Jimmy] Carter makes clear that Israel is not ready to implement UN resolutions about the Palestinian crisis and respect its obligations and that Israel is responsible for the persistence of the Middle East crisis.
Regardless of former Iranian president [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s unreasonable slogans, Iran’s position regarding the settlement of the Palestinian crisis—as expressed by former presidents [Akbar] Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami—are clear and realistic. These officials have consistently said that Iran will respect any agreement the Palestinian government signs with Israel and the enforcement of Resolution 242 of the United Nations Security Council and the ensuing recognition of an independent Palestinian state. Israel is one of the rare UN members that refuses to implement UN resolutions and respect international conventions.
Q: Some analysts maintain that Iran has brought itself closer to the US in a bid to save Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. But you recently wrote a letter to the Iranian president asking him to convince Assad to step down.
I don’t agree with this analysis. I don’t think Iran’s new foreign policy and its interaction with the US are designed to save Assad.
Iran’s new foreign policy is aimed at preventing war and finding diplomatic and non-military solutions to regional issues.
Q: Is Iran influential enough to convince Bashar Al-Assad to leave power?
Personally, I agree with our country’s foreign minister, Mr. [Mohammad Javad] Zarif, that the Syrian crisis has no military solution. Two years ago, on November 21, 2011, when some Arab countries were gripped by protests, I wrote a letter to the UN secretary-general proposing referendums to be held in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. When Mr. Kofi Annan was tasked by the UN Security Council with resolving the Syrian crisis, I wrote a letter to him—on April 29, 2012—reaffirming my proposed referendum, but it was not accepted.
Now, the only possible and helpful political solution will be Mr. Assad’s voluntary resignation from power. Mr. [Vladimir] Putin, the Russian president, recently said he had no problem with Assad’s resignation. Therefore, with Russian help, Iran can convince Assad to voluntarily leave power.
Iran enjoys significant influence in Syria and Lebanon, and it can use its influence to save Syria from this devastating war.
Q: In a letter to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, you called for Iran to undertake efforts to convince Assad to leave power. You noted that Bashar Al-Assad could be a bargaining chip for Iran. How can Iran use this bargaining chip? What would it gain if it did?
As far as the ongoing Syrian crisis is concerned, the priority is to save the Syrian people from a destructive civil war and a very uncertain future and not to save Assad. As I noted in my letter to Dr. Rouhani, we have to learn lessons from the experience of Iraq and the fate of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Ba’athist Party. Mr. Bashar Al-Assad’s voluntary resignation will clear the way for the settlement of crises in Syria and history will mark such a decision as a courageous move by Mr Assad.
Iran can play an effective role. The Syrian people, the Arabs and the international community will welcome such a gesture by Iran. In that case, Iran will become a powerful player in the Middle East political equation and regain its previous status as a regional power. Iran’s image in public opinion as a peace-seeking country will be also restored.
Q: What is the main reason behind Iran’s firm support for the Assad government in Syria? What benefits will Assad staying in power have for Iran at a time when Syria is in ruins?
Undoubtedly, Iran has strategic interests both in Syria and Lebanon and it has invested a lot in [those countries]. The important issue is that the fate of Syrian people should not be tied to that of Assad’s government. Assad insists on remaining in power until the end of his term next year. But why should he remain in power at the expense of the destruction of a nation and country? Assad did not adopt any prudent stance when he faced protests. He pushed his country towards destruction. That demonstrates the incompetence of a president.
A prudent leader must understand when he has to resist and when he has to show flexibility. The kings of Morocco and Jordan—unlike the leaders of Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria—submitted to some demands by their people to calm down protests.
Q: Iran and Saudi Arabia are two powerful and influential countries in the region. The leaders of these two countries often refer to each other as friends and brothers while they hold hostile views of one another. Do you think that Rouhani will be able to change these relations?
As you said, Iran and Saudi Arabia are two of the most powerful and influential countries in the region. Where do these hostile relations stem from? Improvement of ties could not be tied to Mr. Rouhani’s measures. Both countries must have the willpower to change. In that case, agreement on a roadmap will not be very difficult.
In his first press conference, Iran’s new president said clearly that improving relations with neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, is one of the most significant objectives of the new administration’s foreign policy. King Abdullah’s invitation to his close friend, Dr. Rouhani, to make the Hajj pilgrimage this year showed Saudi Arabia’s desire for better ties between the two countries.
In the event that Iran manages to implement a political solution in Syria, Saudi Arabia will definitely welcome it. I have to add at this point that supporting extremist groups in Syria will not bring peace and stability to Syria and the region, even if Assad is overthrown.
Q: What measures do you think Iran must undertake to build confidence and improve its relations with the Gulf states?
Confidence-building and the improvement of relations between Iran and the Persian Gulf littoral states require bilateral measures. Iran alone could not be expected to take action. Iran is unlikely to have cast a covetous eye on the Persian Gulf littoral states or have adopted hostile stances towards them.
Iran is opposed to the presence of foreign troops in the Persian Gulf and considers them a threat to its security. When the Gulf Cooperation Council was established, the political conditions of that time did not require Iran and Iraq to join the council. But preservation of Persian Gulf security without the presence and cooperation of Iran and Iraq is not easy. This council can invite both countries to join the council and clear the way for strategic cooperation among all Persian Gulf littoral states.
Q: Let me take the chance to ask you about Iran’s domestic conditions. You are the secretary-general of the Freedom Movement of Iran. This movement and other religious–nationalist groups have been under pressure in recent years. Many of their members are in prison. How do you think the political situation will develop in Iran? Is the current flexibility limited to relations with foreign countries, or it will also involve opposition groups inside Iran?
Whatever occurred in the June 2013 election was due to internal pressures. The country’s officials and decision-makers responded positively to the necessities created by these pressures. Therefore, it seems that flexibility will not be limited to foreign relations and it will sooner or later reach Iran’s internal political system.
Q: The Freedom Movement of Iran claims to have deep roots in the country. Why has it declined?
The FMI has suffered from stagnation, not decline. Over the past 30 years, we have always been under pressure, but these pressures increased dramatically in the past eight years. One reason for these pressures was the FMI’s prestige among people.
Q: Do you have any plan to print a magazine or resume your political activities in the new political climate in Iran?
If Iran’s political atmosphere does become more open, the FMI will be able to organize its activities.
This interview was originally conducted in Persian. It can be read here.