New York, Asharq Al-Awsat—Despite its domestic problems, Iraq, and particularly Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari— enjoys good relations with so-called “conflicting” international parties, including the United States, and Iran and Syria. This situation allows Iraq to serve as a useful intermediary between regional and international parties.
Mr. Zebari has carefully watched developments unfold between the United States and Iran over the past few weeks, with the situation set to come to a head with both US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani attending the UN General Assembly this week.
Mr. Zebari stressed that Iraq could play an important role in bringing the two nations together. He spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat in New York on the sidelines of the 68th session of the General Assembly, saying that Iran is seeking to play a role in efforts to reach a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What are Iraq’s priorities for the General Assembly meetings this week?
Hoshyar Zebari: This is the first time since 1991 that Iraq is attending a General Assembly free of all Chapter VII restrictions. We feel comfortable participating in the work of this annual session because we’ve rid ourselves of the sanctions which severely damaged our capacity to make progress. Our priorities are the same as the other countries in attendance here: there are regional crises that we must discuss. We know there will be a focus on the Syrian crisis, Iran, and the Palestinian issue. Iraq is certainly a part of this region and is therefore affected by all of these concerns. We are scheduled to meet with US Vice President Joe Biden, the Russian delegation, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and many others. We already met with the Turkish, Kuwaiti, and Qatari delegations. Security and stability are our top priorities because the situation in Iraq is obviously influenced by what is happening in the region, most notably the repercussions of the Syrian crisis and the conflict between the US and Iran. All of these crises affect us directly, and therefore we are hoping to play a role in solving these issues.
Q: There are numerous bilateral meetings and consultations being held about Syria this week. What is expected of the Security Council?
Solving the Syrian crisis is no longer in the hands of the regional countries and is now completely under the control of the Security Council; even the Arab states are no longer influential in the conflict because of past failures. After the use of chemical weapons on August 21 of this year and the investigations that followed while the world waited for an official report from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague, the Security Council issued a decision requiring the Syrian government to fulfill its obligation to put its inventory of chemical weapons under international control and have it destroyed. We are currently seeing intense talks taking place inside the Security Council to agree on the exact wording of the resolution but until today consensus has not been reached [Russia and the US agreed on the wording of a draft resolution on Friday, with this set to be voted on later on Friday]. There are also efforts to convene a Geneva II conference but there is a question as to whether the final decision on chemical weapons use must first be made in order to discuss this second conference. The general understanding is that the decision on chemical weapons must happen first but efforts to hold the Geneva conference are going forward at the same time.
Q: Do you think it is possible for the political process to result in some success in Syria given the situation on the ground?
We support efforts to hold the Geneva II conference and we were shareholders of Geneva I. These efforts at least start the process; they will not lead to final results, but the goal is to bring the opposition and the Syrian government together. Even now I do not know who exactly will be invited to the meeting; in the past, it was the United Nations, the European Union, the Arab League, and countries neighboring Syria. The issue has not been resolved yet, but participation will likely include countries neighboring Syria (as they are directly affected by this issue) and there is a call to invite Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Syrian opposition has agreed to participate and the Syrian government recently announced their willingness to attend as well. There will be an initial meeting in the presence of these parties but the conference itself will be between the United Nations and the parties to the conflict; they are the ones who must negotiate mechanisms for elections, draft a new constitution, and generally launch the political process. There are several obstacles that the parties will have to face: for example, as for the Syrian regime, will Bashar Al-Assad stay in power throughout the process? Who guarantees adherence to peace agreements? Will an international peace force be required to secure a ceasefire if that is agreed upon? Will the regime keep control over the army and security forces?
These are all questions that we have discussed with parties to the conflict. We will reach some solutions to these questions during this session of the General Assembly as the potential for a military strike was diminished following the Russian-American agreement. Now attention is directed toward confiscating the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons and we know that this effort will take time if we look at past experiences in Iraq. We have to take into account the regime’s cooperation with inspection teams and the possibility that important information may be hidden.
Q: Looking at the example of Iraq,, do you think it is possible that the Assad regime will stay in power even if it becomes extremely weak following disarmament?
Q: You refer to Iran’s possible participation in Geneva II. Do you think it is likely that Tehran will participate?
In reality, there are many ways to allow Iran to participate in Geneva II. The United Nations could talk with Iran directly as part of a joint mechanism, or they could be a party to this group. UN Under-Secretary-General, Jeffrey Feltman, recently visited Tehran, and I will visit him here in New York. It cannot be denied that Iran is an influential actor in the process and the UN has recently given Iran assurance that they have a voice in the issue.
Q: In the past, Iraq has served as an intermediary between the United States and Iran. What’s your view of the exchanges between both parties during General Assembly meetings? What can Iraq do to bring them together?
Thanks to our good relations with both the US and Iran, Iraq can serve as a bridge of communication and understanding between the two. It is in our nation’s interests to settle the Iranian nuclear issue. If any countries should be sensitive to this specific concern, it is Iraq, due to our history, heritage, geography, and the existential threat that a nuclear Iran poses to us. Iraq has a role in delivering messages between the US and Iran and we’ve hosted a range of very important meetings with ambassadors and political directors through the P5+1 group to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. We have a good sense of the positions of each player. Since the election of President Rouhani, we’ve heard messages reassuring us that the Iranian leadership is serious about negotiating this subject, and more specifically, about transparency, allowing inspection teams into the country, and committing to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation. These issues have been detailed in preliminary negotiations. We met with both Catherine Ashton–representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs—and Mohammad Javad Zarif—Foreign Minister of Iran—and both agreed that the meeting was a positive step. In my estimation, however, it is too early to expect a breakthrough. The issue of trust is very important, as the Iranian negotiating team is a new one and we do not expect them to take big steps right now. The question is really who will make the first move. Negotiations have reached an almost final stage, yet someone must make that first move. This process is not easy and won’t be resolved through a series of positive statements; it will take time.