Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—New Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari is facing a difficult task. Iraq today finds itself at the heart of regional calculations, with an ongoing war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) taking place on its territory amid Arab Gulf warnings against Iran’s encroaching presence in the country.
Jaafari, a former Iraqi prime minister and vice president faces the challenge of bringing Iraq’s foreign allies together to confront ISIS. Iran’s growing influence in Iraq has caused concern among Arab Gulf neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal accusing Iran of “taking over the country.”
ISIS remains in control of large parts of central and western Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tikrit. However Iraqi troops, including Shi’ite-led National Mobilization forces and local Sunni tribes, have united and just launched a major offensive to liberate Tikrit.
With Baghdad preparing for a new phase in the war against ISIS, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari about the situation in the country, the war against extremists and Iraq’s relations with Iran.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Based on your participation at the Arab League, for the first time as Iraq’s foreign minister, how would you assess the situation in the Arab world today?
Ibrahim Al-Jaafari: The situation we are in today does not meet our ambitions. The Arab League should voice the ambitions of the Arab world and rise to meet the challenges and problems facing the region. What we expect is for a state of harmony to exist in the Arab world and for the Arab League to be like the European Union whose member states have put their differences behind them and have truly reached a state of union.
Q: But isn’t the priority for Arabs now to eradicate terrorism and the dangers posed by ISIS? How can Iraq rid itself of the specter of terrorism?
The Arab world has truly moved from the level of [achieving] ambitions to [facing] challenges. In the past we used to call for unifying Arab ranks and forgetting differences whenever we faced dangers.
The storm of terrorism threatens to strike all Arab countries, something which calls for us to close our ranks and unify our discourse. Unless everyone rises to the task, the current and next generation of Arabs may be vulnerable to division and problems and wars that have nothing to do with our history. Terrorism in Iraq did not start, and may not end, on its soil. Everyone knows what is happening in Syria and how this country is being turned into rubble. In the same manner that terrorist groups occupied Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul, they may enter other countries. I have directed a message to the Arab foreign ministers warning against the dangers of terrorism that the rest of the Arab countries are facing. We in Iraq are fighting terrorism twice, firstly on behalf of our people and then on behalf of Arab states and the rest of the world. Therefore, the fight against terrorism requires international efforts.
Q: Do you think terrorism should be fought via the international military coalition or should we create a joint Arab force to lead the fight?
They do not contradict each other and Iraq is currently simultaneously taking action along three lines: inter-Iraqi action, regional action and international action. Terrorist acts do not differentiate between Iraq and the rest of the world and therefore the normal response [to terrorism] would be a joint Iraqi-Arab-international action.
Q: In your opinion who is behind ISIS and who is supplying it with weapons, particularly after recent reports spoke of planes dropping military equipment to the terrorist group?
ISIS represents a monstrous phenomenon and words will not do justice to fully describe it. ISIS incorporates a number of elements including its ideology and culture . . . As well as some states which are providing it with funding and training while others are allowing them to use their territories to reach their destination.
Q: What has been achieved so far regarding the reopening of Arab embassies in Iraq?
I agreed with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal to the re-opening of the Saudi embassy in Iraq during my first visit to Jeddah. During a meeting with late Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, just one month before his death, he emphasized that the Kingdom’s decision to reopen its embassy is irreversible.
Q: Is eradicating ISIS in Iraq linked to resolving the Syrian crisis?
Definitely. The problem of terrorism is inter-related with the situation in Syria, Iraq and other countries. As a result of this, we cannot prevent them [terrorists] from entering our country. During the previous period, we warned that terrorism would spread from neighboring countries into Iraq, and that is what happened.
Q: How would you characterize your relationship with Egypt?
Iraqi–Egyptian ties are strategic and firm and there has never been a time when relations between the two countries were not stable. There used to be large numbers of Egyptians in Iraq and Egyptian goods are circulating in the Iraqi market while Al-Azhar University is well-respected in Iraq.
Q: Can you describe your country’s ties with Iran? What is your view of the recent remarks by Iranian presidential adviser Ali Younesi in which he said Iran is becoming an empire again with Baghdad as its capital?
Iraq enjoys full sovereignty and it did not, or will not, allow anyone to interfere in its internal affairs. Ties between our two countries used to be imbalanced a long time ago when members of [Iraq’s] ethnic and sectarian opposition went to Iran. Iranian patronage over Iraq continued until the post-Saddam Hussein period. At a later stage, Iran stood beside us and recognized the Iraqi government, offering its backing and support. Its recent anti-terrorism stance has been extremely honorable. We will not tolerate any violation of our sovereignty from any country, whether it is Iran or not.
Q: Will the expected Iranian-US nuclear agreement come at the expense of Iraq?
No, this will serve Iraq, particularly as we hope that all strained relations can be resolved and move towards stability and open a new page of harmony. When the US reconciles with Iran, this will not take place at our expense.
Q: Would you support Arab-Iranian dialogue?
Certainly. The language of dialogue serves to enrich our cultural and intellectual bonds. We speak different languages, but we must promote the art of dialogue with others to overcome this despite any differences. This dialogue . . . could lead to mutual understanding as has occurred between us and them, and the Arab states could follow suit.