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Asharq Al-Awsat Interview: Iranian FM Ali Akbar Salehi | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- In a lengthy interview with Asharq Al-Awsat Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi denied that he discussed with Saudi officials the issue of the attempt to assassinate Saudi Ambassador to Washington Adel Al-Jubeir. He pointed out that his current visit, which is his first to Riyadh, was to offer condolences on the death of the late crown prince. He said that by propagating such issues, “the Satans of the West,” meaning the United States and certain western countries, of seeking to create a dispute between his country and Saudi Arabia.

The text of the interview follows:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us begin our interview with a discussion of your current visit to Saudi Arabia to offer condolences on the death of the late Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz: First, how do you view the late crown prince’s character and, second, are there other agendas behind your visit?

[Salehi] In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate. First of all, I would like to greet Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper because while in Saudi Arabia I read it every day and benefited from the reports I read in it. It is a respectable paper although I blame it in particular for the way it handles Saudi-Iranian relations. Anyway, it is a respectable paper and we wish it well. When we received the sad news of the death of Prince Sultan Bin- Abdulaziz, the news came as a surprise. The Iranian government decided to send me to Saudi Arabia to convey the condolences of the Iranian government and people to the Saudi government and people. Prince Sultan was a notable figure who is no need of me to discuss his personality. He is an international figure who was politically shrewd. Besides, I think there is another side to his personality, notably his interest in charitable work. He played a big role in advancing prosperity and progress in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He shouldered multiple major responsibilities, thus leaving behind a good legacy that Saudi people will always remember. We pray to God almighty to have mercy on his soul and make paradise his abode.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What of other aspects to your visit; are there other agendas behind the visit?

[Salehi] No. This visit was only intended to offer condolences to the Saudi royal family. Thank God, I succeeded today in offering condolences to the custodian of the two holy mosques, to Prince Naif, to my counterpart Prince Saud al-Faisal, and to many other Saudi figures. This visit was only intended to convey condolences, particularly to the family of the late prince, May God have mercy on his soul, and to the Saudi people from the Iranian government and people.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Allow me to move to a topical issue, namely the attempt to assassinate Saudi Ambassador to Washington Adel Al-Jubeir, of which Iran has been accuse; have you begun any contacts with the Saudi party over this issue?

[Salehi] You mean the latest problem that was raised by the United States. When I heard the news, I tried to call brother Prince Saud al-Faisal, but he was on his way from Vienna to Washington. We reject these accusations. There is no justification for such an operation by Iran, a sisterly country of Saudi Arabia. What could have been achieved by such an operation? This accusation was made by the Americans and, naturally, they want to create differences among the Islamic countries, particularly between the two major countries of the Islamic nation —Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran represent the two wings of the Muslim nation. We have constantly declared that we want to strengthen, deepen, and promote relations with Saudi Arabia because there is no bilateral problem between these two countries. There are usually problems between other countries, such as border problems and others, but there are no problems between our two countries. When we ponder this issue, we see no problems between our two countries. There may be differences of opinion over some regional and international developments. This is natural because there can be differences of opinion between brothers in the same family. When I assumed my position as foreign minister a year ago, I declared on the first day that my priority was to promote relations with Saudi Arabia.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] All right, allow me to ask this question: What have you done in this period to develop relations with Riyadh?

[Salehi] I did my best to promote these relations. I was supposed to visit Saudi Arabia, but Prince Saud al-Faisal happened to have a scheduled visit Cairo to take part in an emergency meeting of the Arab League. So I postponed my visit. Then other problems and developments hampered my travel to Saudi Arabia.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] It was quite clear from the beginning that Iran denied involvement in the attempt on the Saudi ambassador. But this denial was followed by other stances, such as Tehran’s announcement that it was prepared to cooperate in the investigation into this issue, accusation of the Mojahedin-e Khalq of being behind this operation, and description by some Iranian officials of the person implicated in the operation as “insane.” How can this Iranian confusion in handling this issue be explained?

[Salehi] Any sane person pondering this issue can see that the United States began the onslaught on Iran from various aspects. At first, the United States raised the human rights issue in Iran, and submitted a bill to the United Nations to this effect. Then other accusations followed on the issue of Iran’s utilizing peaceful nuclear energy, and Washington put pressure on the IAEA to issue a report condemning Iran’s nuclear program. The United States then raised the issue of Iran’s involvement in acts of terror. Is it sensible for Iran to carry out such an operation in Washington and target Saudi Arabia in particular? One should ask why? Is such an operation in the interest of Iran? If we assumed, God forbid, such accusation [was true], what interest would Iran have gained from such an operation? Common sense does not accept such a thing. The Satans always seek to create differences among the Muslim nation’s countries.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] excuse me, whom do you mean by Satans?

[Salehi] I mean the Satans of the West because, God be praised, we have no satans in the Orient. The Islamic Republic of Iran, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Middle Eastern countries have lived side by side by virtue of their proximity and neighborliness for thousands of years. What we have in common is far more than our differences. The defendant in the [accusation of the assassination attempt] denied the accusation at the federal court’s first hearing. He is married, and he works and was raised in the United States. So would we resort to such a person, who is involved with a drug trafficker for $1.5 million to carry out an assassination? Is it reasonable for the Islamic Republic of Iran to carry out such an act?

[Asharq Al-Awsat] So you reject this operation in part and parcel. Well, why has the Iranian stand changed from denial of the accusation to readiness to cooperate and later to accusation of the Mojahedin- e Khalq?

[Salehi] From the beginning, we rejected the [accusation] in part and parcel, but we asked for information about the two Iranians involved. In other words, if they are Iranians, let the Americans give us information about them.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you submitted a formal request to Washington to this effect?

[Salehi] I do not think we have, but we made an announcement to this effect to media outlets. We also called on Washington to provide us with information on the persons detained on charges of involvement in this issue, and to facilitate a meeting between them and officials of the Iranian Consulate as is usual in such cases. Washington expressed preparedness to give us information and an opportunity to meet with the detainees. However, nothing has so far materialized, and we have received nothing from the Americans.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Regarding the accusation of Mojahedin- e Khalq, have you evidence on its involvement in this operation, as had been previously stated.

[Salehi] The other person who was said to be implicated in the operation is called Gholam Shakuri, but there are 150 persons with the name Gholam Shakuari. We received a query from the Interpol about this name and it transpired that there was a person called Gholam Shakuri, who is a member of the Mojahidin- e Khalq, who lives in the United States.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you view future relations between Riyadh and Tehran against the background of the latest issue relating to Washington’s accusation of Iran of planning to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to Washington Adel Al-Jubeir?

[Salehi] Today I talked to the custodian of the two holy mosques and conveyed our condolences. I am sure that the Saudi officials are too wise and rational to accept such accusations or to get involved in an unjustifiable problem. This is not in the interest of anyone. I am sure we will, God willing, bypass this problem, which was created by the United States. I predict that the United States will create other problems between us and our neighbor, Saudi Arabia. The United States always creates problems.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] But what interest does the United States have in fomenting sedition between Saudi Arabia and Iran since you believe that it constantly seeks to create problems between the two countries?

[Salehi] The greater the sedition in the region, the easier it is for the Americans to stay in the region and dominate it.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Since you talk of US domination of the region, Washington has declared that it will withdraw all its troops from Iraq by the end of this year, a move that Tehran welcomed. There are Arab fears and concern that Iran currently rules Iraq through the incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. There is also a direct accusation that Gen Qasim sulaimani is orchestrating the political and military process in Iraq on behalf of the Iraqi people. How would you respond to this accusation?

[Salehi] This is not true; this accusation is rejected. Iraq is an ancient country with a history that goes back 6,000 years. Good god, how could one person run a great people of 30 million and a well-established government to run such a country? Is it reasonable to rely on one Iranian person to run Iraq? Is it reasonable for one man to do what the United States with its 150,000 soldiers, who were deployed In Iraq, could not? This is more like talking of Moses staff. This is groundless accusation. The Iraqis are a great, ancient and educated people. They gained their independence and rid themselves of the tyrant, Saddam Hussein, but faced problems after his downfall.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] But, Mr Salehi, it is the United States, not the Iraqi people, that rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein?

[Salehi] We should not ignore the Iraqi resistance. It is true that the United States helped the Iraqis. But what about the number of Iraqi oppositionists who fought Saddam Hussein. How many Iraqis fought him, how many were imprisoned, and how many were killed. It is not true that the United States is the one that rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein. Yet it had a role in expediting the process. But the Iraqi people stood up to Saddam Hussein. If the Iraqi people supported Saddam Hussein, could the United States have so easily entered Iraq? Of course, not.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you view future Arab-Iranian cooperation in Iraq in the post-withdrawal era of the US forces from Iraq? We know that there is an Arab vacuum in Iraq against massive Iranian presence?

[Salehi] We hope Arabs will have their presence in Iraq. I visited Iraq three times in the past few months, and in every round of talks we held, I sensed that the Iraqi government had a desire to see is Arab brethren resume and promote relations with Baghdad. Iraq is an Arab and Muslim country and a neighbor of several Arab countries. No one benefits from the Arab vacuum in Iraq; it must be filled. If there are political differences, Arabs and Iraqis should sit at the negotiating table to solve their problems.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] So you support the quadripartite initiative made by the Iraqi parliament speaker to hold a meeting in Baghdad for parliamentary representative from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey to discuss the differences of opinion over the Iraqi situation?

[Salehi] Yes, this initiative is good, and we are ready to help our neighbors in the region. Our policy in Iran favors meetings and cooperation with one another in the interest of stability, security, and peace in the region because this is in the interest of everyone. We hope to have peace and security in the region and in all our neighboring countries, particularly our Arab neighbors. We say this from the bosom of our hearts, not as a political protocol; this is political rationality.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why has Iran delayed voicing its reaction to developments in Syria? President Ahmadinejad condemned the acts of killing and violence only a few days ago. In your relations with Syria do you wager on the Syrian people or the Syrian regime?

[Salehi] We wager on principles. People in any country have legitimate demands that a government should meet. But we are opposed to foreign intervention in any country. This is the stand we adopted on Bahrain. We have always maintained that the Bahraini government should meet the demands of its people, and that there should be no foreign interference in Bahrain’s domestic affairs. We say the same thing about Syria. The Syrian government should fulfil the demands of its people, but there must be no foreign intervention in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad has introduced reforms, and he recently declared that the Syrian government is considering drafting a new constitution for the country. He also set a date for elections. Let us give them a chance.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] So you support giving Bashar al-Assad an opportunity to conduct reforms.

[Salehi] Yes. We should give him an opportunity. He declared several times that he would hold parliamentary elections and that he was in the process of drafting a new Constitution. What more do they want?

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Whom do you mean by what more do they want, the people or the Syrian opposition abroad?

[Salehi] When we talk of the opposition, we must understand that there is large segment of the Syrian people who stage demonstrations in support of President Bashar al-Assad, which is true. And there is a group that has legitimate demands.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Likewise, Mr Salehi, there were people in Bahrain who staged demonstrations in support of King Hamad and the Bahraini government; what is the difference then?

[Salehi] No. There is a difference between demonstrations and protests on the one hand and coups d’état, on the other. In Libya, a coup d’état was staged and everything changed. There are protests and revolts by more than half of people, and there are intermittent demonstrations, as happened in Britain, France, and Wall Street. In Syria, how should we classify the people’s mobility, demonstrations and protests, by more than half of the people, or a coup d’état?

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How would you classify them?

[Salehi] I think demonstrations and high-voiced protests. In other words, there is a group with legitimate demands and there is another group, which is supported by foreign [powers] and which seeks to disturb the situation in Syria. We do not want this. They should give President Bashar al-Assad an opportunity to hold elections and change the Constitution. Is this not better, or God forbid, should Syria have a vacuum. Of course, response to reforms is better.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Allow me to ask you the last question: There are major fears and apprehensions of the Iranian pilgrims embarking on activities that may disturb the pilgrimage seasons this year. There is a historical background to these fears, which we do not want to raise. How do you view these apprehensions and fears?

[Salehi] The pilgrimage season this year will, God willing, take place in the best way possible and without problems.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What of the fears that the Iranian pilgrims may embarks on activities disturbing the pilgrimage season?

[Salehi] All this is in the realm of imagination, assumptions, and sensationalism. Do we have to respond to all these fantasies in the minds of people? No. The Iranian pilgrims are coming to Saudi Arabia to perform the pilgrimage rites. We hope this pilgrimage season this year will be one of the best ever.