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Asharq Al-Awsat Interviews Iraqi FM Hoshyar Zebari | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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[Asharq Al-Awsat] What happened at last week’s emergency ministerial meeting on Sudan?

[Zebari] There was a discussion that led to everyone expressing solidarity with Sudan and expressing surprise and astonishment at this decision which is ‘unique’ of its kind and may be regarded as a precedent. But it also raised a very important issue which has to be dealt with wisely and rationally and should be studied from a legal point of view, regardless of the politicized decision of the International Criminal Court. We stressed the importance of cooperation in preparing the legal response because the issue is an issue of law. The discussion should focus on whether there is a legal right in international law to arrest a head of state who enjoys international immunity? Therefore, we should have a unified position and we should not go back to the situation that prevailed in the past. I have reminded the council of foreign ministers that Iraq was the first to warn against this at the ministerial meeting in 2005 and I have stressed the same point today.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is it that you have stressed?

[Zebari] I said that when the Darfur crisis first appeared we advised the Sudanese brothers and the Arab League to deal seriously with this issue, and to deal with it politically against Western conspiracies aiming to tear Sudan into pieces. We demanded that the issue be dealt with objectively. Basing myself on our practical experience in Iraq, I said that if the issue of Darfur is not solved, it will have political, legal and international ramifications. But nobody was prepared to listen. Once again, at the Arab summit conference held in Khartoum, we drew attention to the same subject.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] And what is it that you today have drawn attention to?

[Zebari] We drew attention to the fact that the treatment should be in legal terms. We have no problem declaring political solidarity with Sudan and rejecting the ICC’s decision, but what is the remedy? We believe that we should deal with the subject in legal terms, and prepare a legal response to the allegations, in order to win African, Arab and Islamic support. The Arab League should have a legal defense. This is a very dangerous precedent. We have here an arrest warrant that is issued on an Arab as well as an international level. This is a very big insult, coming as it does, at the time of convening the Arab summit [it is as if saying]; you Arab leaders are meeting with one president among you wanted by an international court. This is big embarrassment to the Arab summit, the top Arab institution.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the nature of the move to defend President Al-Bashir?

[Zebari] The emergency meeting of the Arab foreign ministers has issued a unanimous decision affirming solidarity with Sudan and stressing the need to move quickly in the UN Security Council. It has decided to send a delegation, preferably on a ministerial level, to the UN Security Council to demand the operation of Article 16 of the Rome Statute of the ICC, to suspend the effect of the arrest warrant. There are people, who said we do not recognize the ICC, so why should we go the Security Council? But the crisis should be dealt with. As a matter of fact, I have felt that the brothers in Sudan and even in the Arab League are not interested enough in this matter.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How would you describe the relations between Iraq and Iran, given that relations between the two countries are becoming closer and the criticisms and differences that took place in Iraq, following the latest visit of [former Iranian president] Hashemi-Rafsanjani?

[Zebari] The relations between Iraq and Iran are developing. But let us be clear. There are mutual visits between the two countries that have become natural and normal. Many Iranian officials have recently visited Baghdad (such as Ali Akbar Velayati, the former Iranian minister and adviser to the supreme leader of the revolution; then came the foreign minister, and before him came the Iranian deputy foreign minister, and a few days ago, Hashemi-Rafsanjani came for a 5-day visit).

These visits are sending a message to the effect that the relations between Iraq and Iran are developing and are at an advanced stage. There are also visits from the Iraqi side to Teheran. More recently President Jalal Talabani and Vice-President Adil Abd-al-Mahdi visited Teheran, and there will be more meetings. The purpose of all these visits, in my view, is to affirm a real mutual desire to have normal relations and that such relations would not be affected by the Iraqi government’s ratification of the agreement on the departure of US forces from Iraq, despite Iran’s protestations and their rejection of this agreement.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Could these Iranian visits to Iran be interpreted as a cover for Iran’s attempts to expand its influence in Iraq and to fill the vacuum that would be left by the US forces -as some say?

[Zebari] All this is untrue. All the visits have come after Iraq made it clear that in the last analysis, Iraq would take its independent national decision, regardless of any [external] influence, pressure or intervention, because the ratification of the agreement with the US is a sovereign Iraqi decision, and we will not accept any intervention in our affairs.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your interpretation of the differences in the ruling coalition regarding Rafsanjani’s visit?

[Zebari] According to press reports there was opposition to this visit as well as support. But former president Hashemi-Rafsanjani was officially invited to visit Iraq. The Iraqi government agreed to this visit, and therefore it was bound by the rules of international morality and political and diplomatic conduct. Good neighborliness gives importance to this visit regardless of existing differences, even though some sections of Iraqi society strongly opposed the visit. Today, there were demonstrations in Al-Anbar. The problem is that former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani is the chairman of the Assembly of Experts [the body that elects Iran’s supreme leader], and his name is associated with the Iran-Iraq war as he was one of the main leaders in charge o the war on the Iranian side. Thus old animosities have aroused latent emotions and feelings on the part of the Iraqis who feel that the killing and wounding that took place in the war was associated with person of Rafsanjani. In fact, the decision to go to war was a decision of two countries, not a personal decision. We all know how the war started and who was responsible.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you not see that Iranian practices represent a challenge to the Arab States and that was evident at the Council of Foreign Ministers’ meeting?

[Zebari] We have discussed this issue at meetings of the Arab League and there were heated discussions about the idea of an Arab League initiative to open a dialogue with Iran, analogous to that with Turkey, Japan, China, India, South America and the European Union. But there were objections. Our position, together with some Arab League members, was in support of such a dialogue because if there is a problem then we should face it, not ignore it. Dealing with such a challenge should be through dialogue, and it is not a condition that we agree on everything. However, as Arab states, we have to recognize that there is a neighboring country with a civilization, culture and relations and a way should be found to communicate with it regardless of the results.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What arguments were put forward by the states objecting to a dialogue with Iran analogous to that of the Arab league with China, Japan and Turkey?

[Zebari] They say they cannot accept Iran as a party or a partner to Arab or regional arrangements.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] So how do they propose to deal with the Iranian challenge in the region?

[Zebari] We discussed the matter and argued that the idea that we are not going to concede any role to Iran in the region is unrealistic. Iran is already practically present in the region. We stressed that this issue -the dialogue with Iran -should be discussed and we should think about it together. Some Arab foreign ministers are of the view that the doors should not be opened for the Iranian presence in the region and that role should not be legalized.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did the discussion on dealing with Iran end?

[Zebari] It was decided to leave the matter open and as yet we have not taken any decision in this regard.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about Arab reconciliation prior to the Doha summit?

[Zebari] Meetings have taken place in which two, three, four or five parties took part, on the margins of the ministerial session, and the general atmosphere seems promising. But, to be frank with you, we hope that these initiatives and communications are genuine and serious; the test will come at the Doha Arab summit -through the reaction and interaction of Arab leaders to achieve Arab reconciliation.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] But it seems that the reconciliation is serious and genuine. Do you not think so?

[Zebari] We support that. We in Iraq believe that any Arab-Arab rapprochement serves the region’s interests and the interests of Iraq. That is why we are supporting all these moves and efforts; but the acid test of how serious were these moves will be revealed at the summit and will be reflected in the level of participation and representation at the Doha summit.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What in your view are the main challenges at present?

[Zebari] The challenges are really big; but there are three major issues and the Arab world is watching before deciding on how to deal with them.

First, the directions of the new US administration and how they propose to implement their foreign policy in the Middle East. In my view the contacts that were made were preliminary -I mean the US administration has not made up its mind and is still at the stage of reviewing policies and how to go about them. True, they have designated some officials and envoys to the areas of conflict, such as Gorge Mitchell for the Arab-Israeli conflict, Dennis Ross for the Gulf and Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In my view, which is based on my knowledge and reading of the US internal policy and the formation of the new administration, I can say that US policy will not be clear for sometime, because it will be operating within the ‘review stage’, which is an important issue.

Second, the new Israeli government and related issues -formation, direction, dealing with the Arab peace initiative, and how it will deal with Gaza and the settlements. This issue has not yet been decided.

Third, the proposed Arab summit due to convene at the end of this month [March 2009], in Doha. Therefore, you will notice active political, diplomatic moves and initiatives relating to the same objectives that we are trying to achieve. I do not want to sound pessimistic, but regrettably the differences are there and have become matters of substance, not just of form. Sometimes they even became personal and people had already made their mind up before even listening to the other’s explanation or point of view. This was clear during the meetings of the Arab foreign ministers. Therefore we hope that the present moves for reconciliation will be successful.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What did Hilary Clinton offer at the meeting of the group (6+3+1) held recently at Sharma al-Sheikh?

[Zebari] The purpose of the meeting was to keep this mechanism alive as a useful mechanism for consultation between those states and the US on a number of issues. I need to make an explanation here, as the prevailing understanding is that the (6+3+1) group is a coalition against Iran, when actually it is a group for discussing the issues of the region and Iraq has joined the group for the same reason, that is, to discuss the issues of peace, terrorism, stability in Iraq, the Iranian situation, and the situation in the Gulf. This is the framework of the explanation, in order to remove any doubt or misunderstanding of the nature of these issues. Hilary Clinton seems convinced of the usefulness and utility of this mechanism and we agreed to hold the next meeting of the group in Iraq with Clinton present. We shall soon start to make the necessary preparations for the meeting in Baghdad.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there a specific agenda for the next meeting, apart from the framework you have mentioned, especially with regard to Iran?

[Zebari] With regard to Iran, as Clinton and the Obama administration have said, they are in favor of opening a dialogue with Iran, and Iraq supports this move, because we believe it would be beneficial. As to what this dialogue will produce or achieve -it is premature to talk about it. We have felt, through our contacts, that the US administration is serious about a US-Iranian dialogue on the various issues. Secretary Clinton has assured the group that the dialogue with Iran would not exclude the states in the region or be at the expense of any state. Clinton has said that the US administration believes that there is a need for this dialogue and we in Iraq support that.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What did each of the ministers propose at the meeting and what was Clinton’s view?

[Zebari] The dialogue was good and everyone explained their views and ideas on all the issues. All were convinced that this mechanism, which has been established during the previous administration, should be continued and kept alive. I believe it was a US message to the effect that no sudden and radical changes are to be expected in US policy, because most of these states are friends and allies of the US and there are common interests. Therefore there was no arguing at the meeting and the important point, which was confirmed by Clinton and myself, was that it is necessary that the next meeting be held in Iraq next spring, to show solidarity with Iraq. Convening that meeting will be a strong Arab and American political message of solidarity with Iraq regarding stability and democracy in Iraq.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you worried by the early withdrawal of US forces from Iraq which President Obama declared?

[Zebari] The decision of the new US administration regarding the withdrawal of US forces, which was an election promise and is going to be implemented, is in harmony with the withdrawal agreement that we signed with the previous US administration -that 2011 is the final date for the departure of the all foreign forces from Iraq.

The new plan has introduced some modifications to the time-table, but I do not think it would affect the general situation. We do not deny that there are fears that some parties or groups would perhaps feel that the US withdrawal would leave a vacuum, that might be filled by other parties, or might lead to a revival of the phenomenon of intransigence and armed terrorists, and that they might resume their activities. But in my view, the year 2009 will be crucial in the history of Iraq. We have been through the experience of the governorates councils, which was seen internationally as a success; but we still have the ‘district’ and parliamentary elections which are going to be the most important for the future, for the identity and for the political system of the new Iraq. Therefore, in my view Obama’s plan will not affect the political process in 2009, and as the formation of government might take several months -judging by past experience -I believe the situation will remain stable until the summer of 2010. The other point is that we are relying on the capabilities of the Iraqi security and military forces to fill in the vacuum, and we will not allow any foreign interference; but we expect the Iraqi forces to be in control.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why it was not possible to reach agreement on a new speaker for the parliament?

[Zebari] There are still some differences and problems and the legal and constitutional debate on the elections that took place is still going on; but of course the issue of the parliamentary speaker should be solved. The parliament has important issues to deal with, such as the general budget, review of the constitution, as well as other issues. The Parliament now is in a recess that ends by the end of this month [March] and we think it is important that this problem be solved.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the nature of the differences that obstruct the nomination of a parliamentary Speaker?

[Zebari] There are political differences between parliamentary blocs and differences on who should have this position. According to Iraqi custom, the position should be filled by a Sunni, but the Sunnis are not in agreement on this issue. We are waiting for agreement to be reached on this vital and sensitive issue, especially for the coming phase.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the reasons for the disagreement of reducing this year’s budget?

[Zebari] The price of oil and the international financial crisis; as a result, the budget was reduced by 20 billion dollars. We believe that the impact of this reduction this year will be minimal; but if it continued through the budget of 2010 -2011, it will impact on development plans.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has the date of Arab League Secretary General’s visit to Iraq been decided?

[Zebari] I have discussed this issue with the Secretary General, and he said he is really looking forward to it. We agreed on the program of his visit which will take place in the middle of the current month [March]. It is agreed that he will meet most Iraqi leaders, visit religious authorities in Najaf, and will visit the region of Kurdistan as well. I believe it is going to be an important visit, especially as the political and security situations are improving. Moreover, there is Arab and international agreement and coordination with regard to Iraq and it would not be reasonable for the Arab League and the Secretary General not to visit Iraq. My view is that it is going to be an important visit.