Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari disclosed that a new round of high level talks between Washington and Tehran is imminent.
Zebari believes that both parties desire to continue this dialogue in order to achieve results and that he has informed Tehran that it is wrong to fight the Americans in Iraq “because this will provoke Washington even more.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Zebari said that the US President’s recent visit to the Iraqi province of Al-Anbar confirmed that the province has become empty of the Al-Qaeda organization and foreigners.
Zebari said that any failure regarding security in Basra following the British forces ‘withdrawal will lead to the collapse of Iraqi economy because all of Iraq’s oil exports pass through Basra. He asserted Iraq’s need for a government of technocrats for service ministries, a government that has nothing to do with sectarianism.
The Iraqi foreign minister expressed a sense of sadness over the Arabs’ absence from Iraq. He said that only Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates took the initiative to send diplomatic missions to Baghdad, “while no Arab official visited us.”
Zebari affirmed his support for activating the Arab-Iranian dialogue and called on the Arabs to give up doubts about an expanding Iranian role and Iran’s confessional influence in the (predominantly Sunni) region. He proposed an agenda for an Arab-Iranian dialogue on regional and collective security, security of the Gulf, and understanding on confessional conflict. The Iraqi foreign minister noted the importance of the meeting that was held in Baghdad with the neighboring countries to preserve peace in the region, adding that, “The meeting is very important to us.”
Zebari asserted that “Everyone talks about reconciliation. However, Iraq needs reconciliation with its neighbors too.”
Asked on the reason behind his recent visit to Iran and whether it had any connection to Bush’s recent visit to Al-Anbar, Zebari said that there was no connection between the two visits. He explained that he visited Iran to participate in a ministerial conference of the Non-Aligned States on cultural diversity and human rights and said he is eager to participate in all meetings of the movement. However, he added, the visit served as an opportunity to meet with the Iranian president and senior Iranian officials to discuss bilateral issues and the US-Iranian dialogue.
Commenting on the possibility of holding a fourth round of dialogue between Washington and Tehran, the Iraqi foreign minister said both the US and Iranian parties have a desire to continue this dialogue and to ensure that it will produce results. He added that a fourth meeting will be held soon at the level of experts and senior officials from both countries.
Asked if he sensed a particular vision on the part of Iran to elevate the level of talks or to shift to a broader and more comprehensive agenda, Zebari said: “This is not under discussion at this point in time because the US-Iranian dialogue is still in its technical framework.”
He added that “Agreement was reached during the third round to set up a subcommittee to discuss security issues, restrain uncontrolled militias, fight terrorism, exchange information, control the borders, prevent infiltrations and smuggling of weapons, and to discuss other issues.” He continued, “Depending on the outcome of that meeting, a decision will be taken whether or not there is a need to elevate the dialogue to a ministerial level. In my view, this is an open possibility and there are no restrictions in this regard. However, a lot will depend on the results that will be achieved on the ground.”
In reply to a question whether Iraq participates in the US-Iranian meetings, the Iraqi foreign minister said his country is present in the two parties’ meetings. Asked if the Iranian nuclear issue will affect the results of this dialogue, Zebari said that, “Regrettably, the issues are interrelated. However, our message to the Iranians is that it is wrong to think that interference in Iraqi affairs or fighting the United States in Iraq will remove the specter of confrontation. On the contrary, this will provoke the United States more. We openly conveyed this view to Iran.”
Asked for his explanation of Iran’s continuing provocation of the United States, Zebari responded by saying, “A climate of trust between Washington and Tehran is still lacking. I sensed this during my participation in, and sponsoring of, the previous US-Iranian dialogue. It was not easy. Nevertheless, it marked the beginning of understanding.” He added, “In my assessment, Iran’s cooperation with the United States on the Iraqi issue will help Iran a great deal to achieve calm and the required confidence to make the dialogue between it and the United States succeed.”
Zebari said that Iraq asserted several times that it does not support a US-Iranian confrontation in the region because it will be harmed most by such a confrontation. He noted that, “However, the actual situation in front of us indicates that there is an escalation by both parties. Iraq made attempts, coupled with argument and evidence, to persuade both Iran and the United States to remove the prospects of confrontation between them.” He added, “We previously convinced the Americans of the usefulness and importance of dialogue with Iran on the grounds that Iran is a player with an undeniable role and a state that has major regional interests, in addition to being a neighbor and friend. It has influence and is part of the equation of solution in the region. Accordingly, Iran cannot be ignored or bypassed. ”
Commenting on the US President’s visit to Iraq and his immediate travel to the Iraqi province of Al-Anbar, a province known for spreading violence, the Iraqi foreign minister told Asharq Al-Awsat “Bush’s visit to Al-Anbar was symbolic and unexpected. It served as a powerful message to support the Iraqi Government at this difficult stage.” He added that Bush met with the Iraqi prime minister, president of the republic, key leaders, and tribal chiefs to highlight this great progress that has been achieved in the Al-Anbar province after it was a refuge and haven for the Al-Qaeda organization and “terrorism.” He said that “on that basis, the content of the message was that Al-Anbar has become free of Al-Qaeda members, thanks to the loyalty of the Al-Anbar residents who took up arms to fight terrorism, Al-Qaeda, and foreigners.
Asked how the Iraqi Government will deal with the departure and reduction of the coalition forces in Iraq, Zebari said, “British forces’ departure from the Presidential Compound in Basra and their withdrawal to the Basra Airport was a symbolic move. Also, it indicates that Britain will begin to reduce the number of its forces there.”
He added that, “What is important, however, is to make sure that no security vacuum will happen and that Iraqi forces will replace them. Therefore, there is no concern that a sudden withdrawal might cause chaos. We received assurances from the British prime minister and foreign secretary on this issue. “Zebari pointed out: “We consider Basra as the artery of the Iraqi economy and source of livelihood for the Iraqis. Accordingly, any failure, God forbid, or security lawlessness will lead to the collapse of the Iraqi economy. This is especially true in light of the fact that all Iraqi oil exports pass through Basra.”
The Iraqi foreign minister admitted that there is a political and government crisis in Iraq. He said, “We admit this, especially after many ministers belonging to various political groups withdrew from the government. Thus, what is required is formation of a government of technocrats for service ministries, made up of competent and independent figures that are not associated with sectarianism.”
Commenting on reports that the ministers who withdrew from the government continue to carryout their work, Zebari said, “This is true. Therefore, there is no proposal to form a new government because such a move will be very difficult and might take a long time in talks and negotiations. This process will cause security and political vacuum.”
In reply to a question on the Arabs’ role in Iraq, the Iraqi foreign minister said an Arab League envoy will visit Iraq soon for talks with Iraqi leaders. He noted that the Arabs’ presence in Iraq began with the move by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to send diplomatic missions to Iraq. Zebari said: “We asserted that we feel sad when the French and Swedish foreign ministers visit Iraq, while no Arab official has visited us.”