On June 2, 2013, Dr. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs, visited the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (IMESS). In this informal encounter, he exchanged his views with the Institute’s resident and visiting fellows, as well as a number of faculty members, Ph.D. and postgraduate students from different universities in Tehran. Director of IMESS Dr. Kayhan Barzegar
, moderated the session. Below is the complete report of this seminar.
Amir-Abdollahian: “...if [Russia] leaves Syria at the end of the day, Iran will continue its support for Syria stronger than ever. We want to show the U.S. and send it this message that the Islamic Republic of Iran offers full support to its allies in the context of its strategic logic.”
Kayhan Barzegar: Good afternoon! Welcome to the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies. It’s a great opportunity that we can discuss the Arab Spring developments and Iran’s regional policy with His Excellency Dr. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs in an academic setting. This is a more Q & A based session. I will ask Dr. Amir-Abdollahian some questions that I think are important in understanding the recent developments in the region. Of course we will have a following Q&A section in which you can raise your questions and express your views/comments. Dr. Amir-Abdollahian has kindly agreed with this format which we thought will better lead us to an actual understanding of the roots and aims of the regional developments and Iran’s foreign policy in dealing with them. Our audience today consists of the Institute’s resident and visiting fellows, faculty members, Ph.D. and Master students from different universities.
Before starting our session, let me start off by raising a few points about the regional issues. The Arab Spring developments have brought about opportunities and challenges for our country. Regarding the opportunities, our country is situated at the center of the strategic Middle East region and therefore it is a momentous time for Iran to play its appropriate role in a transforming era when a new political-security system is emerging in the region. Regarding the challenges, we should accept that the Arab Spring developments are very fast and have their own complexities one of which is the rising rivalries among regional states including Iran’s relations. It is notable that usually the political-security strategies of some Arab states i.e., Egypt and Syria are affected by their past histories, the backgrounds of wars, losing lands (in the case of Syria and the Golan Heights) and defeats from Israel. This has created a kind of public hatred in the people, from different walks of life especially among the youths in these societies. When it comes to Iran, while fortunately we don’t have such a background, but there still exists a sense of threat and hostility from the United States and its attempts to either follow the “regime change” policy or make a rival bloc against Iran aiming to minimize Iran’s political-security role in the context of balance of power in the region. This necessitates adoption of sophisticated and sometimes complex political-security strategies for Iran to preempt the future threats and challenges to its national security.
The question arises here is that, “where are the lines of Iran’s presence in the region and especially the Arab world politics?” Some analysts maintain that Iran’s active presence in the region is detrimental. Some other assert that Iran should play an evident and active role, given its current political problems with the United States and the West in the region and on the nuclear issue. From a realistic perspective, one might accept that the significance and the strategic value of Iran’s foreign policy for the West and the U.S. is based on the scale of the role that Iran can play in the important Middle East equations. This will in turn highlight the benefits of the existence of Iran’s traditional and strategic policy of establishing coalition with friendly states and political factions in the region. But how the new situations in the region can affect Iran’s regional policy in this regard? Let’s leave this question to be answered by Dr. Amir-Abdollahian who is directly in charge of Iran’s regional policy.
With this short introduction, I would like to raise my first question. In the contemporary history of the Middle East, the Arab Spring developments are a turning point particularly with regard to the political transition and the changes of the Arab conservative regimes. The Arab developments have truly highlighted the role of public opinion and created a sort of dynamism in the domestic politics of the Arab countries, which will in turn impact their foreign policy. How would you assess the impact of this new dynamism on these countries’ relations with Iran? To what extend these developments affect the orientation of Iran's foreign policy towards these countries?
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian: At the domestic level, I should say that what happened in each of these countries - particularly in Egypt and Tunisia - is that a new discourse has dominated the domestic politics of these countries by which all the people seek to maximize their demands. I mean everybody seeks maximum security, maximum welfare and maximum development in their country. Despite challenges in these countries – challenges among secular and Islamist factions including moderate Islamists, moderate Salafis and extremist Salafis – what happened in each of these countries is that in the context of foreign policy, the anti-American sentiments are at the rise and is now a reality of these societies. This approach might be a lot more organized, obvious and transparent next year. It may also change due to many factors. But what is quite visible now is the rising opposition to the U.S. policies. The fact of the matter is that the foreign policies of these countries – particularly Egypt – have experienced a serious change that can affect the whole Arab world. For our own foreign policy, Egypt is a very important country.
The result of three decades of all-out cooperation between the Hosni Mubarak regime with the U.S. and the Israeli regime is that, I dare to say, some 90 percent of the Egyptian population lives below the poverty line. There is no such middle class in Egypt as we have in Iran. In Egypt, people are either rich or poor. Therefore, what is now quite evident in the foreign policy of Egypt is that the tendency to support Palestine and the “axis of resistance” has been reinforced. Hatred for the U.S. and for the policies of the hegemonic system is now quite prevalent among the Egyptian people. The impact that this public approach has on Egypt’s foreign policy is that unlike the Mubarak time and his support for Israel, during the recent 8-day war, the Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil was the first one to pay a visit to the injured in the Gaza hospital. Mr. Morsi’s wife was the first one to sympathize with the ladies in the resistance front in Gaza. This is partly due to the beliefs of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideological approach. But another important factor behind this is the demands of the Egyptian people. If anyone other than President Morsi was in power, he had to go through the same path. The impacts of the Arab world developments are quite evident on the foreign policies of Egypt, Tunisia, and even Algeria, Yemen and Bahrain.
But what is relevant to the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is that the discourse of the Islamic Revolution has actually impacted these countries; a discourse that accompanied with action. In all of these countries, the thoughts of the late Imam Khomeini have been a principle for the true freedom seekers. Many of the individuals who are now leading these countries say that the thoughts of Imam Khomeini in Iran have affected their characters. Yet due to the domestic situations they might not acknowledge this officially in public. When we talk to them they say even when they see a picture of Iran in their media where Iran sits and negotiates with the P5+1 and great powers, it indicates that the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is much stronger than other countries of the region like Egypt and Yemen. Iran might have some economic problems in the country, but our country’s foreign policy quite conforms to the indices that measure the success and strength of the foreign policy. As a result of its strong foreign policy, Iran managed to support a system (The Syrian Government) that the whole world has been trying to topple for two and a half years and after this time the Americans send messages acknowledging that they cannot reach agreement with either sides, so let’s negotiate and find a way out of the problem like the model we did in Iraq.
Due to the impact of Iran’s foreign policy on the regional developments, Iran is now at the closest interaction with these revolutions. Meanwhile and in terms of its approach and potentials, our foreign policy is now a good model for these countries. Some of these countries have used the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a model for drafting their own constitutions. Because in the domains of discourse, thoughts and practice, they found this model successful.
Kayhan Barzegar: In a recent interview you said that, “Iran and Egypt passed the points of differences.” What do you mean by that? Some analysts maintain that Egypt has the potentials to especially politically become a regional rival for Iran. We know that Egypt has a lot of economic problems. As you said poverty prevails in Egypt and the priority for the current Muslim Brotherhood government is to resolve the economic problems. This has imposed some limitations on the Egyptian government to establish good relations with Iran. Because it financially needs the assistance of the Western powers and their conservative Arab regimes allies in the region. Let me add here that during the first two years of the Arab Spring, the domestic issues were the main concerns while now in addition to that the foreign policy issues are coming to the spotlight. Issues like preservation of national security and fostering regional cooperation are at present of great importance to the Egyptians. Egypt might have an ailing economy, but it has a political weight and plays an important role in the Arab world politics. With these features, how do you see the prospect of Iran-Egypt relations?
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian: Egypt faced pressures from several sides after President Morsi assumed office. We do not believe and there is no sign to suggest that what happened in Egypt is a U.S. plan. We believe otherwise. The Americans use all their leverages to put pressure on the Egyptian government and drive it towards the Mubarak’s regime positions. I mean for instance, the same position that existed between Mubarak’s and the Zionist regime in dealing with the Palestinian or other important regional issues. At the regional level, some Arab countries in the Persian Gulf have been trying not to let President Morsi’s government or Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood succeed. The Egyptian socio-political developments are a main source of concern for the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. This explains why they have refrained from making financial investments in the new Egypt while the Morsi government is dealing with serious economic problems. This is in contrast to the heavy investments these countries made in the Mubarak Egypt. But as our relations with Egypt, apart from the pressures placed on Egypt, I dare to say that practically our relations with Egypt are at the highest level. Important factors are involved in this process including our strategic approach; the fact that Egypt is a “cultural, civilizational and religious” partner for Iran in the foreign policy domain; that Egypt has lots of impacts on the Arab and Muslim world’s politics; and finally the fact that Iran and Egypt have had historical relations. It is correct that a part of these relations goes back to the Shah’s time, however, even in that relations, the nature of interaction between the two monarchic Iranian and Egyptian dynasties, has had a positive historic impact on the Egyptian part. The Islamic approach after the Iranian revolution has created a growing capacity for Iran to expand its relations with Egypt.
Therefore, in practice, relations with Egypt are at the highest level. President Morsi attended the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran in August 2012. The President could have sent his foreign minister under the pretext of the existing problems in his country. But, he preferred to attend the summit in person and hand over the NAM presidency to Iran. Then, President Ahmadinejad attended the meeting of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Cairo in the following month. In practice, the “bilateral” dimension of this trip was more important. If we want to consider relations at the embassy level, I should say that the Interest Sections of Iran and Egypt in Cairo and Tehran are both functioning as active embassies in terms of the number of human resources and diversity of their activities. In the trade and economic domains, our private sector and other sectors have started very important projects in Egypt. Other activities include tourism exchanges and direct flights have been set between Iran and Egypt. Of course there exist some difficulties, but we are working hard to solving them. If one monitors the bilateral ties on the other side, there are various factors that are indicative of good relations between Iran and Egypt. But if you wonder why we have not raised our relations to the ambassadorial level, again I should say that the head of our delegate in Egypt is at the level of an ambassador and also the head of the Egyptian delegate in Tehran who was sent at the time of President Morsi is at an ambassador level.
Therefore, in terms of the relations indices, things have improved. Our aim is to help the Egyptian people. It is not that much important for us from administrative perspective to determine a date to officially announce the level of relations. What is important is to make sure whatever happens is the best of what could happen. Therefore, we left it to the Egyptian side to announce the level of relations at their own discretion whenever it is suitable for them in view of their domestic, regional and international conditions and we have no problem with that.
Kayhan Barzegar: My next question comes from some feelings in the intellectual and academic circles of our society holding that Iran does not follow a consistent foreign policy and performance in approaching and dealing with the Arab Spring developments. For instance, Iran’s policy towards the Syrian crisis is different from its policy towards North Africa and Egypt and/or the Persian Gulf developments, that is to say the Bahraini crisis. One might of course argue that it is natural as the foreign policies of states vary in different regions in terms of geographical proximity, economic interests and security connection. What do you think? Is Iran following different policies in various sub-systems in the Levant, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf areas?
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian: We have never applied different sets of principles in dealing with the same situations regarding the Arab world developments. Also we never separate the Shiites issues from the Sunnis in our foreign policy, because there are numerous commonalities that leave no space for looking at the Shiite-Sunni issue in this sense in particular. Our position with respect to all these countries can be summarized in a couple of sentences: First, we strongly believe that there should be no foreign intervention in any form in neither of Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. We are against foreign intervention in Egypt as we opposed NATO’s involvement in Libya. We are against the continuous presence of the military forces of Saudi Arabia in Bahrain. In the same context, we are against any foreign military action/intervention against Syria. We are against any military action of the U.S. under the pretext of fighting the Al-Qaeda operatives for oppressing the revolution of the Yemeni people. So one of the major elements of our foreign policy towards all the Arab world developments is “no foreign intervention”. Second, we believe that in all these countries people have some demands and the “demands of the people” must be seriously addressed without exception whether in Syria – where we support the government – in Bahrain or in any other country. Third, we believe that in all these countries a “political solution” must be sought. Any military-security solution will only increase killings and losses of the people. Now we can see the result of the military solution which was used at some point in Egypt. If it was sought in Libya, people were the victims. For us it is not acceptable to use military solution in Bahrain or Syria. My next point is that we believe that in all these countries the political solution should be based on “national talks” where all parties involved are present. Such talks should not be selective and the people should find an opportunity to choose their future in these talks. Therefore, we do not approve the continuation of war, aggression, conflicts and weapons transfer and we never send weapons to any of these countries.
We also believe that among all these countries, the Syrian case is an exception. Why? I will try to address it in the second part of your question. Despite all these assumptions and factors, why do we approach the Syrian crisis different from the developments in other countries? I would like to say in one sense our behavior is different and in another sense it isn’t. But, our rivals have exaggerated this difference in line with their own aims and objectives which I explain later on.
Kayhan Barzegar: Lately Friends of Syria Conference was held in Tehran under the title of “Political Solution- Regional Stability”. Could you kindly talk a little bit about Iran’s achievements in the time span between this conference and Geneva II Conference which is planned to be held in the coming month perhaps some time in July?” You have already mentioned that Iran’s strategy has somehow been successful. What is the actual difference between the Geneva I and Geneva II conferences? What has happened that forced the Western actors in Syria to possibly ask Iran to participate in the Geneva II Conference?
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian: Before I answer your question, I would like to say a few words as an introduction about what we have done from the beginning in Syria and what we are doing now? Why did we enter the Syrian crisis so clearly and openly? When we compared Syria with other countries of the region we saw a fundamental difference. First, the revolutions that happened in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain reached their peak in a very short period within 7 to 10 days or in maximum two weeks. But in Syria, after three months the so-called popular movements began. I don’t want to say that the movements were not popular. True that a part of the movement was popular, but it was with three months of delay. Second, in all these countries a large square (i.e., the Tahrir Square in Cairo or LoLo Square in Manama) in the capital was the center of gatherings where people expressed their demands democratically. In Syria, however, conflicts began from the border city of Daraa. Popular movements began from border cities. You can call it a revolution if you like. Security experts know the meaning of a revolution that begins from a border city. Why didn’t the revolution begin from the capital? Third, in other countries that experienced these changes people were not armed so quickly. That means that the foreign sides who tried for three months to use the opportunity of revolutions and provoke the conflict in Syria for their own good, quickly armed those motivated and the youths who had revolutionary sentiments. They even used people from outside Syria.
Therefore Syria entered a war quickly. Weapons entered Syria from all borders rapidly from Iraq – our own friend – to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Weapons were mostly imported to Syria from Turkey. Why did all this happen? They wanted to topple Bashar Al Assad’s regime in 2 to 3 months because he supports the “resistance” block in the region. Syria is very important for us from a strategic perspective. Syria is our connection line with Hamas and Hezbollah. In negotiations that we have with some Arab countries, Arab authorities usually say, you always say that you defend Syria in the context of the axis of resistance. Syria that has lost its Golan Heights to Israel has not shot even a bullet at Israel. This criticism is somehow acceptable. But we see Syria at a higher macro level. We see what Syria did in the 22-day and 33-day wars in Lebanon and Gaza. Even in the 8-day war, despite all the conflicts inside Syria, Syria helped Gaza. Therefore, what is important for us in respect to Syria is preserving the “axis of resistance.” However do we agree with the killings in Syria? Did we give them weapons? No we didn’t. Syria did not need our weapons. This approach helped us not to allow the Syrian government and even Bashar Al-Assad as the symbol of this regime to be toppled. In our policy we have always clearly stated that for the Islamic Republic of Iran, Bashar Al-Assad is still the legitimate president of Syria.
Iran and Russia have very good strategic relations with Syria. I am not afraid to say – as I have always told the Russians so - that there is always this concern that the Russians might do something in the end which they are not supposed to do. In our negotiations with the Russians in the past two years, we have told them clearly that the history of your action in the Middle East shows that you have not stood up for your allies and you have left them at the end of the line. But you should know that we have such a strategic view with regard to Syria and we are trying our best to reduce the losses to the minimum. But if you leave Syria at the end of the day, Iran will continue its support for Syria stronger than ever. We want to show the U.S. and send them this message that the Islamic Republic of Iran offers full support to its allies in the context of its strategic logic. This support is however not provided to all of our allies; it is only offered to our strategic allies.
In handling the Syrian crisis, the Islamic Republic of Iran held the first Syria's True Friends International Conference in Tehran last month and we also hosted the first round of the national talks. The national talks’ conference that was held around 11 months ago in Tehran hosted people that spent minimum eight years in jail during the Hafiz Al-Assad or Bashar Al-Assad’s time. It was not that we were holding a “show”. They did lots of things during this period and they made serious efforts. Syria's True Friends International Conference was held when Syria left some serious concerns behind including: First, no one talks about toppling of Bashar Al-Assad any longer. Second, no one talks about regime change in Syria. And third, even those who follow the Syrian crisis on the opposite side of Iran – cannot find an instance of defection from Syrian government, security forces or army. Why no more defection? The reason is that prolongation of the conflict showed to the Syrian people that a "full-scale terrorist war” is happening in Syria. Al-Qaeda, the Al-Nusra Front and Wahhabis fully entered the scene. Currently, there are more than 1600 warriors entered Syria from just Europe. They are originally Arabs who have migrated to Europe and are now European citizens. But they tend to follow ideologies of Al-Qaeda and extremist movements. During this time, Syrian people have witnessed that these people have been killing both civilians and Syrian army’s soldiers.
The American plan was to push all the Al-Qaeda operatives to Syria. The natural Syrian government response is to fight them. They will in turn weaken the Syrian government and as a result there will be a devastated Syria with an exhausted army next to a strong Israeli army. The message for the Arab countries that have been experiencing revolutions is that if you want to continue with your revolutions, this is what will happen to you: killings, bloodshed, murders, Al-Qaeda and devastation of all the infrastructures in your countries, and finally desperation and frustration of all the revolutionaries in the region.
In this context, I think the Islamic Republic of Iran reached lots of achievements. The chief editor of an Arab newspaper just before this session asked me in a meeting that, you argue that you have been defending the axis of resistance. Can you please tell me what has happened in reality? What happened in reality is that when the Syrian crisis began two and a half years ago, the Americans wanted us to stop defending Bashar Al-Assad and Syria. They said that Bashar Al-Assad must leave power in 15 days. After 15 days a delegate arrived from Turkey. Then the Turkish Foreign Minister said, we are close to the month of Ramadan and we have reliable information that in the first week of the Ramadan during the Tarawih prayers, people will gather in the streets at nights, there will be killings and Bashar Al-Assad will be toppled. We ask you not to support Bashar Al-Assad. Their message was in fact the very American message expressed in Turkish language. A week later the Qatari Foreign Minister delivered the same message in Arabic. We told them that we will strongly support the Syrian people, those who believe in the political solution in Syria and the Syrian government. But we told them that we will strongly support the Syrian people, those who believe in the political solution in Syria and the Syrian government. We do not approve of all that Bashar Al-Assad and the Syrian government is doing. However, in our strategy as long as there is this known situation in Syria, we will not seek an unknown situation and we are not ready to lose our ally in Syria like this. What you hear of Geneva II Conference is in fact the result of the determination of Iran in handling the Syrian crisis. We were fully present at all levels in Syria except for the military aids. We provided Syria with any kind of consultation. We provided Syria with any logistic help that we could from sending flour and gas and diesel and whatever Syria needed. We helped them despite the current economic situations in our country. It does not mean however that Syria is only what we see. Although many infrastructures are devastated, Syria can still cover 70% of its needs. At the international level, we tried to keep Russia and China to offer the same supports. At the political level, we held Syria's True Friends International Conference in Tehran firstly to prepare the ground for the Geneva Conference; and secondly to follow the achievements that are important for us in the context of the political and regional security solution.
Last but not least, what the Americans were seeking in Geneva I Conference was to make a decision in the same conference calling on Bashar Al-Assad to leave power. They expected all delegates to sign it. In Geneva II Conference, however, the Americans and the Israelis that are losing the ground in Syria will possibly try at the political level to force Bashar Al-Assad leave the power. But the Islamic Republic of Iran tries to join the good regional and international atmosphere that has been created in Syria. We believe that neither Iran nor the U.S., Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia or any other country in the world has the right to determine who must leave power in Syria and who must assume office. As part of the international community, we must prepare such international conditions that firstly stop violence in Syria. And secondly, elections should be held under the national talks and national accord on the due date in 2014 and Syrian people and not anybody else must decide for their country. This is our path in Geneva II Conference.
Kayhan Barzegar: You explained well about the positions of the U.S. and Russia. Now I would like to raise two other points: First, is the impact of the Syrian crisis on the Iran-Turkey relations. Pehaps Turkey never expected Iran to react like this. One Turkish scholar told me once that the Arab Spring has somehow drove Turkey out of its romantic and virtual “zero problems” foreign policy orientation and pushed it once again to realize the political-security realities of the region. As you said somewhere, Iran and Turkey are reaching a balance in their regional relations. Second, is the Iran- Saudi relations in the light of the Syrian crisis. Apparently Iran and Saudi Arabia are also reaching a balance in their relations. In this respect, the role that Qatar is playing in the region is somehow unacceptable. I heard that Qatar is also adopting a realistic approach. What is your take of these countries’ role in the Syrian crisis?
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian: In handling the Syrian crisis, one of the main enduring foreign policy challenges has been with some regional countries. Fortunately due to the realities on the ground in Syria, the problem is somehow being resolved. Each one of these regional or trans-regional countries has entered Syria's scene with a different approach. There are three active countries in Syria at the regional level: Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. But what have been their approaches? Turkey entered the scene because it was so enthusiastic about the Muslim Brotherhood’s victories in the region. In line with their Neo-Ottomanism political ideology, Turkish leaders expected the Muslim Brotherhood to assume power in Egypt, Tunisia and even in Syria. They had such rushed behavior – as Dr. Barzegar said – that created serious problems for them in both virtual and ideological spheres and also in practice which ultimately turned into a challenge for our foreign policy. But we should keep in mind that after all Turkey is one of our “strategic allies.” At some point we might have different views in dealing with a particular regional issue, but the difference should be managed in our foreign policy so that it does not harm the essence of our bilateral relations. During all this time, we have always tried to continuously have serious and effective talks with our Turkish friends regarding the political and security issues in the region. These talks aligned with realities on the ground drove the events in a way that today you no longer hear harsh and inconsiderate remarks from Turkish authorities, as was the case in last year, and you would see in the near future that Turkey would adopt a more realistic and acceptable position in dealing with the Syrian crisis .
The second player is Qatar. Qatar is a small country with a limited capacity. We previously helped Qatar enter the regional issues i.e., mediating in the Hezbollah issue. We are very sorry that at this point in time Qatar - as the friend of the Islamic Republic of Iran - plays a role that well serves Israel. We have told this to our friends in Qatar and we are not afraid to repeat it. We believe that Qatar’s policy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis and the regional developments during the past two years have been in line with the policies of Israel. If we want to look at Qatar’s policy optimistically, we will tell our friends in Qatar that you did not do it on purpose but you should know that what you did was only meant to serve Israel’s interests. If we want to look at it pessimistically, we should say that some trends in Qatar did it completely knowingly. But Qatar’s capacity in handling the regional issues is so limited that now that the Geneva II Conference is about to be held, even the Americans have concluded that Qatar did not have the capacity to organize the Syrian oppositions in the past two and half years. Even Turkey did not have the needed capacity and they couldn't do anything. But why is Qatar engaged in Syria? In the 33-day war, Qatar mediated between Israel and Hezbollah to persuade Hezbollah to accept the truce. It created a position for Qatar and gave it a feeling that it could play an incresed regional role. They don't realize that it was because of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah cooperation that they could play the regional role between Iran, Hezbollah and the axis of resistance on the one hand and Israel and the US on the other. But if Iran doesn’t want to cooperate with Qatar on any regional issue, surely it does not have the needed capacity to do anything.
Saudi Arabia also played a negative role in Syria. But the approach of Saudi Arabia is far more different from that of Turkey and Qatar. As I mentioned, Turkey was carried away with the assumption that the Muslim Brotherhood will assume power and Turkey can play a new role in its traditional sphere of influence in the Ottoman region. Qatar was intoxicated that it has found an international role to increase its capacity. Saudi Arabia, however, has not been seeking any of these objectives. Saudi Arabia has only one serious motivation for entering the Syrian crisis. Saudi Arabia has been facing serious security crises in Bahrain, Yemen and its eastern region while engaged in domestic crisis as well. The best option for Saudi Arabia is to move crisis out of the strategic and sensitive regions such as Yemen and Bahrain into another region. Thus Syria could be a very good option for Saudi Arabia. So there is a conflict between what Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia seek at the regional level. Does Saudi Arabia seek to topple Bashar Al-Assad at this stage? We have no reason to believe that the Saudis have such plans. The best option for Saudi Arabia is that the status quo is maintained in Syria and Syria remains the spotlight so that Saudi Arabia can solve its problems in Yemen and Bahrain. In addition to the regional actors, the France-US axis has also entered the Syrian scene with the aim to support the Israeli regime and in fact their certain interests they have in this context. Therefore each of these players had its own reason to enter the Syrian crisis. But we have always tried not to sacrifice our strategic relations for temporary issues. Because we believe that the Syrian crisis will be finally handled and resolved. Meanwhile, we will try to continue the talks to lead these countries to the right path.
Kayhan Barzegar: Thank you! Let’s see what do our audiences think?
Question: My question is about the Syrian crisis. I think we should accept the fact that the Syrian political system and especially the leader of this country are facing a legitimacy crisis. At the beginning - despite what Dr. Amir-Abdollahian said - we witnessed peaceful protests in major cities like Homs which gradually turned into violence. How can we preserve our national interests with our current position while almost all other Arab states and even Arab movements such as Hamas have supported Syrian opposition groups?
Kayhan Barzegar: As a matter of reality, there is a view in our society that Bashar Al-Assad’s government is cracking down on the dissidents and has lost its legitimacy to a large extent particularly due to the human casualties in Syria. Of course, both sides of the conflict put the blame on the other side. How do you analyze this?
Question: It seems that different conditions prevail in Syria. On the one hand currently Bashar Al-Assad has the upper hand in most of the regions which were previously controlled by the rebels and on the other the European Union lifted the arms embargo from the Syrian rebels. The Geneva II Conference will be held to find a diplomatic solution for the Syrian crisis. Generally speaking, how do you evaluate the current conditions in Syria? What is the role of Hezbollah in this regard?
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian: Regarding the legitimacy crisis of the Syrian government, I should say that when we negotiate with the foreign parties we tell them that we accept that Syria like many other political systems of the Arab world needs political reforms but you as the countries that consider yourself as the cradle of democracy why do you insist that the Bahraini king should remain in power but Bashar Al-Assad must leave? Why did you call on Bashar Al-Assad to leave power from the very beginning while protests were still peaceful? What happened that you suddenly changed your mind about President Assad who used to be your friend? The Americans tell some of their friends that one of the problems that we have is that President Obama called on Bashar Al-Assad to leave power. Now we believe that if Bashar Al-Assad remits office the strongest alternative to replace him is the Salafi Al-Nusra Front. In fact, there is no stronger alternative to replace Bashar Al-Assad and his political system. The Americans say in their own internal meetings, that we do not agree that Bashar Al-Assad must leave now. If from the very beginning we had not called on President Assad to leave power, it could have been a lot easier for us to face this issue openly. It is in fact a challenge for them. We tell the Europeans and the oppositions that people must decide whether or not Bashar Al-Assad must leave power. We are not in such a position to determine that he does not have the needed legitimacy. If Bashar Al-Assad wants to run for presidential elections in 2014, let him do it. He says he has 15 million votes. Let him run for elections and win only 15 votes. He will lose all his political credibility and then he will leave office. Then the Americans and Europeans can brag about how Bashar Al-Assad lacked the needed legitimacy.
But what are the indices for what we do? Whether in Syria, Bahrain or anywhere else in the world one thing is important for our foreign policy and that is in fact the main index of our foreign policy: Maximizing our national interests and security. I mean if any change happens today in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq what would be its impact on our national security and interests? At some point, our national security may necessitate full support for Mr. Maleki of Iraq. In the democratic discourses you may not be able to find an answer to the question of why was Mr. Maleki supported at some point by the Islamic Republic of Iran? Why didn’t this happen in Iraq, why did something else happen in Iraq? Why did the Iranian authorities adopt such and such positions at that point? If you look at Iraq, you will see that Iraq has turned from our actual enemy to our actual strategic ally. We will not let Iraq return to the previous position of hostility and we will use any means and tools that we have to make sure Iraq remains our ally. We do not call it interference. We do not interfere anywhere. We will use our political role and potentials everywhere and this is quite rational that for safeguarding your national interests and security at the highest level you can use your maximum influence.
But regarding the third question and the situations on the ground in Syria, I should say that, as a result of the current military developments, the capital and important cities are under the government’s control. The important point is that the world has realized that it cannot remove Bashar Al-Assad from power by military means. We have stated clearly that the Islamic Republic of Iran played a very leading role in whatever happened in Syria. Some other countries both at the regional and trans-regional levels followed the strategy of the Islamic Republic of Iran and they helped us a lot.
Question: I have two questions. First, will Iran take part in the Geneva II Conference? What do you expect from this conference? My second question is that what is the strategy of the Islamic Republic of Iran for the Post-Assad Syria?
Question: The issue of Islamism is now tangible for the West and Europe in the regional equations to the extent that they have now realized the power of the Islamists. Considering the fact that there are different approaches to political Islam in the region, including those of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis and the Shiites, what is the Islamic Republic of Iran’s approach in dealing with the regional developments in interaction with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis? My second point is that regarding the role of Iran in the Syrian developments and since the coalition of the defected Syrian opposition leads the violence in Syria from outside this country, I think Iran should provide them with a seat. What is the actual interaction of Iran with the defected rebels? Can they be a winning card for Iran?
Question: I have three questions. With regard to Egypt you said that compared to the policies of Hosni Mubarak generally the policies of President Morsi are more interactive towards Palestine. But how can you justify the fact that Morsi’s government has introduced ambassador to Israel? My second question is about Algeria in North Africa. I think due to its history, Algeria has the highest potential for revolution or the Islamic Awakening. As you know, the Islamic Salvation Front which was active during the 1990s won the elections at some point and then was overthrown and marginalized by a military coup. On the other hand, the popular demands in Algeria were at a very higher level. Poverty still reigns in Algeria. But why didn’t the revolution happen in Algeria and if it happened why it didn’t continue and expand? My last question is about Syria. Can we consider the Islamic Awakening or Arab Spring to be extended to Syria?
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian: Regarding the Geneva II Conference, there is still discussion between the U.S., Russia and the UN envoy to Syria, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi. They have told us verbally that we expect the Islamic Republic of Iran to attend the conference and Iran is among the invitees. But what do we expect from the Geneva II Conference? To be honest, we do not expect any miracle to happen in the Conference. What is expected to happen in Geneva is to find a way to stop violence in Syria. Whether or not the conference is held if there is a global will, if the American weapons do not enter Syria through some regional and neighboring countries, we can stop violence quickly. We were the one who proposed ceasefire for Eid al-Adha. We were told that Bashar Al-Assad will not observe the cease fire. In fact, he was the one who observed the cease fire. He waited for three days but the opposition did not observe the ceasefire. Because the war is out of control. The armed rebels are out of control. In fact, they are not here to form a government that can replace Bashar Al-Assad. Syria’s rebels are here to create chaos in the country. Their main duty is to bring chaos, insecurity, and ethnical split. Those who want to come and negotiate have thrown their fishing net in the ocean and are now looking to see what they have trapped in their net. This is now the major problem. The reason that the conference is repeatedly postponed is that one of the sides of the conference is Iran, Russia and China. We undertook that the Syrian government will take part in this conference with its fully authorized representatives. These people are ready now. It is interesting to know that these representatives will attend the conference as the “national talks committee.” Some of them attended last year’s conference in Tehran. For example, and as I already mentioned, some of them such as deputy Prime Minister and National Reconciliation minister have spent eight, ten, twelve or even eighteen years in Syria's jails. They are now part of the government of Bashar Al-Assad and are ready to negotiate. But the other side is the opposition. There is no such tangible group as the opposition. Once they chose the prayer leader of a Sunni Omavi Mosque in Damascus as their leader. This resulted in disputes among them. Because the current system of Syria is a secular system. One of the regional sides had talked to the U.S. officials and told them that we do not understand what you are doing. Should you do everything for Israel? Should you pay such a high price for confronting the regional uprisings? Can you find anyone more secular than Bashar Al-Assad and his power circles? If they leave power, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra and Wahhabi groups will assume power. Therefore, they have differing views and they cannot agree on the opposition side. But whatever happens will not be a special miracle. Yet, if the Islamic Republic of Iran is invited, since it is a political solution, we will definitely take part in it with a positive approach and we will express our positions.
As working with the Islamists, I should say that from the beginning of the regional developments we have had at least four conferences under the titles of “The Youth and the Islamic Awakening”, “Ulama and Islamic Awakening” and “Lecturers and Islamic Awakening” at the highest levels in Tehran. I mean, almost all players of the Syrian crisis attended these conferences and we are still in touch with them. They are Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood’s members, the youth and revolutionaries who are present in the Syrian political scene and we are still in touch with them.
As the question of whether or not we have a strategic plan for interaction with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, I should say that some of the events that you see are the output of our interaction with this group. Muslim Brotherhood is a reality and trend in the Middle East and it is important for us to have interaction with this trend in line with the interests of the Muslim world.
As to sending the ambassador by Morsi’s government to Israel, we should keep in mind that a full-scale revolution did not happen in Egypt. The first wave of revolution rose in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak left power and President Morsi assumed power. Army, the security apparatus and the administrative structure are still the same. If you compare Egypt’s revolution with the Islamic Revolution in Iran and say that all structures have changed in Egypt, I will tell you ‘no’ they have not changed. The first wave of revolution in Egypt led to realization of one stage of the revolution. Hosni Mubarak left power and Mr. Morsi and his party’s circles assumed power. At the same time, there are lots of problems and challenges. If you ask me I will tell you that President Morsi definitely prefers to cut relations with the Zionist regime and the Muslim Brotherhood is not looking for establishing relations with the Israeli regime and the Egyptian people do not look for resuming the Cairo-Tel Aviv relations that they had during President Mubarak. Egyptian people on the other hand fully support Palestine. The reality of the Egyptian society is that “the first round of revolution” has taken place.
As to Algeria, I should say that at this stage we have experienced the first round of revolutions in the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf region. It is likely that the second and third rounds of revolutions, based on the forecasts that are made in the futurology in terms of the regional and international conditions of these countries.
Question: Don’t you think the fact that the Syrian people keep supporting President Asad is because of the violence and crimes committed by the Al-Nusra Front, Free Syrian Army and prejudices of the Wahabi-Salafi Muftis that have against Alavids, Sunnis and Christians? Isn’t this an indication of the fact that the Syrian people choose Asad as their leader?
Question: As you said, all the forces that are fighting the U.S. have now gathered in Syria and they are fighting, weakening and eradicating each other. Is there any guarantee that after this stage, the U.S. will not interfere and complete the strategy for full eradication of the belligerent forces? My second question is that what is your expectation or the Ministry of Foreign affairs’ regarding the disintegration of Syria? Will the war of Shiites and Sunnis begin from Syria and Lebanon? Is it likely that Syria turns into a Vietnam for Iran to devour Iran’s resources?
Question: Saudi Arabia is the first circle for Iran to expand its relations with the regional countries. Foreign Minister Dr. Salehi has emphasized expansion of relations with Saudi Arabia. What are the conditions for increased relations between the two countries?
Comment: It seems that what you said is a very optimistic analysis of the situation in Syria. What we see now is the opposite. There is this concern that Syria might turn into another Iraq or Afghanistan.
Kayhan Barzegar: Dr. Amir-Abdollahian before you answer the question, let me follow up with the last comment made. It is a fact that a part of our society especially intellectual, academic and student circles have a critical approach towards Iran’s Syria policy. This approach is mainly formed around preserving Iran’s national interests and the fact that our interests are not preserved by the current policy. The main issue here is that Iran will lose its image in the region. The other concern is related to Iran’s plan for a prospective post-Asad Syria. Your detailed and precise explanation is addressing many of these concerns, but is it not better if the interactions between the policy-making circles like you and academic and media circles be expanded through seminars such as this one so that such regional issues are discussed openly and thoroughly and from various angles in a realistic way so that we can find the balanced view in this regard. I think this is the responsibility of Foreign Ministry and the related organizations having a broader interaction with the academic community.
Question: You talked about the importance of Syria as a communication link with Hezbollah and Hamas. In my view, the U.S. achieved its targets through a war of attrition and ruining Syrian industrial infrastructures. With such condition, can a weak and ruined Syria still play the same role for Iran in the region?
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian: First, I agree with Dr. Barzegar. The more interactions between the academic community and the diplomatic apparatus, the better you can help us to find the best policies. As regard to my optimism in analyzing the Syrian crisis, I should tell you that in diplomatic domain, we are not allowed to be optimistic in the foreign policy conduct. We are also not allowed to be pessimistic. We must be realistic and we are doing our best to act based on realities on the ground to the extent possible. We cannot be responsive if we act beyond this limit. Our work issues are not such in nature that we can pass by them easily. A doctor may perform a surgery and the patient may die under the surgery. Then the doctor can use various elements to justify the death. I might be able to justify our policy in Syria on a TV show or in the news special report program. But when I have to report to the authorities of the state and the Supreme National Security Council and defend our performance, I cannot justify. I must give them facts and codes. I must tell them about our plans and how far we are with our plans and what problems hindered our successes and what should we do to solve the problems. At the same time, I should note that we are at the end of the day humans, and therefore at some point we might become optimistic or pessimistic.
You asked about the support offered by people to Bashar Al-Assad and whether or not this support is the outcome of the actions of the Takfiris and extremist groups? We have some signs that the relations between people and Assad even before these developments were a bit different from other regions. I will give some details. Bashar Al-Assad is an ophthalmologist graduated from England. His culture has been formed in the European atmosphere. At the beginning of the crisis we always discussed about what we can rely on in Syria. Maybe one of the things that we did not expect to rely on was Bashar Al-Assad handling the crisis. We have told him this. We never trusted that a graduate of Europe who has not seen war and difficulty can handle the crisis well. It is interesting to know that the strongest person who stood up in Syria was Bashar Al-Assad. Regarding his personal behaviors, I should say that before the crisis reached this stage, Bashar Al-Assad and his family went to restaurants and met with people and it was totally acceptable by the Syrian society. As soon as he could purge Damascus of rebels, the first thing that he did was to go out there with his family and meet with the people. He must have a good potential that when in the 33-day War, the Islamic Republic of Iran wanted to send help to the resistance front through Syria, he had the capability to accept this heavy burden under the pressure of the U.S., Israel and their Arab regional allies. If he did not have this potential, maybe he could not act so well at this stage. These are factors that changed the mindset of the Syrian people toward Bashar Assad. Some of the Syrian people do not like the closed political system of Syria. If there was a call for referendum back then, things could have been different. But today there are other factors that support the Assad’s regime. Today Security is very important for the Syrian people. Even those who were in the streets now say that they used to have security and security is more important than anything else.
Another question was that Syria has turned into a hotbed for extremism and it might become a Vietnam for us. But let me tell you that the situations on the ground have progressed very well in favor of the Syrian government, but this development should be followed by a political plan. We should pick the political fruit of the ground progress in a political plan and Syria should reach a stage where it no longer needs Russian weapons. Otherwise there will be a vicious cycle. But if this vicious cycle continues, Syria will turn into a Vietnam not only for Iran but for many other countries. Such a situation will definitely be against our interests. Our opposing side soon realized that Syria is a Vietnam for them and they should get out of there under the name of political plan or the Geneva Conference.
Regarding our relations with Saudi Arabia, you asked me about the factors that foster bilateral relations. There are several factors. But what I need to say is that in the competing relations with Saudi Arabia, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has territorial ambitions for each other’s lands. Our main points of difference are related to our regional policies. Saudi Arabia is not happy with the situations in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. At some points we disagree a hundred percent. We couldn’t reach a common discourse with Saudi Arabia with regard to Palestine. Because they had a different approach. Regarding Iraq, for years Saudi Arabia was not ready to accept and talk with neither Mr. Maleki nor Mr. Jafari and any Shiite prime minister for Iraq. They were even reluctant to open their embassy in Iraq. In the bilateral relations, we have the lowest tensions with Saudi Arabia. However, in the regional issues particularly with what has currently happened in the region especially in Syria we are in serious disagreement. It is serious. One after another, Saudi Arabia’s regional friends and allies were toppled in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and the process still continues. The next waves are on the way and a part of this trend is related to the discourse of the Islamic Revolution. Therefore regarding the regional issues, it takes a very long time to fill the gap with Saudi Arabia. But again regarding the bilateral relations, we are trying to use all the potentials. At the same time, our approach is that Saudi Arabia is an important, big and influential country in the region and the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia should act as two regional powers to resolve the problems of the Muslim World.
You asked whether a weak Syria is still good for us. I should say whether strong or weak, Syria is important for us in the context of our strategy and in view of our maximum national interests and maximum national security. In whatever state it is, Syria has defined benefits for us in view of the axis of resistance and our national interests and security. But seeing a strong Syria is definitely one of our aims, I mean a Syria in its general sense.
Kayhan Barzegar: Thank you, I think we should end the session now. But let me conclude and sum up the points raised here. First, as I understand from our discussion with Dr. Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s regional policy is aimed to simultaneously preserve Iran’s geopolitical interests and ideological values. Yet, he said that we should be realistic and result-oriented looking at the issues with a realistic approach. For example, the U.S. mainly due to its own security interests has not so far entered the Syrian crisis. Because it has the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans will not act until they see a good prospect for their interests. They don’t want to repeat the same mistake in Syria. As was mentioned by the Deputy Foreign Minister, Iran has many reasons to be involved in Syria.
Second, is the issue of “consistency” in Iran’s Syria policy in terms of following its aims and principles. Earlier in this session, I said that Turkey never expected Iran to show such a firm reaction in dealing with the Syrian crisis. This shows that Iran will stand up to preserve its regional interests. I hope that the role of Iran is realized in the Geneva II Conference. But some of you might still believe that Iran’s Syria policy is somehow optimistic and will not serve Iran’s national interests. There is at least one fact and that is that Iran’s status in the Syrian crisis is far more different from the beginning of the crisis. It is a fact that in the course of the crisis Iran managed to impose its role and demands on the regional and trans-regional rival sides, especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Last but not least is related to the issue of strengthening "regionalism" in Iran's foreign policy. In an article, I argued that the Arab Spring developments fostered a new kind of pragmatism in Iran’s regional policy. Indeed, if the regional issues are set as the focus point of cooperation between the regional countries, the result in terms of policy implications will be stability and peace for the region. But if the role of the foreign players is enhanced in the region, the regional players will line up against each other. Like the case of Iran and Turkey in the Syrian crisis. This applies to Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt as well. In the end, I would like to thank again Dr. Amir-Abdollahian.
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian: I would also like to thank Dr. Barzegar for giving me this opportunity to meet with you and share some of my thoughts regarding the regional issues.
Kayhan Barzegar: We also thank you Dr. Amir-Abdollahian for taking the time and visiting us. Now, we will take some pictures with you in the garden. There would be a simple reception afterwards during which the audience could continue conversation with Dr. Amir-Abdollahian. But before we go please join me in thanking him. (audiences applause)