Zarif Says Neither Saudis Nor Iran Can Dominate Middle East; Talks Needed
Iran's foreign minister has said that neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia can be the dominant power in the Middle East and called on countries in the Persian Gulf region to start talking to each other.
"In an attempt to be the strongest in the region, to exclude one another from the region, we have managed to destroy the region," Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an address to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York late on April 23.
Zarif said there was "a dire need for change" and "Iran is ready for it because we are big enough, old enough, mature enough to appreciate this reality."
"None of us can become the new hegemon" in the region, he said. "The era of hegemonic influence is long gone," he said. "Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia can be the hegemons of the region. That's a fact."
Zarif called for a new "regional dialogue forum" that would include five Gulf Cooperation Council countries along with Iran, Iraq, and Yemen. He said such a dialogue had the potential to transform the Middle East.
Zarif's visit to New York comes two weeks after a visit to Washington and New York by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the heir apparent to the Saudi throne who has portrayed Iran as Riyadh's biggest foe.
"Our neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, want to create an impression that we are an existential threat against them," Zarif said, asserting that was "one of the most important messages" conveyed by Salman to audiences in the United States.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump signed off on the sale of more than $1.3 billion in artillery to Saudi Arabia during his visit. Zarif said other Gulf Arab countries were now trying "to compete with one another in buying more weapons."
But "security cannot be purchased," he said. Rather, he said, it requires "understanding in the region."
Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in proxy conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and they also back opposing groups in Lebanon, Bahrain, and Iraq.
Zarif said the region was suffering from "a dialogue deficit," and that's why he has suggested creating "a regional dialogue forum."
Such a forum should include Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and probably Yemen, he said.
To join the forum, he said, countries should agree on a number of principles: the inviolability of borders, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and nonintervention in each other's internal affairs.
In addition to the "dialogue deficit," Zarif said there was also "a confidence deficit."
He said Persian Gulf countries not only need to start talking but to work on confidence-building measures.
Zarif suggested joint task forces on issues ranging from nuclear safety -- because "very soon" there will be a growing number of nuclear reactors on the Persian Gulf coast --to tourism, cultural exchanges, women's empowerment, and democratic processes.
"We need to have a strong region," he said, "not to be the strongest in the region."
Unless this transformation takes place, Zarif warned that no matter how many weapons the United States sells to its Arab allies, "at the end of the day the cost for the United States will be much higher than the profits made by the weapons sold."
A day earlier, on April 22, Zarif told the Al-Monitor television network that the Saudis have not been able to help Yemen's embattled government win a war against Iranian-backed Huthi rebels despite having "beautiful U.S. weapons."
"The Saudis remain under the false assumption, which they also had in Syria, that they can achieve a military victory. This is why the war on Yemen continues," he said.
Zarif said that the only solution to the civil war in Yemen was a political settlement.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.