Asharq Al-Awsat Interview: Iraqi FM Hoshyar Zebari
Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Hoshyar Zebari, 58, is the Iraqi Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was born in the Kurdish town of Aqrah, and went on to become a leading figure in the Kurdish Democratic Party. Having obtained a masters degree in sociology from the University of Essex in 1980, Zebari went on to serve as foreign spokesman for the KDP, representing the party in negotiations with U.S. and Western delegations throughout the 1990s. In this role he became a prominent opponent of Saddam Hussein’s regime, both internally and internationally. He has served as Minister of Foreign Affairs in every Iraqi government since 2003.
Asharq al-Awsat recently met with Hoshyar Zebari in Cairo, Egypt, where he was attending a meeting between Arab and Russian foreign ministers at the Arab League headquarters, in an effort to reach a consensus decision on how to resolve the Syrian crisis. This resulted in the issuance of a joint five-point statement calling for “unhindered humanitarian access” and an end to the violence in Syria.
During the exclusive interview with Asharq al-Awsat, Zebari discussed the results of the recent Arab-Russian meeting, and also elaborated on the upcoming Arab summit – due to be held in Baghdad on the 29th March. The Iraqi Foreign Minister also gave an insight into the current political situation in his country, and its future relations with the Gulf. The following is the text from the interview.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the reasons for Nabil el-Araby’s upcoming Iraq visit?
[Zebari] The Arab League Secretary-General’s visit to Baghdad is expected to put the final touches on preparations for the Arab summit, particularly as the agenda was approved by the Arab ministerial meeting yesterday. The agenda is specific, not an open one, and concentrates on fundamental issues relating to the current conditions in the Arab world, restructuring the Arab League, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the future of establishing the Palestinian state, in addition to economic issues and the recent results of meetings in this regard, within the framework of preparations for the next economic summit, which is due to be held in Riyadh. The Arab summit – in response to an Iraqi demand – will also discuss the issues of terrorism and fatwas promoting extremism, fanaticism, and Takfir [denouncing others as infidels].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there still any outstanding issues to be agreed upon before the summit?
[Zebari] The agreement is that if some Arab countries wish to add points to the summit’s agenda that they think are important, then these can be added within a certain timeframe beforehand, because the agenda cannot remain open for all the important and lesser issues. As I said, the list so far includes the fundamental issues that will be raised at the summit, as well as the developments of the Syrian crisis, which is an Arab and international issue that is a constant source of pressure and a growing point of concern.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you give us any details of the Arab League Secretary-General’s program in Iraq?
[Zebari] He will meet with the Iraqi leadership and the preparatory committee that called for the conference, and apply the final touches.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you received confirmation from Arab countries about their level of representation, or is it too early to speak about this issue?
[Zebari] After sending Iraqi delegations to Arab capitals and through our contact and meetings today with brother ministers and representatives of Arab states, along with the information provided by the Arab League Secretariat, we have received reassuring responses regarding the overall level of representation and participation. Yesterday we conducted a lengthy working session with the Arab League Secretariat for further deliberations, in order to ensure the success of the summit. The responses, reactions, and participation indicators have all been positive and there have been no refusals or reservations.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you confirm the reports that both the Tunisian and Kuwaiti heads of state will participate?
[Zebari] Participation will be at a high level.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who are the guests of the summit?
[Zebari] Four organizations have been invited; the United Nations (UN) – and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has confirmed his attendance; the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU), and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has Iran been invited?
[Zebari] No, this is an Arab summit and it will be limited to the guests I referred to, with no distinction between the participating states. It is likely that members of the diplomatic corps in Baghdad will attend the inaugural session.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you describe the current political atmosphere inside Iraq, and what effect the Arab summit will have?
[Zebari] There is currently an atmosphere of rumors and accusations. This is the destiny of Iraqi democracy, but the key issues have been addressed. The current government represents all groups, particularly after the return of deputies and ministers from the Iraqiya List, and the bulk of problems have been resolved. There is also the issue of (Iraqi Vice President) Tariq al-Hashimi, which is considered a purely judicial case.
There are currently efforts being made to convene a conference for Iraqi national dialogue, and there are committees working in this direction to consolidate national participation, ensure representation for all in all state establishments, and prevent the marginalization of any party or group. Iraq is for everyone, and everyone should contribute and participate in it, therefore these are continuous attempts. Furthermore, obtaining the entitlement to hold an Arab summit in Iraq has contributed towards easing the political tension. Everyone supports the holding of this summit on both popular and political levels. It is true that there have been dissonant voices, but the general line is very positive, supportive and encouraging.
We believe that convening the summit in Iraq is important for two reasons. Firstly to reintegrate our country into its Arab and regional environment, having recovered and emerged from a very painful and difficulty labor period. The summit will be a sign that Iraq has returned with full weight and strength to the Arab group. The second point is that the world’s confidence is increasing in our country, both internationally and regionally, and in the diplomatic, commercial, and investment fields. All this helps to consolidate Iraq’s standing, and the same goes for the Arab countries. The Arab summit is an establishment that must continue and Arab leaders and countries need to hold such meetings amidst these difficult circumstances that the Arab people are experiencing, as a result of the Arab Spring revolutions and the transformation taking place in many of these countries. The Arabs need joint visions or cooperation in this regard, also in light of the current circumstances in Syria and the tension taking place with Iran. Therefore, there is great international emphasis on this summit, and everyone says it will be a qualitative meeting in light of the current circumstances. We believe that holding the summit is important for the Arab League as a test of its capabilities in light of the transformations and changes in the region. The summit will also look at how the Arab League can improve its policies, its working mechanism, the way in which resolutions are made and how to implement them, its budgets and resources, and so on. Therefore, I think that the summit is beneficial and important for all parties, and it must be held on a regular basis.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think the Arab leaders will approve the new structure expected to be put forth by the Arab League Secretary-General?
[Zebari] A committee was formed, headed by Lakhdar Brahimi, which has been working [on this task] for some time, and I think that the Baghdad summit will be known as the summit when the Arab League and the network of joint Arab action was restructured, and this is very important.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the security preparations for the summit?
[Zebari] All the Iraqi state’s efforts are focused on ensuring the security of the leaders, delegations, facilities, and sites involved in the summit. What is being reported by some in this respect is akin to sensationalism. As for security responsibility for the summit, its venue, roads, and facilities, this is guaranteed 100 percent.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you describe the state of Saudi-Iraqi relations today?
[Zebari] Certainly, relations are open, there is development, and there are positive signs coming from Saudi Arabia after it named a non-resident ambassador, and after the field visits by Iraqi security officials to Saudi Arabia. The Iraqi Minister of Justice visited Saudi Arabia to sign a memorandum of understanding regarding the exchange of convicts and prisoners. Therefore, the atmosphere is positive. During the recent ministerial meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which was held in Riyadh, the statements of His Highness Prince Saud al-Faisal concerning Saudi participation and attendance at the Baghdad summit were positive.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you envisage Iraq’s relations with the Gulf states in general?
[Zebari] They are moving in the right direction, and I have received assurances from the Sultanate of Oman today that it will name a non-resident ambassador to Iraq soon.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s visit to Kuwait?
[Zebari] It is scheduled for the 14th March, and a ministerial delegation will accompany the Prime Minister including the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Transportation, Finance, and Oil. Preparations are in place for this visit, and I discussed them with [Kuwaiti Foreign Minister] Sheikh Sabah Khalid al-Sabah. The main point is to emphasize Iraq’s goodwill in dealing with any outstanding issues with Kuwait, and the importance of joint cooperation in order to overcome the wounds of the past.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Iraq will head the Arab summit and Kuwait holds the current presidency of the Arab League Council. Does this necessitate raising the level of cooperation and joint action between the two states?
[Zebari] Exactly, this necessitates cooperation and coordination, and this is what we discussed today with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khalid al-Sabah. He confirmed that the Emir of Kuwait will personally participate in the summit. We look forward to al-Maliki’s visit to Kuwait as a positive initiative towards working out a mechanism for dealing with all bilateral issues, and to send messages to the Arab Gulf states and Iraq’s neighboring countries about the Iraqi Government’s desire for joint cooperation, mutual respect, and non-interference in the affairs of others. Therefore, al-Maliki’s visit to Kuwait will certainly be important.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Iraq has recently announced that it has tightened security on the Iraqi-Syrian border. Are there developments that would harm Iraq’s security as a result of the crisis in Syria?
[Zebari] It is true that we have tightened security although the border has been controlled by a high security network for years because it was the gateway for armed groups, terrorists, and suicide bombers. Therefore, we set up sand barriers and security observation posts. We have now deployed other reinforcements because the border crossings are still open and there are exchanges and cooperation, as well as reverse immigration by the Iraqis who used to live in Syria, as hundreds of families have started to return.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are they mostly Baathists?
[Zebari] Most of them are those who left Iraq after the events of 2003, after the collapse of the former regime. This is an indication that the people of Iraq believe that their country is safer than Syria.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the five points agreed upon by the Arab-Russian meeting, and the decision made by the Arab foreign ministers, are appropriate for the level of danger facing the Syrian people?
[Zebari] I attended the meeting between the Arab ministerial committee on Syria and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and it was an open and clear meeting about Arab reactions to the Russian stance. The discussions were very frank at the meeting – held behind closed doors – and the Arab side explained that Russia has always been supportive of the Arab people and their causes, but in the case of Syria, it has adopted a position contrary to everyone else’s will. There is a divergence between Russia’s position and the positions of the Arab countries, and no one wants this divergence or division to expand. Certain misconceptions have been created in the Arab media that Russia is against the Arab stance and initiative, and against the ambitions of the Syrian people aspiring towards freedom and democracy. The objective of the Russian Foreign Minister’s visit was to correct these misconceptions and reach an understanding with the Arab countries for greater coordination. The Arab ministerial committee and the Arab League General Secretariat demanded to hold intensive consultations with China and Russia before going to the Security Council the first time, and I raised this point at the meeting. We also emphasized that there should be a political solution, and asked what specifically Russia’s role would be in contributing to the political solution. Therefore, the five points that resulted from the Arab ministerial meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister emerged after a discussion that can be described as “intense” at times.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] But have the five points issued by the Arab-Russian meeting brought anything new?
[Zebari] Yes, there are new details, most importantly relating to the mission of the joint UN Arab League peace envoy, the frame of reference for which is the resolutions of the UN General Assembly and the Arab initiative. An agreement has been reached to continue the consultations. In fact, we cannot say that the Russian stance has been changed altogether, but it has improved one step and Russia is beginning to understand the Arab position.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is this improvement related to the emphasis of the Arab decision on rejecting the militarization of the crisis?
[Zebari] In fact, yes there is a collective emphasis on rejecting foreign and military intervention, and a consensus that the final say must be for the Syrian people, since they are the ones who decide their fate and future, along with their political regime and their rulers. Everyone has emphasized that they are not in a position to impose a certain government on the Syrian people, or to recommend who should rule Syria. This decision is only for the people. We are also aware that there has been a change or development in the Chinese stance, through messages and contact received on the Arab side.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is the Chinese change on a par with the change in the Russian stance?
[Zebari] The Chinese change in position is probably greater.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] If Kofi Annan fails in his mission to mediate a ceasefire and to deliver humanitarian and relief aid, would the issue be presented to the Security Council to issue a resolution?
[Zebari] At present, there is a diluted American draft resolution that calls for two things, halting the violence and delivering humanitarian aid. There are some signs that it is now possible to accept the issuance of such a resolution in the Security Council. As for now, all eyes are focusing on Annan’s mission, the humanitarian aspect and delivering aid to the stricken areas that need it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has there been a heated debate between Sheikh Hamad Bin-Jasim, the Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, and the Russian Foreign Minister?
[Zebari] There have been many questions and answers and the debate was heated until we received the reconciliatory draft that has been embodied in the five points.