Tag Archives: diplomacy

Myth and reality of the Iraqi mediation

Myth and reality of the Iraqi mediation

Iraq cannot help broker Iranian-Saudi peace negotiations, writes Salah Nasrawi

When reports emerged last week that Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari wanted to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia in order to end the standoff over the execution of a Saudi Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia, many Iraqis were taken by surprise.

Commentators and writers on social media received the reports with scepticism, and many even joked about the ability of Iraqi diplomacy to assume regional responsibilities in foreign affairs when the country remained deeply immersed in domestic ethnic and sectarian conflicts.

Still, the Iraqi government’s offer to broker a deal between the two regional rivals was not that funny, and many thought the suggestion raised some serious questions about the country’s fortunes in its neighbourhood’s newest conflict.

Al-Jaafari’s surprise initiative came after Riyadh’s execution of popular Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr led to a row with its regional nemesis, Iran. He also made an intense four-day trip in shuttle diplomacy that included Tehran, Muscat and Cairo in efforts to defuse the crisis.

But by the time Iraq launched its meditation initiative, tensions between the two Middle Eastern rivals had already erupted into a fully-fledged regional conflict with the potential for further flare-ups.

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that the oil-rich kingdom would face “divine revenge” for its execution of Al-Nimr, and a spokesman at Iran’s foreign ministry said Saudi Arabia would “pay a high price”.

Iranians protesting against Al-Nimr’s execution stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails at the building. Similar demonstrations were held at the offices of the Saudi consulate in the holy city of Mashhad

After its embassy in Tehran was sacked by angry Iranians, Riyadh severed diplomatic ties with the country and recalled its ambassador. Several Saudi allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in addition to Djibouti and Sudan, also cut or downgraded diplomatic ties with Iran in solidarity with Saudi Arabia.

But Saudi Arabia’s execution of Al-Nimr prompted uproar from Shias in Iraq, Lebanon, and Pakistan and infuriated other Shia communities across the world.

The rupture in diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia also raised fears among world capitals that it could worsen the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and undercut the international campaign against the Islamic State (IS) terror group which now threatens to take over major cities in Libya.

Baghdad’s worries about escalation are well founded as the tensions could worsen the country’s sectarian conflict. Iraq fears that the new rift could threaten national reconciliation efforts, as the Shia-led government in Baghdad is urgently trying to reach out to Sunnis in the country as it seeks to retake territory controlled by IS and is particularly vulnerable to any upsurge in anger between the Muslim sects.

Yet, the question remains of whether a country that is embroiled in a bloody sectarian conflict with far-reaching consequences on its neighbours can help find some sort of a compromise in the most dangerous regional crisis since the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988.

Away from the headlines, there are number of reasons why Baghdad cannot mediate between an Arab kingdom which sees itself as the bulwark of the Sunni world and a Persian nation ruled by a Shia theocracy which aspires to lead the world of Muslim Shias.

Naturally, any mediation presupposes that the two sides are willing to accept the mediator. Yet, that willingness is nowhere to be seen. Moreover, the two powers are apparently set on pulling the entire region into a struggle between Islam’s two main sects of the Sunnis and the Shias.

It is no secret that Saudi Arabia does not trust the Shia-led government in Baghdad and considers its leaders to be the stooges of Iran. Since the ouster of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s predominantly Sunni regime, the kingdom has refused to reach out to the Shia government’s leaders, accusing them of opening the door to Iranian influence in Iraq.

Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Baghdad only a few days before Al-Nimr’s execution, having earlier rejected all calls to send a diplomatic mission to the country after the downfall of Saddam in 2003.

But the resumption of full diplomatic ties does not seem to indicate that Iraqi-Saudi relations are now out of the dark. Uncertainty, caused by a lack of mutual trust and divergent regional and domestic policy agendas, is expected to remain the norm in their bilateral relations.

Meanwhile, the Iranian-Saudi escalation is bound to change the rules of the game in the proxy wars in Iraq. The increased hostility will not only represent yet another hurdle for regional and international action to combat IS, but will also pit Iran and Saudi Arabia against each other in a direct confrontation in Iraq.

Only a few days before the eruption of the new crisis, Saudi Arabia unveiled plans to create a new Sunni-dominated Islamic military alliance devoted to fighting global terrorism and plans to set up a “Strategic Cooperation Council” with Turkey.

The two moves were seen by Baghdad as primarily motivated by regional rivalry with Iran and not the fight against terrorism. For Iraq, the strategy aims at creating a new regional order with Saudi Arabia as one of its pillars that could throw the delicate international coalition against IS off balance.

The standoff is also expected to have negative effects on Iraq’s home front. One of its major consequences is increasing sectarianism inside Iraq. The execution and ensuing crisis has the potential to inflame the Shia-Sunni divide as the country braces itself for the post-IS era.

Another reason why Al-Jaafari’s offer of meditation between Iran and Saudi Arabia represents a strategic blunder is the growing gulf between the government in Baghdad and the Iran-backed Shia militias that have been increasingly operating as the country’s main military and political force.

Thousands of supporters of the main Shia militias rallied in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities last week, chanting slogans against the Saudi ruling family and denouncing Al-Nimr’s execution.

Leaders of the three most powerful militias, the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Kataib Hizbullah, which organised the rallies, called on Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi to shut the Saudi Embassy in Baghdad and expel the Saudi diplomats.

Some other less-prominent militias threatened to retaliate against Saudi Arabia for the execution of the Saudi cleric.

In contrast, the ruling Shia National Alliance in Iraq reacted by issuing a statement condemning Al-Nimr’s execution as a violation of human rights and “transgression against the sublime status of [Muslim] clergymen”.

The Iranian-Saudi rupture is stoking tensions between the Shia ruling groups and the rising militia leaders. The conflicting reactions to the Iranian-Saudi standoff are a reflection of the sort of quasi-arms race for influence that they are now engaged in.

Beneath the turmoil looms a complex power struggle between the Shia groups that reveals much about the direction in which the country is heading. Real power rests with an inner circle of Shia oligarchs, and this is increasingly being contested by the militias.

The Iranian-Saudi tensions are just one of the challenges which are expected to reinvigorate the Shia power struggle. What Al-Jaafari and the Shia-led government have been doing by offering unsolicited mediation is to display moderation versus the radicalism shown by the militia leaders.

When Arab foreign ministers finally met in Cairo on Sunday to discuss the standoff, it was disclosed that there was no Iraqi diplomatic initiative to defuse the Iranian-Saudi crisis. Instead, the ministers condemned the attacks on the Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran and warned that Tehran would face wider opposition by the Arabs.

While keeping observers guessing, Al-Jaafari endorsed the pan-Arab resolution, which also denounced Iran’s ally the Shia Lebanese group Hizbullah, infuriating the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias.

“We didn’t want to break the Arab consensus,” Al-Jaafari told reporters afterwards. “The endorsement was to ease the tensions,” said ministry spokesman Ahmed Jamal in a statement.

While Al-Jaafari’s U-turn underscored the Iraqi Shia ruling elite’s keenness to display moderation to sceptical Sunni Arab governments vis-à-vis the hardline militias in Iraq, many Iraqi politicians believe the move conceals the government’s own weak diplomacy.

“Al-Jaafari behaved as if he owned the state. It was a huge scandal and an insult to Iraq,” said a member of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee Mithal Al-Alousi in a statement.

The face of Iranian diplomacy

The face of Iranian diplomacy

Much of the success in achieving a breakthrough in the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 Group may go to Iranian chief diplomat Mohamed Javad Zarif, argues Salah Nasrawi

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might be the ultimate power in Iran, but if there is one Iranian the world will remember as being behind the breakthrough in the nuclear talks with the world’s major powers it will be Foreign Minister and chief negotiator Mohamed Javad Zarif.

As chief diplomat of a nation long considered as an international pariah, Zarif has led a diplomatic charm offensive to break his country’s international isolation since he was appointed foreign minister by President Hassan Rouhani in 2013.

In contrast to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, which isolated Iran over its nuclear programme and hardline foreign policy, Zarif’s diplomacy has seemed to signal Iran’s preparedness under Rouhani to move away from tough stances on its controversial nuclear programme.

Under the tentative framework agreement he and his team of negotiators reached with representatives of the world powers (the US, Britain, Russia, France and China plus Germany), Iran will keep its uranium enrichment capabilities, though there will be restrictions so that Tehran is unable to use the material in nuclear weapons.

In return, the United States and European Union will terminate all nuclear-related economic sanctions on Iran once the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms that Iran has complied.  All UN Security Council sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme will be lifted immediately if a final deal is agreed.

Who is this Iranian diplomat who received a hero’s welcome from jubilant Iranians upon his return from the talks amid hopes that the pact he has reached will end years of Tehran’s international isolation?

Zarif was born in 1959 to “a traditional religious family” in Tehran, according to his biography which is posted on the Website of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He received his primary and high school education at a private institution in Tehran. According to some accounts, during this turbulent period in Iran’s history he became exposed to religious ideology, including the ideas of Ali Shariati, a famous Iranian intellectual who is sometimes dubbed the ideologue of the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

At age 16, Zarif left Iran for the United States for “security reasons,” apparently to avoid harassment by the secret police of the pro-US Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi who was deposed by the revolution.

In the United States, Zarif attended Drew College Preparatory School, a private school in San Francisco, before joining San Francisco State University from which he received a Bachelors degree and then a Masters degree in International Relations.

Zarif continued his postgraduate studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, from which he obtained a second Masters in International Relations in 1984 and a PhD in International Law and Policy in 1988.

His doctoral dissertation was entitled “Self-Defence in International Law and Policy.”

While still studying in the US, Zarif was appointed a member of the Iranian delegation to the United Nations in May 1982, apparently because of the close ties he had built with the new Islamic regime in Tehran.

After long service as junior diplomat, Zarif was promoted to Iran’s representative at the United Nations in 2002. During his tenure in UN headquarters he participated in international gatherings, and in 2000 Zarif served as chairman of the Asian preparatory meeting of the World Conference on Racism and chairman of the United Nations Disarmament Commission.

At the UN, Zarif also held private meetings with a number of top Washington politicians, including Vice-President Joe Biden and former secretary of defence Chuck Hagel, then prominent US senators.

Zarif left office in 2007 and upon his return to Iran he joined Tehran University as a professor of international law. Later he served as vice-president of the Islamic Azad University in charge of foreign affairs from 2010 to 2012.

Zarif served on the boards of a number of academic publications, including the Iranian Journal of International Affairs and Iranian Foreign Policy, and he has written extensively on disarmament, human rights, international law and regional conflicts.

On 4 August 2013, Zarif was named minister of foreign affairs by the newly elected moderate Rouhani. He was confirmed by parliament with 232 votes.

Zarif has a son and a daughter, both of whom are married and live in Iran.

Despite criticisms by hawks, the nuclear deal which Zarif has signed has been overwhelmingly backed by Iran’s establishment, including Rouhani who pledged in a speech to the nation that Iran would abide by its commitments under the agreement.

If finalised, the agreement will cut significantly into Tehran’s bomb-capable nuclear technology while giving Iran quick access to bank accounts, oil markets and other financial assets blocked by international sanctions.

Proponents have noted that the deal, reached after 18 months of drawn-out negotiations, has proved that diplomacy is not futile and force is not inevitable.

For the negotiator of a country that has been constantly accused of embracing hidden agendas, the personal traits, international experience and professional skills of Zarif seem to have played a key part in making reaching the deal easier.

Many analysts have attributed the breakthrough in the talks to Zarif’s skills in building confidence with his counterparts, many of them maintaining scepticism about Iran’s readiness to reveal secrets about its nuclear programme.

In this regard, Zarif may have succeeded in breaking one of the persistent orientalist clichés of Iranians having a “bazaar mentality,” being expert carpet merchants of duplicity and deception.

Indeed, Zarif proved to be a shrewd politician and seasoned intellectual by brushing up on his history and religious lessons to push his arguments.

One of Zarif’s efforts during the negotiations was to counter Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to torpedo the deal by claiming that Iran would eventually produce a nuclear weapon and try to destroy Israel.

In an interview with the US news channel NBC, Zarif said that “Iran saved the Jews three times in its history,” referring to the Persian king Cyrus who ordered the Jews of Babylon to return home from captivity after he conquered the Babylonian Empire in the 6th Century BCE.

Zarif said Netanyahu distorted both the current reality and writings in Jewish sources and the Bible.

“It is unfortunate that Netanyahu now totally distorts the realities of today,” Zarif said. “He even distorts his own scripture. If you read the Book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews,” Zarif said.

But Zarif’s diplomacy has also made him plenty of enemies at home, especially among hawks who have always refused to make concessions on the country’s nuclear programme.

But again Zarif has been proved to possess the skills needed to address both foreign and local detractors.

The ideals set by the late Imam Khomeini and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were embodied in the nuclear talks held in the Swiss city of Lausanne, he said.

He also came under attack from hardliners for a stroll he took with US Secretary of State John Kerry in downtown Geneva and along the Rhone River for almost 15 minutes on 14 January as part of the bilateral talks.

At least 25 Iranian MPs signed a petition to question Zarif on the issue, calling the stroll “a diplomatic mistake.”

Zarif’s deal has been overwhelmingly backed by Iran’s establishment, however. He even returned to Tehran to a hero’s welcome as thousands of people desperate for an end to international sanctions greeted him at the airport.

But it remains to be seen if the deal will be wrecked by hardliners in Iran who have always preferred their “death to America and Israel” sloganeering to skillful diplomacy and making deals with the “Great Satan.”