Iran “welcomes the convening of Geneva II” and is “ready to work within the framework set out in Geneva I to find a non-violent solution to the crisis,” according to Mohammad Khazaee, the ambassador and permanent representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations, in an exclusive email interview with Al-Monitor’s Andrew Parasiliti.
Khazaee, who previously served as a member of Iran’s parliament and holds a masters degree in international economics from George Washington University, said, “Apart from the Syrian sides, all relevant regional and international partners that wield some influence over the parties and could help the Syrians move towards peace should participate in the conference and endeavor towards its success." He added, “Iran's participation in the conference will depend on the details that we will consider when we receive them.”
Iran has held two international conferences on Syria, including representatives of the Syrian government and opposition figures, and will host a third in Tehran on May 29.
Asked whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should step aside as part of a transition in Syria, Khazaee said that such a demand is not in accordance with the UN charter and international law, and referred to Iran’s own six-point plan for a transition, saying that “the political future of President Assad should and could be only decided through the ballot box, as it is the case in other countries where people's vote matters.”
Khazaee reiterated Iran's proposal to discuss regional security, including Syria, as part of the discussions with representatives of the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the P5+1), even “though there may not be any relations among these issues.” He added that “any understanding or progress towards dealing with a controversial issue may help create a better ambiance, thus impacting the approach towards other pending issues.”
Iran's UN Ambassador welcomed a security dialogue for the Middle East, especially among those countries "in the area of the Persian Gulf," including to discuss Syria, while adding that it is "unfortunately true that a number of regional countries are involved in the conflict in Syria and stoke the flame by handing arms over to the extremists in that country." He said Iran is active in regional diplomacy and has been "working with the contact group composed of Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to engage with the Syrian government and political opposition groups in Syria to end first and foremost the violence and to seek a solution to the crisis.”
Khazaee said that Israel's bombing of Syria May 3 and 5 only served to "boost the armed extremists inside Syria" and that "Israel has become a part of the conflict" and "is adding fuel to the fire." He said he does not see any prospect of Israel's involvement in international talks on Syria, adding that "the Palestinian question still lies at the heart of the problems in the Middle East."
Khazaee stated that there are “no IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] forces and advisers in Syria involved in the fighting” and that Syria “does not need arms and military advisers from abroad to deal with the armed groups inside its borders.”
On the allegations of chemical-weapons use in Syria, Khazaee said Iran is “the only victim of the use of chemical weapons in the recent history, knows well and strongly believes that everything possible effort should be made to prevent any use of chemical weapons under any circumstances,” adding, “It is now becoming more evident that certain elements of the Syrian armed opposition groups used chemical substances, as Miss Carla Del Ponte, the head of the investigation commission set up by the UN Human Rights Council, indicated.”
The full transcript of the interview follows.
Al-Monitor: If invited, is Iran willing to participate in a US-Russia Geneva II conference on Syria? Would there be any conditions on Iran’s participation?
Khazaee: Iran has always made clear that it stands for the peaceful resolution of the ongoing crisis in Syria. We have said time and again that there could be no military solution for this crisis. Tehran supported the missions by the special envoys, Mr. [Kofi] Anan and Mr. [Lakhdar] Brahimi. We organized two international conferences on Syria in Tehran and we are going to hold the third one on May 29 towards the same goal. And we are now happy that the international community is gradually arriving at the same conclusion.
Thus, I can confirm that Iran welcomes the convening of Geneva II. We believe that, apart from the Syrian sides, all relevant regional and international partners that wield some influence over the parties and could help the Syrians move towards peace should participate in the conference and endeavor towards its success. Iran's participation in the conference will depend on the details that we will consider when we receive them.
Al-Monitor: US Secretary of State John Kerry, meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week, said the purpose of the conference is to “implement a peaceful resolution based on Geneva I, which recognizes the need for a transition government with full executive authority by mutual consent.” What does this mean, in Iran’s view? Does Iran support the path laid out in the Geneva Communiqué?
Khazaee: As a matter of principle, the Syrians should decide about the specific course of action they need to take to peacefully resolve the conflict. The process should be Syrian-led and under the Syrian ownership. Countries, be they regional or otherwise, should fulfill a supporting and encouraging role and avoid interfering in detailed mechanisms that the Syrians themselves should work out. And that, of course, includes the way the terms of Geneva I should be implemented. We are ready to work within the framework set out in Geneva I to find a non-violent solution to the crisis. We believe that only through such a process broader political reconciliation as well as national unity, territorial integrity and stability of Syria could be enhanced and preserved.
Al-Monitor: What about the role of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? The US and some of its allies have said “Assad must go.” Does Tehran want Assad to stay? What are Iran’s specific interests in Syria that you believe need to be safeguarded at all costs?
Khazaee: There should be no doubt that asking a head of state to step down by a foreign country goes counter to whatever international law, including the UN charter, stands for. The Syrian people should decide on who should go and who should stay. As we have proposed in our six-point plan, the political future of President Assad should and could be only decided through the ballot box, as it is the case in other countries where people's vote matters.
Al-Monitor: Iran proposed last year that strengthening regional cooperation, including on Syria and Bahrain, should be part of the P5+1 discussions. Is this still your position? How would a discussion on Syria and regional security benefit the nuclear talks — for both Iran and the P5+1?
Khazaee: We have always been of the view that regional issues should be tackled through dialogue among all interested parties. There are issues that Iran and members of the P5+1 could help resolve. The idea has been simply that when Iran and the P5+1 come together to discuss the nuclear file, they can also seize the opportunity to exchange views on some other issues of mutual interest, though there may not be any relations among these issues. And, of course, we believe that any understanding or progress towards dealing with a controversial issue may help create a better ambiance, thus impacting the approach towards other pending issues.
Al-Monitor: You have raised several formal complaints with the United Nations about the Israeli attacks on Syria. Israel is both a party to the conflict and a neighbor affected by the war — like Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. Shouldn’t Israel be part of a regional and international dialogue on Syria, along with Iran and all concerned and affected countries of the region?
Khazaee: The acts of aggression on May 3 and 5 against Syria, a sovereign state, took place in blatant contravention of all norms and principles of international law. They should have been strongly condemned by the UN Security Council and other relevant international organizations. Through our formal complaints, we tried to draw the attention of the international community to these acts. We gather that they were carried out to boost the armed extremists inside Syria and threaten the Syrian government. By so doing, Israel has become a part of the conflict. In other words, Israel is adding oil to the fire. Moreover, we don't have to forget that part of Syrian territory is still under the Israeli occupation. Thus, we can't see any prospect for such a party to be included in any serious international talks on the conflict in Syria.
Al-Monitor: With the reports of Hezbollah and IRGC forces and advisers in Syria, Iran’s influence with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the involvement of many regional powers on both sides of the Syria war — would not such a conversation, whether in the P5+1 or in Geneva, actually end up being about more than Syria? Could such a forum — co-hosted by the US and Russia and with a UN imprimatur — be an opening to a broader dialogue about regional security and involve all of the regional powers — Iran, Turkey, Iraq, the Arab Gulf states, Egypt and Israel? How would Iran envision such a dialogue and forum? What would be on the agenda?
Khazaee: This is a very important question. I believe that the cooperation among the countries in the region, especially those in the area of the Persian Gulf (and let me emphasize here that this is the correct name for this body of water), is very vital for the stability and security of the whole region, as well as for addressing the ongoing crisis in Syria. Let me also reiterate that there are no IRGC forces and advisers in Syria involved in the fighting. Nonetheless, it is unfortunately true that a number of regional countries are involved in the conflict in Syria and stoke the flame by handing arms over to the extremists in that country.
As I already said, Iran has been active all along and held dialogue with the countries in the region over a range of issues that our region faces. We have been actively working with the contact group composed of Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to engage with the Syrian government and political opposition groups in Syria to end first and foremost the violence and to seek a solution to the crisis.
However, it should be borne in mind that for the past six to seven decades, Israel has been the source of most conflicts and tensions in the region. It continues to occupy other people's lands. The Palestinian question still lies at the heart of the problems in the Middle East. It is now clear to almost all that [Israel] has never believed in peace, as it continued to build new settlements on the very land that it once pretended to negotiate to exchange for peace. Moreover, we need also to keep in mind that Syria and Israel are formally at war.
Al-Monitor: Would Iran agree to halt supplies of arms and military advisers to Syria as part of an arrangement leading to a cease-fire? Could Iran assure a cease-fire by Syrian government forces if Iran is party to the agreement?
Khazaee: First, we need to differentiate between a sovereign government, which is a member of the United Nations, and the extremists and terrorists. Second, the Syrian government does not need arms and military advisers from abroad to deal with the armed groups inside its borders. Third, Iran, as stated earlier, is ready to do whatever in its power to help bring peace and tranquility in Syria.
Al-Monitor: Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi used the term “red line” last month when referring to allegations of possible chemical-weapons use in Syria. Is the prohibition on chemical-weapons use in Syria a shared interest among the US, Iran and the international community?