MANAMA, Bahrain — Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s foreign minister, has called on Iran to take “serious actions and steps that would allay the fears of the regional countries regarding interference in internal affairs and supporting terrorist groups inside those countries.”
In an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the Manama Dialogue Regional Security Summit, hosted annually by the Kingdom of Bahrain and convened by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Khalid welcomed the "joint plan of action" agreed by the P5+1 and Iran, adding that progress on the nuclear file “would bring a peace of mind for the region.”
Khalid recounted Bahrain’s efforts to engage Iran, but said, “We still have a problem, Iran-Bahrain. We haven’t seen any progress on that.”
He added that Iranian statements still link Syria and Bahrain, which he wants to see stopped.
“I don’t want to hear Iran put the words Bahrain and Syria in one sentence,” Sheikh Khalid said.
He said, "The Syrian government should be in the Geneva talks and should be part of the solution."
Referring to the warning on Dec. 7 at the Manama Dialogue by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari of a possible “Islamic emirate” being formed by jihadists in Syrian territory, Khalid said, “The concern is there about an Islamic emirate, which has always been a cause of trouble.”
Al-Monitor: Bahrain has welcomed the joint plan of action between the P5+1 and Iran, and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif toured Gulf capitals last week. You had invited Zarif to attend the Manama Dialogue, but he was not able to attend. Have you detected a change in Iranian policies in the region?
Sheikh Khalid: We’ve clearly seen a change in Iranian language. But I don’t think we have seen a very clear change of policy. Maybe there’s one that led to the interim agreement, which is something that we welcome, and will hopefully reach a good and sustainable comprehensive agreement. But we still have a problem, Iran-Bahrain. We haven’t seen any progress on that. We’ve taken many steps toward Iran. I welcomed him [Zarif], as you said, to the Manama Dialogue. His majesty [King Hamad Al Khalifa] congratulated President [Hassan] Rouhani. We have an ambassador there; they don’t have an ambassador here. Out of principle, we condemned the attack on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. We welcome the deal with the P5+1, which we see as the right step, but we have yet to see one step from Iran.
We have seen good language. Foreign Minister Zarif is a very able diplomat. I like his manner. The relationship between countries is more important.
Al-Monitor: What would you consider as a positive, confidence-building step in both the region and in Iran-Bahrain relations?
Sheikh Khalid: I would like to see Iran send the very clear message by taking serious actions and steps that would allay the fears of the regional countries regarding interferences with internal affairs and supporting terrorist groups inside those countries. If Iran would take concrete steps that could be tangible, that can be seen as a departure from the past — the way they have done it and supported those groups — this will be a major, major step for the countries of the region to feel comfortable moving into other fields with Iran.
That would be one thing, and definitely we would like to see the language change. For a Bahraini, I will always not like to see Bahrain equated with Syria when they talk. I don’t want to hear Iran put the words Bahrain and Syria in one sentence. Talk about them separately, but not in one sentence. This is something we cannot accept.
Those would be two important steps, and then definitely we would like to see progress in the nuclear file, because that would bring a peace of mind for the region.
Al-Monitor: Yesterday at the Manama Dialogue, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned of an Islamic emirate — meaning territory controlled by radical jihadists — as a possible outcome in Syria. On the same panel, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah seemed to walk back from advocacy for a military solution in Syria, stressing instead the urgent humanitarian crisis, support for the Syrian people and declaring that Qatar never supported terrorist groups. And, separately, [former top US Ambassador] Ryan Crocker this week said the United States should consider talking to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to address the threat of terrorism in Syria in the region. Do you detect a trend in Arab quarters toward engagement with the Syrian government in support for a negotiated political solution between Syrian parties themselves, and to deal with the concerns about terrorism?
Sheikh Khalid: The Syrian government should be in the Geneva talks and should be part of the solution.
The "Islamic emirate," we’ve seen one in Afghanistan. If there is one in Syria, it’s nothing new. We’ve seen one in Afghanistan, we’ve seen one in southern Algeria, or Mali, we’ve seen one in Yemen, and there is now one formed or being formed in Syria, because in Syria there are some pockets that are being controlled by terrorists.
The "Islamic emirate" we've seen one in Afghanistan. If there is one in Syria, it's nothing new. We've seen one in Afghanistan, we've seen one in southern Algeria, or Mali, we've seen one in Yemen, and … there is now one formed or being formed in Syria, because in Syria there are some pockets that are being controlled by terrorists.
Yes, the concern is there about an Islamic emirate, which has always been a cause of trouble.
Qatar's foreign minister speaks for his own country, but I don’t see any retracting; in fact, I see dealing with new realities. At one point, the world policy — and not only one country or two — was the removal of the regime. Now everyone wants a solution for the issue, because now it's more like a civil war, and the biggest loser here is the people of Syria. We do want to work toward a solution that would save the bloods of the people of Syria. So yes, everybody should be in the talks, everybody should be in this political solution, and new language doesn’t mean a retraction. The realities are evolving into a different nature.