Ebrahim Yazdi, Iran's first foreign minister after the 1979 Revolution, talked about his concerns regarding the continuous hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia in an exclusive phone interview with Al-Monitor. He said, "If this hostility continues, it will create chaos and insecurity for all the countries in the region and will increase the likelihood of a military confrontation and secession in the region. It will not be beneficial for any country in the region.”
Yazdi, who is the secretary-general of the Freedom Movement of Iran (Nehzat-e Azadi-e Iran), has been repeatedly arrested for criticizing the Iranian government. He was detained after the 2009 contested elections and again in 2010 for his political activities. In May 2011, he wrote a letter to Tunisian leader Rached Ghannouchi, urging him to learn from Iran’s mistakes and respect diversity and plurality.
Yazdi supports the current foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and stresses that the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs should be more active and that Iran should try to influence its neighbors via diplomacy instead of using nondiplomatic organizations.
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: It appears that in the recent months, tension between Tehran and Riyadh has increased in an unprecedented manner. What do you think is the root of this hostility?
Yazdi: The Middle East is going through inevitable changes. Israel is under pressure from the rest of the world to make peace with the Palestinians and to recognize Palestine as an independent country. However, it is trying to use any excuse it can find to avoid doing this. This is why Israel is against Iran and the United States improving their political relations. Israel is one of the main causes of widespread unrest in the Middle East. The main reason that Israel is against Iran and the United States having better relations with one another, is that Israel does not want to make peace with the Palestinians. This is also why Saudi Arabia is against better relations between Iran and the United States. Peace between Israel and Palestine will create a political atmosphere that will result in an inevitable change in the political structure of the Arab countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia.
Although a close strategic relationship exists between Saudi Arabia and the United States, in today’s global village, the United States cannot and does not want to support a backward and reactionary government. The United States does not need to support the current government of Saudi Arabia to maintain its strategic interests. In the wake of these political changes, even if a completely democratic government comes to power in Saudi Arabia, it will have no choice but to work with the international community. This is why Saudi Arabia is against Iran and the United States improving their political relations, and this is also why Saudi Arabia has gotten closer to Israel.
However, hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia has other aspects as well, religion being one of the most important of them. Wahhabi clerics who are ruling Saudi Arabia have never hid their hostilities against the Shiites. Wahhabi clerics have repeatedly mentioned that Shiites are infidels and that killing them is obligatory. Before the 1979 Revolution, Iran and Saudi Arabia had to have friendly relations with each other due to the international political atmosphere of the time. Also, Iran was at the time the only Shiite country in the region. However, now that Saddam [Hussein] is no longer in power in Iraq and considering that the majority of the Iraqis are Shiites, if democracy prevails in Iraq, then we will have a second Shiite government in the region that enjoys a relatively good financial and economic situation. Contrary to what some people believe, the third wave of democracy is not driven by the United States. Rather, it is the result of the Cold War coming to an end. Although the Arab Spring has lost its vigor, it will rise again. Democracy prevailing in the Arab countries will have unpleasant consequences for Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabi clerics. One of these consequences will be a Shiite government coming to power in Bahrain, which is a predominantly Shiite country. Bahrain is a small country and might not be able to affect the regional equations, but if democracy prevails in this small island, we will have a third Shiite country in the region. Such a scenario is unacceptable for Saudi Arabia, and the fact that they have reacted to the unrest in Bahrain by sending armed forces to support the leadership of Bahrain, shows how sensitive they are regarding this issue.
What goes on in Yemen is also, partially, influenced by the policies of Saudi Arabia.
Al-Monitor: Considering your view of the region, what kind of future do you foresee for the region if this hostility continues?
Yazdi: If this hostility continues, we will witness chaos, insecurity, military conflicts and probably even secession in the region. No country in the region will benefit from this.
Al-Monitor: Are you worried that there will be a military confrontation between these two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia?
Yazdi: A direct military confrontation is unlikely. However, in the world of realpolitik, we should expect the worst and try to prevent it from happening. One of the most dangerous possible outcomes of the current situation is a military confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. If such a thing happens, the political and military relationship between the regional countries and the United States, and Europe, will change to Iran’s disadvantage.
Al-Monitor: What about Daesh [Islamic State]? Are you worried that Daesh might attack Iran?
Yazdi: One of the reasons that Daesh is continuing to fight in Iraq is because it wants to get closer to the Iranian border. If Daesh gets close to the Iranian border, we might experience unrest in our Sunni regions. However, this group is too small to be able to put up a fight against the Iranian armed forces and actually cross the borders. The biggest threat of Daesh for Iran is that it might result in secession in Syria and Iraq, and as a result of it, new and independent countries might emerge in the region.
Al-Monitor: It has been two years since President Hassan Rouhani took office. We can now have a more realistic assessment of the new administration. How different is Rouhani’s administration compared to previous administrations?
Yazdi: Rouhani’s administration has both similarities and differences with the previous administrations. When it comes to the multiplicity of the centers of power and the existence of powerful organizations outside the administration, then it is the same old story of one city with 40 sheriffs. The Iranian Revolution was a revolution against royal despotism. After the revolution, this struggle against the monarchist regime was extended to struggle against any type of 'regime.' This phenomenon exists, in different degrees, in most post-revolutionary societies. Rouhani is faced with the same problem as well. Rouhani has been successful in his foreign policy and has managed to take important steps. However, he is yet to live up to the promises that he made during the election campaign in regard to politics and the economy.
Al-Monitor: What are the chances of Iran reaching an agreement with the West, especially the United States?
Yazdi: There is a good chance that the two sides will reach an agreement. First, both sides have the will to reach an agreement, and second, both sides need this agreement. Iran has already had an important achievement as the result of these negotiations and that is that it has managed to change its reputation from an aggressive and confrontational regime to a more flexible government with which one can negotiate over other regional issues as well.
Al-Monitor: The possibility of Iran reaching a nuclear agreement with the West has raised a lot of concerns in different countries, including Israel. How realistic are these concerns?
Yazdi: As I mentioned above, Israel is the biggest opponent of better relations between Iran and the United States. Israel has now clearly started to lie about Iran’s military threat. Contrary to the lies that the prime minister of Israel said in front of the US Congress [on March 3], Iran has no intention of ever attacking Israel with an atom bomb. The Holy Land is as holy for Muslims as it is for Jews. No one in Iran, not even the radicals, think about bombing Jerusalem. The majority of Muslims dream about a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, not bombing it.
Al-Monitor: What do you think is in store for Iran after it reaches an agreement with the West?
Yazdi: If an agreement is reached and sanctions are removed, it will doubtless solve many of the financial problems that the administration currently faces. However, although removal of sanctions is a necessary step, it is not enough by itself. A nuclear agreement will pave the way for other demands to be brought up. To solve the economic problems, we need to first solve the political problems of the country. Lawlessness is the main root of the political crisis of Iran. Rouhani needs to first solve this problem before doing anything else.
Al-Monitor: Hypothetically, if you instead of Zarif were in charge of the foreign policy of the country, what would you do? How would you end the sanctions and the regional hostility that Iran is currently dealing with?
Yazdi: The policy of the interim government of Iran was to turn actual enemies into potential enemies and to turn potential friends into actual friends. I very much support Zarif’s policy, but if I was in charge, I would make sure that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs plays a more influential role in solving the regional crisis and that it would replace nondiplomatic organizations when it comes to influencing other countries in the region.