Dr. Kazem Jalali, an influential conservative member of Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, and rapporteur of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, sees possibilities for a thaw with Washington, but he believes that many Arab states in the Gulf "see their interests in keeping the current state of continual conflict among the West, the U.S., and the Islamic Republic of Iran."
In recent years, Tehran has experienced growing tensions with its Arab neighbors, particularly over the development of its nuclear program.
The latest diplomatic crisis came after former Majlis speaker Ali Akbar Nateq Nori referred in a speech to Bahrain as a former province of Iran. His remarks caused a firestorm of angry protests from numerous Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and prompted Morocco to sever relations with Iran although Bahrain itself has remained friendly.
Rabat also accused Iran of seeking to spread Shi’ite Islam in the Sunni Kingdom, an accusation Tehran strongly denies.
Jalali spoke with IPS correspondent Omid Memarian by telephone about the roots of Persian-Arab tensions, how Iran’s neighbors view the prospect of improved Iran-U.S. relations, the creation of an anti-Iran front among Arab countries in the Persian Gulf, and the balance of power in the region.
Excerpts from the interview follow.
IPS: Do you think it’s significant that Morocco’s decision to sever diplomatic ties with Iran came after the Gaza invasion earlier this year?
KJ: Some Arab countries were embarrassed about their reaction vis-à-vis the Gaza conflict, and faced criticism among the general public. The Iran-Bahrain issue helped those countries to divert public attention from the main issue of the Middle East [Israel-Palestine].
Some Arab countries have attempted to replace Gaza, an Arab issue, with an Arab-Iranian issue. They even tried to portray this as a new issue, a Shi’ite-Sunni one. The Moroccan Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the Islamic Republic of Iran [IRI] has been propagating the Shi’ite faith in their country. This is not true. Religious propaganda in other countries is not among IRI’s foreign policies.
IPS: Over the past two years, Tehran has seen the development of an anti-Iranian front in the region. Why?
KJ: Iran’s main policy is to develop relations with her neighbors Our efforts have been concentrated on addressing our challenges with them. But it seems that some of the Arab countries are concerned about the outcome of Iran-U.S. relations. They foresee an improvement of relations between Iran and the U.S., and they are not pleased about this. They are doing their best to avoid this.
They also believe that there are developments taking shape within the Islamic world, which could present their leadership with serious challenges. Zionists also have a role in this, attempting to emphasize the conflicts within the Islamic and Arab world.
IPS: What would Iran do to change the power balance in the region?
KJ: It is not prudent to rush. This issue will have to develop wisely. Cooperation with the part of the Arab world that is closer to Iran should be intensified, asking for their help to solve the other issues. It is not in the Arab and Islamic world’s best interests to enter into a family feud with Iran. We must be united with other Islamic countries, so that we may focus on the bigger challenges facing the Islamic world.
IPS: But it seems some of these countries don’t view this as an issue among Islamic countries. Rather, they view it as an Arab-Iranian issue, and not letting Iran in as a serious player.
KJ: There are extremist views among the Arab world, which perceive Iran as an opponent. We see this view in the Arab media and among some governments. This is not a realistic view. The Arab world should know this, too.
IPS: How do you think Iran’s Arab neighbors view Iran-U.S. relations?
KJ: Arab countries are not pleased with the prospect of [improved] Iran-U.S. relations, and whenever they think this relationship might be reestablished, they react negatively. These reactions manifest in their talks with the U.S. or in creating an Iran "fear factor" in the region, emphasizing regional disputes and trying to create a distorted image of Iran. They see their interests in keeping the current state of continual conflict among the West, the U.S., and the Islamic Republic.
IPS: What solutions is Iran pursuing to strengthen ties with Arab countries in the region? Could improved Iran-U.S. relations change the situation?
KJ: It would be simplistic to think that [better] Iran-U.S. relations will solve Iran’s conflicts with Arabs. [And] the conflicts between Iran and the U.S. are so deep and complex, they can’t be solved easily. Iranian leaders must not fall prey to the same simplistic approach as Arab leaders.
IPS: Many analysts assert that the new U.S. cabinet has offered an olive branch to Iran, but that Tehran has not yet reached a decision to change its relations with the U.S. What do you think?
KJ: I don’t believe the U.S. has shown any olive branch to Iran. Would the appointment of Dennis Ross as special adviser on Iran be considered an olive branch? Some members in the U.S. government say some positive things, but have those words turned into policies? Have they reached an agreement to implement the suggestions Mr. Lee Hamilton made in the Washington Post? Including apologizing to Iranian people for what happened between 1953 and 1979? [When a CIA-backed coup overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and installed the shah.]
IPS: What would you see as a first step by the U.S.?
KJ: Americans will have to apologize for their past behavior. They will also have to observe the Algerian Convention resolutions in which they committed not to interfere in Iran’s internal affairs. They will also have to abide by international laws.
For example, regarding Iran’s nuclear issue, everyone knows the Islamic Republic of Iran has not violated any regulations, and Mr. ElBaradei’s reports [to the International Atomic Energy Agency] testify to this. They will have to admit to this and let the Islamic Republic of Iran pursue its peaceful nuclear activities under the supervision of the IAEA.
I believe Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton will have to take practical steps. These steps can slowly remove the lack of trust so that other cooperation can ensue.
IPS: Some radical fronts in Iran say that there are irreconcilable conflicts with the U.S. and this is why Iran will never sit at the negotiating table. As a conservative member of parliament, do you agree with this analysis?
KJ: Our conflicts are not irreconcilable conflicts that will never be solved. Conflicts are reconcilable. We don’t agree with a unilateral policy. Mr. Obama said in his inaugural speech that 60 years ago, as an African-American man, his father could not eat at a restaurant in the U.S., but his son is now the president of the United States of America.
He should know that U.S. policies vis-à-vis other countries and Iran have been like the policies against African-Americans in the U.S.