In part two of our interview, former senior Iranian diplomat Seyed Hossein Mousavian discusses the threat of a worsening proxy war in Yemen, Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad, the upcoming Iranian presidential elections, and the possibility for Tehran-Washington cooperation on Syria and other Middle East issues.
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. We’re continuing to look at the Trump administration’s posture towards Iran. In Part 1 of this conversation, we looked at the Trump administration reviewing the Iran nuclear deal, and exploring whether it wants to re-impose the sanctions that were lifted, as part of that agreement. Now in Part 2, we’re going to look at areas of tension between the U.S. and Iran regionally, from Yemen to Syria. And our guest for that is someone who used to work for the Iranian government, and maintains close contacts there. Seyyed Hossein Mousavian is a former senior Iranian diplomat, who served in several top posts. He is now a Middle East and Nuclear Policy Specialist, at Princeton University. Dr. Mousavian, welcome. SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: Good morning. AARON MATÉ: Let’s move on to the other regional issues that are at the heart of Iranian-U.S. tensions right now. You had James Mattis saying that everywhere you look in the region where there’s trouble, you see Iran. You had Rex Tillerson talking about Iran’s support for terrorism, and pointing to places like Yemen. Saudi Arabia has said for years, that part of the reason it has to fight in Yemen, is because the Houthis are a proxy of Iran. And I was speaking recently to journalist Iona Craig, who’s covered Yemen for years. And she said that initially, when the Saudis first launched their campaign in March 2015, there was almost no Iranian government support, military support, for the Houthis. But the devastating Saudi campaign there has actually prompted Iran to get involved. Now, they are actually delivering weapons to the Houthis. What can you tell us about what Iran is doing in Yemen, and its strategy there? SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: The day Saudi Arabia attacked Yemen, I told a Saudi friend, this is a big mistake you make, and this will become your Viet Nam. He laughed at me, and he said, “Hossein, you know what? We will finish in one week.” This was really their assumption. That’s why the U.S. supported it, because they believed they would be able to finish Yemen issues, … Houthis in one week. Now… AARON MATÉ: Okay, so my question now is, two years later, with the U.S. now vowing to ramp up its support for Saudi Arabia. And you have a case where Iran now actually is supporting the Houthis, contrary to how they were not initially, but now they are. Are we seeing the danger of a worsening proxy war inside Yemen, between these two sides? SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: No, the danger is there. No one can deny. However, I believe we need the United Nations Security Council, the five permanent members, to step in. We need Iran or Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United States, the regional and the big powers, immediately to sit together, and rather than war, air strikes, militia strikes, they find a political solution for Yemen. Which is really possible. It is possible. It is not too difficult. Otherwise, yes, I believe if they continue the war in Yemen, the Yemenese would not be silent. They would not sit at home. They would fight Saudi Arabia. They would fight the U.S. And it is not only Iran, there are some other countries also supporting Yemen against the Saudi invasion. AARON MATÉ: On the issue of Syria, critics of Iran point to the support for the Assad regime, the Assad regime which has committed a number of atrocities. Killed the vast majority of victims in that conflict, and don’t understand how Tehran could ally itself with Assad. My question to you is, is Tehran’s support for Assad: is it linked to the pressure that it faces from the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia? So, if Iran didn’t feel so much antagonism coming from those areas, would Assad become more expendable to the Iranian government? SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: Iran is supporting Assad because the grand strategy of Iran in the region is to resist against the notions, attempts, for bringing regime change in the region through military strikes. This has been the U.S. policy, attacking many countries, to bring regime change. Iran is completely on the other side. Iranians, they are totally against foreign intervention, military strikes, to bring regime change. That’s why they are supporting Assad. AARON MATÉ: But Dr. Mousavian, but Dr. Mousavian, it can’t just be that they’re against regime change, because I imagine that if the U.S. some day decide that they want a regime change in Saudi Arabia, I don’t think Iran would object. So, my question is, is support for Assad, is it tied to creating some leverage and some protection for them, against what they see as hostility towards their own government, towards protecting them from regime change in Iran? SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: No. No. Hold on. Even as of today, the Assad government internationally is the legal government of Syria. The Assad government has an ambassador in the United Nations. Not terrorist groups. Therefore, the argument is here: from the beginning of some demonstrations in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Europe, the U.S., Qatar, other Arab regional countries. They recruited ten terror… they recruited tens of thousands of terrorists from Chechnya, Central Asia, from the United States, from Europe, from all over the world. And they exported tens of thousands of terrorists, with tens of billions of dollars of weapons, and money, to bring a regime change. Imagine, if we did not have tens of thousands of foreign fighters, terrorists, in Syria, would we have such a Syria today? No. AARON MATÉ: Well, that’s a debatable… SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: (overtalking) AARON MATÉ: That’s a debatable point. I mean, that’s… SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: No, it is not! It is not. I tell you why it is not. You remember Joe Biden, the Vice President of Obama? He had a public talk at Harvard in 2014. Joe Biden publicly said, all problems in Syria are our own allies. He named Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Emirates. JOE BIDEN: Our biggest problem is our allies. Our allies in the region were our largest problem is Syria. The Turks were great friends, and I have a great relationship with Erdogan, which I just spent a lot of time with. The Saudis, the Emiratis, etcetera… What were they doing? They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni/Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens… thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad. Except that the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra, and Al Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world. SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: The U.S. problem, as he said, are it’s own allies in the region. Therefore the U.S. understands what the issue is. AARON MATÉ: He certainly did blame the Gulf States for funding these Jihadist groups in Syria, and he definitely apportioned a large part of the blame to them. I guess the question is — does that mean Iran has to then go and support a dictator who has killed the majority of victims, in the conflict? SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: If you want to say dictators, we have too many dictators. Do we have democracy in Saudi Arabia? Do we have democracy in Bahrain? In Bahrain also you have a very minority ruling the majority, 80% of Bahrainis are Shia. They have been treated the same by the minority government of Bahrain. The U.S. is supporting the minority government, dictatorship government in Bahrain. The issue is not dictatorship, believe me, we have too many dictators… AARON MATÉ: I’m not saying… I’m not saying it’s dictatorship. I’m… I’m… SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: …protest by the U.S. AARON MATÉ: …certainly not saying that. I’m not saying that. No, of course not. And of course… and in Bahrain, that’s… SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: Okay. Therefore… therefore… AARON MATÉ: That’s an example where the U.S. backed… SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: Therefore what… AARON MATÉ: …the Gulf invasion… SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: …what… what is the… AARON MATÉ: …that put down the uprising. So, I… I take your point there. SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: Therefore we have to come back to international principles. Syria has a legal government. Thousands of terrorists are there. First of all, the U.S., Iran, Saudi Arabia, they all should cooperate to clean Syria from terrorists. Number one. Second, immediately they should go for a free election, supervised by the United Nations, not by the Assad government. The United Nations Security Council can supervise a free election in Syria. Let the Syrian nation to decide about their future, about their president, about their Constitution. It is not for Saudi Arabia, or the U.S., or Iran, to say who should rule Syria. It is for the Syrian nation. And they need elections. If they do not trust Assad — no problem, an election can be held, supervised by the United Nations. But first you have to clean Syria from terrorist groups, because today 60% of Syrian land is in the hands of terrorists. And Assad military, Assad security establishment is the only real force fighting the terrorist groups. You cannot fight Assad and terrorists at the same time. AARON MATÉ: Well, the Kurds are also fighting ISIS. That’s one group. But, listen, let’s move on from Syria, and let me ask you about these upcoming elections in Iran. The re-election of President Rouhani is not guaranteed. Now, he comes from the more moderate wing. What do you think will happen if the hardliners win out? And we have a hard line president in Iran, versus the hawkish people that are in the Trump administration right now. SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: I think if -– you are talking about the nuclear deal. Anyone who wins in Iran, would be committed to the nuclear deal, whether from principalists or conservatives, you say, or moderates. It doesn’t matter who is going to win. The nuclear deal, Iran would be completely committed because this is an international agreement. This is not a party agreement, in which a party in Iran can violate. However, about the regional issues, I think if the conservatives, they win, they would be definitely more tough. And they would be much more aggressive towards the U.S., in case the U.S. is going to continue their hostile policy. But the moderates, they would try to stop the U.S. through international organizations, through the United Nations, through multilateral international approaches, rather than fighting directly with the U.S. in each country in the region. AARON MATÉ: I remember reading that the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, he said that he wanted the nuclear deal to be not the ceiling for U.S.-Iran relations, but the ground floor. So, he wanted more areas of accommodation. Where do you think Iran is flexible, in ways that most people wouldn’t know? I’m thinking in 2003, there was a peace offer proposed through, I believe the Swiss embassy, to the U.S. that the U.S. rejected. Where could Iran and the U.S. cooperate in areas that we might not -– or at least most of us –- know about? SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: The U.S. has tried twice, one on the nuclear. Iran has been cooperative. Everyone is satisfied. And once on Afghanistan regional issue, which Iran cooperated, and the U.S. ambassador says it was the failure of the U.S. not responding correctly to Iranian good will. Therefore, we have the history. We have the evidence. On the regional issue, and international issue, and nuclear and Afghanistan there is a very clear history, as evidence of how Iranians are ready to negotiate. And how Iranians are ready to cooperate. I believe this is more on the U.S. side. If the U.S. understands the reality, then we have a lot of common interests. Iran and the U.S., they have common interests to fight ISIS, … Look at all these groups. ISIS, Al …, … Nusra, Al … Boko Haram, they are all one package coming from one source of ideology. Which Iran and the U.S., they hate these types of ideologies and extremism, and they really can cooperate. Even in Iraq, practically without direct cooperation, they are in the same boat. Helping the Iraqi government, Iranians and Americans practically are helping the Iraqi government to fight ISIS. They are on the same side. They are in the same boat. They have common interests for security and stability of energy; they have common interests to fight drug trafficking. They have common interests to fight terrorism. There are a lot of issues of commonality. AARON MATÉ: Okay, let me ask you… SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: (overtalking, inaudible) AARON MATÉ: …on two key issues. SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: …about the… AARON MATÉ: Dr. Mousavian, let me as you on two key issues. Could Iran accept a peace settlement somehow in Syria, where Assad leaves as part of a peaceful transition? And could Iran also accept the Arab League peace offer to Israel, that’s been on the table for a long time? Which is basically full normalization, in return for Israel’s withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, and the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Could Iran accommodate there? SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: Look. If there is going to be a real, serious, peace negotiation, which the Israelis have never been committed, even you understand Netanyahu who has declined the two-state solution supported and initiated by the U.S., Arab League, Arab countries, Europeans, therefore the issue is not really Iran, is Netanyahu to accept the two-state solution. However, if there is any type of agreement between Palestinians and Israelis, the Iranian Supreme Leader wants… two, three years ago, publicly said, Iran is not going to disturb — Iran would respect the decision by Palestinians, whatever Palestinians they decide — Iran would respect that decision. This is on the Palestinian-Israeli… Iran is not going to disturb a real peace, which Palestinians would agree to, you know. This is one. On Syria, if the U.S., if Saudi Arabia, if the West is ready to shake hands with Russia and Iran, to fight seriously, genuinely, to clean Syria from the terrorists first, then Iran would agree for a free election. Supervised by the United Nations, for the Syrian nation to decide about a president, about their own Constitution, about their own future. Iran would respect any decision by the Syrian nation, through a free election supervised by the United Nations. That’s it. AARON MATÉ: And we’ll leave it there. Dr. Seyyed Hossein Mousavian, former senior Iranian diplomat, now Middle East and Nuclear Policy Specialist, at Princeton University. Dr. Mousavian, thank you so much. SEYYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: Thank you very much. Thank you. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News. ————————- END