In the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, the Iranian minister of foreign affairs spoke at a Chatham House event about new ways of resolving key issues affecting his country and the wider Middle East region. David Watts reports.
Fresh from reaching agreement with the United States on Iran’s nuclear programme, Mohammad Javad Zarif believes the method of reaching it could serve as a model for the solution of regional problems.
Success was achieved because the antagonists approached this 37-year stand-off with a new paradigm. And Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, believes it could be used to tackle global issues.
The new, more even-handed Iranian approach may account for the more pacific stance taken by the White House, which has led some to believe that President Obama had gone soft on Tehran as the negotiations drew to a close.
‘We tested it [the new paradigm] once and it worked and we believe it could work again,’ said Zarif. ‘But let me preface that by saying that we live in a different international environment; an environment that we so readily call a globalised world. But we never seriously think about what it means living in a globalised world.’
The minister told his Chatham House audience that from his perspective, living in such a world meant that we could no longer enjoy benefits while others were suffering, just as we could not build a ‘long and tall’ wall to protect our environment while everyone else was producing greenhouse gases. Just as we cannot live in prosperity while everybody else is living in poverty, nor can we live in security if everybody else is insecure.
‘If anything, 9/11 proved that even the greatest power on the face of the earth cannot guarantee the safety of its citizens if insecurity exists elsewhere in the world. I think that’s an important consideration that we should all have—that we either live in security together or perish in insecurity together.’
If national leaders went beyond simply making proclamations about globalised goods and globalised threats, accepted that as a change of paradigm and approached problems with this new perspective, rather than the old zero-sum effect, then we will have opened the road to a resolution.
‘I think we did that in the nuclear case, albeit reluctantly and albeit after having tried the wrong options. Finally we made ourselves believe we needed to redefine the question.
‘Since 2002—when the Iranian nuclear issue became of international concern—we’ve been trying to resolve the problem but Iran insisted on its rights and wanted to have a full enrichment programme while the West wanted zero enrichment. President Obama said it very honestly: that if he had had his wish he would have removed every nut and bolt in the Iranian nuclear programme. So that was his wish—our wish was to have a peaceful but unlimited enrichment programme.
‘The outcome was we went for a zero-sum game when we started these negotiations—and I was a part of the original negotiations which failed in 2005.
‘When we started the process Iran had fewer than 200 working centrifuges. By the end the centrifuge option gave Iran 20,000 centrifuges. When we started the process we had economic growth of 7 per cent and we ended up with minus 6.8 per cent. Everybody lost. That is what we gain if we try to gain at the cost of the other side.
‘We then started—and I take a bit of credit for this—defining our problem as a common problem. We did that in a meeting in New York in 2013 when we decided to consider the Iranian nuclear problem a joint effort, not as an effort between two rivals.
‘At the end of the day we were able to address something that people believed was intractable; something that people believed could never be resolved without a war; in fact, some still do. They still believe that this is a resolution that they do not like to see.
‘That mind-set is so basically, dogmatically focussed on win-lose that they cannot see the possibility that you can have an outcome in which nobody loses; in which everybody can claim a victory. Sometimes people ask why is everybody celebrating, we should be mourning. That comes from that mentality, a win-lose, zero-sum mentality, that if there is something that other side can, in fact, be happy about we must be worried about it.
‘But we made it work. We made it possible and we implemented it. Very few people thought it would be implemented on both sides. Very few Iranians believed that sanctions would be removed—at least they have been removed on paper. I hope they will be removed in practice too.
‘If we see this as a positive sum perspective then any effort that is put in by the United States in compliance with its commitment, even though it may not derive an immediate economic benefit from it, is an insurance policy for the agreement and if they see it that way it will become a truly gainful exercise rather than a lose-win situation.’
Iran believes that it is possible to apply this positive approach to the problems of the Middle East with some chance of success. With the myriad of conflicts stemming from the Shia-Sunni conflict across Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain with hundreds of thousands already dead, five million internally displaced and 11 months of senseless bombardment in Yemen, is it possible to look at it from a non-zero-sum perspective? Is it still possible for us to seek accommodation rather than exclusion?
‘We do not believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia need to define their interests in the region as mutually exclusive unless we decide to do so ourselves,’ said Zarif, adding that if the situation in the region is approached from the Saudi perspective —that is for Iran not to be a participant—then you cannot have accommodation because that’s a zero-sum perspective.
‘But if you have serious interests there are a lot of negatives that can bind us together right now. I believe ISIS—as much as some may consider it a bargaining chip, a leverage, is a disastrous enemy for everybody. That is something that can unite us all—an enemy we can all see our interests enshrined to contain and to hopefully eradicate soon… there are a lot of other possibilities for co-operation in the Persian Gulf where common principles can bind us.
‘We all need a free flow of oil, freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf—that’s a common good that binds us together. We all need security and prosperity in the region.’
Looked at from this perspective we can see that ‘other issues that seem to be impossible, hurdles that we thought were insurmountable will become targets for collective achievement.
‘I think that in that change of paradigm which is necessary for our global community we need to understand that although people may differ, we can resolve difficult issues through diplomacy.’
If Iran could resolve its differences after 37 years of estrangement from the United States, ‘we can certainly resolve it with people we call brothers and sisters.
‘And that will only require us to change our paradigm. I believe that is doable and the people of Iran are prepared to do it sooner rather than later.’