Iran’s point man on the Middle East speaks his mind
Iran’s point man on the Middle East series by Hossein Jelveh
(You can follow Hossein Jelveh on Twitter @hossein_jelveh)
“To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy.” That oft-quoted but mischievous characterization of diplomacy and diplomats by American writer and historian Will Durant has a counterexample in Hossein Jaberi Ansari, a top aide to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.
In his official capacity as Senior Assistant to the Iranian Foreign Minister on Special Political Affairs, Mr. Jaberi Ansari is Iran’s point man on the world’s most troubled regions: the Middle East and North Africa.
I met Mr. Jaberi Ansari on the crisp morning of October 10 at his office in the Iranian Foreign Ministry — a constellation of historical buildings located at the site of Tehran’s Moozey-e Bagh Melli, or National Garden Museum, and its adjacent areas — for an interview on behalf of Press TV’s English-language website.
Mr. Jaberi Ansari isn’t the tight-lipped, or ambiguously-speaking, diplomat Durant may have had in mind. He speaks his mind liberally, articulately — oratorically if need be — and can be unsparing. When speaking about the world’s most critical matters, he puts his vocal inflection to perfect use, and I use the word “perfect” advisedly.
He is also fluent in Arabic and is, of course, an avid reader.
But above all, he is deeply analytical, and fiercely opposed to any thinking that is linear. He fuses diplomatic speech with deep perspective — a very rare practice by high-profile diplomats assigned to sensitive posts. No wonder his diplomatic speech doesn’t sound typically diplomatic. (Off the record, he told me he is as constrained as any diplomat anywhere in the world by the natural obligations of the job — most famously strict and perhaps even robotic adherence to the official line — but conveys his analytical perspective nevertheless — a “duality,” in his words, that can sometimes physically drain him.)
I was scheduled by Mr. Jaberi Ansari’s Office to conduct the interview in a matter of one hour, with a “maximum” injury time of 20 minutes.
But our conversation — mainly on Syria but also on Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Russia, Turkey, and even the Iran deal — took us more than three hours and 15 minutes — almost two hours and 10 minutes of it on the record.
This is a preview of, mainly, what was asked. (See “Notice” further below.) Mr. Jaberi Ansari doesn’t waste his words. The length of the interview pales by comparison to its weight. And at no point during the interview did he hedge.
When I asked him whether Iran considered all armed groups in Syria as “terrorist” groups, as the Syrian government and state media do in rhetoric at least, he said certain differentiations “shall be” made. He explained in full detail. And he seemed to have some advice for Damascus.
After years of war and the wounds it has caused, will the Syrian people be able to find peace in and among themselves? And I tried to be clear: at least some of the Syrian people think foreigners may be making decisions for them. He was straightforward: all foreign efforts toward peace will fail without a decision by the Syrian nation and government to return to the pre-war status.
Is peace on the horizon? He offered no illusions of an imminent — or easy — peace.
“The wounds that wars inflict will not easily go away,” he said. “But nations learn, through [first-hand] experience, that in spite of all the wounds and the pains […], they need to […] step on a new path.”
Still, he said, even the end of war would not mean the advent of peace.
Will it happen? I pressed him. He was candid: “Neither the [Syrian] government, nor the opposition, nor the guarantor states in the Astana [peace] process [for Syria], nor the United Nations has a magic wand to waive to […] resolve matters.”
“What has to happen is for these processes [toward bringing about peace] to be established and facilitated and to get underway.”
When he spoke about the progress that had been made toward ending hostilities in Syria, progress that he said was significant but far from adequate, I sensed a chilling warning: all progress could be undone if proper care was not taken by all sides.
For the people involved in war and peace, I could clearly feel, both were complicated matters.
What is going on in Idlib, the Syrian province where armed groups from all over Syria have been bused to? Idlib, he told me, is the epitome of the complexities of the Syrian war. There is a considerable civilian population in the Syrian province but it is also the “concentration point” of armed and terrorist groups, he said.
Again, there is no silver bullet; but there is a solution, he said, and went on to explain it.
When I asked him if Iran’s relations with Turkey, particularly cooperation on the Syrian issue, had solid foundations, given that Ankara turned to the Astana process only after it faced a deadlock with the United States toward the end of President Obama’s term, Mr. Jaberi Ansari went on to explain, in good detail, a range of political developments that had prompted a change of course in Turkish foreign policy.
One development, he said, was the failure of Mr. Erdogan’s “Plan A” for Turkey’s periphery.
“Another […] was that Ankara saw [for itself] that those governments that were on its side in the spurious Shia-Sunni alignment became the main anti-Turkey force with their real actions.”
He explained how Turkey’s game had to be seen through the prism of all of those developments.
As a testament to his analytical thinking, Mr. Jaberi Ansari repeatedly emphasized — and tried to depict — “the big picture.” He stressed, at more than one point during the interview, that in thinking about “complex political phenomena,” “excessive simplifications” were errors that would skew final analyses.
He was also clear-eyed, and candid, about Iran’s relations with Turkey and Russia, and other regional powers, including even Saudi Arabia. Iran and such countries were involved in a “competition” — an absolutely “normal and healthy matter” in the real political world, he said, stressing however that Iran would always take care not to turn that competition into “confrontation.”
But he also had very sharp words for Riyadh; and regarding the Saudi war on Yemen, he had some information never disclosed before. Still, he stressed once again that Iran was not after a win-lose game even with Saudi Arabia, an admittedly “regional power.”
There were more questions, and answers, in the interview. My most important question was for Mr. Jaberi Ansari to offer a clear explanation of the nature of Iran’s partnership with Russia. He had fresh insight there.
For the latter two topics, as well as other ones not mentioned here, Press TV’s website will be publishing individual news articles, covering individual sections of the interview by topic in full length, as part of a series titled “Iran’s point man on the Middle East.”
A full transcript will be posted lastly; and although lengthy, it will be replete with information not published in the previous posts.
Notice: While this preview includes the main questions that were asked, and parts of the answers that were given, it does not include the main answers, reserving them for the individual news articles and the final transcript. As such, this preview does not even scratch the surface.
Very shortly, you will be able to read the first article in the series: Massacre in Syria’s Idlib is Iran’s red line.
But the website is releasing no definitive publication timetable for the rest of the content. So, please check back regularly throughout the next fortnight for groundbreaking information and insight from Iran’s point man on the Middle East.