Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is on a bit of a US diplomacy tour as the talks over a nuclear deal enter what is presumably their home stretch. Ten days ago he wrote an editorial for The New York Times, in which he expressed Iran’s desire for intra-regional dialogue on matters of security and diplomacy:
Iranian foreign policy is holistic in nature. This is not due to habit or preference, but because globalization has rendered all alternatives obsolete. Nothing in international politics functions in a vacuum. Security cannot be pursued at the expense of the insecurity of others. No nation can achieve its interests without considering the interests of others.
Nowhere are these dynamics more evident than in the wider Persian Gulf region. We need a sober assessment of the complex and intertwined realities here, and consistent policies to deal with them. The fight against terror is a case in point.
One cannot confront Al Qaeda and its ideological siblings, such as the so-called Islamic State, which is neither Islamic nor a state, in Iraq, while effectively enabling their growth in Yemen and Syria.
There are multiple arenas where the interests of Iran and other major stakeholders intersect. The establishment of a collective forum for dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, to facilitate engagement, is long overdue.
If one were to begin serious discussion of the calamities the region faces, Yemen would be a good place to start. Iran has offered a reasonable and practical approach to address this painful and unnecessary crisis. Our plan calls for an immediate cease-fire, humanitarian assistance and facilitation of intra-Yemeni dialogue, leading to the formation of an inclusive, broad-based national unity government.
On a broader level, regional dialogue should be based on generally recognized principles and shared objectives, notably respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all states; inviolability of international boundaries; noninterference in internal affairs; peaceful settlement of disputes; impermissibility of threat or use of force; and promotion of peace, stability, progress and prosperity in the region.
In response to his editorial, Middle East Institute VP Paul Salem (who I’ve been on TV with and like, full disclosure) penned a reasonable but biting piece today at MEI’s website:
Zarif correctly proposes that
regional dialogue should be based on generally recognized principles and shared objectives, notably respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all states; inviolability of international boundaries; noninterference in internal affairs; peaceful settlement of disputes; impermissibility of threat or use of force; and promotion of peace, stability, progress and prosperity in the region.
Yet Iran is violating most of these principles in a large number of Arab countries. It arms and finances Hezbollah in Lebanon, arms and finances militias in Iraq, has sent its own military commanders and proxy militias to aid Assad in the barbaric opposite of “peaceful settlement of disputes” with his own population, and has sent money and arms to the Houthi militia in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza, and other groups elsewhere.
This is not to say that Arab states have not interfered in the affairs of other Arab countries, but two things bear saying. First, as far as I know, no Arab countries are currently violating Iran’s sovereignty or interfering in its internal affairs. Second, Arab actions even in the Arab world have been largely reactive and at a lower level. The Gulf states originally stood by Assad, but were pushed to act after his regime, backed by Iran and Hezbollah, turned its full military might against its own population. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia acted only after the Iranian-backed Houthi movement had overrun the Yemeni capital and was moving to occupy the second capital, Aden. And no Arab state has anything like the full standing proxy army of Hezbollah, which not only violates Lebanese sovereignty but violates Syrian sovereignty as well. In a stable regional order, all states would cease their interference.
This is how you respond to an important figure who’s playing fast and loose with the truth. The extent of Iran’s support for the Houthis is a bit of an open question, and if the Gulf states “originally stood by Assad,” they jumped off that bandwagon pretty much as soon as things began to turn violent, but mostly Salem is right: Iran plays around in other countries to a degree that none of its Arab rivals have matched (the Saudis prefer to buy support without directly mixing it up in other countries). Now, you can counter that Iran is actively involved in Syria and Iraq at the invitations of the governments of both of those countries, but you still have to explain why Iran was cultivating Shiʿa militias in Iraq before ISIS surged into Mosul and terrified everybody, and why it’s been backing Hezbollah for going on 30 years now. If Zarif (who admittedly doesn’t oversee and couldn’t stop Iranian involvement with Hezbollah or the Iraqi militias if he wanted to) wants a regional dialogue based on mutual respect between nations, the path toward that goal starts at home.
Then, yesterday, Zarif did a Q and A session at NYU, during which he discussed points of disagreement in the nuclear framework as well as other topics (his response when asked about the imprisonment of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, for example, was particularly ridiculous). When asked about dealing with Iranian hard-liners, he turned the topic toward our own American hard-liners, and got a little poke at one in particular:
Zarif reserved special mention for Senator Tom Cotton, who has led the Senate Republican effort to gain a role in talks with Iran. At one point, Zarif walked the audience through how he believed the sanctions against Iran would be lifted: first an agreement would be signed, then the Security Council would approve it, and then, if that happened, he said, the United States would be legally bound to lift the sanctions—“whether Senator Cotton likes it or not.”
OK, that’s a bit of a cheap shot designed to get a laugh out of that particular crowd. But then somebody told Cotton about it, and he proceeded to respond like a stunted man-child who missed his afternoon nap:
The junior Republican from Arkansas — one of the main opponents to a nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran — dared Javad Zarif on Twitter to meet him in Washington “to debate Iran’s record of tyranny, treachery, & terror” after the foreign minister called Cotton out.
In remarks at New York University on Wednesday, Zarif appeared to imply that the senator had little sway over the outcome of a nuclear deal and if one is reached sanctions would be lifted by United Nations member states “whether Sen. Cotton likes it or not.”
Cotton responded shortly after on Twitter, issuing the challenge but saying he would understand if the foreign minister declined because Zarif’s decision to “hide” in the U.S. during the Iran-Iraq war showed “cowardly character.”
This is a United States Senator, one of the most powerful legislators in the most powerful nation on Earth, basically telling the foreign minister of Iran that the Jerk Store called. It’s far beneath anything worthy of the supposed dignity of the Senate or the appropriate manner of conducting diplomatic exchange. Zarif needled Cotton and Cotton responded by going to Defcon Petulant Baby. And to add insult to injury, he allowed Zarif to look magnanimous in contrast:
Tom Cotton’s act may play fantastically with the Eternal War bloc and the rubes back home, but we better hope he never gets any closer to actual American foreign policy than “Shitkicking Back-Bench Senator from Arkansas.”