October 27, 2016

Iran calls for concerted international effort to beat Isis and end Syrian war

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, writing for the Guardian, says global powers must join together to win ‘existential battle’ against extremists

Iran has called on the US and Britain to “join hands” with Tehran in a common effort to defeat Islamic State and end the war in Syria.

In an intervention that will boost the chances of success of Friday’s UN security council talks on Syria, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, pledged support for a “concerted international effort” to win what he says has become a globally significant “existential battle”.

“All must join hands to put into effect an immediate end to the bloodshed and vigorously focus on promoting an inclusive intra-Syrian political process, bringing together all Syrians,” Zarif writes in an opinion piece published by the Guardian. “We must close ranks in the fight against extremist violence and terror, while abstaining from letting rage come in the way of necessary collective reflection and wisdom for a rational and joint response.”

Zarif says the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), a panel of western and regional countries overseeing the peace process Iran was recently invited to join, has a crucial, collective role in ending the scourges of war and terrorism.

“Make no mistake: for the past four years, Syria has been ground zero in nothing short of a paramount fight for our future. I say ‘our’ – repeating the theme of a recent message by [Iran’s supreme leader] Ayatollah Khamenei, who called the menace of perverted extremism ‘our common worry’ – because the world’s fate is common,” he said. “No one is immune from the consequences of the outcome of the existential battle that we need to fight.”

Zarif’s offer to join forces with the west comes at a critical moment: the UN and the ISGG member countries meet in New York in a bid to meet the 1 January deadline, set in Vienna last month, for beginning direct, formal talks between the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and opposition groups.

Iran, with Russia, is Assad’s main backer, and has long maintained that only the Syrian people should decide how long he continues in power. The US and Britain, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, and the main opposition parties insist Assad must step aside as part of a phased transition to a new national unity government.

In his remarks Zarif makes no mention of Assad, who is accused of killing tens of thousands of his people during nearly five years of bloody civil war, nor does he repeat Iran’s previous insistence that the Syrian leader must remain in office pending new elections. Instead, he calls for an immediate ceasefire without preconditions.

What is needed urgently, he writes, is “dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition groups who reject terrorism, a concerted and genuine international effort to uproot extremist violence, and a global campaign to address the humanitarian catastrophe now, and to rebuild Syria once the flames of war subside”.

Iran has sent Revolutionary Guard troops and armed militia from its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, to fight alongside Assad’s army. But recent reports in the US have suggested it has begun to pull back its forces and may be reducing its overall military involvement as the peace process picks up speed.

Although it is unclear what Zarif means in practice by “joining hands”, his remarks suggest Iran may be open in future to cooperation on the ground on security issues in Syria as well as on political and diplomatic considerations.

His offer will also encourage those in Barack Obama’s administration who argued, against Israeli objections, that resolving the nuclear dispute could lead to a broader rapprochement with Iran, resulting in Tehran playing a more constructive, collaborative role in regional affairs.

Shia Iran has a shared interest with the US and Britain in combatting Sunni extremism, restoring stability, and “shaping the peace” in post-war Syria and Iraq.

In a sign of an emerging geopolitical alignment, Zarif’s call for concerted international action against Isis echoes calls made by François Hollande, the French president, after the 13 November Paris terror attacks, and the US and Russian presidents.

At the same time, Iran remains strongly opposed to additional western military intervention in the region and is fighting a de-facto proxy war with the Gulf states in Yemen.

Zarif is fiercely critical of the post-9/11 US “war on terror”, which he says allowed terrorist gangs like al-Qaida and Isis to dictate the agenda and the response, and of the influence of Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies.

“What happened in New York that fateful September morning 14 years ago, and the response, is directly linked to the tragedies in Paris, Beirut and San Bernardino during the last few weeks. Despite its immense cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and over $4tn dollars, the so-called war on terror has failed to achieve its purported objective,” Zarif writes.

After this week’s announcement by Saudi Arabia of a multinational Muslim anti-terror coalition, Zarif indirectly accuses the Saudi regime of being a principal sponsor of Sunni extremism and of undermining the Syrian peace talks by backing hardline Salafist groups.

The “hooded villains” responsible for Paris and similar outrages were “all radicalised by demagogues preaching the same petro-fuelled perversion of Islam”, Zarif says pointedly.

Zarif is a popular figure in Iran who is widely credited with securing this year’s landmark nuclear agreement with the west, and is spoken of as a possible future president. He is closely associated with the current reform-minded president, Hassan Rouhani. Both men are under pressure from conservative factions suspicious of increased engagement with the west.

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