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November 1, 2021 Special Dispatch No. 9621

Fmr. Iranian Diplomat Mohammad-Qasem Mohebbali: Iran Causes Instability In The Middle East And Cannot Provide Any Plausible Reason For Its Uranium Enrichment, Which Leads Rivals To Conclude It Is Developing Nuclear Weapons; There Is No Alternative To The JCPOA; The American Plan B Could Be War

November 1, 2021
Iran | Special Dispatch No. 9621

The following report is a complimentary offering from the MEMRI Iran Threat Monitor Project (ITMP). For more information, write to [email protected] with "ITMP Subscription" in the subject line. 

On October 14, 2021, the Iranian website Didarnews.ir posted an interview with Mohammad-Qasem Mohebbali, who has served as Iran's Ambassador to Malaysia and Greece and as the director of Middle East and North African affairs in Iran's foreign ministry. Ambassador Mohebbali said that 40 years of economic sanctions have crippled Iranian economy and have left the country very far behind other countries in the region in terms of economic growth. Mohebbali then discussed the issue of Palestine, which he said has "paved the road" to many of the crises in the Middle East, such as Islamic extremism. He said that Iran has been a key player in making the Palestine issue a central issue in the Middle East, and he explained that Iran adopted the "slogans" of the Palestine issue as part of an attempt to align with Arab countries during the Iran-Iraq War and to prevent the Iran-Iraq War from becoming a war between Iran and the Arab world.

He elaborated that Iran, many of the Arab regimes, and Iranian allies like Hizbullah have all had no interest in liberating Palestine because they benefit politically from the issue being prolonged. Mohebbali later said that support by Iran and its proxies for Arab governments led by ethnic minorities, such as the regimes in Syria and Yemen, has a negative impact on Iran's relations in the region, and he said that political development and democracy in the Middle East would greatly benefit Iran and would improve these relations. He reflected that Iran should not have caused instability in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Later in the interview, Mohebbali said that Iran's policies since 2017 have not taken the national interests into account. He argued that Iran should have ensured that the JCPOA was an agreement between Iran and the United States rather than between Iran and President Obama, and he expressed his opinion that Iran's current government lacks the experience to successfully negotiate with the "giants" on the other side of the negotiations table. He argued that Iran's economy is being "held hostage" by its foreign policy, which in turn is being held hostage by the JCPOA and Iran's regional policies.

He said that any alternative to the JCPOA would be a step towards war with the United States because the U.S. military considers the development of Iranian nuclear weapons to be an important threat. In addition, he pointed out that even though Iran's official policy is that nuclear weapons are prohibited for religious reasons, it is natural for Iran's opponents to conclude that there could be no other purpose for Iran's uranium enrichment efforts other than for nuclear weapons, since Iran has no nuclear power plants or nuclear submarines. Mohebbali added that Iran had initially agreed to the JCPOA because it was in dire straits, and that he fears that Iran's current government will do the same, rather than act out of "wise policy."

To view the clip of former Iranian diplomat Mohammad-Qasem Mohebbali on MEMRI TV, click here or below.

"[Iran Is] At Odds With Today's World[;] We Do Not Play A Significant Role In The [Global] Economy... Some Of Are Policies Were, And Still Are, At Odds With International Processes"

Interviewer: "Qasem Mohebbali is the 11th guest of our show, Diplomat. He was Iran's Ambassador to Malaysia and to Greece, and served also in the Foreign Ministry as general director of Middle East and North Africa affairs. Although he spent many years working at the diplomatic scene, Mohebbali is one of the serious critics of our country's foreign policy."

Mohammad-Qasem Mohebbali: "It is only natural that there is a rivalry between China and America over who will be the number one power in the world.

[...]

"In today's world, everybody is competing with one another over who will be first. The Americans are worried that the Chinese will acquire cutting-edge, hi-tech capabilities, and will become the center of the world."

Host: "Where do with stand with regard to this conflict?"

Mohebbali: "I must say that our position is not that clear. For over four decades, we have taken ourselves out of the scene where all of this takes place. We are at the margins of today's world. Furthermore, we are at odds with today's world.

[...]

"We do not play a significant role in the [global] economy. The sanctions have pulled us out of the scene. Some of our policies were, and still are, at odds with the international processes.

[...]

"In 1980, Iran's economy was the third or fourth [largest] in Asia. Today, it is the 12th or 13th [largest] economy in Asia. Back then, Iran's economy was worth $100-110 billion. China's economy was worth $300 billion, India's economy $90 billion, Turkey's economy $45 billion, and South Korea's economy $50 billion.

"Currently, China's economy is worth over $16 trillion, India's over $3 trillion, South Korea almost $2 trillion, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia almost $900 billion. Our economy is worth $400 billion. This shows you that in the competition that was going on in the world, they have made significant headway.

[...]

The Middle East Cannot Move Towards Calm "As Long As Iran Is Unable To Define Its Relations With The Region – As Well As With The World – On The Basis Of Peace, Stability, Development... And Striking Constructive Ties With The World."

"Nobody expects the Middle East to move towards calm, unless a series of developments takes place, and some of these developments have to do with Iran. Iran is a key player in the Middle East.

"As long as Iran is unable to define its relations with the region – as well as with the world – on the basis of peace, stability, development, confidence-building, and striking constructive ties with the world... This is part of the deal.

"I've already said that Palestine is one of the issues that have paved the road to many of the crises. The extremist movements in the Middle East have emerged mainly because of the Palestine crisis.

"The Islamists, the extremists, and even the superpowers have used the slogans of the Palestinian cause and the liberation of Palestine as a pretext to engage in internal oppression and [to advance] their regional policy. Gamal Abdel Nasser, Colonel Qadhafi, Saddam Hussein, Hafez Al-Assad, and the Islamic Republic have all used this pretext to advance their policies.

[...]

"Iran is at the center of this. As long as the conflicts continue to engulf the axis of our relations with the West and the axis of our relations with the countries of the Middle East and Israel, one cannot expect the Middle East to move towards calm, and more importantly, towards the development of wellbeing of the people.

[...]

"After the Revolution, there was the issue of exporting the Revolution to the neighboring countries in the Middle East. Then there was the issue of Iran's relations with... Or rather, Iran's revolutionary-based foreign policy. This was mainly in the early years, and to some extent, continued during our war [with Iraq].

"[Setting] The Liberation Of Palestine And The Annihilation Of Israel As The Slogans Of [Iran's] Middle East Policy" Helped Prevent An Arab-Iranian War

"The rise of the issue of Palestine resulted in part from the [desire] to emerge from the crisis of fighting an Arab country [Iraq]. Some of Iraq's rivals in the Arab world – Syria and Libya for example – really helped us to prevent the war from becoming an Arab-Iranian war. One of the issues that helped us, naturally, was to set the liberation of Palestine and the annihilation of Israel as the slogans of our Middle East policy – as if we were not really fighting Iraq. We used to call it 'Iraq's Zionist Baath regime.'

\

[...]

"Arafat said in public, as well as in a meeting with me, that the Arab governments use the pretext of Palestine to advance their regional and domestic policies, and that their goal is not to liberate Palestine, because they benefit from the Palestinian crisis and from prolonging it."

Interviewer: "Are we also like that?"

Mohebbali: "I cannot say for certain that we are not.

[...]

"In Syria, we support Assad's minority regime – 12-13% [of the population]. In Lebanon, we support a sect that makes up less than 35% [of the population]. In Yemen, we support the Zaidi sect that makes up 40% [of the population]. In Bahrain, where there is a Shi'ite majority, the rulers are Sunni. I must say here that for Iran – and even for the Islamic Republic... A Middle East that advances towards political development and democracy would greatly benefit Iran, because most [Arab] regimes will have better relations with Iran – especially the regimes on the southern margins of the Persian Gulf.

"If you look at our current Middle East policy – with the resistance axis [as its mainstay] – it is based mostly on the Shi'ite or Alawite sects.

"This has caused a rift in the region. This rift is not only about the conflict between Iran and Israel. It has caused a new conflict with the Arab world.

[...]

"The so-called resistance axis may have some success. In places where there are crises, but as soon as the governments in those countries stabilize, they will naturally view this as interference in their internal affairs.

[...]

Hizbullah "Uses Israel As A Pretext" To "Justify Its Weapons[;] Otherwise There Is No Need For Any Group, In Any Country, To Keep Its Weapons"

"We supported Bashar Al-Assad out of fear that if he would fall, it would spell trouble for Hizbullah in Lebanon.

[...]

"We supported Al-Assad so he would not fall. When we entered Syria, ISIS and A-Qaeda had no presence [there]. Following what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, people in Syria, having faced a regime that had ruled them for over 40 years – Hafez Al-Assad and then Bashar Al-Assad – an oppressive, corrupt, minority, family-ruled regime... The data from that period shows that at least 70,000 people disappeared in Syrian prisons, and nobody knows what happened to them.

[...]

"Hizbullah also uses Israel as a pretext. Ultimately, Hizbullah needs to justify its weapons. Otherwise, there is no need for any group, in any country, to keep its own weapons. Would we accept it, for example, if the Sunnis in Iran kept their own militia?

[...]

The U.S. Pulled Out Of Afghanistan Because It Has "Bigger Things On [Its] Plate"; "People [In Iran] Entertained The Illusion That All The Americans Wanted Was To Come And Conquer The [Middle East] Region"

"It was perfectly clear that the Americans accepts the idea that they would be replaced by the Taliban.

[...]

"The U.S. government had to pull out of Afghanistan, because they have bigger things on their plate: China and Russia. More specifically, it can be said that the U.S. administration identified China, Russia, and rogue countries like North Korea and Iran, as threats, whereas the Taliban does not constitute a threat [to the U.S.].

[...]

"Iran's problem is that it failed to realize and internalize this transformation in Afghanistan, that peace was being made and America was leaving. Iran did not think that America... People here entertained the illusion that all the Americans wanted was to come and conquer the region, and stuff like that.

[...]

"I believe that mainly in the past three years, since 2017, Iranian policy has not taken into account the national interests of Iran. Why? Due to a greater crisis, because Iran thought it must fight America, and cause instability both in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though the current regime in Iraq is the product of the cooperation between Iran and America.

"Prior to these developments, Iraq had always been ruled by the Sunni minority. For the first time since Iraq's independence, most of the power is held by the Prime Minister, who is a Shi'ite. The Kurds, who are Iran's natural allies, and who had no share in the division of power following Iraq's independence, have now received the second most significant position, and the Sunnis are in third place, which is entirely in Iran's favor.

[...]

"So we should not have caused instability against this structure [in Iraq], just like we should not have done so in Afghanistan.

[...]

"Iran's Economy Is Held Hostage By Its Foreign Policy"; Unless It Is Freed, "Iranian Society Will Not Move Toward Calm And Development"

"Iran should have invested efforts to turn [the JCPOA] into an agreement between Iran and America, rather than an agreement between Obama and Iran. Things have happened here too. People said that the JCPOA was a complete disaster, that it constituted treason... All the things that were inscribed on the missiles... Iran's operations in the Middle East were intensified after the JCPOA.

[...]

"Since the foreign and Middle East policies are not within the government's jurisdiction, the [Rouhani] government could not protect the JCPOA.

[...]

"In light of all that has happened, do you think that the new Raisi government will be... As I said, I cannot say that I am very optimistic, for two reasons. First, the people who make up the current government have all been enemies of the JCPOA. Second, the experience and diplomatic ability required to negotiate with the giants on the other side, who have extensive experience...

[...]

"In my opinion, the [Iranian] team facing them is very lacking.

[...]

"Even if the [Iranian team] enters the negotiations – and they lack any motivation to do so, having spoken for years against the negotiations...

[...]

"Is anyone crazy enough to conduct negotiations with no results – negotiations for the sake of negotiations? Would any envoy carry out such an assignment?

[...]

"This is meaningless. Negotiations are based on give and take.

[...]

"The economic situation in Iran is not good. The domestic situation in Iran is not good. Iran's economy is held hostage by its foreign policy, and our foreign policy is held hostage by the JCPOA and by our regional policy.

"As long as we are unable to free our foreign policy from the grip of those two hijackers, and free our economy and domestic policy from the grip of our foreign policy, Iranian society will not move toward calm and development.

\

[...]

"The Only Alternative [To The JCPOA] Is For Iran To Move Towards Becoming A Nuclear [Power]... It Is Possible That [The Americans'] Plan B Would Be War"

"One cannot imagine any alternative to the JCPOA. The only alternative is for Iran to move towards becoming a nuclear [power]. On the other hand, there is a possibility that a war would break out, you see? It is possible that their plan B would be war. I am not saying that they are definitely interested in war. They might impose wider sanctions and shut Iran down. A war is not really necessary, after all. Obviously, the Operation Order of the American military specifically cites the movement of any enemy or potential enemy of the U.S. towards the production of nuclear weapons as tantamount to movement towards war with the U.S.

[...]

"The alternative to the JCPOA is movement towards war, and on the other side, it is movement towards the building of a (nuclear) bomb. I believe that apart from the official policy [against] the production of a bomb... It was declared explicitly that there is a religious prohibition to hold, produce, or use [a nuclear weapon]... However, there is a misunderstanding and Iran may have no other choice.

"When Iran enriches uranium and raises the level of enrichment – what is this enriched uranium meant for?

"We do not have [nuclear] power plants, we do not have nuclear submarines... Some kind of usage is needed so that the other side could make sense of this. What is this usage? The threat to produce a [nuclear] bomb, which can, at the very least, be used as [leverage] in the negotiations. This requires time. How much time? In light of the game played by the other side, not a short time. What will happen during this time? The Iranian economy will face more crises: Inflation, unemployment, public health, foreign currency rates, cash flow... All these elements will create pressure.

"When toward the end of its term, the Ahmadinejad government was faced with the possibility of being unable to pay salaries to government employees, the JCPOA turned into a necessity. It turned into 'heroic flexibility.' It is possible that now, again, the acceptance of the JCPOA and the return to the negotiations will not be the result of wise policy but the outcome of (certain) constraints. I am worried that it will happen as a result of constraints."

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