Iran minister: Neither Iran nor Saudis can dominate Mideast

NEW YORK (AP) — Iran’s foreign minister said Monday that neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia can be the dominant power in the Middle East and what’s needed most is for countries in the Persian Gulf region to talk to each other — not about each other.

Mohammad Javad Zarif said, “In an attempt to be the strongest in the region, to exclude one another from the region, we have managed to destroy the region.”

He told the Council on Foreign Relations that there is “a dire need for change” and “Iran is ready for it because we are big enough, old enough, mature enough to appreciate this reality.”

Zarif expressed hope that Iran’s neighbors, with help from other governments, can also appreciate the fact that “none of us can become the new hegemon” in the region.

He called for a new “regional dialogue forum” that would include five Gulf Cooperation Council countries along with Iran, Iraq and Yemen. And he urged the others to embark with Tehran on a transformation of the Middle East.

Zarif’s comments followed the annual Arab League summit on April 15 where Saudi Arabia used its position as host to push for a unified stance by the 22-nation bloc against Iran, blaming Tehran for instability and meddling in the region.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in proxy conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and they also back opposing groups in Lebanon, Bahrain and Iraq.

Zarif told an audience of several hundred at the Council on Foreign Relations that “our neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, want to create an impression that we are an existential threat against them.”

He said that was “one of the most important messages” of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent two-week tour of the United States.

The Trump administration signed off on the sale of more than $1.3 billion in artillery to Saudi Arabia during his visit. And, Zarif said, other neighbors are coming to the U.S. “to compete with one another in buying more weapons in order to attract support and help against the other neighbor who’s also buying millions in the region.”

But “security cannot be purchased,” he said, saying it requires “understanding in the region.”

“And something which is most important to realize, the era of hegemonic influence is long gone,” Zarif said. “Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia can be the hegemons of the region. That’s a fact.”

Zarif said Iran believes the region is suffering from “a dialogue deficit” and that’s why it has suggested creating “a regional dialogue forum.”

It should include Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates — and probably Yemen, the Iranian minister said.

He said there is already a basis for this in a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in 1987 during the Iran-Iraq war that was never implemented. It called for the secretary-general to examine and consult with countries in the region on “measures to enhance the security and stability of the region.”

Zarif said countries in the region need to stop talking about exclusion and enemies.

To join the forum, he said, they should agree on a number of principles: the inviolability of borders, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, and non-intervention in each other’s internal affairs.

In addition to the “dialogue deficit,” Zarif said there is also “a confidence deficit.”

He said the Persian Gulf countries not only need to start talking but to work on confidence-building measures.

Zarif suggested joint task forces on issues ranging from nuclear safety because “very soon” there will be a growing number of nuclear reactors on the Persian Gulf coast to tourism, cultural exchanges, women’s empowerment and democratic processes.

“We need to have a strong region,” he said, “not to be the strongest in the region.”

Unless this transformation takes place, Zarif warned that no matter how many weapons the United States sells to countries in the region, “at the end of the day the cost for the United States will be much higher than the profits made by the weapons sold.”