Politics & Policy

Hoshyar Zebari, On The Record

The mind and deeds of the Iraqi foreign minister.

EDITOR’S NOTE: On May 22, Jay Nordlinger interviewed the foreign minister of Iraq, Hoshyar Zebari, at a conference of the World Economic Forum in Jordan. Excerpts from the below Q&A appear in the current National Review.

Where were you born?

In Aqra, in Kurdistan.

What did your father do?

He was a tribal chief, and member of parliament, in the 1950s. This was during the monarchy.

What languages do you speak?

Kurdish, my mother tongue. And Arabic, English, and Parsi.

You studied here in Jordan, didn’t you? At the university in Amman.

I was hosted here by the late King Hussein, on a special scholarship arrangement. He gave us a scholarship in 1972, and I finished my undergraduate studies in Jordan, concentrating on sociology and political science. [“Us” refers to Zebari and three other young Kurdish political activists.]

I was unable to finish my studies in Baghdad, in Iraq, because there was clear-cut discrimination against Kurds, or politically active Kurds, let’s say. There was a ban for me, really.

The late General Barzani, the famous Kurdish leader, had some good contacts with the late King Hussein, and in one of their meetings, they agreed that, in desperate cases, we could study in Amman.

But we came here undercover! Our deep cover was that we were Iranian, and the reason we spoke Arabic so well was that we were from Arabistan, in southern Iran, the province that speaks Arabic, like Iraqis.

In Iraq, the Baathists had arrested me, and put me in one of the most notorious jails in Iraqi history. It was called “the Palace of the End,” because if you went in there, that was the end for you–there was no coming out. It was notorious, in terms of torture.

My years in Jordan gave me a good sense of Middle Eastern politics. There was the Palestinian question, and the Yom Kippur War, and the tensions between Arab nationalists, communists, established rulers, and so on.

Did you ever think you would be foreign minister of Iraq?

I thought only recently that we could do it–actually, it was in 2000. I played a major role in influencing Kurdish policy, in getting it to change direction. The question was, Which is better for us? To have a very small, limited Kurdish agenda, which cares only for our areas, our needs, or to embrace an Iraqi national policy? If they could accept this, the future after Saddam would be democratic. And a democratic government means equal citizenship, no more discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or whatever, free competition, people judged on their merits, not on their associations or affiliations, and so on. We said to the Kurdish leadership, “We must look beyond ourselves to the bigger picture.”

This was not a risk-free project, but leaders have to make calculations.

After September 11th, we won the argument, within the Kurdish leadership. We said, “This is feasible, this is doable [a united and democratic Iraq].” By then, the Kurdish region had flourished, had stabilized. It was outside Saddam’s control, and we were protected by the no-fly zone, and fed and looked after by the Oil for Food program. Our general influence was limited, however, because we were held hostage to Turkish, Iranian, and Syrian policies. So, we wanted to break that. We wanted to look beyond our mountains, to Baghdad, instead of claiming this part or that part, this territory or that territory. We said, “Let’s go for the big prize. Let’s play a role in a new, whole Iraq.”

The line we keep hearing is, “Everybody’s rooting for the new Iraq, no matter what we might have thought about the war.” That’s not true, is it?

Iraq’s recovery from its current difficulties may not be a good sign for many countries in the region–countries that have been accustomed to dealing with an Iraq that is not prosperous, and not democratic. Baghdad used to be the center of the establishment: The major scholars, scientists, writers, came out of Baghdad, in the old days. Iraq is a powerful country, central to the entire Middle East. It is a balancing country, in a way. And it has resources, including money. If those resources were put to good use, Iraq would emerge as a very, very successful country–the most successful of all. Others benefited from the old situation: from Saddam and all the disaster he meant for us.

Look at the state of the country, where we are now . . .

When I came to Jordan, in 1972, we in Iraq had six universities, and very well known. These graduated many of the Arab elites, from the Gulf, Jordan, and elsewhere. I came here to study medicine–there was one university, and it was not complete. They did not have a medical college. Amman, compared with Baghdad, was a village. But look now, at Amman and at Baghdad. What does that tell you? Good governance: What does it mean?

Saddam squandered our wealth, on his grandeur, his ideological objectives–and Jordan succeeded where Iraq failed.

Lakhdar Brahimi [of the U.N.] refers to the insurgency you’re facing as a “resistance”–a resistance, moreover, some of whose “aspects” are “very legitimate.” Your response?

We were in the resistance, against Saddam Hussein. I personally was–I was a member of the resistance in the early ’80s, opposed to Saddam Hussein. At the time, nobody [in the world at large] was on our side. But we never, ever blew up water plants, we never attacked a pipeline or an electrical pole, we never targeted civilians, or hospitals, or schools, or populated areas. We never sent cars [outfitted with bombs] to kill innocent people in streets.

There are aspects of a legitimate resistance, and these aspects are missing in Iraq. To call the insurgents a resistance is an affront to a true resistance. I understand that some people are unhappy, but in a true resistance, there are values: You have civil disorder, political campaigning, some peaceful resistance, or passive resistance, let’s say. There is a whole range of means at one’s disposal. Many people feel unhappy about seeing foreign troops on our soil, but we point out that these forces are no longer occupying forces. They are legal, mandated by [U.N. Resolution] 1546.

I know you feel strongly about the U.N., and its past relations with Iraq. I imagine you aren’t very happy being lectured by the U.N., in the person of Mr. Brahimi.

We are not happy about being lectured by the U.N., or by another country, for that matter. The Iraqis have a great sense of independence as a people. Second, we know our problems better than anyone else does.

There is an international conference coming up in Brussels, on Iraq. And my message to my American friends and the Europeans was, “Iraq has to be represented, very visibly, very prominently. No longer will we allow others to speak on our behalf. We can speak for ourselves. We understand our problems, we can make lists of priorities.”

The U.N. has not done enough [in Iraq]. Even yesterday, I talked to some of their officials, and said, “You need to establish your presence. A lot of time has been wasted already. If the security situation is not encouraging in Baghdad, why not open offices in the north, or in Basra, in the south? You are doing nothing. You’re spending money given to you in Amman and Kuwait.

But can the U.N. do any good?

I think they can do some good. Their very presence is useful–for them, and for us. And for others: to show that this is an international effort, to have the Iraqis regain Iraq, to rebuild Iraq. To have Iraq move forward, on the political track, the economic track, the track of reconstruction, and so on. I’m a supporter of a role for the U.N. The problem is, the U.N. is not playing its role. Many times, they have backpedaled, and excused themselves.

We are aware of the security situation, and of the dangers that everyone faces. We have not forgotten the horrific attack on U.N. facilities. But the U.N. has for many years operated under difficult circumstances: in wars, in various crises. What’s the difference?

I recall that Kofi Annan said the Iraq war was illegal.

For us, it was the most legitimate of wars. To have suffered the atrocities of Saddam over those years, and the indifference of the international community, including the U.N. . . . It was the war that eased the suffering of the Iraqis.

It seems that everyone is concerned about the Sunnis. They seem to be the world’s favorite minority. Have you ever seen another minority in the region receive so much attention?

This is a good question. The Sunnis don’t see themselves as a minority–that’s the problem! They have dominated our country since it was created by the British, in the ’20s. And recently, I attended a farewell party for the British ambassador to Baghdad. I gave a speech, in which I said, “Well, you made the blueprint for Iraq. And this state was constructed on some imbalances, some injustices. Our job is to improvise, to create a more just Iraq for all.” I was referring to the domination of Iraq for so long by the Sunni Arab community–and they were a minority.

We have been reaching out to the Sunnis, asking them to join us. The key element is to write and ratify a constitution–and to hold a second election. And what we are asking of the Arab countries–of which the majority are dominated by elites of Sunni origins–is this: “If you care about Iraq, why don’t you use your influence to encourage [Iraqi Sunnis] to participate–not to discourage them, not to agitate them against the democratic process?”

How are you received by your fellow foreign ministers?

As you know, there is an anti-American feeling all over. So some people are using Iraq to settle scores with the United States. They say they don’t reform because of U.S. policies, because of the Palestinians, because the U.S. has not resolved the Arab-Israeli conflict. But reform is an internal issue–that was the message we tried to give, when we were in the opposition. The other attitude is, “No: I’ll keep everything frozen until A, B, and C occur. Until that day, I won’t reform.”

At the Arab League, we held discussions, with the aim of producing a paper on reform in the Arab world. Believe me, this was distressing. For days, the discussions focused on whether even to use the word “reform.” The problem was, “reform,” in our language, means there is something wrong: something that needs correction, something that is corrupt. The word “modernization” was more acceptable.

I just came from a meeting with King Abdullah. He has been supportive and helpful, but beneath, if you go to the media, if you go to the mosques, to the street, the attitude is different. There is a disconnect. The attitude is not supportive of Iraq, not helpful to the Iraqi government. The situation is still perceived as an occupation, and those who are in government are collaborators with the Americans. If Americans are in some other country, that’s not a problem–only if they are in Iraq, is that a problem.

Take the example of Qatar, which has all the major U.S. military bases–including the two from which this war [the Iraq war] was launched. But do you see the Jazeera network [which is based in Qatar] telling you how terrible it is to have Americans, how bad the Americans are? Only in Iraq.

I’ll give you another example: While we were waiting here, the Israeli minister of infrastructure, Ben-Eliezer, who is Iraqi-born, comes by, accompanied by a Jordanian minister. The Jordanian minister says to me, while I’m drinking coffee, “Let me introduce you.” So we shake hands. And dozens of Arab photographers and reporters descend on me and say, “Oh, is this the normalization of relations with Israel?” I said, “This is an international conference; Mr. Ben-Eliezer and I are both invited guests; and occasionally people drink coffee and say hello.” But they will beat you with a stick, if you’re the Iraqi foreign minister and shake hands with an Israeli minister.

In Jordan, relations with Israel are very good. There are many, many contacts between Jordanians and Israelis. But if they see an Iraqi interact with an Israeli–that is taboo.

A lot of people don’t want us to succeed, but that is why I am very clear. I say, “You may not like it, but Iraq is moving forward.”

Will Iraq make it?

I think so. All the critics attacked us, and doubted our ability, two years ago. They said we would never get even this far. We’ve come a long, long way, changing the regime from a dictatorship into a democracy. This is a difficult job, and success does not happen overnight. And the way the post-war situation was managed was really not helpful. Not professional. They didn’t listen to us. We said, “This is how it should be done–trust us, believe us. We don’t have any ulterior agenda. We want to succeed.” And now we are in the same boat: If you [Americans] fail, we [Iraqis] fail.

Any danger that America will withdraw prematurely, before Iraq can defend itself?

I don’t think so. This administration, this leadership, is very focused. It is committed, because it knows what is at stake.

Did you dodge a bullet when President Bush was reelected last November?

Indeed. We wanted to continue with him, we wanted to see this project end successfully. Any changing of horses would have been disastrous.

People seem less resentful of Afghan freedom and democracy than of yours. Why?

Afghanistan is far away. Iraq is in the Arab world, the heart of the Islamic world. Our situation has a serious impact on our neighborhood. Hariri [the former Lebanese prime minister] was killed on February 14th, and our election had taken place on the 30th of January. It was the Iraqi election that ignited the spark of this movement calling for democratic change in the region. I will always remember the statement of Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese leader. He said, “I was against the war, I was against American policies, but the moment I saw those millions of Iraqis standing in those queues, defying all death threats, I realized that this was the first step in democracy.”

Do you fear for your own life?

I take all the security precautions. All of us assume that we are targets for assassination, car bombs, anything. This is because we are defying the terrorists and trying to make our country a successful country, a democratic country. Over the last two years, I have served continuously in Baghdad, and my family lives in Baghdad. We have uncovered three car bombs, which were either minutes away or seconds away from blowing us up. One was at my house, the second was on my route to work, and the third was on another route. But we had very professional officers, who served with me in the resistance–they are very well trained. So, in fact, they discovered these bombs and dismantled them.

The threat is there all the time, and that is the challenge. But if you give in to threats, or agree to be prisoners of the security environment, you can do nothing. It is a challenge. It takes some guts, and many of my colleagues have that.

You have to understand this: We fought Saddam, we fought these people [who are now in the insurgency], so they are not able to intimidate us. When we faced them, they were far superior, far stronger, with an air force, and chemical weapons, and a huge security apparatus, and this huge army. We fought them in many battles, in many areas, and they could not cause us to give in to their policies. Now, we are in power. We are strong, with strong friends and allies. They will certainly not be able to intimidate us now.


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