By: Muhammad Javad Zarif*
Iranians live in a troubled and unstable region. We cannot change geography, but our neighborhood was not always so stormy. Without delving too far back into history—although as an ancient peoples our memories are measured in millennia, not decades or even centuries—it’s safe to say that our region began to experience insecurity and instability when foreign, indeed completely alien powers, arrived and began interfering. The discovery of oil, a drug the West soon became addicted to, only strengthened colonial power projection into our region, and subsequently Cold War rivalry—both major factors in the U.S. and UK decision to overthrow the legitimate and democratic government of Iran in 1953—provided the fodder for further meddling by foreign powers and superpowers.
Today, what that meddling has wrought is a fractured Middle East. Steadfast allies of the West, rather than considering the plight or aspirations of their own peoples, spend their wealth arming themselves, sending to the West the riches their natural resources provide. They spend billions more of that wealth spreading Wahabbism—a medieval ideology of hate and exclusion—from the Far East to the Americas. They support organized non-state actors who wreak havoc through terror and civil wars. In the case of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE went as far as officially recognizing the Taliban as the government—becoming two of only three countries in the world that did so. The U.S., meanwhile, turned a blind eye to the ideology and funding that led to the creation of Al-Qaeda—and its more recent offshoots of ISIS, Nusrah, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish-al-Islam, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, and the list goes on—and to the worst terror attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. The U.S. military presence in the region now aims to counter not just threats to America’s own interests, but also supposed threats to the very same allies that have supported the kind of terror now being visited on the cities of Europe and the United States.
These allies of the West—throughout their brief history as nations hostile to my country—pounced on Iran in the aftermath of our Islamic Revolution, which freed us from a dictatorship not unlike theirs and allowed us to set our own course in history, independent and peaceful but allied to neither East nor West. While we voluntarily set aside a domineering role in the region, they funded, armed, and supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran. His eight-year war against us resulted in nothing but death and destruction, including the first battlefield use of chemical weapons since World War I—by Saddam against our soldiers, as well as against civilians—which was met with deafening silence by the international community.
We Iranians, punished for having the gall to declare ourselves free of domestic tyranny and foreign dominance, were denied even the most basic defensive weapons, even while missiles rained down on our cities to the cheers of our Arab neighbors. One of those neighbors, Kuwait, a major funder of Iraq’s war on us and the facilitator of its oil sales, shortly afterward became the victim of Saddam’s ambitions itself. Yet in the interest of regional peace and stability, we chose to support Kuwait’s sovereignty in the face of Iraqi invasion, despite Saddam’s offer to share the spoils with us; he even sent his fighter jets to Iran, ostensibly for safe-keeping, but really in an attempt to lure us to his side. Our leadership firmly rejected this offer despite the hostility, both overt and covert, some Persian Gulf states had shown us since the revolution. We preferred for our Persian Gulf neighbors to remain stable, functioning, independent countries, rather than enjoying the certain but brief satisfaction of seeing them receive their just deserts.
Today, some of those states—especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE and, as a result of their expensive lobbying campaigns, the U.S.—claim Iran is interfering in Arab affairs and spreading insecurity throughout the region. Ironically, though, it is they who have waged war on their fellow Arab nation of Yemen, invaded Bahrain, embargoed their kin in Qatar, funded and armed terror groups in the war in Syria, and supported a military coup against an elected government in Egypt, all the while denying the most basic freedoms to their own restless populations. Iran, meanwhile, being stronger and older as an independent state than any of its neighbors, has not attacked another country in nearly three centuries. Iran doesn’t and won’t interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbors.
Still, Arab affairs are Iran’s business. And we are not shy in admitting that non-Arab affairs are their business. How can they not be? We share borders, waters, and resources; we fly through each other’s airspace. We can’t not be interested in how our neighbors affect the part of the globe where we make our homes.
Our interest in our region’s affairs, though, is not malevolent. On the contrary, it is in the interest of stability. We do not desire the downfall of any regimes in the countries that surround us. Our desire—in principle and practice—is that all the nations of the region enjoy security, peace, and stability. Unfortunately, this is not the desire of some of some of our neighbors, whose untried leaders cherish the delusion of regime change in Iran, and support terrorist groups that seek to overthrow our government or create fear for the sake of wounding the nation. Our neighbors do this even while saying that Iran’s influence is spreading—especially since the conclusion of the nuclear agreement of 2015.
Iran’s influence, though, has spread not at the purposeful expense of others, but as a result of their and their Western allies’ actions, mistakes, and wrong choices. After the downfall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it was inevitable that Iran, which had housed those countries’ refugees and provided asylum to their political figures, would have greater "influence” with the friends who took over than those who supported and financed the atrocities of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein against their own people. It was not Iran that prevented a churlish Saudi Arabia from opening an embassy in Baghdad for a decade after the fall of Saddam, nor was it Iran that insisted on war with Yemen or an embargo of Qatar.
*Muhammad Javad Zarif is the foreign minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Atlantic on Oct. 9, 2017.