Interview with Tamam Salam, Lebanese Lawmaker
Iran's relations with Arab countries of the region, especially member states of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, topped by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Council, are not very friendly. The current situation in Bahrain, Lebanon and Iraq and the wave of revolutions in Arab countries in addition to recent charges leveled against Iran by Riyadh, the last of which was Iran's alleged complicity in an assassination plot targeting Saudi ambassador to Washington, have further worsened the situation. Khabar Online has, therefore, arranged an interview with Tamam Salam, a Lebanese lawmaker affiliated to March 14 Alliance and the former Lebanese culture minister under Fuad Siniore’s government. He is also the son of Saeb Salam, a former Lebanese prime minister and politician. The text of the interview follows.
Q: Mr. Tamam Salam, why relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have become to tense? Bilateral relations had improved to such an extent that only a few years ago, the two sides concluded a cooperation agreement. Saudi Arabia even took sides with Iran and opposed the United Arab Emirates’ claims against Tehran. What has happened to that friendship and why bilateral relations are currently so tense?
A: The main reason should be sought in Iran's political developments during the past few years. Iran has tried to take advantage of all opportunities and not to lose any opportunity, while Saudi Arabia has lost many opportunities. Therefore, Saudi Arabia is angry that Iran has been able to take advantage of those opportunities while Riyadh has not been able to do the same. An example is Iran's influence on recent regional developments in the Arab world, especially Arab revolutions. People in most countries were Arab revolutions have taken place are dominantly inclined toward Iran and its ideas and this is not desirable for Saudi Arabia. As a result, everything that happens, they attribute it to foreign conspiracy and do not hesitate to see Iran behind all developments or to claim that if something happened it was due to Iran's activities. They see that they are losing ground and time while Iran is making the most of opportunities and is active in all areas.
Q: Iran was recently incriminated of hatching a plot to assassinate Saudi ambassador to Washington. The Saudi Arabia has also built a case which Riyadh forwarded to the United Nations Security Council. What is your opinion on this issue?
A: I really don’t believe that Iran has been involved in the assassination plot against Saudi ambassador. Why Iran should do that? What benefit can Iran seek through assassinating Adel al-Jubeir? I don’t think that such news can be trusted. They have, however, orchestrated much ado about it and the United States has used the case as an excuse to take steps against Iran.
This was only a propaganda campaign. That’s it. Why Americans don’t talk about it anymore? It seems that they have changed their mind and don’t want to say anything more about it. After the American officials declared their official stances, we have seen nothing more on that case and the United States has taken no new position on it. They just built a case and then forgot about it. Iran and Saudi Arabia, however, have been left on their own to recriminate each other. Washington, in the meantime, is saying nothing about it. Two possibilities should be taken into account here. Either Saudi Arabia and the United States have been coordinated in starting this game against Iran, or Saudi Arabia has turned into a tool in the hands of the United States quite unknowingly. Riyadh is trying to meet its own special interests against Iran and sees this as the best opportunity to take advantage of.
Q: What policy, do you think, Saudi Arabia should have adopted toward this political case?
A: In a meeting with the Saudi ambassador, I warned him against getting recklessly involved in this game. I told them to weigh benefits against losses. The United States has not produced any evidence to prove that Iran has been involved in this plot. Saudi Arabia acted too hastily. While the American officials have claimed that the Israeli embassy in Washington has been another goal of the plot, Tel Aviv has shown no reaction so far. Saudis should ask themselves how come that Israel has not taken any position yet, but they have entered this game from the first and have been now left on their own? I think that undermining good relations between Tehran and Riyadh will be to detriment of both countries. Iran and the United States have no direct relations, but Iran and Saudi Arabia have direct ties and are also neighbors. Therefore, it would not be a good thing for two neighbors to act against each other in such a hostile manner. They should discuss their complaints and problems and find a solution. This will be to the benefit of both sides.
Q: They have always claimed that the tension in Iran's relations with its southern Persian Gulf neighbors is mostly due to the Iran’s dispute with the United Arab Emirates over three Iranian islands and Iran's interference in the internal affairs of Bahrain. How such tensions can be reduced to prevent further tension in bilateral relations?
A: I think if countries clearly defined their interactions, such tensions could be easily avoided. Iran is known for its Shia faith and its support for Shias. Most people in Arab countries are Sunnis. There should be a well-defined framework for Iran's interaction with Sunni countries in order to reduce tension. Most tensions between Iran and other regional countries are of a tribal quality. Arab countries are upset at Iran's support for their Shia communities because they believe that this support will increase the Shia’s power to claim more share in the political system. This is the main problem. Whenever interactions are marred by tribal prejudices, such problems are inevitable and the situation can even get much more chaotic than the present situation. This situation entails no benefits, but will be only ensued with great losses.
Q: Can this be used as a ground, as some Arab countries of the Persian Gulf claim, to criticize Iran's foreign policy?
A: Iran must respect Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. Let’s not forget that they are very different from Iran both in terms of religion and culture. Iran should accept their regional role. The problem, however, is that the Arab countries think that Iran is trying to get closer to big powers of the world in order to weigh down on their policies. This is not a new charge. Arab countries have been constantly wary about Iran's closeness to world’s big powers. Iran is capable of turning into a major regional power and stand shoulder to shoulder with other big powers of the world. This issue has been a constant concern for the Arab countries.
Q: Iran and Syria have formed an axis on the strength of which they have been able to play a powerful part in regional countries. To what extent, do you think, this issue can influence Iran's relations with Arab states?
A: This issue is not specific to Iran or Syria. It is true that Iran and Syria have built an axis and are using it as a tool to influence peripheral countries, but generally speaking, Iran is bent to increase its influence in all Arab countries with or without Syria. Iran is trying to increase its influence in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and any other country. Naturally, this issue will affect Iran's relations with those countries’ governments.
Q: Arab countries have indicated their opposition to any form of military assault on Iran under the excuse of its nuclear energy program. Can this issue have any effect on Tehran’s ties with Riyadh?
A: Arab countries have constantly trying to avoid of interfering in the internal affairs of other countries. This policy is still dominant in their foreign diplomatic approaches. Therefore, they are in no position to get involved in a possible engagement between two other countries.
Iran, however, is not “another” country. It is the neighbor of the Arab community and Arab nations pay special attention to it.
Yes. Iran and its issues are mingled with expediencies of the Arab community and the rights of the Arab nation. Both sides, however, should avoid of interfering in each other’s internal affairs. This goal can be only achieved through understanding and correct calculation of benefit and loss. Iran and Arab countries should define their positions with respect to the Arab world using benefit and loss as the main criterion.
Q: There are many people who claim that Iran was behind the fall of Saad Hariri’s cabinet and succession of Naguib Mikati. What is your opinion about this?
A: Foreign intervention is nothing new in Lebanon. If we wanted to incriminate Iran, we should have also charged Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United States, and France. Meanwhile, Iran's benefits for Lebanon have been much more than the good that has come from Europe or the United States. Lebanon is a place where everybody claims a share. Everybody seek their own share. The only thing that changes is leading roles which go around among various players in proportion to their relative influence. Everybody knows that Iran supports Hezbollah. Hezbollah, in turn, was the leader of political developments in Lebanon which led to the fall of Hariri’s government and succession of Naguib Mikati. The government is currently under the control of Hezbollah and its allies which are also supported by Iran. There has been a pact between Iran and Hezbollah ever since that the latter came into being. Therefore, one may claim that Iran has been influential on Hezbollah’s decisions, but unlike other countries, it has never tried to undermine the independence of lean on.
Q: There have been speculations about equipping the Lebanese army with the Iranian weapons. What effect, do you think, this will have on Lebanon’s relations with other Arab states?
A: I think that the Lebanese army should have modern and the most advanced weapons. This is the right of the Lebanese nation. Everybody knows that there is an obstinate enemy like Israel right across our border which has no mercy for anybody. We must be ready to face it at any time. As for giving arms to the Lebanese army and strengthening its military power, I personally believe that arms are good for our army regardless of their origin. If Iran gives us weapons, we will buy them by all means. When Americans refuse to sell us weapons and do not live up to their promises, it is quite natural for us to procure our military necessities from somewhere else. Of course, this does not mean that we would accept any commitment toward that country. Even when the United States or Russia or France sold us arms, we were not at their service. At present, Iran has indicated its readiness to provide necessary weapons to us and we accept that offer by all means.
About Iran Review: Iran Review (www.iranreview.org) is the leading independent, non-governmental and non-partisan website - organization representing scientific and professional approaches towards Iran's political, economic, social, religious, and cultural affairs, its foreign policy, and regional and international issues within the framework of analysis and articles.
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