Let’s compare and contrast two charismatic foreign ministers: Britain’s Boris Johnson and Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Both have been in action this past week selling their respective countries’ past, present and future policies in the Middle East.
Johnson gained positive headlines in the UK for a speech in London in which he called for more British engagement with the Middle East, declaring that “British foreign policy is not the problem; it is part of the solution”.
Meanwhile, Zarif mounted a powerful defence of Iranian foreign policy at last weekend’s Mediterranean Dialogues conference in Rome.
His audience included foreign ministers, diplomats and Lebanese President Michel Aoun, whose country lies right on the faultline of the current struggle for regional supremacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Speaking fluently and authoritatively, Zarif challenged the proposition that Iran has destabilised the Middle East.
He pointed out that Iran had not invaded another country in nearly 300 years. He painted a picture of Iran as a country of goodwill, peace and security.
He spoke particularly well about the nuclear deal struck with the Obama administration: “I can tell you for sure that this deal is not what I wanted. I can tell you for sure that this deal is not what John Kerry wanted. Nor is it what other participants in the negotiations wanted. And that is the beauty of the deal.”
Zarif pointed out perfectly reasonably that it was not Iran who invaded Iraq. The United States did that. Iran did not recognise the Taliban. Saudi Arabia and the UAE did.
He challenged the proposition – fashionable in Washington and London think tanks and foreign ministries – that Iran pursues a sectarian Shia agenda.
'Is the emir of Qatar a Shia?'
Reminding his audience that the Kurdish regional government in Iraq called on Iran for assistance when the Islamic State (IS) group seemed within hours of taking over Erbil, the Iranian foreign minister rhetorically asked: “Is [former Kurdish regional president Masoud] Barzani a Shia? Is the emir of Qatar a Shia? Is the president of Turkey a Shia? Is the former president of Afghanistan a Shia? We went to their help.”
Zarif made the case for Iran as a key peace-broker across the Middle East, and painted a picture of a nation state rooted in thousands of years of Persian history that is growing in confidence and strength by the day.
He reminded the audience that Tehran proposed a peace plan for Yemen – “immediate ceasefire, urgent humanitarian assistance, intra-Yemeni dialogue and an inclusive Yemeni government” – within days of the conflict starting.
Zarif of course glossed over a great deal. Iran may not have “invaded” another country but in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon it has wielded influence in ways that have not been without self-interest and not without bloodshed, and which have set alarm bells ringing in many Arab capitals.
Let’s not forget this year’s allegations of ethnic cleansing in Iraq by Iran-backed militias as IS fighters were driven out of Mosul.
And while Tehran may have backed the Kurds in their battle against IS, it was reportedly Major-General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of foreign operations for Iran's Revolutionary Guards, who masterminded the capture of Kirkuk on behalf of the Iraqi government in October, effectively quashing the KRG’s short-lived dreams of independence.
Nor did Zarif mention the contentious role the Revolutionary Guards and Iranian proxy forces have played in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad's government.
In Lebanon, Iran has cultivated the emergence of one of those proxies, Hezbollah, as a regional force in its own right, blooded and experienced on the battlefields of Syria.
And in Yemen, the Iran-allied Houthis, who earlier this week were responsible for the brutal killing of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, face allegations of involvement in war crimes and atrocities.
Nevertheless, Zarif’s case that Iran is a permanent presence in the Middle East with permanent interests is undeniable. The refusal by the United States and its allies to accept this amounts to a form of geostrategic insanity.
After all, Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, its new de facto leader, looks increasingly like a sordid appendage of an increasingly unsavoury Trump family project. The same applies to Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel.
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Egypt is morally contaminated by military dictatorship. The Gulf states are still shorn of legitimacy, Syria is slowly emerging from a gruesome civil war, Turkey struggling for identity after betrayal by Europe.
That is why it is deeply troubling the United States was not present at all at last week’s Rome conference.
Britain only bothered to send Alistair Burt, a dim middle-ranking foreign office minister who counts for little or nothing away from his comfort zones of Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile everyone else who counted in the region was present, from Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov downwards.