22 Feb 2013

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari: Moscow-Baghdad arms deal remains in force

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who took part in the first meeting of Russian-LAS forum at the ministerial level in Moscow, has given an interview to Interfax in which he speaks about arms trade with Russia, prospects of Russian oil companies in Iraq and the attitude of Arab countries to Russia‘s position on Syria.

The main goal of the Russian-Arab League forum is to develop economic cooperation between Russia and Arab countries, Zebari said.
"I think that this forum is good driving force for the development of relations between Russia and the Arab world. Regardless of the long-standing history of ties between Russia and many Arab countries, the two sides are not happy with the level of trade and economic exchange," Zebari said.
"Trade turnover between 22 Arab countries and Russia stands at $14 billion, while turnover between just Iraq and a country like China is $16 billion. This is why the need for political consultations was stressed," Zebari said.
Political relations are important for developing economic and business ties, he said.
"This was the first forum. We agreed on a plan from today until 2015. We have set a number of goals and tasks to work on," Zebari said.
Zebari said that the forum showed that all Arab countries were interested in developing relationship with Russia. Russia, a UN Security Council member and a superpower, is taking a friendly stance on the Arab issue, on Palestine, and on a number of other issues. "Perhaps, there are disputes on Syria, but in general most of Arab countries have good relationship with Russia," he said.
Speaking about arms Iraqi-Russian arms contracts, he said that Iraq has no intention of scrapping weapons delivery contracts worth over $4 billion signed with Russia last year.
"Iraq is not going to scrap this deal. Nothing has changed there," he said.
However, the weapons contracts between Russia and Iraq have still not taken effect due to Iraq‘s financial problems.
"I think it‘s an issue of money distribution. We need to pay in advance. We are having a political crisis now. Our budget for 2013 has not been approved by the parliament," Zebari said.
He reiterated that "there may be some technical delays, but both parties generally intend to fulfill these agreements."
When asked when these agreements may take effect, Zebari said this will happen "as soon as the possibility arises."
Speaking about Turkey‘s placing anti-missile systems Patriot on the Syrian border, he said that the move is solely defensive as Turkey is concerned about its security on the Syrian border.
"There are concerns that the crisis in Syria will not stay within the country‘s limits. Turkey is among the countries that will be affected by that for many reasons. Being a member of NATO, it is trying to defend itself. The placement of Patriot systems along its border is a defensive step, not an offensive step," he said.
The minister recalled that the countries of the region are already feeling the consequences of the crisis in Syria. "The situation in Iraq is influenced by the crisis continuing in Syria, in this way or another. Clashes occur in Lebanon. Turkey is concerned about Kurds‘ activities in northeastern Syria, the activities by the Kurd Working Party, etc.," he said.
He also hailed the statement made by Moaz al-Khatib, leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, who said the Syrian opposition is ready to begin negotiations with the Syrian authorities.
"I think Moaz al-Khatib made a good and brave step by offering negotiations," he said .
At the same time, the Iraqi minister said "both sides should not make it impossible to begin negotiations by setting too many preconditions."
"If you want to find a solution, you need to talk to your enemy, not your friend," he said.
He said the parties to the conflict in Syria understand that there can be no winners in the current war.
"This war, in which no party can win the other, can continue for a long time. The capabilities of the army and the opposition have their limits," Zebari said.
The minister reiterated that negotiations are the only way to resolve the crisis in Syria.
He believes many countries are now accepting the position Iraq has held from the very beginning, which is that all parties need to be convinced to look for a political solution to the conflict.
"Iraq‘s position was different from that of other Arab countries. It was firm from the very start. It can be said that we were the only voice of wisdom, which said that the regime would not fall within several days or weeks as it was expected to, that it would take time," the minister said.
"Secondly, we said there is a need to convince all parties to take part in a dialogue to find a political solution. No party can win and the crisis will continue," he said.
"We said there can be no foreign intervention in the near future because international and regional relations have changed and we, Arab countries, should do our best to stop the bloodshed and convince the parties to begin a healthy dialogue," Zebari said.
"Two years later, many countries began agreeing with us. You now hear the same calls from the Arab ministerial conference, which has visited here. They have made the same statements that we made," he said.
Zebari said that, according to Iraq‘s observations, even Turkey, which is calling for the replacement of the Assad regime and support of the Syrian opposition by any means, has toned down its rhetoric in the direction of support of a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Responding to a question as to Iraq‘s motives for refusing to recognize the National Coalition of Opposition Forces as a legitimate representative of the people of Syria, Zebari said his country did not want to create a precedent.
"We maintain contact with the opposition, but formal recognition of the opposition would create a precedent. And that‘s what we opposed in the Arab League. Tomorrow the opposition will demand the recognition of its legitimacy in any of these countries. Will you recognize them? It would be the main cause of the dispute," he said.
"However, that does not mean that we are not meeting with them or are not inviting them. We invited some of them to Baghdad and discussed the situation. I have recently met with Moaz Al-Khatib, the new leader of the Syrian opposition coalition, in Germany. However, talking to them and recognizing them are two different things," the minister said.
He also said that Arab countries are unhappy with Russia‘s stand on the Syrian conflict, however this has not caused any serious government-level issues between the countries.
"To be honest, public opinion in many countries is not in Russia‘s favor because people perceive things in a simplified manner," Zebari told Interfax.
"There are negative aspects in the public perception of Russia, mainly due to the changes in political and social situation in the Arab world following the Arab Spring protest movements," Zebari said.
"There are no major issues at the governmental level, but every government takes public opinion into account," he said.
Zebari said that this issue has been discussed at the ministerial session of the Russia-Arab League Forum in Moscow, however Moscow doesn‘t think that the majority of Arab countries‘ citizens are unhappy with its position.
When asked whether such negative perception of the Russian position is a result of propaganda campaign in some mass media, Zebari agreed.
"The media create the most part of this public perception, and we know who controls the most influential Arab mass media," he said.
As to the presence of Russian oil companies in Iraq, Zebari said that they should not have problems if they want to bid in tenders for licenses to develop Iraqi fields.
Asked whether Russian oil company Bashneft had informed the Iraqi authorities of its intentions to expand its operations in the country, or whether TNK-BP had said it wants to start working in Iraq, the minister said he was not aware whether they had.
However, he said there is a schedule for offering licenses for contracts, and these companies can bid to obtain them.
Zebari said he did not think there would be any objections, as licenses are won by whoever offers the best terms.
He also noted that Iraq has no problem with Gazprom Neft, which is operating in Iraq‘s Kurdistan, as long as the company observes the country‘s Constitution.
"Companies may work everywhere they want as long as their operations are transparent and are within the Iraqi Constitution," he said in an interview with Interfax responding to an interview as to whether Iraq has any problem with Gazprom Neft due to its operations in Iraq‘s Kurdistan.
When asked whether his words mean that Gazprom Neft operates within the Iraqi Constitution and there are no problems with it regarding that issue, Zebari answered in the affirmative.