Nation & World

At Kennedy School, Iraqi foreign minister outlines recent progress

5 min read

“Iraq is back,” the country’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, told his audience at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at the Kennedy School of Government Oct 1. With the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein replaced by a “constitutional, democratically elected government,” Iraq is in the midst of “a truly historic transformation” as important as “any event in the Middle East” over the past hundred years.

Zebari acknowledged, “The situation is far from ideal. But given the low point we started from, we have made remarkable progress.”

He invoked Iraq’s proud history as the cradle of civilization — the place where writing was invented, the wheel, the chariot; the birthplace of Abraham and the burial place of so many imams important to the Muslim faith.

He also cited his country’s more modern credentials — as a founding member of the United Nations, for instance. And yes, there’s all that oil and natural gas, too.

“We are not just any country.”

Zebari pointed out that, despite ongoing violence in some areas, there are large sections of Iraq as safe as other countries open to travel.

“Day after day, Iraq’s armed forces and security forces are … getting stronger and more efficient. They have fulfilled their duties admirably.”

He also commended the role that the Iraqi forces have played in the United States troop surge that has caused the level of violence in the country to drop considerably.

However, he sketched out four dark scenarios likely to play out in the case of any “premature withdrawal” of the multinational forces, now overwhelmingly American, that have held Iraq together for the past four years:

• The partition of Iraq

• All-out sectarian or civil war

• A greater regional war as Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq align with their coreligionists in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere

• An even stronger presence in Iraq for al-Qaeda, given that Iraq is a “far more favorable” location for the terrorist group than Afghanistan

“No one can benefit from Iraq’s failure,” he added. It could “destablize the global economy.”

A particular issue for the Baghdad government, he said, has been what he called “the interventions” of Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Iran, in the country’s internal affairs. “Not all our neighbors have been as supportive as we would like them to be,” he said. Still, Iran and Iraq are “destined by geography to live together,” Zebari added. And since May, representatives of the two countries have been meeting regularly to try to resolve these issues, he said. A ministerial-level meeting is set for early November.

In introducing Zebari, Meghan O’Sullivan, former deputy national security adviser on Iraq and Afghanistan and now a fellow at the Institute of Politics, noted that Iraq has had four governments in the past four years and Zebari has been a part of all of them. He is a Kurd, and during the 1980s he was a peshmerga resistance fighter against the regime of Saddam Hussein.

As distinguished visitors to Harvard often do, Zebari remembered being at the University before, under much different circumstances. On March 7, 1991, just after the end of the first Gulf War, Harvard was one of the first places to offer him and others of the Iraqi opposition a forum — for which “the entire Iraqi population of Boston turned out,” Zebari noted.

The first Gulf War was ending with Iraq out of Kuwait. “But no one had spoken up for the Iraqi people,” Zebari said. The doors of the administration in Washington “were closed to us.” And despite the decisive defeat of Hussein, he retained enough troops that he could ruthlessly crush the popular uprising that followed, with tens of thousands of casualties.

“We felt betrayed by the U.S.,” Zebari said. “Our fears were justified.”

The only silver lining of those dark days, he said, was the institution by coalition forces of the “safe haven” north of the 36th parallel, which largely coincided with the Kurdish territory of Iraq, and so gave rise to the more democratic regional government that has prevailed there for over 16 years now.

But in response to a question about the U.S. Senate resolution calling for the partition of Iraq, Zebari distinguished between the regional autonomy allowed under a federal constitution like Iraq’s and actual partition. He also acknowledged that the Kurdish area of Iraq wouldn’t have survived as an independent entity without financial support from Baghdad.

The questions following Zebari’s remarks, though sometimes pointed, stayed well within the forum tradition of civility and respect of which former congressman Jim Leach, now director of the Institute of Politics, reminded the audience in his introduction of the minister.

The last question went to Lt. Col. John Tien, a national security fellow at the Kennedy School who recently served in Iraq. He asked Zebari, “If you had one thing to choose that the United States government could do for you outside of military support, what would that be?”

The minister responded, “Iraq will need the partnership and friendship of the U.S. for some time to come.”