Can Iran change? We hope it will
Our region is rife with turmoil. We have a crisis in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, Libya. We have an Iran that is rampant in its support of terrorism and interference in the affairs of other countries. We face terrorism, we face piracy, we face challenges of economic development and job creation. We face challenges in terms of reforming our economies and bringing the standard of living of our people to a higher level. We have the challenge of trying to bring peace between Israelis and Arabs.
I am an optimist, because if your job is to solve problems, you cannot be a pessimist. We have to do everything we can in order to deal with the challenges that we face. I believe that 2017 will be a year in which a number of the challenges will be resolved. I believe the crisis in Yemen will be brought to an end and the attempt to overthrow the legitimate government will have failed. We can then work on putting Yemen on the path of economic development and reconstruction. I believe progress can be made in the Arab-Israeli conflict. If there is a will to do so, we know what a settlement looks like. We just need the political will to do so. And my country stands ready with other Arab countries to work to see how we can promote that.
I believe that a political settlement in Syria is also possible.
One of the biggest factors that will help to resolve many of these challenges is the new American administration. Yes, I am very optimistic about the Trump administration. I know there are a lot of concerns or questions in Europe about the new administration, but I like to remind my European friends that when Ronald Reagan was elected in 1981, there was a lot of concern in Europe. People thought World War III would take place. And yet, how did it all turn out?
Ronald Reagan reasserted America’s place in the world. He made comprehensive arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, he pushed back against the Soviet Union and he ended the Cold War. It is a wonderful history. When we look at the Trump administration, we see a president who is pragmatic and practical, a businessman, a problem-solver, a man who is not an ideologue. We see a man who has a certain view of the world. He wants America to play a role in the world.
Our view is that when America disengages, it creates tremendous danger in the world, because it creates vacuums and into these vacuums evil forces flow. And it takes many times the effort to push back against these evil forces than to prevent them from emerging in the first place.
For 35 years, we have extended our arm in friendship to the Iranians, and for 35 years we have gotten death and destruction in return. This cannot continue.
Trump believes in destroying Daesh. So do we. He believes in containing Iran. So do we. He believes in working with traditional allies. So do we. And when we look at the composition of the Cabinet and the personalities that he appointed — secretary of defense, secretary of state, secretary of homeland security, director of the FBI, secretary of commerce, secretary of treasury — these are very experienced, highly skilled, highly capable individuals who share that world-view. So we expect to see America engaged in the world. We expect to see a realistic American foreign policy and we look forward to working with this administration very, very closely. Our contacts with the administration have been very positive and we are looking at how we can deal with the challenges facing our region and the world.
When I look at our region today, I see a challenge that emanates from Iran. Iran remains the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Iran has — as part of its constitution — the principle of exporting the revolution. Iran does not believe in the principle of citizenship. It believes that the Shiite — the “dispossessed,” as Iran calls them — all belong to Iran and not to their countries of origin. This is unacceptable for us in the Kingdom, for our allies in the Gulf and for any country in the world.
The Iranians do not believe in the principle of good neighborliness or non-interference in the affairs of others. This is manifested in their interference in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan. The Iranians have disrespected international law by attacking embassies, assassinating diplomats, by planting terrorist cells in other countries, by harboring and sheltering terrorists.
In 2001, when the US went to war against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the board of directors of Al-Qaeda moved to Iran. Saad Bin Laden, Osama Bin Laden’s son, Saif El-Adel, the chief of operations for Al-Qaeda, and almost a dozen senior leaders went and lived in Iran. The order to blow up three housing compounds in our nation’s capital (Riyadh) in 2003 was given by Saif El-Adel — while he was in Iran — to the operatives in Saudi Arabia. We have the conversation on tape. It is irrefutable. The Iranians blew up Khobar Towers in 1996. They have smuggled weapons and missiles to the Houthis in Yemen in violation of UN Security Council resolutions in order to lock these missiles at our country and kill our people.
And so, (when) we look at the region, we see terrorism, and we see a state sponsor of terrorism that is determined to upend the order in the Middle East. The Iranians are the only country in the region that has not been attacked by either Daesh or Al-Qaeda. And this begs the question, why? If Daesh and Al-Qaeda are extremist Sunni organizations, you would think that they would be attacking Iran as a Shiite state. They have not. Could it be that there is a deal between them that prevents them or causes them not to attack the Iranians? This is a question that we keep asking ourselves.
The Iranians talk about wanting to turn a new page, wanting to look forward, not backwards. This is great. But what do we do about the present? We cannot ignore what they are doing in the region. We cannot ignore the fact that their constitution, as I mentioned earlier, calls for the export of the revolution. How can one deal with a nation whose objective is to destroy us? So until and unless Iran changes its behavior, and changes its outlook, and changes the principles upon which the Iranian state is based, it will be very difficult to deal with a country like this. Not just for Saudi Arabia, but for other countries.
We are hopeful that Iran will change. We respect Iran’s culture, we respect the Iranian people. It is a great civilization, it is a neighbor of ours. We have to deal with them for many, many years. But it takes two to have a good relationship. For 35 years, we have extended our arm in friendship to the Iranians, and for 35 years we have gotten death and destruction in return. This cannot continue.
• These are edited excerpts from Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir’s address at a session — titled “Old Problems, New Middle East” — at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday. The session was moderated by BBC’s Lyse Doucet.