"A fluid international system" – that is how the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, described the current state of affairs on the international stage on the eve of the UN General Assembly.
In an exclusive interview with The National in New York, Dr Gargash said that no single breakthrough could by itself make this year's assembly a success. Instead there was a need for continued building of relationships and strengthening the multilateral system.
He called for less cynicism towards multilateralism, saying the UAE was determined to make sure the UN’s role works.
A central issue that requires a successful multilateral approach is curbing Iran’s activities.
Dr Gargash said that the problem was one of three parts. The first was Iran’s nuclear programme and the “sunset clause” of the current deal, which only limits Tehran’s activity for 10 years.
He said the second factor, the need to deal with Iran’s ballistic missile programme, had “taken on an added urgency because of the Houthis using Iranian missiles to target Saudi Arabia – and that is not lost on anybody”.
The third part to the issue was Iran’s conduct in the region.
US President Donald Trump is expected to increase pressure on Iran during this week's meetings in New York.
Dr Gargash said despite the rhetoric of its leaders, Iran must address the main issues of concern.
The nuclear programme in Iran’s hands is not only about the technology, he said. It was about the “beast that controls the technology and in Iran’s case there is little reason why anybody in the region should trust them”.
Dr Gargash said the challenge was to ensure there was fair representation for the Arabian Gulf at any future talks about an international deal with Iran.
There is concern that in the round of talks in which the Iran deal was agreed to, “our early attempts at being at the table and having our voices heard were thwarted, to the deal’s detriment, to everyone’s detriment”.
“There was a deal about the region but there was no Arab voice on the table and this is one of the things we will have to tackle as things crystallise.”
Dr Gargash refrained from commenting on the possibility of direct talks with the Iranians: “There are several things that the Iranians are counting on but soon they will have to realise that it is time for them to move on.
“They are still to a certain extent intent on trying to divide the European position from the American position. There is a variance of opinion but at the end of the day the Europeans are not going to take a position that is 180 degrees away from the Americans.”
European countries acknowledge there is an issue with Iran’s ballistic missile programme and intervention in the region, Dr Gargash said.
He said Iranian leaders who were counting on American midterm elections would increase their attempts to try to influence the United States, but that those efforts would not succeed.
Events in Yemen and Syria have shown that the Iranian missile programme is not defensive, as Tehran claims, Dr Gargash said.
“The basic concern should be that Iran and its interference in various countries, from Lebanon to Syria to Bahrain to Yemen, has shown a very callous approach to sovereignty and towards being a good neighbour, and this has to stop.”
Dr Gargash was adamant that there is no desire for regime change in Iran.
“Nobody wants regime change, nobody wants to undermine stability in the region, but it is extremely important for Iran to recognise it has had the wrong priorities,” he said. “A success in this Syrian village or that Iraqi region does not really bring prosperity to Iran’s population.”
Countries concerned about Iran’s activity hope that economic pressure and sanctions on Iran’s oil and gas sector that are expected to be reimposed from November will force Tehran to change is behaviour.
He said Tehran’s claims that western or regional countries were behind Saturday’s attack on a parade in Iran as “meant for an internal audience”.
Refraining from commenting on domestic Iranian politics, Dr Gargash said blaming the attack on external forces was “completely baseless, and I have to say that for Iran, who has a whole avenue named for the murderer of Egyptian President [Anwar] Sadat, it is difficult to understand how they can blame others on this”.
He called on Tehran to forge a better life for its citizens.
“I hope reason and rationality bring Iran to the table and a realisation that the sort of concerns by Iranian citizens for a better life should be met,” he said.
Dr Gargash said young people wanted prosperity and for the country to reach its potential it would have to stop its “external adventurism, which has been very expensive for Iran”.
“What we would ultimately like to see is a deal where the international community – we are involved, Iran is involved – sets a foundation for future security and prosperity, and that would require commitment by Iran not to intervene beyond its borders under a sectarian ideology Iran is trying to export.”
The influence of Tehran can be felt in Yemen where the Houthi rebels have stalled talks aimed at a political solution. Dr Gargash lamented the fact that the Houthis refused to attend the Geneva talks.
“After months of careful preparation, starting a process of consultation to lead to shuffle visits, the Houthis put a spanner in the wheel by not turning up,” he said. “It indicated a clear infighting between various groups.
“A no-show in Geneva is further proof that we were right. They feel that the political process will undermine their coup and their control of the Yemeni state.”
The UAE position is there is clear need for a political solution but the Houthis “amply demonstrated that they do not want to engage. There is no way of making this look nicer – the fact is that they didn’t show up”.
“It allows for the crisis to go on, a humanitarian situation that continues to get more and more difficult,” Dr Gargash said.
“I haven’t really heard criticism of a party that has thwarted months of work to start a political process, and as a result we have to understand that the humanitarian situation is very important and must be addressed but can’t be addressed in isolation from the political process.”
Dr Gargash spoke of the need for concerted Arab efforts to stabilise the region. One key aspect to which he referred several times is the role of disruptive non-Arab regional players.
“It is very hard for us to accept that regional players that are not Arab countries are basically playing roles that are disruptive in Syria, Iraq and beyond.”
Asked about the US leading discussions to form an Arab Nato, formally to be known as the Middle East Strategic Alliance, or Mesa, that would include the GCC countries, Egypt, Jordan and maybe Morocco, Dr Gargash said that this was about enabling an Arab role.
“There has been, over the past few months and before, more of a realisation that there is a necessity for core Arab countries to work harder together to bring an Arab voice to the several crises that are around us,” he said.
These discussions are not fully developed but early signs are encouraging, he said.
“We look at Syria and lament the Arab role,” Dr Gargash said. “The process involves three countries [Turkey, Russia and Iran]. None is Arab. We need to create an Arab consensus and that’s an important area – in Iraq, for example, taking position against Turkish incursion.
“With 22 countries, spread geographically with different priorities, it’s not easy but we shouldn’t discount it and many Arab countries are buying into it because we have seen over the past two decades non-Arab actors intervene in Arab affairs.”
The Trump administration wants a meeting on the alliance for January, but Dr Gargash said it would depend on the state of the proposal. He said that there had not been confirmation on which states would join the alliance.
“Egypt is a major component and Jordan is important and necessary,” he said, giving the UAE’s viewpoint.
Dr Gargash said the US received feedback from different states during a visit by envoy Anthony Zinni and deputy assistant secretary of state Tim Lenderking to the region this month.
As for as the Qatar crisis and formation of the alliance, Dr Gargash said: “The Qatar crisis is becoming less and less important, and is turning into a permanent issue. The Qatar issue is on everybody’s backburner, it is not discussed.”
He said the situation with Doha would not affect the alliance proposal.
“The Qatar crisis is in a state of permanency until Doha acknowledges and addresses the concerns within the regional negotiating framework,” Dr Gargash said.
“The question is how you can discuss various national security issues with a country that is still reluctant to cut its umbilical cord and support of extremism. These are real issues.”
“Looking at the UNGA last year and the UNGA this year, the Qatari issue is not on the table and shouldn’t be an obstacle to Mesa. But there is an issue of trust and certain elements relating to intelligence sharing within Mesa will have to be addressed.”
Dr Gargash said the UAE is "seriously concerned" over the latest developments on the Palestinian issue. "We are concerned about the viability of the two-state solution within the next few years.
“We are sympathetic with the Palestinian view that is worried that certain components related to the refugees and UNRWA are basically being dismantled" he said.
He noted that the UAE increased its support for UNRWA, and stands behind the international legal framework and UN resolutions to resolve the conflict.