UNITED NATIONS – Iraq's foreign minister said Saturday that the new Iranian government led by President Hassan Rouhani offers "the best chance after 34 years of animosity" to improve relations with the United States and should be taken seriously.
Hoshyar Zebari also told The Associated Press in an interview that he is working behind the scenes to try to unite disparate Syrian opposition groups ahead of a November peace conference and to promote a thaw in Tehran's relations with the United States.
Zebari said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked Iraq at their meeting Saturday to press the opposition to come with one delegation and one position. The U.N. chief also told him he heard no opposition to Iran, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, participating in the upcoming Geneva peace conference.
"Before he would hear outright rejection," Zebari said. "This time, everybody was quiet. Nobody objected."
Iraq is in a unique position in the Middle East. Its Shiite-dominated government has comfortable ties to Shiite Iran — an important ally of Bashar Assad's Syrian regime. And according to Zebari, Iraq also has good relations with both sides in the Syrian conflict. It also has strong ties to Washington following the 10-year, American-led war that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
Zebari said Iraq had numerous discussions with the Americans and the Iranians after Rouhani's June election.
"Our role I would not claim to be decisive or instrumental, but it was helpful," he said.
When Rouhani won by a landslide in the first round, he said Iraq understood before many other people "that this is real, this is genuine, because if the regime wanted to scuttle it, they could have forced a second round election. They didn't."
Iran's hard-line Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who calls the shots on all important matters of state, appears to be giving his critical backing to Rouhani's rapprochement with the West. On Friday, President Barack Obama and Rouhani spoke on the phone for 15 minutes, the highest level contacts between the two countries since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
It capped Rouhani's debut on the world stage this week at the U.N. General Assembly, where he repeatedly advocated for moderation and an easing of tensions.
Ahead of the General Assembly, Zebari said he told the Americans and Europeans: "Take this leadership more seriously. Don't think that they are the same, that they are just playing games. ... We see they are serious."
Zebari said another important indication of Rouhani's seriousness was that he appointed Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as lead nuclear negotiator, taking that key role out of the hands of security agencies with the apparent blessing of ruling clerics.
Iran's eagerness to resume stalled negotiations over its disputed nuclear program is another sign of a real shift, Zebari said.
He said he told the Americans and Europeans that "before you were after them to have these talks ... just to give the impression you are doing something. Now they are eager also, and primarily because of the sanctions, because of the isolation."
Tehran insists its nuclear activities are purely peaceful but the U.S. and its allies believe it is aimed at producing nuclear weapons. The U.N., the U.S. and Europe have imposed multiple rounds of sanctions on Iran for its refusal to curb suspect nuclear activities and Iran's economy has been devastated by the measures.
If the U.S.-Iran relationship develops, Zebari said there should be direct talks.
"I think this could be more helpful, and I think on the American side they embrace that idea, but I think it's too early," he said.
Zebari said Iraq has tried to help end the 2 1/2-year Syrian conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people. But the growing power of jihadists fighting among Syrian rebel groups is complicating any solution.
The highly fragmented opposition is increasingly dominated by jihadists and al-Qaida-linked militants, many of them foreign fighters. But it has never been able to form a coherent united front against Assad.
"They have grown in power and in control," he said of the jihadists fighting among the Syrian rebels. Iraqi officials have said that cooperation between jihadist groups on both sides of the country's border with Syria is also escalating violence within Iraq.
"Many people claim they are providing arms, they are good guys and bad guys, but believe me the picture from where we sit in Iraq is very blurred," Zebari said.