0857 GMT January 29, 2020
The collapse of crude prices has also caused problems for the country, as it is heavily dependent on oil revenues.
However, after the new government took office, hopes of overcoming these problems and bridging gaps between political parties have increased.
Iran Daily recently conducted an interview with Iraq’s President Fuad Masum at his residence in the capital Baghdad.
Masum is a veteran Kurdish politician who was elected president following the 2014 parliamentary elections. He lived in Iran for years and knows the country very well.
Excerpts of the interview follow:
Iran Daily: When you were elected president, discord among Iraq’s political parties was at its peak and the country faced many problems. Eight months on, how do you evaluate the situation? Is there more coordination among Shia, Sunni and Kurdish groups?
MASUM: At present, relationship among Shias, Sunnis and Kurds are very good. Because the government of [Iraqi Premier Haider] al-Abadi has no problems with any group and all factions, including Shias, Sunnis and Kurds and even other religious communities, are present in the cabinet.
There has been no problem in the cabinet so far, although we are facing difficulties concerning budget. If this situation becomes more serious, it would grow into a bigger problem and emerge in a new form. But today everyone is trying to find a solution to the problem.
Previously, there were debates and argument between the parliament and the government. But presently, the heads of the three branches of power and cabinet members and lawmakers are running the affairs together. During this period, several meetings were held where the president, the prime minister and the parliament speaker discussed ways of finding solutions.
Your deputies are prominent figures from Shia and Sunni groups, and regarded as your rivals — like Nouri al-Maliki, Ayad Allawi, and Usama al-Nujayfi. Doesn’t such a team create problems for you?
No, we have no problem in this regard. Each of these political dignitaries has a seat in the parliament. We usually hold meetings. In the past when Mr. Maliki was the prime minister and Mr. Nujayfi was the parliament speaker, there were many problems between them but now they have positive relations.
My friendship with Mr. Maliki dates back to more than 20 years when I chaired a conference that had brought together opponents of Saddam in 1994 and Mr. Maliki was present in that meeting.
Mr. Allawi and I were also friends. He was one of the opponents of Saddam in the 1980s and we had several meetings. I know Mr. Nujayfi since 2005 and we have had friendly relationship since then.
I have no religious sensitivity. All Iraqis, including Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians, are brothers and should work together.
Your term in office coincided with an unprecedented crisis in Iraq, which put the country’s territorial integrity at risk. The terrorist ISIL group managed to capture more than one-third of Iraq, including the country’s second largest city Mosul and began to commit acts of terror. What is your assessment of the situation?
ISIL made the best use of discord among Iraq’s top officials to secure a place, but now the situation is different.
When ISIL arrived, it sought to show it was defending Sunnis. It carried out attacks against Izadis, Christians and then Shias. Now it is fighting Sunni tribes and perpetrates crimes against them.
This (the ISIL crisis) began when political disagreements became religious but now disagreements have reduced considerably and all have united against ISIL. That’s why all political groups have adopted a unified stance to resist ISIL, because it is a big danger for all of us.
The ISIL danger is not restricted to Iraq and Syria. If it becomes more powerful, it will also pose a threat to Turkey and Persian Gulf countries. This has brought all Iraqi groups together.
How do you see Iran’s stance when Iraq was grappling with the ISIL crisis?
Iran was the first country that rushed to help Iraq. It gave humanitarian and medical aid to the displaced as well as military equipment and ammunitions. People who came from Iran were advisors like other advisors who might have been sent from other countries. They came here after the Iraqi government agreed.
Both Iran and the US have strong and strategic ties with Iraq. Isn't it difficult to strike a balance between these relations? Have you tried to narrow differences between Iran and the US to forge an anti-ISIL front?
We will never agree to make Iraq a place for anti-Iran activities. We are also against making Iraq a venue of Iran-US disagreements.
Iran is an old, longtime friend and a respected neighbor. We share many interests with Iran and our ties are historical. We have more than 1,000 km of common border.
The US managed to free Iraq from Saddam who was a big danger for Iraq and the region. He ignited two wars in the region: One against Iran and another against Kuwait. Therefore, we want to have good relations with both the US and Iran.
We also don’t want our relations with other states to pit us against Iran or let relations with the US stand in the way of our ties with Iran. We want to create a balance.
Iran’s problems with the US are mainly about the nuclear issue whose resolution requires determination for rapprochement. After that, we can work to bring the views closer.
We have had several meetings in this regard. US Vice President Joe Biden once told us in New York that their biggest problem with Iran is the nuclear issue. He even told us that we can help with this issue if we want, adding that the US strategy is not opposition with the Islamic Republic or seeking regime change. We relayed these massages to our friends in Iran.
Moreover, we don’t want Iran to face any challenges or threats, and want all issues to be solved through dialogue because Iran is an important regional country.
Iran and the US have disagreements about many other issues like Syria, Hezbollah and Iraq. But I believe these issues are not very important and can be resolved. The most important disagreement is over the nuclear issue.
As one of the prominent Iraqi opposition forces and leaders of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, you had strong relations with the Syrian government. As Iraq's new president, what would be your policy toward Syria? Do you follow the same policies adopted by the US and some regional countries toward the country, i.e., do you favor the overthrow of Syria's current government? Do you envisage a new horizon for putting an end to the country's crisis?
My administration maintains that we must attack and fight the ISIL whether it is conducting activities in Syria, Iraq or any other countries, because this group is always a threat to Iraq and the whole region regardless of its location.
You mean you do not have the same stance as the Western countries against Syria?
This is an issue to be resolved and addressed by the Syrians themselves. Nevertheless, we are required to continue out fight against the ISIL. Because even if the ISIL was defeated in Iraq and forced to leave the country, their presence in Syria would still be a menace to our country.
But once Syria manages to throw out the group from their land, it will be the Syrian people who will decide about their own future. I even told Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was also here, that we are neither against the current government of Syria, nor for them, but we are against the ISIL whether it is in Iraq or Syria. I also told Davutoglu that the ISIL runs like a stream and finds its way into other countries. It is a dire threat for all of us.
Iraq's stance toward the ISIL is not even the same as those of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, which maintain that it is not the group that is a big regional threat but the Syrian government?
Even Turkey and Saudi Arabia have changed their policies and are opposing the group.
Have they helped you in fighting the ISIL by, for example, providing you with weapons?
I cannot blame Turkey for approving the ISIL. Nevertheless, the fact is that at present, they have to severely control their borders not to let the members of the group enter their country disguised as tourists.
There is a possibility that some Turkish officials are still providing the ISIL with weapons, but a majority of them claim that they are not going to let the member of the group use their borders for their foul intents as was the case with the French fugitive Hayat Boumeddiene who escaped to another country via Turkish borders.
Of course, we do not intend to concentrate on what happened in the past. We believe Turkey's new claim and are ready for more cooperation with them in this respect.
What do you predict about the future of ISIL?
There are different types of war. A military war might end soon. We will liberate Mosul soon. But the main question is how to uproot the ISIL. The remnants of this group may rise in other places.
I hope that in less than a year, Iraq will take back Mosul, Neynava, Al Anbar and parts of Kirkuk.
It is reported that Iraqi military forces have not treated local people properly after they defeated the ISIL. Is that true?
Unfortunately, these kinds of complaints have been heard. A few days ago, I met Hadi Al-Ameri who is responsible for Diyala province's security.
I inquired the veracity of rumors about Iraqi forces preventing Sunni people from returning to their homes and only letting Kurds and Shias go back to their homes. He replied that this was not true.
However, they first need to become sure about the identity of the people to let them return to their homes.
In addition to all the problems Iraq has faced, oil prices have also fallen. Does this complicate the Iraqi condition?
To solve our problems, we need a remarkable budget. We are still fighting with the ISIL and have to provide people with essential commodities, livelihood and jobs, which require a great deal of money. Iraq is a rich country but it is currently experiencing a special security situation.
What is the government's solution for pulling the country out of this complicated condition? Do you plan to hold diplomatic negotiations with major oil producers such as Saudi Arabia?
As far as I know, Iran has special plans in this regard. They have improved their agriculture. This is while Iraq's agriculture sector is struggling with a great deal of problems.
Iraq can also use its tourism potentials. In addition to its holy sites, Iraq enjoys pristine and beautiful natural places and ancient buildings. Iraq has more than 400 important tourist sites. We should reduce our reliance on oil revenues.
Is it possible that major oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia use their diplomatic capacities to reach an understanding to control the plunging oil prices?
The issue of plunging oil prices is a special policy that was created because of differences and competitions among certain states. We will lose [because of the low oil prices].
Have you any plan to activate diplomacy in this regard?
Why not? We want to take action in this regard and hold talks with influential countries on oil prices. I plan to visit Qatar in the next two weeks to discuss several issues with Qatari officials, including our mutual ties and oil price. We are not eager to interfere in the domestic affairs of Qatar. We plan to revive our ties with countries that do not have good relations with us and boost our ties with those that have good relations.
Have you reached any conclusion about the problems between Baghdad and Erbil concerning the budget of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, the sale of oil by Kurdistan region or Article 14, the disputed regions and the issue of Kurdish Peshmerga force? Is it possible that these problems would be settled between Baghdad and Erbil?
When I was elected as Iraqi president, Mr. Masoud Barzani (the president of Iraqi Kurdistan Region since 2005) sent a congratulatory message to me. And when the government was formed, Barzani telephoned Haidar al-Abadi to congratulate him.
Kurds are in the new Iraqi cabinet. All Kurdish parities, including Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Movement for Change and the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, took part in the government. Even some Kurds are members of the group of Mr. Ayad Allawi and one of them is the minister of commerce and trade. This means that the Kurds have a role in the government.
Recently, Baghdad and Erbil signed a deal about selling oil to other states, but there are some problems that should be settled. Mr. Adel al-Mahdi, the oil minister, is in Erbil to discuss serious issues (with Kurdish officials) to settle the problems. A legislation about oil and gas is expected to be ratified in the parliament to resolve all problems.
Have you found a solution for the disputed regions or the issue of paying salaries of employees or Peshmerga forces?
We hope that doors will open in future to resolve these problems. Both sides, namely the Kurdish officials and Iraqi officials, could reach a deal to resolve problems between Baghdad and Erbil.
With regard to the Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga is part of the Iraqi defense structure. On this basis, the government should find a solution to it as part of the Iraqi military force. It is true that Peshmerga is the special military force of Kurdistan, but it plays a strong role in protecting the city of Mosul and even Diyala province and other regions (against ISIL Takfiri terrorists). In this regard, many members of the Kurdish force have been martyred in fighting ISIL, therefore a solution should be found to settle the issue of Peshmerga forces.
Recently Haidar al-Abadi, the premier, warned against the threats of PKK (the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party). This came after he said PKK has fought against ISIL, although Turkey was not happy about such remarks. Is PKK a threat to Iraq?
The problem between PKK and the government of Turkey is not a new one. We always stressed that each government should resolve its domestic problem itself and we should not be dragged into a fight with a Turkish party. So we should not take a position that makes them our enemy.
For example, there are problems between us because of political rivalry, but we do not want other states to interfere in them. However, Turkey took good steps to resolve its problems and talks are underway between the Turkish government and PKK to find a solution.
The Turkish prime minister has also stressed in the past that truce with PKK is on the agenda of his government. This means that talks between Turkey and PKK will continue. Therefore, I do not consider it expedient that a foreign politician meddle in the domestic affairs of Turkey.
Reports say PKK is setting up a self-governing body in the Iraqi city of Sinjar like what Syrian Kurds did in the country. What is your opinion?
[When ISIL terrorists expanded their activities from Syria to Iraq] We favored Turkey or Iran or the US to defend us (against the Takfiris). We were in need of being defended by any country. PKK came and helped us, welcome! But this does not means that we will accept the slogans of PKK and become the enemy of Turkey.
PKK came and defended Sinjar and Diyala. We will not tell them (PKK) to go away because you are terrorists. No, we have no interest in it. But I ask all countries such as Turkey to help us.
When PKK comes and helps us without imposing anything on us, we will thank them. It is our duty and of our people to decide about our future. This does not means that PKK can impose its will on us and interfere in our political affairs.
What is your opinion about the outlook of relations between Iran and Iraq?
There are many commonalties between Iraq and Iran. As I said, both states have long borders, common interests and historical relations.
A majority of Iraqis are Shia and, like it or not, many Shia holy sites are located in Iraq. We cannot say that Karbala and Najaf only belong to Shias; no, Imam Ali (PBUH) and Imam Hussein (PBUH) have important status among all Muslims. The presence of these religious places in Iraq has created a special status for our country.
As a result, our relations with Iran are spiritual and ties with Iran are important because of our long borders with it. We also have common interests and history. Therefore, it is logical that we expand our relations.
In our region, there are four important states: Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. If relations between these four states progress, they can settle many problems in the region. This is very important for the security of the region. Therefore, I am very optimistic about relations between Iraq and Iran.
Have you any plan to visit Iran in the near future?
Yes, I plan to visit Tehran soon. Mr. (Ali) Larijani, the Iranian Majlis speaker, also told me during his recent visit to Iraq that he is eager that this visit is reciprocated very soon. I told him that I want to make this visit as soon as possible.
You were in Iran in the past. What is your memory of Iran?
I went to Iran several times. I was in Tehran as a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan for two years. At the threshold of the Islamic Revolution, I went to Pairs and met with [Founder of Islamic Revolution] Imam Khomeini and then followed him to Tehran.
Have you any message for the people of Iran?
We have many mutual relations with Iran and we should work on it. Iran is a big country in the region and Iranians are culturally very important people.
During my visit to Iran, I went to bookshops and saw translations of books that were recently published in the US and Europe. The translation of books in Iran is very accurate. This is why a nation is civilized and culture is important for it.