Iran's support for Assad must end
This certainly sounds wonderful. Most people in our region share these noble aims. But when they are expressed by an Iranian minister (or by any servant of any state), we owe it to ourselves (and indeed to our children, whose future appears thoroughly insecure) to separate misleading rhetoric from actual facts on the ground.
Surely Zarif wouldn't disagree with this. His own article emphasises the need for "a sound understanding of the current reality".
Let's examine the context of this Iranian overture.
It doesn't contain any concessionary policy shift, and is therefore an appeal to the Arab public rather than to state leaderships.
Zarif wishes to recreate the pre-2011 atmosphere, those halcyon days when Iran enjoyed enormous soft power across the Arab world. Back then, Iranian president Ahmadinejad, Hizballah chief Nasrallah and even Bashar al-Assad topped Arab polls for "most admired leader".
Iran was widely considered a proud, rapidly developing Muslim nation and a principled opponent of American and Israeli expansion. Its popularity peaked during the 2006 Israeli-Hizballah confrontation. People appreciated its aid to the Lebanese militia fighting what they thought was a common cause.
When hundreds of thousands of Lebanese Shia fled Israeli bombs for Syria, Syrian Sunnis put any sectarian prejudice aside and welcomed them in their homes. Al-Qusayr, for instance, a town near Homs, welcomed several thousand.
How things have changed. Today many Arabs fear Iran's expansion just as much as Israel's. Iran's rulers, meanwhile, openly boast their imperialism. Here for example, is Ali Reza Zakani, an MP close to Supreme Leader Khamenei: "Three Arab capitals have today ended up in the hands of Iran and belong to the Islamic Iranian Revolution." He referred to Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus, and went on to add that Sanaa would soon follow.
|Today many Arabs fear Iran's expansion just as much as Israel's|
A (British) historian once opined that Britain built its empire in a "fit of absence of mind". The same can be said for Iran's regional empire which, at least at first, owed more to its neighbours' failures than its own machinations. Iran was greatly strengthened by American action to remove its enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Iraq and Syria, Baathist misrule was primarily responsible for state collapse and foreign intervention. But since 2011 - when the Arab Spring revealed the emptiness of Iran's liberation rhetoric - Iran has capitalised on Arab weakness by exacerbating pre-existing problems and crushing potential solutions.
Like all contemporary imperialisms, Iran justifies its acts by setting them in a 'War on Terror' framework. The "humiliating defeat of the Daesh group," writes Zarif (and we know Iran claims primary credit for this), has "decisively aborted on the ground the trend of extremism and violence".
Really? Just in the last few weeks, Syria has been wracked by some of the war's greatest escalations. Americans bombing Russian mercenaries, Turks occupying Afrin, Israelis fighting Iranians, the ongoing incineration of the Eastern Ghouta's civilians - this doesn't look like a trend towards peace.
|Iran has capitalised on Arab weakness by exacerbating pre-existing problems and crushing potential solutions|
And to which "humiliating defeat" does Zarif refer? As Iran assists the destruction of rebel communities in the Ghouta, Islamic State (IS) is returning to neighbourhoods in Deir az-Zour and even south Damascus.
True IS no longer possesses its 'state', but that's down to American and Russian air power, not Iran. What's amazing is that such an unpopular group, with so many enemies, was able to establish territorial control in the first place.
How did that happen? IS was incubated in Iraq by the brutality and (towards the end) sectarianism of the Iraqi Baath, and the American occupation, as well as pre-existent extremist strains in Sunni Islamism.
It exploited Sunni resentment of the post-invasion 'Shiisation' of the Iraqi state, and the rise of parties and militias formed by Iraqi exiles in Iran. This was in part an inevitable reaction to Saddam's suppression of Shia identity, but of course Iran exploited the opportunity to cement its influence. Its dominance was one factor fomenting the sectarian civil war.
Read more: From Syria to the UK: The stark reality of Russia's chemical attacks
For a while Iraq appeared to stabilise. In the 2010 elections, Iyad Allawi's nationalist, non-sectarian bloc won two more seats than Prime Minister Maliki's Iran-backed Shia bloc. Iraqis hoped for unity and a new start. But President Obama, aiming for a deal on Iran's nuclear programme, sent Ambassador Chris Hill to convince Allawi to concede defeat.
|In other words, Iran helped provoke the IS takeover in the first place|
So Iran's man won. And when protests erupted in Sunni areas in 2011, Iran's man responded with deadly violence. The situation escalated until the IS takeover of a third of the country in 2014. In other words, Iran helped provoke the IS takeover in the first place.
What about Syria? For the first two years of the Syrian Revolution, Sunni extremists were largely irrelevant. The first sure sign of the conflict's simultaneous regionalisation and sectarianisation was at al-Qusayr in April 2013 - the town which had welcomed Hizballah's civilian base in 2006.
On Iranian orders, Hizballah now restored al-Qusayr to the Assad dictatorship, conquering its local defenders and driving away their families.
IS declared its presence in the same month. Since then the appeal of transnational Sunni jihadism has thrived in symbiotic relation to the presence of Iran's foreign Shia jihadists.
|Iran is also absolutely complicit in Assad's policy of sectarian-political cleansing|
Alongside its own officers, Iran funds, trains, organises and deploys Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani militias in Syria. Estimates of the total size of this transnational Shia army reach beyond 100,000 men. They composed 80 percent of the ground forces invading Aleppo in December 2016.
The defeat of the rebels there - and the democratic local councils and activist organisations - shifted the rebellion's focus to Idlib. This strengthened Jabhat al-Nusra, another Sunni extremist outfit.
Iran is also absolutely complicit in Assad's policy of sectarian-political cleansing, repeatedly displacing disloyal (and overwhelmingly Sunni) communities from strategic areas between Damascus and the Lebanese border, then bringing in Alawi and (often foreign) Shia families to replace them.
|By feeding the fire of sectarian hatred, these crimes radically destabilise not only the region but the wider Muslim world|
By feeding the fire of sectarian hatred, these crimes radically destabilise not only the region but the wider Muslim world. They promote rather than suppress terror.
Iran (and Russia, and others) saved Assad's throne by destroying the Syrian state. The country today is partitioned under various foreign occupations - none more grievous than the Iranian - its people traumatised, millions of them homeless, and its economy and infrastructure comprehensively ruined.
Iran's stranglehold (using Hizballah hands) on Lebanon, meanwhile, continues to undermine that state's sovereignty as well as its hopes of overcoming sectarianism. The ugliness of Iran's meddling in Yemen - backing the unrepresentative Houthi militia's take-over - is not in any way mitigated by Saudi Arabia's even uglier bombing campaign.
All this - state dismantlement, mass exile, sectarian cleansing, escalating war - constitutes the new order Zarif wants the Arabs to accept. His op-ed attempts to wrap it up in War on Terror packaging, but this remains a recipe for endless state and non-state terror.
|All this - state dismantlement, mass exile, sectarian cleansing, escalating war - constitutes the new order Zarif wants the Arabs to accept|
Displaying a chutzpah to shame the smoothest of Israeli spokesmen, Zarif also invokes such principles as "resolving differences through peaceful methods, respecting territorial integrity, non-interference in the affairs of other states, and respecting states' right to self-determination".
Iranian acts on the ground prove the emptiness of these phrases. Propaganda won't convince the Arabs, nor for that matter the Iranians, who continue to strike and hold anti-regime protests. Because while the Islamic Republic squandered vital wealth on foreign wars (to adapt a phrase from Zarif), it neglected to invest in the Iranian economy. That's why unpaid workers and desperate farmers chant "Leave Syria, Look after us instead." And that's why before too long Khamenei's regime may find itself unable to secure its own security, let alone anyone else's.
Long-term regional security will depend on progress towards greater social justice and democratic participation. In the short term, meanwhile, Arabs need to roll back Iran and deter further aggression.
Current responses - like the Saudi bombing of Yemen - are unintelligent, ineffective and hurt Arabs more than anyone else.
It is to be hoped that these policies will be reviewed, and that Arabs will consider these words from Syrian analyst Hassan Hassan: "The only effective way to put an end to Iran's expansionism is through real pressure, countering its patient strategy with a long-term and consistent plan to prevent further encroachment, and concurrently to strengthen its rivals. The perfect place to do so is in Syria, which Iran is still seeking to fully swallow."
Robin Yassin-Kassab is co-author, with Leila al-Shami, of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, and author of The Road From Damascus, a novel.
Books he has contributed to include Syria Speaks, Shifting Sands, and Beta-Life: Stories from an A-Life Future. His book reviews and commentary have appeared in the Guardian, the National, Foreign Policy, the Daily Beast and others, and he often comments on Syria on TV and radio.
He blogs at qunfuz.com and pulsemedia.org
Read Javad Zarif's article: Towards a new security model in the Middle East
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.