Iranian and American officials are more accustomed to exchanging barbs through the media than engaging in meaningful dialogue. So it was no small feat when Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari got representatives from both countries talking face to face at a conference in Baghdad last month. Zebari, 53, is equal parts charm and muscle, at ease hobnobbing with global leaders in the Swiss ski resort of Davos or navigating the rough-neck politics in Iraq. And he rarely loses his good humor. After mortars landed nearby during the Baghdad conference last month, Zebari told reporters, "I thought, 'This is bad targeting.' I was surprised there weren't more." When the 15 British sailors were detained by Iran last month, Zebari was one of the few officials who had good access to both sides. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Babak Dehghanpisheh in Baghdad. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What was your role in the standoff between the British and the Iranians?
We sided with the British. We helped them in many, many ways. We were mediating all along [and] even tried to lobby the Arab foreign ministers at the Arab summit in Riyadh. But we couldn't get that far. We didn't get much support. [The Iranians] made the right decision by releasing [the captured troops]. In fact, [Iran] realized that public opinion was turning against them. And we were very honest speaking to them. We said you're shooting yourself in the foot.
There's been speculation that the British troops' captivity was drawn out because of this competition between power centers in Iran. Is there a crisis within the Iranian leadership?
It could be. It seems in my view that really the Iranian action was a deliberate decision. It wasn't coincidence. I believe it was a deliberate decision to achieve certain goals—that if you harm us we can harm you.
Was any kind of deal struck to get the British released?
There was no deal. Even that diplomat [Jalal Sharafi,, an Iranian second secretary released by Iraq this week after two months in captivity], there was no deal, no connection, [it was] two separate cases.
So there wasn't any kind of deal for Sharafi's release?
People try to link everything here, so people think this was a deal. But believe me, there was no deal whatsoever. He came from nowhere, nobody knew when he would be released. Nobody knew up to now who abducted him…. Those who were responsible for abducting him, the doers, were Iraqis. But they were acting beyond the government policy.
Is it possible the Iraqi Special Forces commandos were involved in Sharafi's kidnapping?
I don't know, to be honest with you. But there are some strong indications that they were linked with the Mukhabarat [Iraq's intelligence agency]. People tried to say, well the Mukhabarat is very close with the American agencies. [But] when we confronted the chief of Mukhabarat, he denied it.
Have you seen anything that would incriminate the five Iranians detained by American forces in [the Iraqi city of] Erbil last December?
They may have been collecting intelligence and so on. But some of the things [the Americans] say is very wild—[that] from Erbil [the detainees] have been running the Sunni insurgency in Anbar and other [places and] providing IEDs [Improvised Explosive Device] or EFPs [Explosively Formed Projectiles]. Really they couldn't smuggle these things in that area…. Intelligence gathering, yes. But, in Erbil, to support the Shiite militias in Baghdad? It doesn't make sense.
Did the Americans have one-on-one meetings with the Iranians at the recent Baghdad conference?
They did speak to each other face to face, directly, but not in a separate meeting. In the meeting room, yes. Not just across the table—they came to each other, spoke to each other. Those delegations were very powerful. It was not just deputies. After that meeting the whole regional atmosphere, the people's morale here really was changed positively. The chemistry, the interaction, very smooth, very straight-talking in that meeting. We mediated between them sometimes when they tried to shout at each other [laughing].
What did the Americans and Iranians discuss about Iraq?
Actually they were very close [laughing]. I said I'm not surprised your positions are so close on Iraq—support for the government, stabilization.