DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Qatar's top diplomat on Tuesday called for a "serious dialogue" with Iran in the wake of its nuclear deal with world powers, even as he blasted Tehran for continuing to support Syria's embattled government.
Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah made the comments in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press that also touched on the controversy surrounding Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup and allegations of Doha's links to Islamic militant groups.
Al-Attiyah spoke from a skyscraper office overlooking the rapidly developing Qatari capital, Doha, a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council in Qatar. Kerry's visit was aimed in large part at reassuring the Arab allies of America's commitment to their security following the deal, which gives Iran broad sanctions relief in exchange for guarantees it won't build a nuclear bomb.
The Gulf states have welcomed the deal despite deep-seated mistrust of Iran, a non-Arab, Shiite power that they see as increasingly assertive across the Middle East.
Al-Attiyah said a "firm agreement between the major players and Iran" was the best way to resolve the nuclear issue. And he suggested there was now scope to work with Iran on other topics too.
"We should have a serious dialogue with our neighbor, the Iranians, and ... lay down our concerns from both sides, and solve them together. Iran is our neighbor in the region," he said.
Qatar is an important U.S. ally in the Gulf, hosting American bombers, support aircraft and the forward headquarters for U.S. Central Command at its vast al-Udeid air base.
It also splits control of a vast underwater natural gas field with Iran, a fellow OPEC member. It has long positioned itself as a venue for mediating thorny regional conflicts, and it last week hosted a visit from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has made outreach to his Arab neighbors a priority.
Al-Attiyah cautioned that there are still major areas of disagreement.
More work must be done to build confidence on both sides, including on the issue of "interfering in other countries' internal affairs," he said.
For the Gulf Arabs, that means a rollback of Iran's longstanding support for militant proxies, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah, and other groups, including Yemen's Shiite rebels, that enjoy Tehran's backing.
"We are all in the GCC working toward a good neighborhood. We want also Iran to take this approach as well, and only then we can have a fruitful dialogue," al-Attiyah said.
One major area of disagreement remains Iran's support for embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, who remains in power after more than four years of civil war that has left at least 250,000 Syrians dead, according to U.N. figures.
"We wish that Iran looked at Syria through the (eyes of the) Syrian people and not through the brutal regime," al-Attiyah said.
Qatar, like other Gulf states, supports the mostly Sunni rebel movement fighting to topple Assad.
It denies backing extremist groups, including the Islamic State group, and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front fighting Assad's forces in Syria.
Nonetheless, Qatar has helped secure the release of hostages held by Syrian rebels, including a group of Greek Orthodox nuns and American journalist Peter Theo Curtis held by the Nusra Front last year.
In the interview with the AP, al-Attiyah said those negotiations happened with the help of intermediaries in Syria. He denied that his country was in direct contact with the al-Qaida-linked group, and expressed hope that the Nusra Front will drop its ties to al-Qaida.
"All these rumors against Qatar defending the extremists or supporting the extremists in Syria (have) no truth," al-Attiyah said.
Qatar takes a different stance, however, when it comes to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which is considered to be a terrorist organization by Israel and several other countries, including the U.S.
Qatar is a key financial patron to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and since 2012 is home to exiled Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal. While Doha insists its support is for the Gazan people and not Hamas, al-Attiyah made a point Tuesday of saying Qatar does not consider Hamas to be an extremist group but "a movement of liberation."
Qatar in recent years has also accepted members of the Taliban, including five detainees released from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as part of an exchange for captive U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl last year.
They remain in Qatar after a May 2014 deal to keep them in the country for a year expired while they wait for documentation that would allow them to leave, al-Attiyah said. He said Qatar "would rather see them go to their children, to their family."
Qatar is also moving ahead with its ambitious plans to become the first Middle Eastern nation to host the World Cup in seven years' time.
Its winning bid is under renewed scrutiny following the launch of American and Swiss investigations into corruption at soccer's world governing body, FIFA.
Al-Attiyah reiterated Qatar's stance that it has cooperated with investigators and will continue to do so. He said he was confident the games would go ahead and will be "the best World Cup ever."
He hit back at the barrage of international criticism directed at Qatar over the tournament, saying racism played a role.
Besides corruption allegations, critics have assailed Qatar on issues ranging from the summer heat — the 2022 tournament will now take place in winter — to cultural issues such as the limited availability of alcohol to the country's treatment of low-paid migrant workers.
"Some parties cannot digest that a small, Arabic state ... is hosting such an event, as if our region, our Arab region is not entitled to have such an event," he said.
Al-Attiyah acknowledged that more work needs to be done to improve conditions for migrant laborers working on World Cup infrastructure and other construction projects in Qatar. While hundreds of migrant worker deaths have been reported, Qatar says none have died specifically working on World Cup projects.
Promised reforms to the country's restrictive labor laws, which bind workers to a given employer and which rights groups say leave workers open to abuse, have yet to be implemented.
Al-Attiyah said he expected the new guidelines will be put in place by the end of the year.
"It is on the right track, and it will happen. We are serious about doing reforms," he said.
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