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Posts Tagged ‘Abd al-Karim al-Iryani’

Sorting through my old files, I have rediscovered notes I wrote up about several meetings I attended and conversations I had in years past.  I have decided to post here those that I believe might be of interest now.  Below are my notes from my conversation with Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen), at his office in Sana’a on January 16, 1989.  Some background information, though, is needed first. 

At the time of this meeting, there were still two Yemens:  South Yemen which was closely allied with the Soviet Union, and North Yemen which then had good relations with the United States and Saudi Arabia, but also with the Soviet Union.  These two governments had been at odds since the late 1960s.  They fought border wars in both 1972 and 1979.  The South had also supported an insurgency against the North by the Marxist-leaning National Democratic Front (NDF), but this largely came to an end with the NDF’s defeat in 1982.  In January 1986, a short, sharp civil war erupted in South Yemen between rival factions within the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP).  The war began with supporters of President Ali Nasir Muhammad killing the supporters of the previous president, Abd al-Fatah Isma’il who had recently returned from exile in Moscow (I have already written on Moscow’s role in this episode).  Isma’il himself would die during the fighting, but his supporters went on to win the war with Soviet help while Ali Nasir would flee to North Yemen.  He still had supporters, though, in the South, as the civil war was not just between rival leaders, but between the South’s rival tribes and regions.  

When I met with Dr. al-Iryani in January 1989, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan was almost complete, whether Moscow would remain involved in the Yemens was in doubt, and serious talks on unification between North and South Yemen were underway.  Relations between North and South, though, were wary—and they would continue to be so after unification occurred in May 1990.  Here is what Dr. al-Iryani had to say about Soviet policy toward the Yemens at that time: 

Dr. al-Iryani characterized the Soviets as being extremely unhappy with the confused factionalism within the Yemeni Socialist Party.  But the Soviets themselves had ambivalent views of the different factions. 

According to al-Iryani, the Soviets favored the Ali Nasirist faction’s policy positions:  a more market-oriented economy and improved relations with the West, including the U.S., as Gorbachev himself was pursuing.  Nevertheless, the Soviets distrusted this group as being less than completely loyal to the USSR. 

On the other hand, the Soviets had faith in the loyalty of the Abd al-Fatahists and the Al Dhala-dominated military [Al Dhala being a governorate in western South Yemen], but were displeased with their policy preferences: a rigid state-controlled economy, and no opening to the U.S.  These latter groups had also expressed their disapproval of Gorbachev’s perestroika and détente with the U.S. policies through the South Yemeni Chief of Staff’s 1988 visit to Havana and expressions of support for Cuba (whose leader, Fidel Castro, also disapproved of perestroika and détente). 

According to al-Iryani, the Soviets had urged the YSP leadership to expel all NDF members from the YSP Politburo and Central Committee [the first and second most important bodies in Marxist regimes].  The Soviets had reportedly argued that until the YSP took this step, relations between North and South Yemen would remain tense. 

In addition, al-Iryani noted that Karen Brutents of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [the CPSU CC International Department handled relations with other Marxist parties] visited the South Yemeni capital, Aden, in August 1988.  Al-Iryani claimed that Brutents came away terribly displeased with the Fatahist position. 

Al-Iryani said that the Soviets had been far better off when Ali Nasir Muhammad was in power.  He also claimed that Vitaliy Naumkin, a well-known Soviet academic specialist on the Yemens, had met with some of Ali Nasir’s supporters in Cairo.  [Naumkin, who is now director of the Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has played a highly important role in Moscow’s relations with the Middle East during the Putin era.] 

Finally, al-Iryani portrayed the Soviets as having limited ability to move the divided South Yemeni leadership in directions favored by Moscow.  The Soviets themselves, he observed, had obviously not found the policy solution to accomplish all their goals with regard to South Yemen:  maintain a leadership there loyal to Moscow, but also to promote stability and prosperity as well as prevent South Yemen from becoming a barrier to improved Soviet relations with neighboring Arab states—especially Saudi Arabia. 

Reading this now, what strikes me about al-Iryani’s account of Soviet efforts to balance not just between North and South Yemen but between opposing sides within South Yemen in the 1980s is that they were similar to Putin’s efforts to balance between their numerous opposing objectives within the Middle East now:  to firmly support the Assad regime one the one hand but get it to agree to reform efforts that might induce the West and the Gulf Arabs to fund Syria’s reconstruction, to promote Iran’s defiance toward the United States but also to build and maintain good relations with Iran’s pro-Western rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia, and to support Turkish antagonism toward America and Europe but oppose Turkish policy in Syria, Libya, and toward the Azeri-Armenian dispute.  Just as, in the words of Dr. al-Iryani, it was “difficult to move” opposing parties “in directions favored by Moscow” then, it remains difficult to do so now. 

 

 

 

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Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, who served (among other posts) as prime minister and as foreign minister of North Yemen and then of all Yemen after unification in 1990, passed away on November 8, 2015. As he did with many other scholars, Dr. al-Iryani met with me on several occasions both in Sana’a and in Washington, DC.  At a time when Yemen is wracked by war, and unity and democracy there appear to have been completely shattered, those of us who knew Dr. al-Iryani know that he envisioned that there could be both democracy and unity in Yemen and the Arab world as a whole.  In remembrance of him, I am posting here an account that I wrote up back in 1992 but have never before published of what he said then about the relationship between democracy on the one hand and Yemeni as well as Arab unity on the other:

The highlight of the three-day conference on “Unified Yemen in a Changing World” held at the Yemeni Foreign Ministry September 22-24, 1992 was a speech by the then Foreign Minister, Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani. Dr. al-Iryani set out to examine the contradiction between the viewpoint of Bernard Lewis of Princeton University that the 1990-91 Gulf war over Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait had led to the final demise of pan-Arabism on the one hand, and the fact that the two Yemens had united in May 1990.

“Is Yemeni unity the last act of Arab unity, or is it the model for Arab unity as a whole?” Dr. al-Iryani asked. “It seems naive to answer `yes’ to the latter question, and yet it is hard to answer `no’ to the former.”

He then asked what made Yemeni unity different from previous unity efforts in the Arab world. Earlier attempts, he noted, occurred without democratization having occurred in the countries which tried it.  They all quickly foundered because the governments attempting to unify were unwilling to give up power or make meaningful compromise.  In the case of the two Yemens, however, progress toward unity occurred alongside progress toward democracy.

“Democratization is the key,” said Dr. al-Iryani. “Democratization must and will become the basis for Arab cooperation, integration, and in some cases unity.  Democracy was also the basis of European unity.  The other European countries were right to exclude Portugal, Spain, and Greece from European Community [as it was then known] membership before they had democratized.”

He noted that many observers, including Bernard Lewis, saw the recent Gulf war as having caused such deep divisions within the Arab world that cooperation, much less unity, seemed impossible. “The Gulf war was not nearly as serious as World War II.  But Europe began the process of unification soon after World War II ended.”

Returning to the question of whether Yemeni unity could serve as a model for Arab unity, Dr. al-Iryani stated that the fact that the Yemens united was less important than the process of democratization occurring in two neighboring Arab countries leading to successful unification. With democratization spreading to so many parts of the world, including Yemen in the Arab world, he predicted that the rest of the Arab world would not remain static.  “If democratization occurs in any two neighboring Arab states, then integration–if not outright unity–will occur between them.”

He concluded by predicting that if democracy takes root in the Arab world, political and economic integration is highly likely since the ties binding the Arabs together are stronger than the ties binding the democracies of Europe.

The Foreign Minister concluded his talk by saying, “Democracy also means listening to things that you don’t necessarily want to hear,” and then called for questions from the conference participants.

Attending the conference were scholars from many countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Russia, Egypt, and, of course, Yemen. The Western and Russian participants posed questions focusing on just how far democratization had proceeded in Yemen.  We did not challenge Dr. al-Iryani’s premise that democratization was the best way to achieve integration in the Arab world.  Two of the Yemenis who asked questions, though, directly challenged this notion.

A member of Yemen’s transitional parliament asked, “Is democracy the only means to achieve Arab unity, or are there better, faster alternatives?” He made it clear that he thought waiting around for all the Arab countries to go through the long process of democratically deciding on unity was less desirable as well as less efficient than if strong Arab leaders brought it about all at once.

(One of the ironic aspects of democratization in Yemen is that while there is no longer any bar to the formation of political parties, many of the political parties that have been formed are distinctly undemocratic.)

Dr. al-Iryani responded that all previous attempts to create Arab unity without democracy had failed. The idea that “strong Arab leaders” could bring about unity quickly was an illusion.

A Yemeni Foreign Ministry official asked whether it was possible to avoid U.S. domination and pursue democratization simultaneously now that the Cold War was over and there was no Soviet Union to protect Yemen. This was less a question than a statement since the gentleman spent over five minutes arguing how the U.S. was to blame for all the Arab world’s problems, including the divisions resulting from the Gulf war.

Dr. al-Iryani’s response to this soliloquy was simple but powerful: “Unless democracy emerges in the Arab world, we cannot blame others for our tragedies.”

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