Abu Dhabi, Asharq Al-Awsat- Asharq Al-Awsat interviews Hamid Reza Asefi, Iranian ambassador to the United Arab Emirates [UAE] on relations with the UAE, US sanctions, Israeli threats, the nuclear issue and whether the Gulf is Persian or Arab.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us start with the general fear felt by the people of the Gulf from its neighbor Iran. As an Iranian ambassador in an important Gulf capital like Abu Dhabi, how can you dispel these fears?
[Asefi] The Iranian Republic’s basic priorities are developed relations with all the Arab countries, in particular its neighbors in the Gulf. We went through a major stage in developing Iranian-Gulf relations and I would like to assert to you that we want to build strong relations with all the countries in the region in the full sense of the word. It is not a temporary tactic but a long-term strategy for Iran. We have common grounds like religion and culture. The important thing here also is that we have the same and common fate. Strangers come and go and only deepen the gap and separation while we are always present. Therefore we should solve any disagreement between us through dialogue and cordial means. We have more in common than disagreements. But some circles always try to inflame these disagreements. To be more clear, disagreements between countries is natural. The Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] countries have disagreements and it is the same with the Arab League. We consider President Ahamdinejad’s visit to the region to be an important message to its countries for stabilizing security and strengthening relations. We did in fact find that these relations developed in a noticeable way after this visit.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As the ambassador, what is your role in reducing the frustrations, anxieties and sometime tensions between your country and the UAE?
[Asefi] One of my jobs is to strengthen bilateral relations between Tehran and Abu Dhabi. In my opinion, we are strengthening the aspects of unity and agreement between us and reducing the disagreement ones day after day. I would like to assert here that Iran and the Gulf countries are not in competition but complement each other.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Strong statements were exchanged between Tehran and Abu Dhabi a few days ago over the UAE islands. Tehran called the attempts by the chairman of the UAE National Council “suspicious” and Abu Dhabi replied that the occupation of its islands did not differ from the Israeli occupation of the Arab territories. Why do you reject the dialogue over the islands issue?
[Asefi] And who says we are refusing this dialogue?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] This is the official Iranian stand and the people of the UAE are asserting that you refuse to enter into dialogue with them about the islands?
[Asefi] All I would like to say is that we are talking. But I say at the same time that I do not want to talk about what is happening between us through the newspapers because raising the issue and the argument over it will increase the differences and from my own proven experience, the issue will not be solved and the argument will widen. I therefore think that the press is not the place for the dialogue (between Iran and the UAE). But those who read the history of Iran and the UAE know very well that Iran cannot be compared to Israel. I believe these statements were just a slip of the tongue.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Hundreds of thousands of Iranians have been living in the Gulf, and particularly in the UAE, in peace, calm, and safety for many years despite all the political disputes. But it is not the same for the Gulf people in Iran. Demonstrations are staged outside the Gulf embassies and confrontational signs are carried. Do you not think that these actions increase the frustration?
[Asefi] First of all, we are happy that the Iranian community is living in the (Persian) Gulf countries and we are pleased to see that the Iranians, their number at present being between 450,000 and 500,000, have a role in developing the region’s countries. You know that the Iranians are among the excellent communities in the region. They have capital and include doctors and specialists in various fields. We are therefore happy that the Iranians are contributing to the region’s development because we believe this development serves Iran’s aims. As to the demonstrations you are talking about, there was only one demonstration by a small number of people. The police confronted them and did not allow them to continue their demonstration. I share your view that such demonstrations complicate matters and increase the anger.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is a belief that escalating the issue of naming the Gulf, Persian instead of Arab, is more trouble than it is worth. Do you believe the mere name of a water passageway merits such tension?
[Asefi] The Gulf is Persian and this historically proven in the international documents and even the UN ones. If naming the Gulf does not interest you, why do you call it Arab? Call it Persian. It is impossible to change an historic name. We say this is not important and the people start to wonder about the origin of the Gulf’s name, which is Persian.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us talk about the economic blockade which the United States is seeking to impose on you. How are you going to deal with that situation?
[Asefi] I can say that we have many resources. The blockade has been imposed on us since the outbreak of the Islamic revolution in 1979. We are producing more than 95 percent of our basic needs inside Iran. We undoubtedly have some internal problems, like inflation, but all the countries of the region are suffering from the rise in inflation and we are not alone. The blockade does not worry us much and our economy has not been affected by it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Regarding the UAE, have you talked with officials specifically regarding this issue and the actions by some UAE banks which froze accounts?
[Asefi] We are talking to all countries in the region and stress our rights since we are acting within the framework of international laws. Trade between Iran and the UAE reaches $14 billion and this does not include infrastructure materials. Does the import of consumer goods like sugar and tea conflict with international laws?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Gulf street is worried by the Iranian nuclear issue. Here I am specifically saying the street and not the government. No Iranian statements have been issued so far assuring the GCC countries they would not be targeted militarily if Iran came under American attack. Why do you not assure your neighbors?
[Asefi] We share the Gulf peoples’ worry from what is happening in the region. They are still suffering from the effects of the American war on Iraq. It is natural that any confrontation in the region puts everyone in a difficult position. But I do not believe that the United States will take a step like attacking Iran. The United States is too fragile to attack Iran militarily. US policy is built on threats.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Israeli transport minister threatened an Israeli attack on Iran recently. How do you respond?
[Asefi] Firstly, the higher Israeli circles said they were against these statements. Secondly, the Zionist entity is trying to cover its internal problems by exporting them abroad. Thirdly, they believe that (US President George) Bush is spending his last months in the White House and will not dare to take any step against Iran while they want to push him in doing so. Fourthly, the Israelis rely on the psychological war in these statements. But I say very frankly that Israel knows what would happen to it if it took this stupid step. Such a step will be catastrophic for Israel. But I would like to stress that you do not take these statements seriously.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Accusations of interfering in Iraq always plague Iran. How can we see a thriving Iraq without foreign interferences?
[Asefi] Iraqi officials like the prime minister and the president did not state that there were Iranian interferences in their country and did not accuse Iran of this. These accusations are coming from just deputies in parliament or some media organs. Iran does not interfere in internal affairs. Even Al-Maliki’s recent visit to Iran confirmed the Iraqi Government’s view. Everyone knows that the American presence in the region is the problem. We raised the issue from the start and continue to consider it the core of the problem. On the contrary, we backed Iraq by calling on the Arab countries to open embassies in Baghdad to help Iraq. We would not have taken these steps had we wanted to interfere. Regarding the neighboring countries’ meetings, Iran is considered the most important factor in them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Finally, why is Iran accused of having designs for Iraq?
[Asefi] We do not covet the territories of Iraq or any Arab territory. All these are baseless accusations spread by the Americans to cover up their wars in Iraq. We back Iraq and continue to insist on backing it. We are pleased to see the Iraqi Government making progress. Security for Iraq is security for us too.