Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat- Arab issues occupy a key position in Iranian foreign policy. By virtue of history and geography, Iran has a hand in several issues, atop of which are Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. In spite of overlap between Iranian and Arab issues that has resulted in tensions and differences in Arab-Iranian relations, there are growing efforts to allow the Iranian-Arab overlap to serve both parties rather than to be at the expense of either party.
Asharq Al Awsat spoke to Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Mostafavi in his office in Tehran. The interview looked at Arab-Iranian issues, including Hezbollah. Mostafavi denied that Hezbollah is being financed by Tehran to strengthen it against the Sunnis in Lebanon. He also stated that the Damascus-Tehran relations are strong and that Iran would not sacrifice them to open a channel for dialogue with Washington. Mostafavi stressed that the new international threats to impose sanctions on Tehran were not serious, adding that those who impose sanctions would lose many gains.
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: Iran is accused of interfering in Lebanese affairs through its financial and military support for Hezbollah. Following the war with Israel, Hezbollah’s secretary General Hassan Nasrallah said that Iran offered financial and military assistance to the party. Are you still supporting Hezbollah in anyway?
A: I have not heard this statement by Nasrallah. We offered support to Lebanon, especially after it had been attacked by the Zionists. We are willing to help and have launched reconstruction projects. In all cases, we have always supported Hezbollah morally and politically. It is a political party and partner in the Lebanese government. It is respected by all Lebanese and Muslims around the world. It is a courageous national resistance group against the attacks of the Zionist entity and we respect it in Iran. Individually and voluntarily, the Iranians have always supported the party. They raise funds through donations and help the Lebanese financially. However, this is not exclusive to Iran. All Muslims around the world dedicate part of their money such as the Khoms [one-fifth of wealth to be paid as Islamic tax by Shia Muslims], to help the Lebanese. This exists throughout the Muslim world not only in Iran.
Q: But some parties inside and outside of Lebanon say that Iranian financial support reaches Hezbollah directly rather than through the Lebanese government and this has increased internal problems in Lebanon. What is your response to such claim?
A: After the end of the aggressive Zionist attack on Lebanon, I was amongst Iran’s first delegation going to Lebanon. First we met with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and agreed on projects for the reconstruction of power plants, roads and schools. We prepared and officially discussed these projects with the Lebanese government. At that time, schedules were set for these projects. We helped the Lebanese government considerably and we are still helping it. However, there are also Iranian individuals who work voluntarily and individually to help the Lebanese.
Q: The situations in Lebanon are still tense. How do you intervene to help solve the crisis between the various parties?
A: We do try our best to stabilize Lebanon, which resists the Zionist entity. Unfortunately, Lebanon is subject to Zionist aggression and therefore the more stable Lebanon is the happier Iran is. I believe that the Lebanese are smart and learned and capable of solving their problems by themselves. The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri was very bad for Lebanon but this should not lead to increased problems in the country. In my opinion, the Lebanese are capable of negotiating together and solving their own problems. If any state could help accelerate a solution, this would be helpful. However, any intervention by other states should, of course, serve the interest of the Lebanese people. Iran has tried its best and will maintain the same approach.
Q: What is the Iranian position towards the international tribunal, a point of dispute amongst the Lebanese, and its jurisdiction?
A: Our position is that the Lebanese parties should sit together, discuss their problems, evaluate the long-term Lebanese interests and decide what they consider in accordance with Lebanese interests. Anything agreed upon by the Lebanese parties would be respected in Tehran.
Q: The recent period witnessed relative improvement in Iran’s foreign relations, but some say that Syria may be a burden for Iranian diplomacy and that Iranian-Syrian relations damage Iran’s ties with other countries. How do you view the relations with Damascus?
A: There has always been a bit of tension in relations between some neighboring regional powers, but focus should be on the points of agreement between neighbors in the region. There are many more points of agreement between Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Iran than of disagreement. We have no problems with Syria. It is a country with which we have close relations. We have mutual understanding and we do not feel that Syria is a burden upon Iran.
Q: There has been talk in some Washington circles that dialogue with Tehran is possible in return for Tehran reducing its relations with Damascus. Is this true?
A: For America to seek to damage relations between regional countries to serve its own interests is part of Washington’s old and well-known style. But if it wants to sow the seeds of discord between Iran and Syria, this proves that some Americans have incorrect ideas. Those who say this do not know the region and do not understand it. The relation between Iran and Syria has historical background and is deep-rooted. We will not sacrifice our relations with Syria in order to establish ties with America.
Q: You call upon America to withdraw from Iraq while Iraq is in a difficult security situation with Shia-Sunni clashes and attacks by Al Qaeda and other groups. What is the solution to Iraq and will withdrawal alone solve the crisis?
A: The key towards a solution in Iraq is the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country. By this we mean that if the Iraqi authorities have the authority and the upper hand over the situation, it would be possible to bring about security in Iraq. Iraq is not a new state. It is one with history and civilization. The Iraqis can solve their problems by themselves as long as they are given the chance by the occupation forces to make their own decisions. All information and evidence shows that there is a security crisis in Iraq and all bombings take place in the US- and British-controlled areas; however, they blame security on us. Unfortunately, innocent Iraqis are killed under the American flag. It would be better if the occupation forces withdrew as soon as possible and leave Iraq. All Shia and Sunnis in Iraq know how to coexist just as they did before [occupation].
Q: Chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani held talks with the European Union regarding the nuclear issue. Have these talks reached any assurances before the Security Council meeting where they will discuss the potential sanctions?
A: From our belief that there is no other solution, we have always declared that we are ready for dialogue. Economic sanctions are ineffective for many reasons, one of which is that those who impose them would themselves lose many interests. The West is concerned and fears for its material interests. I do not believe that threatening new sanctions on Iran is anything more than a threat and would never be carried out because sanctions are not a solution that would benefit the current situation. If the wrong approach towards Iran was taken, this would not serve the interests of the countries imposing the sanctions or regional interests or security. This problem can be solved through negotiations and talks. We have a very good experience of surviving sanctions. Although we would not like to be subjected to sanctions, we are prepared. We have large capabilities in Iran to meet our requirements and have friends around the world. This is a competitive world and that is why sanctions are no longer effective.
Q: Do you have any preconditions to begin dialogue with the Americans?
A: Now is not the appropriate time for dialogue with the Americans and there is no need for having relations. Preconditions do not concern us now. Years ago, there were references to this issue and Iran determined some conditions for dialogue and negotiation with the Americans and we declared them at that time. Now we have the same conditions for dialogue but the grounds upon which we proposed dialogue no longer exist.
Q: Your position may be understood as Iran wanting to postpone the situation until Bush’s second term ends and then start with a new administration that is likely to be Democratic and that you hope will be less hard-line with Tehran. What is your opinion on this?
A: The US administration today is under huge pressure from inside and outside of America. There is not enough time to enumerate these problems now. The Bush administration is sort of confused now, and with such a government in power there is no room for negotiation or dialogue. This may take place on other occasions when the US government can think and act reasonably, understands international circumstances, acquires a kind of real understanding of the region and respects the interests of other countries. If the aforementioned circumstances exist, we are prepared to declare our conditions to engage in dialogue. But presently, the US administration is unusually confused, and time is not appropriate for dialogue.
Q: Tehran complained that the list of incentives presented by the Europeans was vague and that is why Iran did not stop the enrichment process and the negotiations failed. Do you have specific requests for Europe and the West to stop enrichment?
A: Our position has always been clear. We said that our nuclear activities are part of our rights pursuant to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Our activities continue now and will continue in the future. The fundamental point of difference between us and the West is that it wants Tehran to stop its nuclear activities, and it is because of this illegal condition that we did not accept. There is nothing to justify acceptance because there are many other countries around the world that regard enrichment as Iran’s right as long as it is intended for peaceful purposes. Western countries claim that Iran’s nuclear activities may lead to an internationalized crisis or threaten world peace. We always said these allegations and notions sounded odd. The reason is that we always acted in line with the NPT standards and permitted UN inspectors to regularly check our facilities. Until today, not one inspector recorded that we have violated the NPT provisions or our commitments to the IAEA. They always mentioned in their reports that the Iranian nuclear program is of a peaceful nature. Accordingly, there should not be global concern over the outbreak of an international crisis on account of the Iranian nuclear program. Our opinion is that five plus one (Security Council permanent members and Germany) did not want a state like Iran to continue uranium enrichment, which is very important technology for the advancement and development of our country. Because our activities are transparent and inline with international laws and regulations, it is only natural and unquestionable that we do not back down on our position towards enrichment. We find it odd that the UN Security Council, the duty of which is to prevent global crises, did nothing about the prime minister of the Zionist entity’s public declaration that Israel possessed nuclear weapons. Why did the Security Council keep silent about this declaration and refrain from making any reaction? How did this declaration not trigger an international crisis? Anyone who regards these issues from a rational perspective will understand the discriminatory treatment, injustice and double standards.