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A Positive Atmosphere for the Expansion of Iran-EU Relations

Monday, June 16, 2014

Iran Review’s Exclusive interview with Emma Bonino
By: Kourosh Ziabari

When Emma Bonino visited Iran in December 2013, she was the first European Union foreign minister who would travel to Iran in nearly one decade. Her trip was applauded by those who favored a peaceful settlement of the disputes between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear program, and irked those, including the Israeli regime, who find their interests in the continuation of the conflict and animosity between Iran, the United States and the European Union.

Following the resignation of the Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, President Giorgio Napolitano named Matteo Renzi as the new Prime Minister in February 2014, and the cabinet was reshuffled. As a result, Emma Bonino is not the foreign minister anymore as she is replaced by another woman, Federica Mogherini.

Last week, Iran Review had the opportunity to talk to the veteran Italian politician and now the former foreign minister Emma Bonino. Previously a member of the European Parliament and the Italian Senate, she served in the government of Italy as minister of international trade from 2006 to 2008. From 1995 to 1999, she worked with the European Commission as the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection.

According to Emma Bonino, it’s possible for Iran and the six world powers to reach a comprehensive agreement over the nuclear issue and resume normal trade ties. She says that Italy, despite following the large-scale policies of the European Union, has always maintained close and strong business, political and cultural relations with Iran and has felt the bite of the U.S., EU sanctions against Iran more than any other EU member states.

“The delivery of the interim deal has shown that both Iran and the West are able to fulfill their promises as part of a mutually agreed framework. This has defied assertions by those who doubted an interim deal was possible or those who opposed deal-making altogether,” said Ms. Bonino in an exclusive interview with Iran Review, “The successful implementation of the interim deal serves as precedent that it is possible for Iran and the E3+3 to reach a comprehensive agreement involving gradual sanctions relief for Iran in return for adequate assurances with respect to its peaceful nuclear ambitions.”

“Despite the sanctions, Iran and Italy have maintained their diplomatic ties in recent years.” she added, “Italy has certainly been an important trading partner for Iran, as have other European member states such as Germany. Italy generally fosters better relations with Iran than other European member states, such as Britain.”

Ms. Bonino generously accepted our request for an exclusive interview and responded to some of our questions about the future of Iran-EU relations, the importance and significance of Iran-Italy ties, the prospects of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the six world powers and the impact of the economic sanctions on the Iran-Italy trade. What follows is the text of Iran Review’s exclusive interview with former Italian Foreign Minister, Emma Bonino, now a member of the Transnational Radical Party.

Q: Italy was one of the first countries that welcomed the interim accord between Iran and the group of six world powers (P5+1) over Tehran’s nuclear program, and you were the first EU foreign minister who traveled to Iran to explore the ways for expanding the Italy-Iran relations. Now with the reshuffling of the cabinet and given the fact that you’re not the foreign minister anymore, do you think that the new Italian government will pursue your policies and try to approach Iran more?

A: Since the election of President Rouhani, a positive dialogue has begun to shape the relationship between Iran and Europe. I was indeed the first European foreign minister to make an official visit to Iran after the interim deal – but this was soon followed by foreign ministers and parliamentarians across Europe. What we are seeing is a progressive attitude between Rouhani’s administration and European capitals, including Italy. Catherine Ashton’s visit to Tehran in March was an important reflection of this. Clearly, if the nuclear talks continue smoothly towards a final resolution, there is room for greater expansion of ties between Italy and Iran.

Q: The U.S. government under Presidents Bush and Obama has pressured Italy a great deal to force it into abandoning its trade and business relations with Iran, and in the recent years, Italian companies operating in such sectors as energy, constructions, infrastructure, automotive, machinery, pharmaceuticals, furniture, and interior design have left the Iranian market. Is Italy going to reintegrate itself into Iran’s lucrative and profitable market, and resume normal trade ties with this strategically important country?

A: It is true that Iran and Italy have enjoyed a healthy business relationship for many years and that Italy’s economy felt the bite of sanctions on Iran more than other countries in Europe. Italy reduced its trade with Iran as a direct consequence of sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program introduced by the United Nations and the European Union. These have created a framework of international and unilateral sanctions that Italy, like every other European country, is legally obliged to follow. If the nuclear talks result in a situation where these sanctions begin to ease, it is at this point that Italy is able to revive its previous levels of trade with Iran. There is certainly interest from the business community to pursue opportunities – but, as long as sanctions remain, Italian companies will not be opening up to Iran.

Q: During your meeting with President Rouhani, he called Italy Iran’s gateway to Europe. Italy and Iran have historically maintained close and amicable ties, and despite the ups and downs in Iran’s relations with the European nations, Italy has always been a major political, cultural and business partner of Iran. What’s your viewpoint regarding the future of Iran-Italy relations? Do you agree that Italy functions as Iran’s gateway to Europe and can play a leading role in bridging the gaps between Iran and the other European Union?

A: Despite the sanctions, Iran and Italy have maintained their diplomatic ties in recent years. Italy has certainly been an important trading partner for Iran, as have other European member states such as Germany. Italy generally fosters better relations with Iran than other European member states, such as Britain. At the same time, Italy is not a party to the E3+3 nuclear negotiations. This could place Italy in a constructive position in liaising between Tehran and the EU3 (Germany, France and Britain) on the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations. Italy has the potential to act as a bridge between Iran and Europe in so far as contributing towards a confidence-building endeavor.

Q: What’s your perspective on the significance of cultural cooperation between Italy and Iran and the role such collaboration can play in bringing the two nations closer together, especially given the fact that both enjoy a rich historical heritage and a longstanding civilization?

A: Cultural relations can play an important role in the public diplomacy amongst nations. Iran and Italy both have rich histories and their people have admiration for art, cinema, music and language. There are many opportunities for cultural, academic and scientific exchanges to enhance understanding and encourage knowledge sharing. These will be beneficial to both countries and contribute towards trust-building.

Q: What are in your view the obstacles to the further development of relations between Iran and the European Union? What has complicated the previously close and steady relations between the two sides and how is it possible to restore the old friendship they enjoyed?

A: Before President Rouhani’s tenure began, the nuclear talks had taken a worrying path for a number of years during which the relationship between Iran and Europe suffered. In addition, former President Ahmadinejad had developed a tone of discourse with the West that was damaging to the diplomatic ties between Iran and Europe. Going forward, the biggest short-term obstacle to stronger EU-Iran relations will be the nuclear issue. If a diplomatic resolution is achieved that adequately addresses Europe’s concerns on Iran’s nuclear program, then a level of normalization can be forthcoming. In the longer-term, Europe and Iran must be prepared to invest in their relationship through mutual respect and confidence-building steps. This necessarily involves addressing areas of divisions with respect to regional security in the Middle East and Iran’s role as a key stakeholder in conflict zones such as Syria.

Q: The November 2013 interim accord between Iran and the six world powers that stipulated limitations on certain aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in return for some sanctions relief was seen as a breakthrough deal after almost 10 years of failed talks. Are you, as a high-ranking European politician, optimistic that the upcoming talks in Vienna can lead to the complete resolution of the nuclear conflict? What do the two sides need to do in order to eliminate each other’s concerns?

A: Since concerns over Iran’s nuclear program emerged, Italy has been committed to a diplomatic solution that addresses the valid concerns of the international community while avoiding military escalation. Italy has remained optimistic that a final nuclear agreement can be achieved despite the decade of failed attempts to resolve this issue. More than ever before, there is political commitment to a peaceful resolution from the U.S., Europe and Iran. The forthcoming rounds of nuclear talks will be crucial – they will seek to address the most difficult technical and ideological differences as to what Iran’s “practical needs” for peaceful nuclear energy entails. The deal must arrive at a win-win situation – one that can be acceptable to the home constituencies of all negotiating parties while adequately grappling with the challenging points of contention. This necessarily involves compromises from both sides and a tacit understanding that, if compromises are necessary, then the ideal agreement of either side is unlikely to be the final outcome.

Q: As a final question, what’s your view on the European Union’s July 1, 2010 oil ban against Iran? The intensive embargo complicated Iran’s relations with the 28 countries of the EU. Is it realistic to imagine that the oil embargo would be lifted in the foreseeable future?

A: Italy shares the concerns of the E3+3 with respect to Iran’s nuclear program. Sanctions, including the 2010 oil embargo were adopted across Europe by consensus as a tool for containing the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program. If there is a final nuclear deal, the issue of easing these European sanctions will be dealt with through the implementation phase of a settlement based on Iran fulfilling its obligations. The delivery of the interim deal has shown that both Iran and the West are able to fulfill their promises as part of a mutually agreed framework. This has defied assertions by those who doubted an interim deal was possible or those who opposed deal-making altogether. The successful implementation of the interim deal serves as precedent that it is possible for Iran and the E3+3 to reach a comprehensive agreement involving gradual sanctions relief for Iran in return for adequate assurances with respect to its peaceful nuclear ambitions.

Key Words: Iran-EU Relations, Positive Atmosphere, P5+1, President Rouhani, European Union, interim Accord, Bonino

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