Iran-Europe Relations

Friday, April 6, 2012

Interview with Hossein Salimi, Professor of Allameh Tabatabaei University-Tehran
By: Houman Dourandish

From UK’s Sharp Positions to Germany’s Balanced Stances

Due to their longstanding relations with Iran and since, up to this day, Iranians’ attitude to Germany has not been totally negative, Germans are trying to take more balanced positions on Iran, so that, in case of an opening in Iran's relations with the European Union, they would be able to play an axial role in this regard.

Hossein Salimi, a professor of international relations at Allameh Tabatabaei University, believes that Iran's relations with the European Union (EU) are in decline and maintains that achieving a symbolic agreement to ensure Iran's compatibility with the international system is the best way to rebuild those relations. He argues that the new Europe, unlike what it was under the US President George Bush, is not simply following the US policies, but moves in coordination with the US government. What follows is the text of an interview with Hossein Salimi about problems and difficulties of Iran-EU relations in 2011.

Q: Iran and the EU have apparently continued to drift away from each other in 2011. What is your opinion?

A: Iran's relations with the EU are definitely faced with more difficulties now. There are indices to measure this. Firstly, the European Union has imposed stricter sanctions on Iran. Secondly, general tone of the European leaders, especially the political leaders of the UK and France, has become harsher on Iran.

Confrontation between Iran and Europe, especially in political and economic fields, has apparently become more serious. Stopping oil exports to the European countries in reaction to their anti-Iranian sanctions, followed by sharp criticism of the EU’s decisions by the Iranian political officials, further confirms this fact. Iran, of course, has maintained relations with South European states, including Spain and Italy, but on the whole, Iran and the EU continued to distance from each other during the past year and their ties have become more challenging.

Q: It seems that positions taken by the French government on Iran during the past two years have been characterized with contradictions. French officials sometimes talk about the necessity of physical and practical confrontation with Iran, but when Israel’s threats against Iran became more serious, the French officials warned that attacking Iran will have dangerous consequences.

A: Such vacillating positions have been more common under the government of the incumbent President Nikolas Sarkozy. Take the issue of the alleged killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as an instance. While relations between Ankara and Paris were increasingly improving, the French side caused a crisis in bilateral ties with Turkey over the issue of killing Armenians which was not essentially of high import to France. It seems that taking such positions has become a hallmark of Sarkozy’s government.

On the whole, the French government has apparently distanced from its conventional positions and policies under Sarkozy.

Before Sarkozy, France was considered a country which tried to take positions independent of the United States and was considered a political leader among the European Union members as it frequently stood in the face of Washington. This was a major feature of the Gaullist policies in France. However, unlike Gaullists, Sarkozy has been more aligned with the US policies.

It seems that the incumbent French government intends to prove its independence from the United States by taking extreme positions from time to time. Under present circumstances, positions taken on Iran's nuclear program by France and some other European states are even harsher than US positions. However, since Iran declared late last year that it is ready to resume nuclear talks, France and other European countries – which are Iran's negotiating parties – have somehow softened their positions on this issue.

Q: Is it true that disruption of negotiations for the most of 2011 has been a major reason for increased pessimism between Iran and Europe?

A: Yes, but I believe that the issue of Iran-EU relations should be seen in a context much wider than mutual pessimism of the two sides’ leaders or the way they address each other. Relations between Iran and Europe are a function of Iran's relations with the international system and the international system has moved toward increased integration in the past five years.

In fact, interests, assets, decisions, and strategies of Europe, the United States, and a large part of the capitalist world have become intertwined and have somehow dominated the existing international system.

Iran, as a critical country which seeks changes in the rules of that system, will be naturally faced with bigger challenges and escalation of pressures on the country during the past year has been a sign of those challenges.

As long as Iran and international system have not achieved greater harmony, those challenges will probably continue even if Iranian and European officials change their tone when addressing each other.

Q: With what European country did Iran have better relations during the past year?

A: Available statistics show that Iran's relations have been generally more positive with South European countries such as France and Italy as well as with Eastern European states. In the meantime, Iran's relations with UK were downgraded to the lowest level in 2011. Of course, relations with France have been marked with tensions. Relations with Germany – whose positions on Iran were more moderate than France or UK – continued in economic areas, though there were tensions on political issues.

On the whole, central European countries like Germany, UK, and France are having serious tensions with Iran. Southern and some Eastern European countries, however, have more balanced relations with Iran, though their relations are also getting cold.

Q: Is less tension in Iran's relations with Southern European states solely due to economic reasons?

A: Various factors are at work. Economic incentives of both sides are only one of those factors. Investments made and economic crisis in Southern European countries do not allow them to let tensions get out of hand. I mean, they cannot allow new factors to increase tensions in their foreign relations. On the other hand, those countries are not playing the same pivotal role in nuclear negotiations with Iran and generally in international system, as major European powers, and this factor has further facilitated their relations with Iran.

Q: Have Germany, France, and the UK taken generally uniform positions on Iran?

A: Germany’s positions are somehow more balanced, but they seem to have reached a consensus on broader issues, such as basic sanctions against Iran. The UK, naturally, has taken more hostile positions on Iran.

Due to their longstanding relations with Iran and since, up to this day, Iranians’ attitude to Germany has not been totally negative, Germans are trying to take more balanced positions on Iran, so that, in case of an opening in Iran's relations with the European Union, they would be able to play an axial role in this regard.

Q: Which issue related to Iran was of more import to the European Union last year; Iran's nuclear energy program, human rights, or Israel?

A: Iran's nuclear issue is currently the key to Iran's relations with Europe. That is, if both sides could come up with a joint solution to build confidence with regard to Iran's nuclear activities, that agreement would be considered by Europeans as symbol of Iran's compatibility with the international system. This can also pave the way for solving other existing problems.

The issue of human rights is naturally important to Europe and the US. However, the main factor which plays a basic role in these countries’ final foreign policy decisions is their national interests. That is, if these countries could reach an agreement with Iran over certain rules that would indicate Iran's compatibility with the international system, other issues would not be so acute as to cause serious crisis in Iran's relations with the West.

As for Israel, one may say that under the existing conditions, Israel does not enjoy its past status in the international system, especially in the eyes of the European countries. During the last 2-3 years, especially after the war in Gaza and election of Netanyahu and the Likud Party, international image of Israel has been greatly tarnished and it seems that Tel Aviv is no longer the same determining player whose policies were followed by other countries. Continued construction of Jewish settlements and Israel’s illogical attacks on the Palestinian territories, have led to serious differences between Israel and Western leaders.

Therefore, achieving an even symbolic agreement with Iran over its peaceful nuclear activities seems to be the key to solving Iran's problems with Europe.

Q: Is importance of Iran's nuclear program for the EU a result of their concern about security of Israel? Or do you think that European countries, themselves, are concerned about Iran's access to nuclear energy?

A: I think that this issue is not all about security of Israel, but is more a symbol of Iran's compatibility or incompatibility with the international system. The Europeans are well aware that Iran does not seek, even in medium term, to build nuclear weapons. Even if Iran decided to get its hands on nuclear weapons, it would not threaten any country. This issue, however, is of symbolic importance.

If Iran reached an agreement with international system, perhaps, even development of certain aspects of Iran's nuclear activities would not cause sensitivity in the Western world. Many Western countries have promised that their foreign policies seek to change Iran's behavior and make the country adapt to their desirable international system. If symbolic agreements show that such a goal has been achieved, I think there will be new openings in Iran's relations with Europe.

Q: What were the actual goals of the EU’s sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran? What would be the consequences of those sanctions? Did the results of sanctions show in the past year or not?

A: Talking about results of those sanctions would require us to engage in a broad economic analysis of sanctions which cannot be brought up here. Given the fact that a large part of the Iranian economy is dependent on oil and gas industries, the Europeans believe that if investments in Iran's oil and gas industries are limited and it becomes difficult for Iran to sell its oil, that situation will put tremendous economic pressure on Tehran and force the Iranian government to change its behavior.

However, we are living in an age of globalization when there are many channels for interactions among political and economic players. Nobody can control or block all those channels. Imposing complete sanctions is impossible in an age of globalization. Iran's economic performance in the past few months is evidence to this claim.

But nobody can deny that the sanctions are a major threat to Iran's economic interests. Therefore, Iran's diplomatic apparatus should find a way to reduce pressures resulting from sanctions.

Q: Will we see untoward effects of sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran in the current year?

A: Not all sanctions have been enforced yet. They are supposed to have their negative impacts on the Iranian economy during the next few years. However, the scope of their negative effects will greatly depend on the performance of Iranian economic officials and corporations which are active at international level.

There are also ways to find openings in all countries’ foreign policies and it depends on the diplomatic finesse of international economic players and officials to make the most of the existing conditions. Good thinking and dexterous handling may turn these conditions into new economic opportunities or, on the contrary, lead to new economic hardships for our country.

Q: What has been the effect of storming the British embassy in Tehran on Iran's relations with the European Union?

A: Tension in Iran's relation with UK led to tension in Iran's relations with the whole EU. It has been proven in the past two centuries that the British foreign policy does not favor rapid, sudden, and extreme reactions, but prefers to go ahead in a gradual manner through deeper layers of diplomacy. It seems that the UK has played a serious part in sharpening the EU’s positions on Iran during the past year.

Q: What has been the effect of the Syrian crisis on Iran's relations with EU during past year?

A: They are pointing an incriminating finger at Iran in Syria. This means that Europeans believe that survival of the Syrian government is largely owed to Iran's performance in that country. I think that the Syrian crisis is not a key determinant for Iran's relations with Europe. I mean this issue cannot lead to fluctuations in Iran's relations with the European Union. Of course, the crisis in Syria leaves its mark on Iran-EU relations, but is not a determining factor.

Q: Iran put a lot of publicity effort into last year’s unrest in London. Did that publicity have a tangible effect on Iran's relations with Europe?

A: Analysis of what happens in other countries in the internal environment of a country cannot have much effect on relations among states. The fact that the Iranian media considered the unrest in London a sign of the failure of the capitalistic system cannot have much effect on Iran's foreign relations with the UK.

Q: But covering Iran's domestic unrest by BBC had a tangible influence on Iran's relations with the UK.

A: I talked about our own side of the story. Europeans seek to change Iran's behavior in international system and Iran's internal publicity against Europeans will not have much effect on Tehran’s relations with the European Union.

If Iran achieves an agreement with the EU over its nuclear program, sharp analysis by Iran's domestic media of internal problems facing the European countries will not have a great impact on Iran's relations with the EU. When it comes to foreign relations, the important matter for most countries is their own national interests, not publicity that is launched in another country against them.

Q: When recent debates about massacre of Armenians caused tensions in Turkey’s relations with France, Iran largely passed over it. Were Iran's good relations with Armenia during the past two decades the main reason for that approach?

A: It was certainly so. I think Iran was very smart to keep away from such debates. Iran has close ties to Armenia while Turkey is among the most important trade partners of Iran. Engaging in the issue of massacre of Armenians, either in favor of Armenia or Turkey would not have benefited our national interests. Fortunately, our diplomatic apparatus correctly understood this and Iranian officials kept out of that debate.

Q: Do you think that, on the whole, the European Union follows the United States in its confrontation with Iran?

A: More than being a follower, the EU is attuned to the US. Since President Barack Obama was elected, Washington has been distancing itself from unilateralism which was rife under the former President, George Bush. Under Bush, the US adopted policies without care for its allies’ views. Therefore, in order to maintain relations with the United States, European countries had to follow footsteps of the Bush Administration.

Under Obama, however, that situation has changed. Both in the face of economic crisis, and in dealing with the Arab Spring, the European Union and the US have tried to act in unison and not a single country was dragging other behind it. Of course, the United States continues to maintain its central power in the international system, but on the whole, is acting more coordinated with the European Union now.

Key Words: Iran, Europe, Nuclear Program, UK, Germany, Salimi

Source: Asriran News Website
Translated By: Iran Review

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