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It’s Possible to Bridge the Gaps between Iran and the West

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with Richard Bacon
By: Kourosh Ziabari

It’s possible to bridge the gaps that keep Iran and the West apart and actualize the normalization of relations between them. This is the substance and gist of statements made by Richard Bacon MP who talked to Iran Review in an extensive and in-depth interview conducted in December last year.

Richard Bacon, a British Conservative Party politician and the Member of Parliament for the South Norfolk constituency, believes that Iran has engaged in constructive negotiations with the six world powers over its nuclear program, and it’s really imminent that it will strike a deal with them to put an end to the decade-long nuclear crisis.

On the rise of the terrorist group ISIS in the Middle East, Mr. Bacon opines that an army made of the troops from the Muslim nations, not the Western powers, should be established under the mandate of the United Nations to combat the militants of the Islamic State. He thinks such a coalition would be able to defeat ISIS in a relatively short time.

“With the help and support of the world community in the United Nations and all the members of the United Nations Security Council, we could put together an international force with the backing of the Muslim world, composed of the Muslim world, paid for by the rich members of the Muslim world to crush ISIS,” said Mr. Bacon.

Richard Bacon, a member of Iranian-British parliamentary friendship group, also says that Iran can play a leading role in fighting and eradicating violence and extremism: “I think it may sound strange given the position that Iran has been in and the difficulties Iran has faced, but I think Iran could lead by example. Actions speak louder than words, and I think there is a huge amount Iran can do. Iran has far more influence in Syria; Iran has far more influence in Afghanistan than the United States or the UK or France, everywhere. So, it’s not merely can Iran do, of course Iran can do it. My own belief is Iran must do; we need Iran to play its full part in solving the problems of the Middle East.”

Richard Bacon was born in 1962 in Solihull, Warwickshire. He has been a member of the House of Commons since 2001. He was one of the leading parliamentarians, and one of only 15 Conservative MPs, who voted against the British government’s plans for invading Iraq in 2003. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Iran Review talked to Mr. Richard Bacon on the sidelines of the 1st International Conference on World Against Violence and Extremism in Tehran on December 10, 2014. The following is the text of the interview.

Q: As a member of the Iranian-British parliamentary friendship group, what do you think should be done in order for Iran and the UK to put aside acrimonies of the past and move toward the reconstruction of the relations?

A: There are a number of steps which I think need to be taken. One of the most important steps is –and there are broader and deeper things that need to be done and there are quicker things that need to be done.In relation to the quicker things that need to be done, I think, getting the embassies open soon is extremely important and I have discussed that with our foreign ministers, as has Mr. Straw. And when I get back to London, I will continue to ask questions and put pressure on our government to speed up the process of opening the embassies so they can be opened as quickly as possible.

Q: Do you see the willingness in the British government and the Iranian government to reopen the embassies or are there hurdles and impediments on this way?

A: I believe from my discussions with the [Iranian] Minister of Foreign Affairs [Mohammad Javad Zarif] and from discussions I’ve had in London with your non-resident chargé d'affaire Mr. Habibollahzadeh, that there are no real impediments on the Iranian side. There are some discussions about technical issues that have to do with the Vienna Conventions and the re-equipping of our embassy and also it has to do with the issue of visas and consular services and the issue of returning the citizens who overstayed. My personal view is that these are not issues that should stop the embassies from opening. There are many of countries which do have embassies here including countries from Western Europe, who manage to operate properly and satisfactorily and I think we should get on with that and this would be possible soon.

Q: So, do you think that London can be designating an ambassador to Tehran in the foreseeable future?

A: Well, I very much hope so. I can’t put a date on it. We have appointed a non-resident chargé d'affaires, Mr. Ajay Sharma. Mr. Habibollahzadeh is also Iran’s envoy to London.So there are some short-term stuff that needs to be done but there is also, I think, a bigger piece of work that needs to happen. I understand – but only frankly because I have started to study the subject and started to read about the subject; the level of historic hurt which is felt in Iran about the actions of the UK, over many years –I’m not going to talk about the recent events, but I’m talking about way way back and to the coup against [Prime Minister Mohammad] Mosaddegh in 1953, but also actually way way before that as well, going back a long way to the Qajar dynasty and so on. It’s the truth; the brutal truth. These facts are not well known about in the UK mostly; very few people know them.I don’t simply mean there are not known among the general public, but of course that’s true, there are not known among the political cast. There are very few parliamentarians who even know about it; there are very few people in government who know about it. And I fear there may be far too people whose job is to know about it. In other words, even among people in the Foreign Service, in the foreign ministry, this is not just a normal accepted fact. It’s not knowledge that people have as part of their accepted narrative; it’s not widely understood and consequently, it’s not widely understood just how deep are the feelings of hurt in Iran because of the various things that happened. And I think much of what we see that’s happened in Iran in the last fifty years, including the revolution and the reaction to the West since then, really has to be seen in the light of all those previous historic events. And I think the failure to understand that has been part of the problem. So, I think there is a big job for us to do,for those who still want to see better Iranian-British relations. There is a big job for us to do in explaining the facts more clearly and making sure that they’re better understood. I also think there is a very important job to do to get more people to come here to Iran because there is a very widespread view insofar as people think about Iran – there is a very widespread view and this part of the common current issue, this is part of the common narrative insofar as people think about it; and obviously there has been most of the time that you think about the healthiness,goods, children, transport system, and coming to get the buss on time or other things.But insofar as they think about, it is part of the common narrative that in some way Iran is not normal. And when you come here, you realize that Iran is a completely normal country like many other normal countries; it has its own idiosyncrasies and most countries have their own idiosyncrasies. If you try to explain the intricacies and the complexities of the British political system including not just the House of Commons but the House of Lords, and the system of monarchy to the outsiders, you seem start tying yourself in knot because it doesn’t seem to be minimally logical or rational,but it’s grown up over a thousand years and we like it. And so, I think, the fact that Iran may have its own idiosyncrasies like every other country doesn’t mean that Iran isn’t a normal country, and the best way to understand that is to come here; the best way to understand that Iran is full of friendly people with all the optimism and all the challenges and difficulties of people everywhere on earth, trying to meet them in the best way they can, trying to raise their families, to live in peace, to live in cooperation with their neighbors,and trying to do good in the world is to meet these people. The more people come here and visit Iran, the more people will understand that for themselves.

Q: One of the problems ahead of Iran and the international community is that the nuclear controversy still exists and the fact that Iran and the six world powers are negotiating to reach a comprehensive solution brings to light the fact that this dispute should come to an end after almost ten years. Do you think that Britain can play a role in eliminating the concerns, in lowering the demands of the negotiating partners and pushing for a deal that would be viable, sustainable and practical?

A: I’m not a nuclear technician and I’m not vacuous to negotiations. So, I should say that I answer by way of warning. But I have visited the IAEA in Vienna and I’ve talked to the nuclear inspectors and to the negotiators. And I was very pleased that the negotiations were extended.It seems to be clear on both sides that there was a will to extend the negotiations; there was the view on both sides that they were very near to a deal and it was worthwhile to carry on and to keep going. And I’m very hopeful that they will succeed because it seems to me in light of history, in light the fact that General Electric, the American company was helping Iran with the development of civilian nuclear power in the 1960 - it seems to me unsurprising that Iran should wish to continue with a civilian nuclear power program. It doesn’t seem to me surprising at all. The fact that it’s taking a long time is not the point. The fact that there have been concerns from the world community and obviously particularly from Israel – and there have been concerns from around the world, that Iran might wish to have a nuclear technology for military purposes and for a bomb rather than just for civilian purposes has, I think, obviously been an actual concern in recent years. And I hope that it one day can be dealt with. I also do believe that the Israelis have been very good at accentuating and weeping up opinion whenever they had the opportunity to do so.And I speak as a person who is a staunch believer in the existence of the State of Israel. I think it’s very important, but ….

Q: Sorry for the interruption, but Iranians are frustrated that Israel has threatened Iran with the use of force and a possible military strike several times,stating that they will bomb Iran, they will crush Iran’s military sites, they will hit its nuclear sites, and so on.

A: Yes, they keep on saying that, but they won’t do it, do they? Frankly, there are a lot of people, I believe, who started to lose patience with Israel. Israel has had a lot of support in the West for many years in France, in the UK, in the United States particularly. And I think that the behavior of the Israeli government, the present government in recent years, has been reckless and dangerous,and I think it endangers Israel’s security. When you hear the former head of Mossad, the intelligence agency say that he thinks the Israel-Palestine problem is a greater threat to Israeli security than Iran, then I think we can take it as read that there are intelligent and serious people in Israel who believe that the Israel-Palestine problem is a greater threat than Iran. I don’t see Iran as an existential threat to Israel. I think what unfortunately has happened is that because Israel has ignored the international community for so many years, increasing numbers of people who have been very supportive of Israel are becoming very impatient, and I think some friends of Israel are going to start saying to Israel that the job of a friend is sometimes to tell you things you don’t want to hear.

Recently we had a vote in the House of Commons on the recognition of Palestine; I voted for it. I would never have expected to be one of the people voting for the recognition of Palestine in the absence of a comprehensive peace settlement. And the position of the UK government is you can’t vote for recognition of Palestine until there is a comprehensive peace settlement. And I’ve probably been content to stick to that position some years ago, but I realized that the debate was coming up, that it was 2014 and I told myself, it has been 20 years since the Oslo Accords,not ten years, but twenty years, and what has happened in those twenty years?We have gone from 100,000 people in settlements on the West Bank to 500,000 people. And it makes me realize that, frankly,the people in the present Israeli administration are not serious; they’re not serious and I fear for Israel because I think their actions are endangering their future security.

There are a number of reasons why I came to Tehran and I decided that it was something I wanted to do. But if you want to know one of reasons – it wasn’t the only reason, but one the reasons was the action of the Israeli government in recent years and the realization that they have 500,000 settlers rather than 100,000. And that was one of the factors that helped me make up my mind to come to Tehran. Another factor was looking at the camera, the drone-copter camera,and the film footages flying out of Gaza after the Israelis pounded Gaza - when I think 2,000 people were killed last summer, it reminded me of the photographs I saw of Germany in 1945 after the Second World War, the city is completely blitzed. There was never small area – it was quite a large area and completely devastated. And I understand the Israeli concern about rockets being fired into Israel by Hamas.

Q: Well, let’s put the question of Israel aside. You know, the people of Iran and the people of the West, particularly the United Kingdom and the United States, have been citing grievances against each other for many years. These grievances have been exacerbating the mutual relations between Iran and the West. Do you think it is really possible to move from this point of bitterness to a point of rapprochement and understanding?

A: Yes, I do. I do think it’s possible. Look at South Africa; look at Northern Ireland. It is possible. This was discussed at this conference;the word “terrorism” is very laden. It’s a very tendentious word; it’s used in lots of different contexts and lots of different ways and it’s a horrible thing especially if it happens to you.

Well, Yasser Arafat was described as a terrorist, but there came a point when the world community started to negotiate with him, and the Palestinian Authority was established. And so, by the traditional definition, lots of people say Hamas is a terrorist organization; some people say Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. I think if you’re inside of Lebanon and the guy with the clipboard comes from Hezbollah and asks you about your children’s health and whether they’ve got dental treatment and all the rest of it, if that’s happening, then you probably wouldn’t call them terrorists. You know, most of these organizations are political parties and they have engaged in military activities. It was certainly true of the IRA and Sinn Féinin the Northern Ireland and the people who were after bombing the Grand Hotel to kill Ms. Thatcher; the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness is widely believed to have been a Commander in Chief of the IRA in 1970s.

Q: I would like to actually delve on the emergence of ISIS in the region. Why is ISIS so appealing to so many Western people that are joining it? I’ve read on the news that some 200 Britons have already joined ISIS. Why is it so?

A: Yeah, I’ve heard 500, but I don’t know what the accurate numbers are. And there are reports of mothers ending up in the southeast Turkey near the border trying to literally extract their sons and get them back. And I think there is no simple answer and there is probably not one answer, but I do think that the fact that so many of the mosques in the UK have very ill-educated, very poorly trained Imams that they’re not educated to high standards at all – many of them come from South Asia and some of them from the Arab world. I don’t know great deal about Islam, I’ve never turned to an expert but I understand that basically anybody, certainly in the Sunni world, anybody can call himself an Imam. It’s very easy to do. And so you get a lot of ignorant people doing it. And the second thing is that you have within the UK a group of people, second or third generation people, who if they have been not well-educated, if they haven’t had a good chance in life, they haven’t done well at school, they come from a marginalized part of the society and they feel they have no chance of getting a good job and they feel they have no chance of progress in life, and they feel excluded from the society, that the society they feel is not inclusive enough for them and they don’t feel they really belong, and we have too many young men here– 15 or 16 or 17 years old.When young men are forming their own impressions– I joined my party, the Conservative Party in England when I was 15.Young men start to form their own impressions about the world in their mid-teens and then by the time they return to the late teens,if they haven’t got a job and they’re not doing well and they see other people around them who’re doing extremely well, maybe driving a Lamborghini and you only have to drive a simple Jeep, and you see lots of young Arab men driving expensive cars,then, some body comes along with an explanation,that it’s all somebody else’s fault and that the answer is Islam or rather, in inverted commas, Islam –this is a rather strange version that is explained by people like Imams who are ill-educated and they are talking about Islam,and you’re a young man and you can be instead of being somebody who can be looked at,you’re excluded, you’re downtrodden, you’re racially discriminated against and you don’t really feel you have a chance; and somebody comes along and says it’s not your fault; it’s somebody else’s fault and here’s a complete explanation and you can be a hero and by the way, here’s a gun. Some people are going to fall for that. Somebody in the conference described them as “lost souls” and I think it is true; some people are going to fall for that. It’s a much harder question to answer: why is that a doctor who’s well-educated, who has a job in our health service and has a good salary and is doing well would choose to go for fight in this way? That’s a much harder question to answer. And the trouble is, we know,extreme ideologies have existed throughout history and they have attracted people throughout history and extreme ideologies feed off a certain kind of personality.There are certain kinds of personalities who are drawn to them; and in different times depending on where they’ve lived, people have been drawn to Nazis and to Stalin and the Soviet,very extreme Communism,and they’ve been drawn to various kinds of ideologies, and the treat is: we do need a belief system; we do need things to live by in which we believe. So, we shouldn’t condemn ideology per se ;the idea of having an ideology, but the idea of having a system of belief by which we live. I think it’s a very important idea. It’s just the case of making sure that the beliefs are the right ones and a core part of that is respect for others and a core part of that is what many religions call the “golden rule”, doing unto other people as you would have them do unto you. If you wish to be treated in a certain way, treat other people in the way in which you would wish to be treated. And a great deal follows from that simple principle.

Q: From your understanding of Islam, do you believe that the Islamic State is really practicing violence and terror based on its pure belief in Islam? To put it in other way, do you think believe that it is Islam that preaches violence and extremism and that ISIS represents the Islamic ideology?

A: No, I don’t think ISIS represents Islamic ideology. In fact, I think it is very unfortunate that the word ISIS uses the word Islamic as an adjective at all because I don’t see anything Islamic about what they’re doing. I think and in fact Dr. Rouhani said in the speech which I saw in YouTube that they are behaving in the way that some people used to behave in the Stone Age. The word “medieval” has been used quite wrongly because the medieval period was quite a civilized period in many ways.

But no, I think many of them are behaving in a brutal and Neanderthal stone-age way; and it owes nothing to the principles of any good religion that I understand. I mean, I don’t know great deal about Islam, but I do know that one of the first things people say when they are praying Islam is to talk about God the Compassionate and God the Merciful. It is also true in Judaism when people greet each other they say “Shalom”, the same word as in Arabic or as “Salam” in Persian. It is true in the Christian church and in the Christian word that if you go to church, then one of the things that is said in the beginning and at the end of the service is “peace be upon you” and “peace be with you”. All the sensible religions of the world are religions of peace, but it doesn’t mean that all religions in the world have not been used or misused to justify violence.

Q: So, in combating terrorism, not necessarily terrorism but extremism and violence, do you give priority to military action or do you think that other channels can be opened to fight the crisis that has engulfed our region?

A: I don’t give priority to military action in the first instance because I think that the evidence suggests empirically that military action makes things worse. The evidence suggests that violence makes things worse. I believed in March 2003 when I voted against the Iraq invasion, that if it happened, it would make things worse. And I’m very sad to say that I was right; it has made things worse. One of the reasons Iraq is now in such a mess is because we smashed it into small pieces. There is no point in denying it; that’s what happened. I wish it hadn’t happened; I voted against it. There are some very small consolations that Shiite can now visit Karbala which they used not to be allowed to do. I understand there are five million of them at the moment; they’ve said there is no room anymore.

But that should not have happened; it made the region much more unstable. The Americans spent $3 trillion on this war. If they had spent $1 trillion on clean water for the region, you imagine, how much more progress they could have made, how much more human flourishing they could have had. So, I don’t give priority to military action. I also think that if we are to deal with ISIS, then essentially ISIS is composed of three components: it’s the remnant of the Ba’athists; it’s the Iraqi Sunni tribesmen who got sick of the sectarian government under Maleki and it’s the foreign Jihadists.If you like, the good, the bad, and the ugly! And in a way, you need the good and the bad to get rid of the ugly.You need, in fact, the good and the ugly to get rid of the bad; so the good are the Iraqi Sunni tribesmen, the ugly are the former Ba’athists and the bad are the foreign Jihadists. And we will not get rid of the foreign Jihadists unless we win over the Iraqi Sunni tribesmen. How you win over the Iraqi Sunni tribesmen by bombing them is not clear for me. I also think that, although I don’t give priority to military action, I would not completely rule out military action if we would be going to achieve the right result. But it seems to be perfectly obvious that if you’re going to have military action, it has to be comprehensive. It’s no good to just bombing on people from here; you need boots on the ground. It’s equally obvious that there is no appetite for Western boots on the ground and no appetite for the British, or American or the French boots on the ground. Not only is there no appetite for Britain or France or the United States, there is certainly no appetite here in the Middle East for boots on the ground from the Western powers, the old imperial powers. So, where are these boots going to come from?

Well, it seems to be there are 2.5 million Muslim soldiers in the Muslim world in countries varying from Indonesia, to Malaysia, to Pakistan, to obviously Iran and the Arab countries. And it seems to me that with the help and support of the world community in the United Nations and all the members of the United Nations Security Council, we could put together an international force with the backing of the Muslim world, composed of the Muslim world, paid for by the rich members of the Muslim world to crush ISIS. The poor countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan would necessary have to worry about paying for;they could supply soldiers and weapons but the richer countries in the Arab world could pay for it under the mandate of United Nations resolution to put enough troops on the ground, to enforce peace, to keep people apart. We were talking and told about, twenty or thirty thousand people in ISIS. It’s not such a big deal, and if we had half a million or three quarter million Muslim soldiers on the ground, you could stop them fighting. It’s like children holding their stuff; when you hold them apart, then what you do is to make them talk. You get rid of the foreign Jihadist and you make people who just want to live in peace talk. And I think that is possible, but it needs the joint collaboration of the entire world community to make that happen; and when you’ve got issues like Ukraine or when they you got the issues like nuclear talks and so on, all these thing get in the way. But it seems to me this is so important.I like the suggestion of Dominique de Villepin that there should be a permanent contact group like OSCE where everyone, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Syria, they should all be there.

I remember saying to a British minister in the Foreign Office at least a year or two ago,before Syria has got as bad as now is –well, we’ve lost a lot of time –I remember saying to this minister in the Foreign Office, that you will not solve the problems in Syria without the help of Iran and Russia. These are two of very important powers. What would we thinking? We should have been talking to Iran and we should have been talking to Russia about making the right things happen a long time ago.

Q: Keeping in mind the fact that Iran has taken up the initiative to hold an international conference to enshrine the idea of World Against Violence and Extremism, can Iran be a leading role-player in the fight and battle against extremism and violence in the light of the fact that it already is involved in a longstanding dispute with the world powers over its nuclear program?

A: Yes, I think it can. I think it may sound strange given the position that Iran has been in and the difficulties Iran has faced, but I think Iran could lead by example. Actions speak louder than words,and I think there is a huge amount Iran can do. Iran has far more influence in Syria; Iran has far more influence in Afghanistan than the United States or the UK or France, everywhere. So, it’s not merely can Iran do, of course Iran can do it. My own belief is Iran must do; we need Iran to play its full part in solving the problems of the Middle East.

And the bigger question is of this enormous schism between the Shiite and the Sunni where Iran is plainly the most important – and I think Iran is probably the most important country in the Middle East anyway, but it’s certainly the most important country in the Shiite world in this schism. I was very pleased recently to see that the Iranian Foreign Minister and the Saudi Foreign Minister met in Oman. And I thought that was very helpful development.

Q: For example, we can never see any trace of Iran’s ancient history, civilization and culture on the American TV channels, on BBC, on CNN.

A: No, no. I was talking to someone about the Iranian language and the use of the Iranian script throughout the South Asia and in what is now Pakistan where you find ancient buildings with poetry on them. And the Pakistanis could read the words because it’s used in Arab script. They could read the words and say them. They don’t know what it means because it’s in Persian. And I said that’s like ourselves and we have buildings that have been built when the Romans left England 2000 years ago; they left in 1600 with the Roman Empire collapsed in 400 but I said it’s like that. We have buildings that have been built since then in the last few hundred years but it’s still normal to have Latin everywhere. The role of Persian across a very big swathe of Central Asia is exactly like Latin for you in the West. And that is not understood, I was fascinated by that; I didn’t understand that at all, but the only way we’re going to begin to change this is by talking to each other, by visiting each other.

I would like far more parliamentarians to come here to Tehran, to Iran; I’d like more journalists to come here, more opinion-formers to come here, because there are many people in the West who have the opinion that Iran is not a normal country. And that is obviously a false impression but that impression needs to be corrected. We need to get some Republican Congressmen to come here to see for themselves how Iran really is. All of that is possible; all of that is possible. And I think we have an obligation to do it.

Q: And let me ask you to make your concluding remarks.What’s your impression of this visit to Iran and the fact that you talked to so many journalists, so many academicians and so many intellectuals? What do you think about the prospect of Iran-UK relations in the light of such exchanges?

A: Well, personally, I’m very optimistic and I’m by nature an optimist! I recognize there is a lot of work to do;there is a lot of convincing of people to do, but I think that’s all work that can be done. I don’t think there’s anything insuperable about it, nothing impossible about it. I think it’s all possible; it’s all stuff that can be achieved. My overall impression is one of delight and I’m very pleased personally to be here,and very delighted to be here. I’ve been very impressed by what I’ve seen and by the people I’ve met. My main regret is that my visit is so short because I’m flying off tomorrow morning. I’ve been here for four days and I’d like to stay for much longer, but I planned to come back.

Key Words: World Against Violence and Extremism, Iran, West, UK, Iran's Nuclear Program, Israel, ISIS, Islamic Ideology, Terrorism, Bacon

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