Iran seeks better relations with west, says envoy
Normalisation and sanctions relief hang on nuclear negotiations, writes Lara Marlowe
Iranian ambassador to Ireland Javad Kachoueian: “The people of my country cannot accept that others tell them not to have a peaceful nuclear programme.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times
Ten months after President Hassan Rouhani took office, Iran is emerging from the isolation that followed the repression of the 2009 “green movement”. During the same period, the US, UN and EU imposed the most crippling sanctions ever against the Islamic Republic.
Over tea, biscuits and pistachios at the Iranian embassy in Blackrock, ambassador Javad Kachoueian rejoices in Mr Rouhani’s election, which he calls “the wise choice of hope, rationality and moderation by the great people of Iran”.
A specialist in European-Iranian relations, Mr Kachoueian is a senior diplomat with 29 years of experience. Before his arrival in Dublin this spring, he served in embassies in Helsinki, Oslo, The Hague, Copenhagen and London.
‘Mutual respect’ “One of the main goals of the new (Iranian) government is to remove obstacles and normalise relations with Europe, based on mutual respect and common interest,” he says.
Relief from what Mr Kachoueian calls the “illegal, inhuman sanctions” depends on the conclusion of Iran’s negotiations with the US, Russia, China, Germany, France and Britain regarding Iran’s nuclear programme. A July 20th deadline has been set, but it may be extended.
A preliminary agreement last November precipitated a gold rush of western businessmen, prospecting for deals in Tehran. Although many circumvent the sanctions regime by dealing through third countries, trade remains difficult. The Iranian banking system has been crippled and it is impossible to insure vessels carrying cargo to or from Iran.
“It’s not about nuclear weapons,” Mr Kachoueian insists. “The people of my country cannot accept that others tell them not to have a peaceful nuclear programme.” As a signatory to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, the ambassador says Iran has “an inalienable right” to enrich uranium.
The amount of uranium the country is allowed to enrich is the biggest sticking point in negotiations. According to the New York Times, Israel says Iran must not have more than 5,000 centrifuges, while Tehran says it needs some 50,000 to provide fuel for its nuclear power programme.
Mr Kachoueian points out that the nuclear programme was “conceived and initiated by the Shah and his government, with direct assistance and encouragement by the US and some European countries”. The US and Europe “have been given every opportunity to participate in the development and construction of nuclear reactors in Iran, but they have always refused to do so”, he adds.
Fatwa against weapons The words “peaceful purposes” occur in nearly every sentence Mr Kachoueian utters regarding the programme. He cites a 2005 fatwa by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, which forbids “the production, stockpiling and use of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons” as a sin against Islam.
The sanctions against Iran are a form of “self-punishment” by the West, Mr Kachoueian says. Iran’s population of 77 million, and an additional 200 million people in 15 neighbouring countries, represent an enormous untapped market.
Before the EU imposed an oil embargo against Iran, froze the assets of its central bank and enforced a raft of new restrictions in 2012, trade between Iran and the EU stood at €28 billion annually, Mr Kachoueian says. It has since plummeted to €6 billion. “But now we have €40 billion in trade with China, and that is due to increase to €100 billion. The impact of sanctions was that the EU gave up its place as Iran’s leading trade partner to China.”
Ireland exports €51.5 million annually to Iran, according to Pat Breen, TD, who as head of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade led a delegation of four TDs and a Senator to Tehran in January. Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett is expected to make an official visit this year, at the invitation of the speaker of the Iranian Majlis.
“Fortunately, Ireland has no history of colonialism in our region,” Mr Kachoueian says.
“This is a very positive element for expanding our relations with Ireland . . . We welcome all Irish activity in the Middle East, because Ireland’s policy is rational and wise.”
Syrian links President Bashar al Assad might not have survived the three-year-old civil war in Syria without Tehran’s support. Mr Kachoueian calls his own country “an anchor of stability” in the region, and deplores that Arab countries supported groups linked to al-Qaeda in Syria.
“I had a lot of meetings with other ambassadors to Ireland, especially the Europeans,” he says. “They told me they understand now that their previous policy was wrong, because they helped the terrorist groups . . . If the fighters who went to Syria from European countries return, we may see another September 11 in Europe.”
As much as the Islamic Republic desires a new start in its relations with the West, resentment lingers. Mr Kachoueian recalls that Europe and the US remained silent when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980-1988 Gulf war.
The ambassador is proud that under Iranian democracy, “power is gained and lost through the ballot box, according to the will of the people”. Mohammad Mosaddegh, a democratically elected prime minister of Iran, was overthrown by a CIA-MI6 plot in 1953.
“Every time we want to be independent in policy, some western country interferes in my country,” the ambassador laughs.
“I am sure they know that all our nuclear activities are peaceful. But they put pressure on Iran, not because of our nuclear activities, but because of our independent foreign policy.”