Air Date: July 8, 1997 Program 9727

A NEW IRAN?

Guest:
Sirous Nasseri, Ambassador of Iran to the United Nations in Geneva

(This text has been professionally transcribed, However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

SIROUS NASSERI: For Iran, we are of course a regional power, and I think we are able to find a way to sustain that power and to be able to continue to grow whether or not the Americans agree or disagree with us.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, a look at the changes in Iran.

NASSERI: In this particular case I think the Americans maybe are jealous and that's why they are taking up this attitude. They are jealous because for the last 18 years, ever since the revolution, they can continued to lose ground in Iran and they have been replaced by the Europeans.

PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Keith Porter. There is a new President in Iran Mohammed Khatami and press reports in the West have been routinely referring to him as a moderate or reform minded. To learn more about President Khatami and the potential for change both in Iran and it's relationships with the world, I had a conversation with Iranian diplomat Sirous Nasseri. Ambassador Nasseri represents Iran at the United Nations offices in Geneva. As expected, he has only kind words for his new President.

NASSERI: He is a fine man, he is a cultured person. He seemed not to be—at least it was perceived not to be much of a politician and everyone thought that, that was his handicap and his disadvantage—but maybe at the same time people are looking for someone who is not just a politician but he presents simple views, basic views in a sincere way. Although now I believe also—professionals say he is a good politician as well. I think it was an election that could not have been anticipated as far as it's results are concerned by anyone. Our own predictions were that the results would be either otherwise—that is the other candidates would win or that it would be a very close race and most likely they would have to go to a run off in the second round to try to gain their 51% of the vote. But it shows that people in Iran are very much still interested in politics and how the issue of government is dealt with—who represents them and in which manner and what are the policies that need to be followed and where priorities lie. But that's a very healthy side and that's a very interesting development that came about as a result of these elections.

PORTER: Did Mr. Khatami hold political office before this? Elected office?

NASSERI: No, he was appointed as a Minister—we call it Minister for Islamic Guidance—it's like a cultural Minister—and he held that post for about 10 years until he resigned 2 years into the Presidency of President Rafsanjani.

PORTER: You may not know the answer, but has he traveled much outside the country? Has he studied abroad?

NASSERI: He has been abroad. He's lived abroad both before the revolution and he has also traveled abroad after the revolution. Part of it because his position required him to do so when he was holding the Ministerial position. And afterwards, as far as I know, he's also been trying to go around in terms of following his modest position as the Head of the National Library, as well as perusing his studies in various areas and researches. Internally he has traveled quite a bit—he traveled quite a bit during the campaign. And it was very interesting because he just picked up a bus like you would see in other places where the campaigning had become very much developed and he in a span of a few weeks he traveled across the country and went to almost to every corner and every city—and knowing the vastness of Iran, it's not an easy task.

PORTER: Does his election signal any particular change either internally or in the way Iran deals with the rest of the world?

NASSERI: Well, internally, of course what he has emphasized upon is a more solid insistence that there should be a rule of law. Not that rule of law has not been there so far—but he feels that—and he has said it—he said "we have the law, we have the necessary institutions to both implement it and also to protect the rights of the people in accordance with the law." That has been the corner stone of his campaign. And he has reiterated it even after his election. Therefore I believe, that would be one significant area where there might be some developments. At least that is what he has promised to those who have supported him. In terms of economic issues, I would assume that the economic trend and programs have already been set more or less. He has suggested that he would be giving a bit more rate to making sure that through this course and process of economic transformation, that people will not suffer very much. Everyone understands that during this transitional period there would be some suffering but he has said that he would be more attentive of that. In political arena, I think internationally things will not have to change very much very quickly. I believe our current political situation dictates a certain form of international relations and we thought that basic political situation changing—one cannot expect much of a transformation. Of course, the intention is to have better relations with various countries—particularly the countries within our region and I am certain that he will make an effort at that—and one should also take into account that there has been a very positive reception of his election globally and that may increase the so called, margin of maneuver for him, in terms of foreign policy and he may be able to somehow extend on options that we have and exercise them in terms of foreign policy. But I'm not certain whether that would be the first priority. I think he would look into domestic issues first before he makes serious attempt at that foreign policy.

PORTER: I'm sure you heard the statement of President Clinton, I believe he was in London when he made the statement following the elections about how the Iranian people are a great people he said—and he listed three things basically that he thought separated our two countries. The first one was he said, he wants an Iran which does not believe terrorism is a legitimate extension of political policies. Does Iran believe that terrorism is a legitimate extension of political policies?

NASSERI: Well, I think much of what President Clinton and whole of the U.S. Administration says in terms of their policies towards Iran is still rhetoric. And that rhetoric has not changed. We have noted that some of the nasty words that used to be utilized every time there is a reference to Iran by any American official or Congressman or Senator, has not been referred to any more as of late. But still be have problems in terms of the perceptions that Americans have about Iran and the behavior of Iran and the fact that they believe that they are the ones who should dictate what Iran should do and how Iran should behave. Because contrary to what Americans say, what the Iranians say, and I think on this there is really a general feeling shared also by the public, that the American have wronged Iran for a long time. They have not been perusing policies that by any means could be considered as a policy that would be regarding Iran on an equal footing as an independent state—as a state which—as has been said—has a very rich history and culture. And a nation with a long history and culture has a lot of pride and that pride is good. It is not ??? and you cannot really put your foot on it. And that's what the Americans have done and are still doing.

PORTER: Now the first comment was about terrorism. The second one that he made said that he wants an Iran that is not trying to wreck the Middle East peace process. Is Iran trying to wreck the Middle East peace process?

NASSERI: Iran does not agree with the current state of affairs with regards to the peace process. Does not believe that this process will lead to real peace. Believes firmly that the rights of Palestinians and Arabs and Moslems have been subdued through this process. That it has been a one-sided approach through out and it has always been the interests of the "Israelis" that has overwhelmed everything else. And I think that is very clear. What have the Palestinians for instance gained so far? What will they gain—even the whole plan worked out in Oslo—if put into real action and implementation? You will have not a state but something like a pseudo-state which consists of a very small territory—like a small town. And it will have a chief or a sheriff from the PLO. It will have no sovereignty in terms of—or independence of action—in terms of it's foreign policy, it's defense, things that really are basic in terms of defining a state. That's even if everything goes fine and dandy and the whole thing is applied in the best possible way. Therefore there is no agreement to this peace process. But whether we are attempting to wreck it—no, that's where the Americans are wrong—we are not doing anything actively in this sense, but we maintain our view and we maintain it very strongly and we believe that at least a very large numbers of Palestinians and Arabs, if not the majority, believe the same way.

PORTER: The third statement was that he wants an Iran that is not building weapons of mass destruction. Is Iran building weapons of mass destruction?

NASSERI: On this I can say that really the claims are ridiculous. Iran is a victim, at least of one type of weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons. Extensively and intensively and when Iran was being victimized, the Americans were silent about it and did nothing to try to discourage the continuation of the use of chemical weapons against Iranian military personnel as well as civilians. For all weapons of mass destruction there is a international regime and there is a way to go about concerns. Concerns about the possibility of proliferation. The Americans are parties to these regimes but they believe somehow that none of these regimes are adequate to satisfy the concerns that they have built up amongst themselves. And that's why they are alone in this—others believe that one has to work through these mechanisms.

PORTER: We're talking in this edition of Common Ground with Ambassador Sirous Nasseri, he is the representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations Offices in Geneva. Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

PORTER: Ambassador Nasseri, there was a report in an Iranian newspaper recently that said that one way to begin to heal the U.S. Iran relationship would be for the U.S. to release the assets that were frozen in American banks after the hostage taking at the U.S. Embassy in 1979. Do you have any hope that, that will happen?

NASSERI: Well, first of all I do think also that releasing these assets should be able to somehow improve the general atmosphere. I cannot say that whether that will immediately result in a change of policy on either side. But perhaps it just creates a climate where other things may follow. Now, the Americans are really holding on to these assets illegally, they have no right to do this and they have done this for a sustained period of time and the decision is being carried every year by various Presidents that has happened. I do not assume that the American administration is prepared to take such a step at this stage but I think if there is to be any change in the situation, that is one ingredient that is definitely a part of the whole story and needs to be taken into account and steps need to be taken in that direction.

PORTER: Of course you know it's still an emotional issue in the United States and it would probably take—it would cost the President—whoever the President was—whether it was Bill Clinton or anyone else—it would cost them in the political process if they were to release those assets.

NASSERI: I share your interpretation. I think the American officials now are also hostage to the public euphoric that they have helped create and they do not have as much freedom of action as they need to or as they desire to. It is much more popular to continue to strike Iran with various blows verbally or otherwise than to say something positive about Iran in the United States. But that is the problem for the American Administration and they would have to find a way to eventually get around. You see, for Iran, we are of course a regional power, and I think we are able to find a way to sustain that power and to be able to continue to grow whether or not the Americans agree or disagree with us. But for the Americans, there is a major problem. You hear most of the American ex-officials, those who have had prominent positions, disagreeing entirely with the current American policy.

PORTER: I was looking at an article written by Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft each of whom in their report called for a relaxation of policies, both toward Iran and Iraq, and a change in our dual containment policy. That reminds me, what do you think of dual containment? It's certainly a policy that has been criticized here and the Administration has continued to maintain dual containment. What do you think of that—of not only the policy but the phrase, dual containment?

NASSERI: Well, first of all, I believe it is interesting to note that people who—that is—do not have a history of being very soft toward Iran, are taking positions of this nature. Dual containment, the term I think, came about based on my knowledge of the fact, in a very haphazard way. As I understand, there was a routine process being followed at the Congress, who tried to extend the sanctions against Iraq, and it was just suggested by a few Congressman that "well, let's make it dual—let's put the name of Iran there as well and have a dual containment policy." I do not think that it was a policy that was evolved through a process, a normal process, that U.S. Administration usually follows. It was something that just came about at the Congress—an incidental and coincidental way. And again, it's one of those things—once something surfaces, it's difficult to get away from it. Of course, it's not a proper policy. What does dual containment mean? What does Iraq have to do with Iran? Iraq has been in an entirely different situation. Has been committing, or acting in certain ways, which was not supported by Iran. And in fact, when Iraq occupied Kuwait we remained impartial, and that impartiality was very significant. You know Iran has a very, very long border with Iraq and the countries in the region and I believe the Untied States were aware that Iran's role, or even Iran's inaction, would be instrumental in order to be able to confront the occupation. How can then, after the fact, and once the occupation is over, one equal the two states? In no way can that equality be presented or justified.

PORTER: While the relationship between the United States and Iran has been strained, your country has continued to build relations with, especially many European trading partners. Has this lack of competition from United States and United States firms, opened a window of opportunity for European countries and European firms to do business with Iran?

NASSERI: It certainly has. You know, for most of Europeans, aside from the United Kingdom, the Persian Gulf area and states within it has been an area of no-trespassing. Perhaps the French and the Russians have had some influence in Iraq, but that was the extent of it. Everywhere else was a continued and sustained median of the British and then the Americans and then the two of them together. I'm sure many of those American policy makers were against the current American policies. They realized that part of the difficulty with the current U.S. attitude towards Iran is that—both strategically Americans are losing because the others are finding a foothold and they are being able to find a basis for long term cooperation with Iran. And they're also losing in terms of trade and various opportunities for investment. Particularly in the oil and gas sector, which is something that is considered, has always been considered and will be for a long time as strategic. In a sense I think—it may be a bit simplistic to try to judge and evaluate policies on the basis of the psychological elements, but in this particular case, I think the Americans are jealous, and that's why they are taking up this attitude. They are jealous because for the last 18 years, ever since the revolution, they have continued to lose grounds in Iran and they have been replaced by the Europeans and various European states. Now, as far as trading various goods were concerned, maybe that was not so sensitive for the Americans, but once the Europeans started to think seriously and move ahead with investment in the oil and gas sector—which is something that is very much long term, and it has strategical and geo-political value, the Americans really I believe, were shocked and they felt that they had to somehow put a stop to this as soon as possible in order at least not to allow the Europeans go much further than what they have so far.

PORTER: I mentioned earlier one emotional aspect of this for Americans, the Tehran hostage taking. The other one is what happened on June 25 of 1996. There were 19 Americans killed in a bombing in Saudi Arabia. Most reports have said that the perpetrators were members of Saudi Hezbollah and that they were funded or at least supported by Iran. Do you have any comment on that?

NASSERI: This is categorically denied by Iran and it is categorically denied repeatedly. There has been no evidence suggesting this. In fact, most of the comments coming from the source itself, including the Saudi's, is that there is no evidence which will link this to Iran in any sense.

PORTER: You've commented in the past that there was an attempt to demonize Islam and especially Islamic fundamentalism. How is that being carried out, this demonization

NASSERI: You see various aspects of it now in a very simple way and a very extensive way. Muslim bashing has become popular, a popular thing. It seems that for—within the Western mentality, particularly within the American mentality, there should always be an evil to confront with. As soon as it's lacking it is as though they cannot find a coherent way of thinking about the world anymore. And of course, hitting at Muslim's and Islam as a whole is rather convenient. Of course they can suggest that this is a matter that has to do with the interests of the United States and interests of the Western world as whole and their ultimate security, because countries that are "allied to the West are being subject to possible transformation and change which may not be very useful for the interests of the Western world. Well, of course politics does have these things and this may indeed be the case, but I think it would be much more useful to look at this in terms of a difference that is real and exists and to try and find a way to deal with it in a civilized way. We need to have more dialogue between Western and the Muslim world on this. At least, as far as the political interests are concerned, which is usually the more dominant factor shaping the mentality of the policy makers in various parts of the world. This should be a crucial point to recall and bank upon. In most of the Muslim world, governments are in charge, which are basically secular and they are trying to follow the Western model. Fine, that may be their choice, but we should then along with it, realize and recognize the fact that this does create tension and there are a group of people that through these, they believe that their values and their most sacred beliefs are being jeopardized in this manner. Therefore, you would have to then—it is natural to expect that there would be problems in most of those countries. I think that in a sense, maybe Iran now is in a very solid shape and in a very secure and stable form, because it has already gone through this transformation and has dealt with it. And through the course of the years now, it is now building up a new system, an institutionalizing it in a manner that the religion of the people is being respected in the most fundamental and serious and solid way and at the same time the country can function as a normal society contrary to the general perception in the West that as soon as you introduce the elements of religion, in particular Islam into the government and into politics, you are going to have a very devastating situation that there is no way to deal with except to confront it and confront it by forceful means if necessary.

PORTER: That is Ambassador Sirous Nasseri, the representative of Iran to the U.N. offices in Geneva. For Common Ground, I'm Keith Porter.

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