Iran interior minister: US bred ISIS, now tries to fight them with useless airstrikes
The Middle East has never been a peaceful place, and the appearance of the Islamic State has turned it into a hotspot once again. At the same time, the nuclear talks with Iran bring hopes that it will rejoin international politics - and help to ease tensions in the region. Iran remains largely unknown for the rest of the world, and with possible lifting of sanctions, it will rediscover the Iranian nation again. What’s Iran really like? What does tomorrow hold for Iran? More importantly, what will Iran bring to tomorrow? Interior Minister of Iran Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli is on Sophie&Co.
Sophie Shevarnadze: Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, the Interior Minister of Iran. Thank you very much for joining us.
Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli: You are welcome.
AF: We don’t confirm this report. We haven’t had any clashes in any part of the country – in the southeast, or in the east, or in the west. All these regions are safe. Of course, there are drug traffickers who take advantage of the poor security situation and the weakness of law enforcement in neighboring states, and we take this threat very seriously, but we don’t have Islamic State militants in our country.
SS: Still, this region has a substantial Sunni population. Don’t you think the Islamic State may have quite a few supporters among those Sunnis?
AF: Actually, we don’t have any serious issues with our Sunnis. They perceive the Islamic Republic of Iran as a democracy created by the people, and its leaders and other high-ranking officials are elected by the people. Sunnis take part in elections; they vote, so we don’t have any separatist sentiment.
SS: Just to clarify, Mr Minister. Does it mean that the Islamic State poses no threat to Iran?
AF: This group doesn’t pose any threat to Iran. In fact, it is our Sunnis who guard our southeastern and western borders. Young Sunnis join the Basij, our volunteer militia, and help guard our borders together with the Revolutionary Guards.
SS: But still Iran has launched air strikes against the Islamic State. Does it mean that you have joined the war against them?
AF: There were no air strikes. In fact, we don’t believe you can defeat insurgency with air strikes. Otherwise, the US-led coalition would win. We believe that the local population has to mobilize and learn to fight. Only the people themselves can defeat those sectarian factions.
SS: But the Pentagon issued an official statement saying Iran has conducted air strikes against the Islamic State.
AF: We don’t confirm this report by the Pentagon. This is psychological warfare intended to antagonize Muslims in the region. We support the people of Iraq and Syria in their fight against the Islamic State by offering organizational and advisory assistance. And we do this openly. Why? Because these are extremist and criminal groups operating against the people of Iraq and Syria. We oppose them and consider them to be a threat to the entire region. But air strikes can’t be effective, and we don’t conduct them.
SS: Why does Iran refuse to cooperate with the US-led campaign against the Islamic State? Apparently, you are facing a common threat here? And why do you think the US is reluctant to work with Iran on this issue?
AF: We don’t trust the Americans. We think it’s the US that helps breed these extremist groups in the region. They arm, finance and train them. That’s why we feel that this US-led coalition is a puppet show that won’t yield any results. The Islamic State fights a guerrilla war on a vast territory in desert terrain, that’s why air strikes are a non-starter. We think that the only way is to mobilize the people, and we’ve seen some good progress when the militants were forced to retreat and leave the cities they previously captured.
SS: The Iranian government has sent military advisers to Iraqi Kurdistan to help them fight against the Islamic State. Will Iran offer the same kind of support to Baghdad?
AF: We provide this kind of support to Iraq based on a request from the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Kurdistan authorities. They make no secret of this, and they are very grateful to us for responding to their request and providing this advisory, moral and technical support.
SS: Okay, let’s look at the bigger picture. You have Talibs in Afghanistan, Pakistan is unstable, too; in the West, you have trouble in Iraq. Aren’t you worried that extremism might spill over to Iran? Does your ministry provide support to security forces in neighboring states?
AF: Like I just said, we support all these countries in their fight against terrorists and extremists, especially if we receive a request from a legitimate government elected by the people. Extremism breeds where there is poverty and ignorance, when the people are not represented in the government, and when there are outside forces at play, like the US or reactionary governments in the region. In Iran, the people are represented in the government. That’s why we don’t have extremism in our country. We are an independent nation, and we are constantly beefing up our defense capabilities.
SS: Extremists operating in the countries neighboring Iran are financed through drug trafficking, among other things. Your border with Afghanistan spans thousands of kilometers in mountainous terrain. Does Iran have the capability to seal the border?
AF: You see, we are dealing with a state which is the world’s biggest narcotics producer. We are neighbors, and this has been under the influence of the US for decades. The growth of drug production has been astonishing since the time of the Taliban. One of the export routes lies through Iran. We had to deploy checkpoints along the entire border, which is two thousand kilometers long. This helped minimize the flow of drugs through our territory. Over the past two years, we equipped our guards with the latest communication technology, so we hope this will help us further reduce the amount of drugs coming in. Anyway, this is a rough mountainous region and traffickers use those routes, but we take this threat very seriously and fight them. We are very much concerned with the use of money from selling drugs to sponsor extremism. We have intelligence from our sources confirming the connection between drug traffickers and extremist groups. That’s why all the countries in the region must do their part to prevent extremists from receiving financial support from the illegal drug trade.
SS: Does the international community help you in your fight with drug traffickers? Or is it limited to moral support?
AF: The international community doesn’t support our efforts sufficiently. We spearhead the war against drugs and criminals, spending a lot of human and financial resources. More than 3,800 Iranians gave their lives fighting this curse. The international community encourages us and praises our efforts but doesn’t provide any practical help. For example, because of Western sanctions we can’t get special X-ray equipment we need to fight drug trafficking. If the international community is really serious about the issue, they should provide us with equipment, share their intelligence and conduct joint operations to block transit routes. We must be serious about fighting this smuggling network.
SS: Did the NATO operation in Afghanistan have any impact Iran’s woes related to drug trafficking? What do you expect after the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan?
AF: After the US took control of the country, poppy cultivation spiked, and today Afghanistan produces 6,500 tons of opium a year. If Americans really pull with their troops from Afghanistan and allow the people of Afghanistan to have control of their country and elect a government they want, then countries like Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan and other Central Asian nations can engage in some serious cooperation with Afghanistan on fighting poppy cultivation and drug trafficking groups. Our countries have a common vision on this issue and can work together closely to resolve this issue.
SS: The number of drug addicts in Iran is quite high despite tough measures like the death penalty for drug-related crimes. Most of the people executed in Iran today are drug traffickers. But the problem is still there.
AF: Actually, the level of drug abuse in Iran is lower than the world’s average, it’s 1.5 percent at the maximum who have used drugs or tried them. It’s an extremely low figure compared with Russia and other countries. Our government has placed this issue on top of the agenda. We have a lot of preventive and treatment programs. We are very tough on drug traffickers. Last year, we identified many more criminals, and achieved quite high levels in treatment and prevention. These trends are very effective in helping that 1.5 percent of the population.
SS: Yes but even though this percentage is low, these people are addicted mainly to heroin, opium and meth. Why are these drugs most wide-spread in Iran?
AF: Yes, opium, the traditional drug, is number one. Then heroin, which is made from opium, and hashish and synthetic drugs in the third place. Production and consumption of synthetic drugs did not further increase in Iran, and our police take this issue very seriously. We had a lot of labs inside the country that produced these drugs, but last year and in the first six months of this year we destroyed them. We count on our people helping us with this. We hope to see a low level of drug abuse in Iran because our people suffer from this terrible global problem too.
SS: Let’s change the subject now and talk about the latest round of talks on Iran’s nuclear program, which failed to produce results. I know this is a foreign policy issue, but it’s closely connected to Iran’s domestic problems. I would like your opinion on the subject. Are Iranians disappointed that the talks failed?
AF: You see, we’re defending our legitimate rights. In the 36 years since the Iranian Revolution our people showed unwavering fortitude under all sort of pressure. It is our legitimate right to have nuclear energy. We are a full member of the IAEA, we have signed all the documents. The IAEA monitors our activities. IAEA inspections have confirmed that Iran complies with all the requirements. So we will do whatever is necessary to exercise our legitimate right, including talks. I think we’ve been negotiating with the West for over ten years now, going through different stages in our talks, through ups and downs. Our stance is that we need to show the world that we comply with all the legitimate requirements. It’s the US that’s not willing to respect the rights of other nations. The recent round of negotiations showed a positive trend but at the very last moment the US delegation turned down the proposed agreement and the talks failed because of the Americans. At any rate, we are willing to engage in talks in order to exercise our right. Iran’s economy depends very little on the global economic situation, so it doesn’t experience all the turbulence the global economy goes through. Our economy has been performing very well in the past ten years in spite of all the sanctions imposed on us.
SS: I want to clarify something. You said that the negotiations have been going on for ten years, with ups and downs. But I was asking about the way people responded to the latest round of talks. It seemed like the atmosphere at the talks was more friendly this time, but they still brought no results. How did the Iranian people react to that?
AF: Our government conducts talks on behalf of our people, and when Iran insists on pursuing its legitimate right, the people of Iran totally support this demand. There were dozens of rallies across Iran where people demanded an opportunity for Iran to pursue its legitimate rights. The negotiators have the full support of our Supreme Leader and our people. People are determined to exercise their right even if it means facing more difficulties along the way.
SS: Americans say they won’t lift the sanctions anyway. You mentioned earlier that because of sanctions you are unable to get certain technology that would help you secure the border. So, apart from the effect sanctions have on the economy, even your work is affected. Can the fact that the US is not willing to lift sanctions jeopardize the potential agreement?
AF: I didn’t say we lack the technology. I said they imposed sanctions on this equipment. We manufacture this equipment ourselves now. For example, we produce our own scanners and train sniffer dogs. In this respect, we even benefitted from sanctions. When they impose sanctions on certain types of equipment, we start manufacturing it ourselves. So I’d say the pressure that the US has been putting on us for 36 years proved to be ineffective. We fought a war for 8 years, a real war, and not only against Iraq, but against all countries who supported Iraq. We’ve been living under sanctions for years. We faced psychological warfare, propaganda and political pressure from the international community, but the Iranian people pulled through.
I’m not saying sanctions have no effect on our country. Of course, sanctions take their toll on Iran. But we’re not giving up our rights because of that. We will put up with these little hardships in order to achieve bigger goals and advance our interests.
SS: Are these hardships really little? According to a Gallup poll, 85% of Iranians say these sanctions do affect their living standards in a significant way.
AF: I have no idea where this statistics come from. We have our own polls, and over 80% of Iranians want the government to pursue nuclear energy. Iranian people are wise, and they are willing to accept lower living standards. But we are now taking action to develop our regional potential, build new economic ties, increase productivity and reduce production costs.
Americans understand that Iran is strong not only as a nation but also as a regional player. That’s why they seek regional cooperation with us. But they should be aware that Iran will firmly maintain its position.
Right now many nations and governments in the region are highly suspicious of the US. The people and the governments of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen don’t trust the US and oppose its policies.
Yes, indeed, the US probably has a lot of information, political and media clout. But there is not much Americans can do in our region. We’ve seen this during the 33-day war in Lebanon, the 22-day war in Gaza, in Iraq, and in Syria. These nations determine their future on their own. Of course the US has to retreat and withdraw; it simply has no other options.
SS: Still, last year US-Iranian relations saw substantial improvement for the first time in many years. How do Iranians feel about America now? Is the anti-American sentiment on the ebb?
AF: You see, Iranians are pragmatic and realistic, so they can tell the difference between their enemies and those who seek cooperation. Our relations with the US had their ups and downs from 1954 to 1979, and since 1979 up until now. The US has always wanted to meddle into our affairs and control Iran. The people will certainly not accept this. If the US respects the Iranian people’s rights, officially recognizes its interests, refrains from interfering into Iran’s domestic affairs and putting pressure on Iran, we will have a trouble-free relationship. Our spiritual leader has made this very clear on numerous occasions. We don’t hold any deep-rooted grievances against the American people. The only country in the region that we’ve had long-standing issues with is Israel.
SS: Very often you hear this sentence, “There is a number of unanswered questions regarding Iran’s nuclear program”. It seems like there is much secrecy around the program. What is really going on at the nuclear facility in Arak? Iran claims it is intended to produce isotopes for cancer patients, but some find it hard to believe that. Why is that?
AF: There are no more unanswered questions. IAEA inspections have confirmed that Arak and Fordow plants are entirely peaceful. The inspections have been conducted in full compliance with all the rules and regulations. Iran does not engage in any undeclared activities in Arak, Fordow or elsewhere.
SS: I have a question that is directly related to your ministry. Is Iran concerned about the security of its nuclear facilities? Do they have special protection? Because we all remember the Stuxnet virus attacks, for instance.
AF: We are fully in control of the situation at our nuclear plants and other sensitive facilities. And yes, we have been able to ensure their complete security. Our country has been in a political confrontation with the US for 36 years now and is constantly under threat from Israel, so Iran is well-prepared for all kinds of attacks. So of course cybersecurity is also on our agenda.
SS: One more question. Under President Rouhani, Massoumeh Parandvar became the first woman ever in Iranian history to be appointed governor. This came as a surprise for the international public opinion, which did not expect to see a female governor. Has the situation been changing? How do Iranians feel about working with a female governor?
AF: Have you ever been to Iran?
SS: No, I haven’t.
AF: Then I invite you to come to my country and see for yourself. Women have lots of opportunities in our country. There are more women than men among university students. We also have female members of parliament now, as well as ministers, vice-presidents, and presidential advisors. The percentage of women is also very high in municipal and rural councils. Women are also governors and heads of local governments in Iran. There is no ideological or legal discrimination of women – except, of course, the jobs that are physically too difficult for women to do. On the contrary, women play a big role in political parties, NGOs and other affairs. Once again, you are very welcome to come to Iran and see it with your own eyes.
SS: And yet we’ve recently heard about the incident involving Ghoncheh Ghavami, who was arrested for attending a volleyball match. Apparently, women are not allowed to attend certain sports events in Iran. So how do you explain this? On the one hand, you have a woman appointed governor, but on the other hand another woman is arrested for attending a volleyball match.
AF: First, women are not banned from attending sports events. This is not true. But some of the sports events are really overcrowded, and there is a lot of excitement, so female spectators can only add to the dangerous atmosphere. For instance, this holds true for football matches. Ms. Ghavami was not arrested for attending a volleyball match. There were many female spectators present at that game. If we followed this logic, we would have to arrest all of them. Ms. Ghavami’s case is being dealt with in court. They’ve repeatedly said that at press conferences. It’s not like she was arrested for attending a sports event.
SS: Thank you very much for this interview. I wish you the best of success.
AF: If you have any more questions, Sophie, please don’t hesitate to ask them. I will answer any question you like.
SS: That’s it for today. Thank you very much, Mr. Fazli. Good luck.