​'Iran supports Syria despite hardships of sanctions' - Iran's deputy FM

Iran is turning from a global pariah into a respectable negotiator. And it's not just about its nuclear program and Israel's threats of a strike. Iran is also believed to be a key figure in finding a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis. What exactly is this role and how is it going to develop? We talk to Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Minister, we are happy to have you here in our studio today. Ahead of the upcoming Geneva talks, Iran is trying to come up with a deal while Israel speaks out against any talks with Iran. It seems that you just don’t hear each other’s message at all. Is there anything that could change it?

Hossein Amir-Abdollahian: In the name of Allah, the Merciful and the Compassionate, I would like to welcome your distinguished viewers. You have just said that we do not hear each other. Actually, Iran is negotiating with the 5+1 Group. Of course, some countries are under the influence of Israel because of their close relationship. It’s not very good or efficient for the P5+1 Group when one or several countries are influenced to such extent by the pressure and tension that is being built up around this issue. Some of them are being provoked by the Israeli regime into a rhetoric which is not sensible and which would make it difficult to achieve mutual understanding or positive results.

SS:International sanctions have taken a toll on Iran, and it is ordinary people that are hit hardest. They are not involved in your nuclear program. Despite that, are you able to retain public support or is it a matter of principle for Iran and you don’t care what people think about?

HA: The truth is that the nuclear program is a source of pride for the Iranian nation. It is well known that our research has a peaceful nature. People enjoy the benefits of the nuclear program in such areas as energy, medicine, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and others. The Iranian nation has fought hard to nationalize the oil industry, and it’s now looking at the nuclear issue as a kind of an issue of national importance. The sanctions have indeed had a negative impact on some of the aspects of life but on the other hand, if you look at the sanctions from a wide perspective, they have given the Iranian people a sense of confidence.

SS:So you believe that the people of Iran have, in fact, benefitted from the sanctions?

HA: The sanctions have certainly harmed the people, but at the same time, they have also proved helpful in a number of ways: encouraging self-sufficiency, boosting confidence and self-efficacy. Bear in mind that Iran showed remarkable achievements in scientific research and industrial production while actually being subjected to sanctions. One way or another, we think the sanctions have been counterproductive – not only for Iran, but for other countries as well. But their negative impact in itself is reason enough for us to seek their abolition.

SS:Israel has continually threatened to attack and destroy your nuclear facilities, and this debate just keeps heating up. Should such an assault be unleashed, is Iran prepared to repel it?

HA: Fist of all, Iran fully relies on its own defense capabilities. Secondly, Tel Aviv lacks the potential to attack Iran. If you look at the 2006 Lebanon War, or the 2008-2009 Gaza War, or the most recent War in Gaza [Operation Pillar of Defense], you will see that it was the Israeli regime which sustained serious losses. During the Lebanon and Gaza wars, at least Tel Aviv was not targeted with rocket strikes. But during the latest war, while the Israeli regime had expected weak resistance from the Palestinians on account of the crisis in Syria, for the first time in history its own capital city, Tel Aviv, came under fire. The IDF could not even pull off a limited military operation and secure a victory right across the border from its own bases. If they were to attack Iran, they would certainly prove unable to do us any serious damage. Be that as it may, Iran’s armed forces are fully capable and always ready to repel an aggression from across the border.

SS:So you take Israel’s talk of a military strike as empty threats? You know, I recently spoke to the Israeli foreign minister and several parliamentarians, and they essentially told me they are ready to launch such a strike, both the government and the people. It has been speculated extensively that Israel might have nuclear weapons, and that it is far superior in military terms to all the neighboring Arab countries combined. Do you think all of it is merely bravado and empty threats?

HA: Tel-Aviv’s repeated threats are primarily meant to disrupt and obstruct Iran’s program for the production and enrichment of uranium for non-military purposes. In addition, the Israeli government is clearly behind the string of terrorist assassinations targeting Iranian nuclear scientists. It has already done everything it could to harm Iran and the Axis of Resistance. This talk of attacking Iranian nuclear sites is merely a political bluff. In any case, Iran is prepared to defend itself vigorously.

SS:What do you make of the rather unexpected alliance (or cooperation) between Israel and Saudi Arabia? There have been allegations in the media about it. Is that an alliance aimed against Iran?

HA: The Saudi Foreign Ministry has officially denied these allegations - although we know some officials from the Saudi government has always maintained covert dialogue with Tel-Aviv. But we believe that the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia are two major regional powers, so with what we know of Saudi Arabia, the role it can play in the Muslim world and the region, and how much we have in common, we are doing our best to use this opportunity to promote security, stability and progress in the region. There might be people in some countries that maintain contact or would like to establish contact with the Israeli regime. There might also be people inside Saudi Arabia who are engaged in a dialogue with Tel Aviv. But we are convinced that the Saudi policy towards the Israeli regime does not imply forging an alliance against the Islamic Republic of Iran. On the contrary, I think there has always been solid potential to build an effective strategic alliance between Iran and Saudi Arabia in order to tackle regional and international problems.

SS:Many say that Israel is isolated in the region, it doesn't really have any partners in the Middle East. Isn't this also true in Iran's case? You had a friend in Assad, but he has bigger issues to deal with right now, he doesn't have time to think about Iran. What do you think about this comparison with Israel?

HA: If you are talking about our neighbors in the Middle East, one of our neighbors is Turkey - our strategic partner. Even when Tehran and Ankara had serious disagreements about Syria, we made sure no damage was done to our strategic relations. Our other neighbor in the Middle East is Iraq. Iraq is Iran's strategic ally at the moment. I don't need to explain what the relations between our countries are like. Every day, over 5,000 tourists and pilgrims cross the border between our countries. We export more than 1,500 megawatt of electricity to Iraq. We also have great relations at the top political level. As for the Persian Gulf countries - we have good relations with the Sultanate of Oman, I would even say these are exemplary relations. The Sultan of Oman visited Iran right after President Rouhani's inauguration. If we talk about the UAE, the size of our trade with Abu Dhabi exceeds 20 billion dollars.

Iran's relations with Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are pragmatic, even though there are differences. And then there is Bahrain. There have been some developments in Bahrain, which affect its relations with Tehran, but our embassy in Manama is open. We are in constant dialogue with Bahrain. We offer different plans and programs to Bahrain in order to help solve the conflict between the authorities and the opposition there. We've always said that we are ready to help, because we want to see stability in the country, and that can be achieved through national dialogue.

So I would never say that Iran is isolated from its neighbors. On the contrary, in some areas our relations with them are exceptionally good.

SS:We are back with Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. Thanks again for being with us today. Let's now turn to Syria - I know you are an expert in this field. What would you say of Assad's current position? For instance, 600 rebels are reported to have surrendered to the government. Does this mean the war is coming to an end?

HA: There is a whole host of problems in Syria now. There is a strong extremist presence on the ground, including Al-Qaeda and opposition armed groups. With the political settlement of the Syrian crisis being in the international and regional spotlight in the last few months, many militants from these groups have given up on fighting. This means that the government does have control over the situation in Syria, and this control is increasing. We are not saying, however, that there is no political opposition in Syria. But the opposition armed forces are mostly comprised of extremists and terrorists. As terrorist activity in Syria escalated, the government had to start its own war on terror. As a result, over the past few weeks the security situation in Syria has dramatically improved. Damascus is quite safe now. So the militants understand that they have to start laying down their arms and focus on a political settlement.

SS:But do you think it can be regarded as the end of the war or not? One of Syrian rebel commanders Abdul Qadir al-Saleh has been killed just recently - does it mean anything or is there going to be a new leader who will control the rebels?

HA: The fact that rebel commanders and rebels themselves, who mostly come from abroad, get killed indicates that the Syrian Armed Forces are provided with reliable intelligence data, security and have good military potential. Moreover, the Syrian people support their army. It happens because such clashes and massive terrorist attacks have resulted in nothing for the last 30 months. I can say that if some countries stop supplying arms to Syrian rebels, it can help put an end to these political clashes, armed protests and terrorist attacks inside the country. We think that the Geneva negotiations and other political instruments will be fruitful when both countries inside the region and the rest of the world focus on finding a political solution, cease violence, control the borders and stop deploying militants and arms supplies to Syria. That would ensure the success of all approaches and political agreements.

SS: In line with what you just said, a French bank recently unlocked frozen Syrian assets to enable food purchases. This appears to be more than just a concession on the sanctions, it could indicate that peace without Assad is unlikely in the region. Would you agree?

HA: I would say a few of the Western countries are finally embracing reality. And the reality in Syria is about something more than a few foreign powers presuming to decide the future of Syria instead of its people. In fact, several attempts were made in the past to overthrow the Syrian government, but those earlier plans proved inefficient and unsuccessful. The reality on the ground in Syria is different from the way certain stakeholders seek to present it. There are many terrorist, extremist and heretical groups operating in Syria at the moment. They are building up an atmosphere of terror, posting disturbing videos and pictures on the Internet that horrify the public, not only in Syria but worldwide. France’s recent decision to unlock some of the frozen Syrian assets and facilitate humanitarian relief might have been prompted by a realization of what things actually are like. All efforts to change Syria’s political system using violence and military force are doomed to failure. What Syria needs is a political process that would provide the necessary prerequisites for ending the hostilities and stripping terrorist groups of their present influence. Once that is done, the people of Syria could indeed decide their own future through a democratic election.

Of course, the Islamic Republic of Iran would be happy to help with the disarmament of Syria, or any other country that illegitimately possesses weapons of mass destruction. But if you are suggesting we should move Syrian chemical weapons to Iran, I have to say, first of all, that moving those weapons would create bad publicity for Iran. Biased commentators would probably say that Syria and Iran have made a secret deal. So, I would say the main thing is that Syria has launched this process of chemical disarmament, and now this process should be carried out under some kind of schedule.

SS:How else can you help resolve the Syrian crisis? Some say you are helping Assad by sending volunteers to Syria.

HA: No, we have never supplied weapons or military personnel to Syria. What we have done is we have sent a lot of humanitarian aid to Syria over the past couple of years. We have been helping the people of Syria together with the Syrian Red Crescent and authorized volunteers distributing aid in various parts of Syria. We even know that some of this aid ended up in the hands of the Free Syrian Army. We have made dozens of flights; we have sent tens of thousands of trucks with humanitarian aid to Syria. We had 12 planes delivering humanitarian aid from Iran to Syria, and Americans forced them to land in Iraq in order to inspect their cargo, but they did not find anything except for medical supplies and humanitarian aid. We will continue to support the people of Syria, even though we ourselves face international sanctions. We think it is our humanitarian and Islamic duty. But we have never sent any combatants to Syria. At a certain point, when it became clear that Syria was engaged in a full-blown counterterrorist war, we did offer to send our military advisors there. This was based on our international commitments, and those advisors would only consult Syrian authorities on effective methods in fighting terrorists. That’s all we have ever done. But we have supported Syria in other ways – politically, insisting on a diplomatic solution and helping with political reforms; and by providing the people of Syria with humanitarian aid. We have been doing this, and we will continue doing this. At the same time, we will definitely continue to support Syria, and we insist that no country – neither the US, nor Saudi Arabia, nor France – can determine the future of Syria for the Syrian people.

SS:Speaking of weapons, Iran has just announced it has developed a new drone, the Fotros. Could you tell us about it? Is it in any way similar to American or Israeli drones? How do you plan to use them?

HA: Iran can boast remarkable achievements in aerospace research and production. That is one of the industries whose progress was actually encouraged by the sanctions. In developing this industry, we solely relied on our own knowledge and capabilities. The Fotros drone, which we officially unveiled yesterday, is our greatest aerospace achievement. It is a multipurpose aerial vehicle designed to be used for environmental protection, natural disaster relief, and defense. Iran will certainly continue to develop its defense industry. The great progress we have already made was made possible by the work of our young scientists and engineers, and by our deliberate reliance on our own potential.

SS:Iran has a new president, Mr. Hasan Rouhani, and the international community is hoping that now, it will be able to negotiate with Iran. President Rouhani comes as a new character for the Unites States as well. Do you sense that America is warming up to Iran, or is it just a ploy?

HA: I think that having a newly elected president who enjoys strong popular support inside Iran and a sound international reputation, and having a newly formed government to boot, we can certainly speak of a new environment, which does look promising for resuming dialogue on many tracks, including dialogue with the United States with regard to our nuclear program. We have already had several meetings with the Americans in a bilateral format, or as part of the P5+1 negotiations. However, we see that there are hardliners in the West, including the US, who seek to disrupt this new environment and undermine our relationship. But Iran is always willing to pursue positive dialogue with the United States and the West in general. We are ready to look at whatever prospective arrangements they would like to put on the table, as long as they are based on equality, reciprocity, and respect for the inherent rights of Iran and its people. I believe there is a window of opportunity at the moment, but we have yet to see how serious the Americans are about using it.

SS: Mr. Amir-Abdollahian, thank you very much for being with us.