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June 06, 2010, Sunday

Iran wants civilized dialogue with the West

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki visited Brussels last week. During the visit he met with a number of senior EU officials, addressed the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and spoke at the think tank where I work -- the European Policy Centre -- where he addressed a crowd of around 150 people on the issue of Iran’s relations with the EU. However it became apparent early on that he really had very little to say on relations with the EU -- other than that Europe was always to quick to follow the US. Instead he focused on condemning Israel, the previous US administration and the unfairness of the West’s policies toward Iran in general while at the same time reminiscing over what a great history Iran has and the potential it has to play a significant role in its region, including in the Afghan conflict. Indeed, the foreign minister is a charismatic and charming man who attempted to inject his own special type of humor into the event.

Nor surprisingly, he began by expressing solidarity with the martyrs who were killed by what he described as the “barbarian actions” of Israel. While he welcomed the strong condemnation by the EU, he went on to say that he hoped it would be followed up by strong action in Europe to open the door for people in Gaza who need assistance. The minister insisted that Iran desired a “civilized dialogue” with the West, using the challenges that faced today’s world as an opportunity to work together in a cooperative way that would lead to an increase in confidence and trust between Iran and the West.

He was particularly passionate on Afghanistan, which as Iran’s direct neighbor is a particular worry to Tehran, not least because of the drug issue that filters to the heart of Iran and in 2009 was responsible for thousands of deaths. It is clear that Iran views the West’s approach to Afghanistan as naïve and insufficient; with some of the policies being just plain stupid. He used the example of arms. Afghans have been offered $300 per weapon they turn in, when they could buy further arms for only $150 apiece, making this policy totally illogical. Mottaki said that he had refused to attend the London conference on Afghanistan earlier this year, as he did not want to deal with the extremists in Afghanistan, which he believed to be a fatal mistake. Whether or not the West acknowledges, it the Afghan problem will almost certainly be better dealt with regionally, which is not the case today.

Turning to an issue that preoccupies the rest of the world -- the apparent intention of Iran to build a nuclear bomb -- the minister was extremely clear. Yes to nuclear power but no to nuclear weapons. So even while Iran’s leadership continues to say it does not believe in nuclear weapons -- and indeed, this message was delivered at a recent disarmament conference in Tehran entitled “Nuclear energy for all, nuclear weapons for no one,” attended by people from 60 countries and during which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had described the use of nuclear weapons as “haram” (religiously banned) -- it would seem that the rest of the world is still not convinced.

The minister stressed that under Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) rules Tehran has a right to develop highly enriched uranium to run the Tehran reactor to manufacture medical supplies and has already said that it is prepared to work through Turkey to exchange uranium, following lengthy discussions between Iran, Turkey and Brazil. But at the same time he said that while Iran was preparing to ship 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Turkey, some countries in the West continued to argue this was simply a move to delay further UN sanctions, as they believe Iran has continued to ignore requests for further inspections of its nuclear installations and so there was a move within the UN to introduce further sanctions before the exchange go could ahead. Tehran sees such developments as confrontational and totally counterproductive. Such a new resolution for sanctions will probably kill the Turkish initiative, which is unfortunate.

He then moved on to make some very absurd comments on a number of other issues including questioning the Holocaust, by denying the 2009 elections were anything but democratic and fair and by saying that the human rights issues in his country were exaggerated and that Iran has thousands of NGOs working on the issues of women’s rights, human rights, and so on. Apparently overseas propaganda distorts the real situation. Tell that to all those that languish in jail -- or worse.

If Iran really wants to have a civilized dialogue with the West it also needs to take on its share of the burden and be more ready to open up and engage in a far more pragmatic, open and constructive way, thereby removing all these theories of conspiracy and distrust that the West holds toward the country. After all, dialogue is a two-way street.

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