Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told The Global Conversation that Tehran had shown flexibility and seriousness in negotiations with the West over its nuclear policy. But he also warned some red lines remained.“So far, we’ve taken lots of initiatives and shown the required flexibility at the Vienna negotiating table,” he said. “We’re saying very clearly to them that ‘now it is your turn’. It is time to see initiatives and flexibility from the western side.” Amir-Abdollahian also said a prisoner exchange was on the table - if the West is ready to take up the offer.
“We’ve announced that we’re ready, either outside the Vienna talks or alongside them, to exchange prisoners when the other side is ready,” he said. “We consider this to be a 100% humanitarian issue. We don’t see any necessity to link this humanitarian dossier to the Vienna Talks.”
And he told Iranians living abroad that they can have confidence about returning home without fear of being detained, under a new web-based vetting system.
“Just by sharing very limited information about themselves, any Iranian can ask us at the Foreign Ministry whether they’ll be able to travel without any problems,” he said. “We will respond within a maximum of 10 days in full coordination with the judiciary and security sectors, and we are responsible for our response.”
Q: This is your first interview in Farsi with Foreign Media and we’re happy to have you with us. Minister, Can you please tell us clearly and briefly about what you call Iran’s “seriousness” in the negotiations. Can the so-called “Iranian initiatives” at the Vienna Talks deliver concrete improvements to the quality of life for Iranians - and how quickly might they see such benefits?
Iranian Foreign Minister: In Doctor Raisi’s government, right from the start, our approach over the Vienna talks on lifting sanctions has been to fix this objective:
Either we don’t start negotiations at all, or if we do start we need to make sure there’s harmony between how we’re negotiating in Vienna and the realistic approach of Dr.Raisi’s government. So, we didn’t come to Vienna to have negotiations for negotiation's sake, but to have negotiations that result in a good agreement. I believe, we’ve never been so close to such a deal.
Q:That’s great you’re so close to a deal… but let’s be more clear answering my question. When ultimately will people see the results of this deal in their everyday lives? We talk too much in politics but there’s a belief I think you share: the isolation of Iran creates many winners but one main loser - the ordinary people and working classes of the country. Now it seems a deal is expected within days or weeks, according to different diplomatic sources. Correct me if you have a more precise timing: we’d be very happy to hear it here.
Iranian Foreign Minister: Firstly, I want to correct your wording. We do not believe that Iran is an isolated country. Unilateral and unlawful US sanctions have led to some problems for us. Inaction since 2015, especially from three European countries, the UK, France, and Germany, has caused some problems for Iran. But despite all their efforts, even during the Trump administration and its “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the isolation of Iran hasn’t happened.
You asked me if there’ll be a concrete impact on people’s lives and their standards of living. Listen… we’re approaching an agreement; there are some remaining issues which are our red lines. So far, we’ve taken lots of initiatives and shown the required flexibility at the Vienna negotiating table.
If today we’re saying we’re closer than ever to a deal, it’s because we’ve informed the Americans via intermediaries - and three European countries have been told by my colleagues in Vienna or by myself, through telephone conversations or during meetings with the Foreign ministers of these three countries - we’re saying very clearly to them that “Now it is your turn”. It is time to see initiatives and flexibility from the western side.
We believe if the western side looks at what is going on in Vienna more realistically, in less than a few hours, we can finalize the deal. So, for us, any exact timing for a deal is in the hands of the western side. It depends on their realism and their initiatives. We will remain at the negotiating table, applying ourselves seriously, despite the fact that on several occasions when there were difficult phases of the negotiations, the western side raised the possibility of leaving the table.
I had a talk with Josep Borrell during the Munich Security Conference, and I said “My colleagues will stay in Vienna, applying themselves with seriousness and motivation, with the objective of reaching a speedy and good deal.”
However, if the other side doesn’t show the required flexibility and creativity, without any doubt, they will be responsible if the negotiation fails.
Q: To avoid what happened with Donald Trump, you’ve been looking for guarantees and at some point political guarantees, such as political statements. Don’t you think if American companies and businesses come to Iran, that’ll be a stronger guarantee?
Iranian Foreign Minister: I think one of the problems we’ve had with the JCPOA has been the role of American companies and also the place the dollar has in the bank circulation system. Even during the Deal in 2015, the Americans imposed some restrictions in this regard. That’s why, when we systematically get messages about President Biden’s goodwill and we compare them with the behavior of Jo Biden and the American administration, we realize there’s a paradox. On the one hand, they send messages of goodwill, and on the other hand, at the same time, sometimes even on the same day, they impose new sanctions against some of our individuals and officials.
So what matters to us is the behavior of the Americans. We will judge them on their behavior.
Q: Is having a coherent relationship with the EU, especially in the financial and commercial fields, still a priority for Iranian foreign policy? Or is it not so important as it was in the past?
Iranian Foreign Minister: The foreign policy doctrine of the new Iranian government, which is well known as a popular and revolutionary government, is based on a doctrine of a balanced foreign policy, dynamic diplomacy, and smart cooperation and interaction. In this doctrine, we keep an eye on all the regions of the world, including the European continent. We are interested in developing our relationship with all European countries. But we said clearly to our French, British and German counterparts that despite the importance of our ties with them, we are not going to reduce Europe to just these three countries. So we have an independent plan to develop and improve our relations with each individual European country, and we continue to take this seriously in the new government.
Q: Are you against the idea of the opening of an EU Office in Tehran? Have you talked ever about it with Mr. Borrell?
Iranian Foreign Minister: This subject has been raised several times. Recently even the Finnish Foreign Minister asked me about it during his visit to Iran. When I look at the past record and background, I realize that every time we got close to opening an EU office in Iran, a negative, artificial crisis against the Islamic Republic of Iran emerged within Europe. So, we understood that despite the goodwill we have towards opening an EU office, we were facing an artificial crisis within Europe, even before the office opened. So, that doesn’t improve the situation. I think the idea is still on the table and needs to be followed.
Q: In your talks in Munich, you mentioned again the possibility of exchanging prisoners. I would like to know if an agreement is achieved, will it be just for American prisoners or will it include the Europeans, especially dual nationals, who are in jail right now in Iran?
Iranian Foreign Minister: Well, there are a very limited number of dual-national Iranians who unfortunately took part in spying. They admitted it, and their spying has led to big disasters. For example, one of these Iranians with double nationality worked for Mossad, the intelligence service of the Zionist regime, and because of his spying, Iranian scientists were killed. So the judicial system can’t simply ignore it and move on. However, last year we reached a deal to exchange a number of prisoners on a package format, including American, British, and other nationals. We agreed on the number and date but unfortunately, at the last minute, the Americans suspended the agreement. We’ve announced that we’re ready, either outside the Vienna talks or alongside them, to exchange prisoners when the other side is ready. We consider this to be a 100% humanitarian issue. We don’t see any necessity to link this humanitarian dossier to the Vienna Talks.
Freedoms for Iranians
Q: Iranian-born chess World number two Alireza Firouzja was recently photographed with French Prime Minister Jean Castex.Aside from the question of his freedom of choice, I want to know to what extent the brain drain issue is important to the new government and the new diplomacy you’re leading? From your perspective, wouldn’t it have been more class if this photo had been taken in Iran, where this chess genius was born?
Iranian Foreign Minister: We implement all kinds of methods and policies because, in addition to the service they provide to the world, the quality of the Iranian elite is well-known. For sure, we don't want to deprive the world of the services provided by Iranian elites. But we want to encourage the elites and provide the necessary conditions in Iran so that they can optimize their activity inside Iran and so our own people can benefit from their achievements, knowledge, and capabilities in various fields. It’s one of our most serious concerns.
Recently the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs added a section to confront the phenomenon of Iranophobia. You know, if you compare the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who travel to Iran from abroad from their residences in different countries during the year, with the number of people who face problems, it’s less than the number of fingers on both hands, at most. With that volume of Iranians, this small number is not significant. But the Western media empire has covered and exaggerated these few cases in such a way that some Iranians are worried if they come to Iran, they may not return.
Q: You once promised that Iranians could return to Iran and travel to Iran in peace. Are you living up to your promise? There were reports of some of them being questioned at Imam Airport. I don't know if that was intentional or accidental.
Iranian Foreign Minister: On the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in the section where we provide consular services, in the MIKHAK website, we added a section entitled “Questions about movement”. Just by sharing very limited information about themselves, any Iranian can ask us at the Foreign Ministry whether they’ll be able to travel without any problems.
Q: So, if somebody is told via this website process that it’s OK to travel to Iran, he or she can come with total confidence, that’s a guarantee?
Iranian Foreign Minister: We will respond within a maximum of 10 days in full coordination with the judiciary and security/ intelligence sectors, and we are responsible for our response.
By the way, I’d like to tell you about one of these incidents. The person was confirmed through this system and we said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Foreign Affairs guarantees you can return without any problems. Last month this person informed our Consulate General that his passport was an issue at the airport. I myself and my deputy in the consular department called that Iranian national and asked him what his problem was, and it turned out to be a very simple issue. We asked him to go the next day to get his passport, guaranteeing him that his passport would be extended without any problem.
Iran's relations with its neighbors
Q: Let’s talk about Iran’s neighbors. The first point is the relationship between Iran and the Taliban. It’s unclear whether Iran has recognized the Taliban government or it’s waiting to follow the international community. The second is the relationship with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia still believes that talks haven't been fruitful and haven’t had a significant impact. Let me ask the last question, so you can answer all three together. You see, Mr. Erdogan signed 13 major trade agreements during a recent visit to the UAE. Now Iraq is looking for an alternative to Iranian gas, it’s negotiating with Qatar and others. In the framework of your policy of “neighbouring countries as a priority,” how do you answer these three questions?
Iranian Foreign Minister: Let me answer you very briefly. In the case of Afghanistan, we are in contact with the officials of the interim governing body of Afghanistan, and incidentally, about two months ago, the foreign minister of the interim governing body of Afghanistan visited Tehran. In the talks, we explicitly told them that the criterion for us to recognize the new situation in Afghanistan is to form an inclusive government with the participation of all ethnic groups.
We have a 900 km-long common border, and every day, more than 5,000 displaced Afghan children, women, and men come to our border. The number has become horrible. The number of Afghan refugees entering Iran is enormous and due to the security issues at our border, we are in contact with the Afghan Provisional Governing Body. Our embassy is active there. But about recognition, we told them very clearly that it depended on forming an inclusive government.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, we welcome the normalization of the relations between the two countries. Last month, three of our diplomats set up at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah. In my opinion, this move, which was the result of an agreement reached during four rounds of previous talks with Saudi Arabia in Baghdad, shows there is progress.
For the role of Iraq, I would like to emphasize that each country has its own place and capacity. No country can replace the Islamic Republic of Iran. Each country has capabilities in its own capacity and uses those capabilities and its own capacity. To think that Iraq is taking over the Iranian market is not a correct assessment, in my opinion. Of course, the lifting of sanctions could lead to Iran retaking its normal place in the economic and trade spheres.
The great capacities and good morale of the dear people of Iran have made it possible for them to withstand the harsh sanctions of the past 43 years. But we in Vienna are trying to get through this stage of unilateral and illegal US sanctions. All parties must return to their commitments. I hope that in this new phase, we’ll be able to see more comprehensive and more effective bilateral cooperation with individual countries, regionally and internationally. We are very optimistic about the future.