Iran Ambassador to India Gholamreza Ansari laments India is very slow in trade deals, denies a Shia-Sunni conflict in West Asia, and explains why all will benefit from the Iran-US n-deal. This Idea Exchange was moderated by Associate Editor Sushant Singh.
Why Gholamreza Ansari?
Iran’s Ambassador to India since December 2012, Ansari is a seasoned diplomat, and has served at key positions in Iran’s foreign ministry. Tehran has been at the centre of recent geopolitical action. Iran and P 5+1 have signed the framework nuclear deal and may soon sign the final agreement. The prospects of a US-Iran rapprochement has raised concerns in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Shia Iran has also been pitted against Sunni Saudi Arabia in conflicts in Syria and Yemen while, as an influential player in Iraq, it has been contributing to halt IS. India-Iran ties may look up as Iran once again becomes a big supplier of crude oil to India. Indian firms are expected to invest in Iranian oil and gas fields, while Iran expects greater assistance from Delhi in infrastructure development.
GHOLAMREZA ANSARI: The P5+1 and Iran seems to be a very important event between Iran and the West. First, it was not Iran’s aim to deal with the West. The nuclear issue seems to us an obstacle which stops cooperation and development in the region. Mr Hassan Rouhani’s government is for cooperation. Everybody will benefit from this deal. Some countries in the region are under an illusion and are trying to derail it, but they are making a big mistake, like they did earlier. For instance, after the Islamic Revolution, some of our neighbours encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack Iran, but paid for that. After the war, Saddam Hussein turned the gun towards them, in Kuwait. They do mistakes, and follow up with new ones. In their mistakes, they accuse Iran of interfering in Arab affairs.
So, Iran is for cooperation. We do not want to live in history, we want to live for the future. Iran will be the first country to benefit from the stability in the region. .
SUSHANT SINGH: The framework nuclear agreement is in place but your government has objected to factsheets brought out by the US. How confident are you of drafting the final, comprehensive agreement by June?
We did not go to the negotiation table because of sanctions. We have always been on the side of negotiations — in 2003, in 2010, for example. Even under the most difficult sanctions, the Iranian scientific achievement was significant. We are negotiating on our own principles. We will always be committed to the NPT. So what about the 5+1 and future? We are very optimistic. Why? Because the other side has no option. They have tried all their options. All these guys supported Saddam Hussein with all the means — missiles, aircraft, money, soldiers. We didn’t even have a battalion to send to the borders. So all options — sanctions, war — had been tried and exercised. So when they say that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiations table, they’re deceiving themselves. We are not negotiating because of their pressure. We are against producing or storing nuclear weapons. So, we are for deals and options. The other side has no option.
SUSHANT SINGH: What will be the deal’s impact on India-Iran trade ties?
The economic impact will be enormous. Iran and India have had flourishing economic relations even under the most difficult sanctions. It shows that we are very natural friends. Iran used to be a rich source of energy, gas, oil, petrochemicals. And India used to be a growing market. So it’s very natural after such obstacles, Iran and India will have a better relationship in the energy sector, especially in downstream. Even during difficult sanctions, we were exporting non-oil commodities to India worth $3 billion a year. This is the potential between Iran and India in the energy sector. Then there is connectivity. Iran is the best way for India to have access to Central Asia, to Afghanistan, to Russia, even north Europe. Also, minerals. Indians are very capable of mineral industries. Iran has a huge demand for mineral industries. And it’s the same in the sector of security cooperation. Persian Gulf, Oman Sea and Indian Ocean are important waterways for Indians and Iranians. Waterways should be safe, secure for better trade not only for India and Iran, but also the region itself. Afghanistan is another issue. Afghanistan is a matter of interest due to security and stability for India and Iran. So potential is great and by removing obstacles like P5+1 and the Iran deal, it will create a huge huge potential between Iran and India.
AJAY SHANKAR: Can you elaborate on Iran’s role in Yemen?
We had no intention of interfering in Yemen’s internal affairs. They are a mature nation. The Shia in Yemen are mature and looking out for their own rights. You know the capabilities of Saudis. Is assaulting and killing poor people, destroying all of Yemen’s infrastructure a fulfilling foreign policy? When you’re not using ground troops, why are you bombing?
The role of Iran in Yemen is to look for a solution. The only solution is going to the people of Yemen, who can negotiate what they want to do for themselves. And this was our role in Syria as well. After four years, now the US is coming to the conclusion that we should negotiate with the Syrian government. The same will happen in Yemen. After a few months, everybody will talk about a political solution.
AJAY SHANKAR: Does Iran ever intend to resolve the deadlock with Israel and Saudi Arabia or will you be permanent enemies?
We do not want to hate Saudi Arabia. They are our neighbours and we want to cooperate with them for the region’s future. Saudi Arabia can be a very good friend of Iran. We support them. We used to and want to be good friends.
Israel is something else. Our solution for the Zionist regime is very clear: going to the people — Muslims, Christians, Jews. Any decision by these people will be respected by us. That’s our solution — democracy. Democracy is good for Europe, for us, for Syria, for Egypt. People must have a say in their own destiny. It’s the same in the occupied territories. Where is the right of Palestinians? Just killing them? These Zionist regimes didn’t respect their own commitments since 1993. Where is your Oslo agreement? Americans say we are for two-nation solution. But who is the most furious about this solution? The Zionist regime. They are against peace in the region. Why? Americans will support them — with military and financial aid — when there is instability. A few weeks ago, they received submarines that can be equipped with nuclear warheads. Why do they need the submarines? For instability in the region. Then, there is the question of Palestine. They are trying hard to derail the world’s attention from the main problem of the region — the Palestinian issue — but they will not succeed.
COOMI KAPOOR: What do you feel about India’s growing ties with Israel?
I don’t know. That is your business. It is not our business to advise you. Any country can choose their own friends. That’s your right as well as ours. But we should not let our friends choose our enemies. If they (Israel) are your friends, don’t let them choose your enemies.
SUSHANT SINGH: You spoke about Indian investment in energy fields. One of the areas of concern has been the gas fields where ONGC Videsh had invested some money in, and you know what happened after 2012. The progress has not been as per expectations. Can we see some change in that deal?
I think illusion is becoming a contagious disease nowadays. You stop trying for the Farzad-B gas fields because you were facing sanctions due to American policy. You stopped the pipeline because of the American policy. That is not our fault. If you stop your efforts, that’s your fault, not ours. Today, anything happens, blame Iran for it. Farzad-B, blame Iran. Stopping the pipeline, blame Iran. It’s unfair. Iran cannot wait for decades for Indians to prepare themselves for exploration. You are very patient people, but we are not.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: What’s you view on Pakistan not going with Saudi Arabia in Yemen? And Iran is close to both Pakistan and India, so how do you look at the Kashmir issue?
It was not just Pakistanis who did not get involved in Yemen. I think Saudis were deceived as well. As I said, they are facing some sort of illusion. That’s their big, obvious mistake. By interfering in Yemen’s affairs this way, you will be blamed by your friends after all. The Pakistanis didn’t help them because they were wise. Who is helping them now except they themselves? They asked many countries for help but were refused. Don’t worry. Just wait for a few weeks.
As for Kashmir, it’s a part of India. You should talk about it. You should teach us about Kashmir.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: You said nobody in the Middle East trusts Americans. Would that be your message for the Indians?
This is the reality on the ground. Can you find any single country that can trust the Americans? Even Israelis are not listening to the Americans anymore. Americans are trying to twist their hands but they now don’t know how. The Oslo agreement was in 1993, and now it’s 2015 — they didn’t listen to the Americans. It was the American policy towards the region’s solution which, in their view, was that they wanted to save Israel. To save Israel, erase the borders. A country without borders. So how can you save a country without borders when you have animals like ISIS in the region? Even Americans do not have a policy in the region. Who are the Americans dealing with? ISIS? They created a coalition. Which member of this coalition has the intention of fighting ISIS? Do you think the Americans will bring their ground troops again in Iraq? To fight ISIS? No. Who will fight ISIS? As far as ISIS was fighting the Assad government, they were supporting them. As far as Jabhat al-Nusra was fighting the Assad government, they were sending them arms and money. As far as ISIS is fighting the Iraqi government, they are sending them money as well as equipment. The only country that can and wants to fight ISIS is Iran. And it’s not a matter of Shia-Sunni. That’s a big deception created by some people. Their cruel ways have nothing to do with Sunni or Shia or even Islam.
MONOJIT MAJUMDAR: It’s acknowledged widely now, even in America, that there is no hope for success against ISIS without Iranian support. You do not officially admit so but unofficial troops are already on the ground fighting ISIS.
Just to correct you, all troops are not fighting. Iraqis do not need foreign troops. They need advisors. We were facing people like ISIS in our country. They used to be more brutal and we eradicated them. Now they are living in Europe and America, supported by the Americans as well as by the Europeans.
MONOJIT MAJUMDAR: With ISIS spreading in Africa, Yemen and Afghanistan, do you see the possibility of a direct military cooperation with the US against ISIS?
I cannot give you a clear answer. Let me read exactly what our leader said: “This will become an experience for us if the other side stops its usual obstinacy and we will find out if we can negotiate with it over all the matters as well. But if not, then something else”. So P5+1 negotiation with Iran headed by Americans can be a very good experience between Iran and America. And I think if they deal with it in a just manner, that can be a good experience for the future. I think they have no other way. Because if the world today is anxious about al-Qaeda and ISIS, you must find somebody to deal with on such a complicated issue. We need everyone to come and concentrate on the issue and eradicate this cancer from the region.
AJAY SHANKAR: Who took the first step over the nuclear deal?
I really cannot say who began. We were very successful in our negotiations with the Europeans. We were on the edge of some accommodation with the Europeans but Americans said no. Americans look for monopoly in deals. They love Iran. Don’t worry about it. Everybody loves Iran. In 2010, Turkey and Brazil came to some accommodation with Iran. And they had the letter from the Americans. They showed the letter that we have the consent of the Americans to deal with you. At the last moment, the big lover came and said no. He came to a conclusion. Everything was settled. It was at midnight that we came to a conclusion with the Turks and the Brazilians. But early morning, the Americans said, no, the deal is finished.
Now, the scene is ready for the Americans, so they have jumped from their seats. They say that it was because of pressure and sanctions. But everyone knows that is an excuse. We have always been on the negotiating table. Iran has tapped its potential since the Revolution because of different sanctions. Sanctions are not something new. We are experts of sanctions. Fifty-six years of sanctions. Different kind of sanctions. Different kind of plots. They tried their best to topple this system, but now they know that the only way is negotiation.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: You said developments in the Middle East are not linked to Shia-Sunni differences. But the facts on the ground reflect a Shia-Sunni conflict and competition of influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia as well. Iran was active in democratic protests in Shia-majority Bahrain but was supporting the ruling Shia Alawite Assad family in Sunni-majority Syria. So how do you look at this angle?
We didn’t support Assad or the Alawites. We supported Syria. If Assad was not in power now, what was the destiny of Syrians? Can you compare Syria with Libya? The most experienced politicians cannot tell you what’s going on in Libya or what will be the future there. Syria can be worse. We supported Assad’s government in Syria. Now, even Mr (John) Kerry is saying we must talk to the Assad government. Because they have realised that it was a disaster if in those days they would bomb Syria, on the invitation of Arab leaders. They said, we would pay for your aggression because there was a big question in America that who would pay for bombing Syria. Thank god we supported the Syrian government and now you have Syria, but destroyed. Let’s think about what we can do for the Syrians, one-third of whom are displaced.
As for Bahrain, we didn’t interfere in their internal affairs. Because if we would interfere, the situation would have been completely different from what it is now. The majority were born Shia, we didn’t convert them. They used to live there for decades. And they are looking for their rights. So it’s not Shia-Sunni. Libya, was it a Sunni-Shia case? Egypt, was that Sunni-Shia? Is ISIS Sunni or Shia? They are killing more Sunnis than Shias. This is Wahhabism, which if mixed with politics, supports ISIS, Taliban, Jabhat al-Nusra, Boko Haram. When Wahhabism gets mixed with politics, with government, then there is real tension.
Transcribed by Suanshu Khurana & Somya Lakhani.