Jean Asselborn about Iran and the Middle East

"A war of Islam against Islam, while being totally unnecessary, could have devastating consequences" Mr. Foreign Minister; you were the 9th EU foreign minister who would travel to Iran following the election of Dr. Hassan Rouhani as the Iranian President. What's your assessment of the new political atmosphere that has emerged in Iran following the presidential elections and the new turn in Iran's foreign policy which is oriented on rapprochement and the reconstruction of marred ties with the West?

Jean Asselborn: Well, I was not only the 9th EU foreign minister to travel to Iran following the election of President Dr. Hassan Rouhani, but also the 2nd of the United Nations Security Council of which Luxembourg is currently a nonpermanent member. Of course, I welcome the new dynamics which have emerged in the relations of Iran with the international community in general, and in particular with the "E 3+3" group, thanks to the new momentum developed by the new government under President Rouhani.

I truly hope that the rapprochement led by President Rouhani will further promote and deepen the dialogue with the great nation that is Iran and through this process, allow further progress on several global peace and security issues, such as the armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the Palestinian question, and the establishment of a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East. The rapprochement could also lead to the defusing of other tensions in the region like in Lebanon or regarding relations between Iran and other Persian Gulf countries. Iran and the group of six world powers are continuing their negotiations for coming to a comprehensive agreement on Tehran's nuclear program. Are you optimistic that the talks will yield significant results and lead to the complete elimination of concerns over Iran's nuclear activities and also the removal of biting sanctions against Iran?

Jean Asselborn: I can only warmly welcome the progress achieved so far in the "E 3+3 - Iran" negotiations and hope that all open questions regarding Iran's nuclear program will be resolved by the 20th of July deadline to reach a final agreement. Unfortunately, the negotiators have so far been unable to overcome gaps on several issues including determining the number of centrifuges Iran will be permitted to operate, the duration of the agreement, and a timeline for the lifting of international sanctions on Iran. U.S. officials admitted an extension of the negotiations might be necessary.

The recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report reaffirms the improvement of relations between the Agency and Iran. In this context, we are satisfied that the Agency has been able to confirm Iran's implementation of the 6 initial practical measures within the specified three-month period. We regret that the announcement of 7 new practical measures could not be fully implemented yet by Iran by 15th May zol4. We hope that further practical measures will be taken in the near future.

But I remain optimistic, because a comprehensive solution would be beneficial, both politically and economically, for all the countries involved. As reported by the seasonal iAEA reports, Iran has taken concrete steps in the direction of fulfilling its commitments stipulated in the November 24, 2013 Joint Plan of Action. So, it can be seen that Iran has the political determination and resolve to bring an end to the nuclear controversy. What about the United States and the European Union? Are they equally ready to win Iran's confidence and move toward lifting the sanctions as a goodwill gesture, and as part of their obligations by the virtue of the Joint Plan of Action?

Jean Asselborn: The IAEA plays a critical role it has assumed in the verification of the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action established during the "E 3+3 - Iran" negotiations as well as regarding the ongoing work of establishing verification activities under the "Framework for Cooperation", aiming to resolve all present and past issues, and to proceed with such activities in a "step by step" -manner.

As part of the interim agreement, the EU and the US suspended a number of sanctions. Legal acts for implementing the EU sanctions relief part of the Joint Plan of Action were adopted on 20 January. This included for the EU the suspension for a period of six months of sanctions in the areas of insurance and transport in relation to Iranian crude oil sales to its current customers, and trade on petrochemicals, gold and precious metals. The authorization thresholds in relation to financial transfers to and from Iran have been increased tenfold.

The EU has always said that sanctions are not an end in itself. Sanctions will be addressed as part of a comprehensive solution based on the principles of reciprocity and proportionality. Combating terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking are among the common concerns of Iran and the European Union. How should Iran and the EU work toward addressing these concerns, and how is it possible for them to cooperate and share their experiences for tackling these sensitive issues?

Jean Asselborn: There is no doubt that Iran plays an important role in the fight against terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking. On these issues which are major concern to the international community and the EU, I am all in favor of strengthening EU-Iran cooperation. The European officials who travel to Iran, including the diplomats and parliamentarians, often complain about the nation's human rights record, saying that Iran should abolish death penalty and improve the situation of the women in the society. Some of these suggestions seem to be worth taking into consideration, but there seems to be a dual -track approach here. None of these European officials ever criticize such regimes as Saudi Arabia, UAE or Bahrain for their deadly crackdown on the dissidents, journalists and activists and their poor rights record. Why is it so?

Jean Asselborn: It is not true that European officials do not criticize the human rights situation in other countries of the region. We consider human rights to be universal and that they should be respected by every government anywhere in the world.

President Rouhani has pledged to establish a new political culture with more respect for civil rights and freedom of press, release of political prisoners, more equality between men and women and respect of rights of minorities. Even though there have been some initial positive developments, there has so far been no substantial change in the situation. It is true that the government has made efforts to promote certain legal measures and institutional development to improve the human rights situation. However, numerous challenges persist. We encourage Iran's continued engagement with the Universal Peer Review process and we commend wide ranging consultations with all stakeholders including the civil society, prior to the next review in autumn.

Luxembourg and its partners from the European Union have a strong and unequivocal opposition to the death penalty in all times and in all circumstances. We call to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty. As a first step, an end to public executions and not to use the death penalty in drug related convictions should be implemented.

In this context, I hope for the resumption of the EU-Iran human rights dialogue at an appropriate level. Would you please explain more about the possibilities of increased cooperation between Iran and Luxembourg? Does your country have the readiness and willingness to invest in Iran's energy, transportation and communication projects and mutually receive Iran's investment in different sectors? Has there been any agreement for the increasing of trade ties between the two countries during your trip to Iran?

Jean Asselborn: There is clearly an interest of some Luxembourg companies to strengthen their commercial ties with Iran. In order to revitalize discussions to this end, both sides have to make efforts. The Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce plans to hold days of Iranian business opportunities for Luxembourg companies this year. Bilateral ties could also be strengthened.

Another great opportunity is offered by cooperation in the financial sector, in particular Islamic finance. Luxembourg is one of the leading Islamic financial centers in Europe and has worked hard to earn its reputation for developing innovative structures and delivering competent services in this area. The government and regulatory authorities have worked together to create a business environment that meets the needs of Islamic finance practitioners.

Unlike other financial centers focusing on one aspect of Islamic finance like banking, Luxembourg does not focus on one single area but rather embraces all aspects of Islamic finance: banking, asset management as well as insurance. What's your viewpoint regarding the rise of sectarian violence and conflict in the Middle East region? Some of the extremist cults such as the AI-Nusra Front, which is an offshoot of al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are said to have received military and financial assistance from the United States and its NATO allies. Moreover, many of their fighters have come to the battlefield in Syria and Iraq from the Western countries. What's your take on that? Doesn't the returning of these dangerous terrorists to their countries pose a threat to the security of Europe and the United States?

Jean Asselborn: Sectarian violence, in particular, the Shiite -Sunni divide poses a great threat to the stability of the Middle East which is multi -religious and multi -ethnical. I believe that a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran could contribute positively to reduce these tensions. In any case, it should be avoided to use sectarian differences for political gains. A war of Islam against Islam, while being totally unnecessary, could have devastating consequences.

The rise of ISIL is of grave concern to the international community which is all in favor of preserving the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Iraq. Also in Syria, Iran has to be part of the political solution to the conflict. You've been Luxembourg's Foreign Minister for some 10 years and are completely familiar with the political atmosphere ruling the European Union. What is the EUs approach to the new Iranian government and its efforts for reaching out to the West with the aim of eliminating the misunderstandings and mistrusts of the past?

Jean Asselborn: Iran is as a major power in the Middle East. Relations with Iran should be rebuilt on mutual respect. One of the reasons of my visit to Tehran was to encourage the current government to pursue its rapprochement with the West. The normalization of the relations with the international community would be a source of stability for the region. While striving for this normalization, the West must avoid strengthening the hands of the hardliners in Iran. Something which the Iranian officials and even the ordinary citizens usually complain about is the fact that the Western powers deny Iran's inherent right to the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes while condoning some countries' possession of hundreds of nuclear weapons. Do you believe that Iran, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has a right to use nuclear power for civilian purposes or not?

Jean Asselborn: Luxembourg, in accordance with the NPT, acknowledges the right of Iran to use nuclear energy, under the condition that Iran acts in full transparency, in close cooperation with the iAEA and while respecting all of its obligations under its international engagements.

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