Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Venizelos’ interview in the Iranian daily “Tehran Times”, with journalist Kourosh Ziabari (17.11.2014)
How much significance does the Greek government attach to its ties with Iran in the new political atmosphere in Iran?
Greece looks very positively on the new chapter that appears to be opening in Iran’s relations with the international community. We believe that this development creates major prospects for cooperation in Iran’s relations with Greece, the EU and the rest of the international community. Greece wants to have open channels of communication with Iran and to capitalize on the potential for cooperation opening up in a number of sectors, with emphasis on the economy, trade and culture. Our will to move ahead in all of these sectors is a given, as Greece has always had close historical, political, economic and cultural ties with Iran, which is a country with an ancient and vital presence and history in the Middle East region.
While in Iran, you held meetings with President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. What did you tell them about the prospects of Iran-EU ties in general and Iran-Greece ties in particular?
During my visit to Tehran last March and my meeting with Foreign Minister Zarif and the political leadership of Iran, as well as in the meetings I had this year and last year on the margins of the UN General Assembly, in New York, I had the opportunity to reiterate our desire for there to be a new page in the relations between Iran and Greece, Iran and the Europe Union. I think that on very many major international and regional issues, such as the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s assistance could be useful, constructive and stabilizing. The message I conveyed to my Iranian counterpart, who is expected in Athens, in reciprocation of my visit to Tehran, is that it will be very important for everyone for there to be a comprehensive solution on the Iranian nuclear program; a solution that would lead to the end of the sanctions and to your country’s emerging from economic isolation.
The Council of the European Union agreed in January 2012 to implement a comprehensive oil embargo against Iran. Greece was one of the leading customers of Iran’s oil prior to the embargo. More than 50% of all oil imported by Greece in 2011 came from Iran. How has the oil embargo affected the Greek economy? And are you ready to resume oil imports from Iran if the P5+1 group reaches a permanent agreement with Iran?
The sanctions against Iran were decided upon in a difficult economic state of affairs for my country. However, Greece found a way to secure energy supplies from other sources. A comprehensive agreement following the P5+1 talks would not only create the conditions for the lifting of the sanctions and indeed facilitate the resumption of our oil imports from Iran, but would also open vast prospects for cooperation on both the European and bilateral levels. Greece, which is today steadily emerging from the economic crisis, would be prepared to work to revitalize its political and economic relations with Iran. I believe that we can work together closely in a number of sectors, including the economy, energy, tourism, trade, maritime research, transport, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, water resource management, desalination and irrigation.
Iranian officials say the West deals with the issue of human rights selectively, deliberately ignoring the massive violations of human rights in Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, which are allies of the United States and its European partners. What’s your analysis of this approach?
The European Union wants to have an open and sincere dialogue on a number of issues with all countries, including Iran. One of these issues is that of human rights, on which the European Union wants to continue the dialogue under conditions of sincerity, in a manner that will not undermine the trust between partners, even if they do not necessarily share the same views. The same kind of dialogue we have with every country in the region, with every country in the world.
Let’s get to some regional issues. There are some concerns that Greece, because of its geographical position, may serve as a conduit for the entry of ISIS terrorists into Europe. How are you going to prevent the spillover of violence from the Middle East into Europe?
Greece is a close neighbour of the Middle East; of countries – and especially Iran – that, as I said earlier, we are linked to historically, culturally and economically. My country has repeatedly expressed its concern at the instability prevailing in Syria and Iraq, condemning in the most unequivocal manner the barbarity of the terrorist actions of the Islamic State. In this context, Greece is participating actively in the international alliance against the Islamic State, and we recently announced that we will supply ammunition to the Kurds in Iraq. In this admittedly turbulent state of affairs, it is vital that all the countries of the region play their role as pillars of stability, in order to stop the violence from spreading in the Middle East or to Europe or elsewhere. And for this reason, we are cooperating closely with all our international, regional and European partners.
ISIS (also called ISIL or IS) is trying to present itself as the representative of all the Muslims in the world, and has even recently announced plans to take over a number of countries and territories, including Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece. First of all, do you think they will be able to attain their devious goals? Secondly, does the Greek nation equate the so-called Islamic State with Muslims, who have always lived across the world in peaceful coexistence with the followers of other religions and never posed any threat to the security of other countries?
I am convinced that, sooner or later, we will see the collapse of the plans of the ISIS, which, in parallel with its terrorist activities, obviously, is mounting a continuous propaganda campaign, trying to gather support. But I am confident that the situation will change on the ground, and the ISIS’ brutal activities will soon be limited. We unequivocally condemn the persecution being suffered by thousands of people in Iraq and Syria – including Shiites, Christians and Kurds – due to their religion, ethnicity or origin. Under no circumstances should we allow the actions of the extremist jihadists in Iraq and Syria to be associated with the more general stance of the Muslim world or to raise questions as to the peaceful coexistence of Islam with other faiths. For centuries the Christians, Muslims and faithful of other religions coexisted peacefully in our wider region. And Greece and Iran, as two countries that firmly support the interfaith dialogue and that have worked together on dialogue-of-cultures initiatives, can play a leading role in resolving misunderstandings and averting the unjustified identification of a religion with completely unrelated activities. In Greece there is peaceful coexistence amongst the various faiths, and in the region of Western Thrace the Muslim minority coexists in harmony with the Christian community, enjoying all of its rights, without any problems. We thus know how important the peaceful coexistence of adherents of various faiths is, and while we are calling for the protection of the Christians throughout the Middle East, we also contradict every effort to demonize Islam.
Some politicians and government officials, even in the EU, have called Israel’s recent attack on Gaza disproportionate and a violation of the principles of international law and the Geneva Conventions. Would you please share your perspective on that with us?
It has always been Greece’s firm position that violence does not lead anywhere and can only prolong impasses. Greece called for a ceasefire from the outset, and we were among the first to welcome the achievement of the ceasefire agreement. Our position is that this truce must pave the way for the reconstruction of Gaza and for alleviating the tragic humanitarian situation. I would like to note that Greece – through the UNRWA – has already sent considerable financial and humanitarian aid to Gaza, to be used to cover food needs and the repair of the water supply grid, while we have also offered to provide healthcare for wounded, and children in particular. At the recent international donors conference for the reconstruction of Gaza, in Cairo, where we pledged an additional 1 million euros in assistance for Gaza, Greece, together with its partners in the European Union and the international community, underscored the importance of an immediate return to the Middle East peace talks, and substantial progress in those talks, so that a two-state solution can be realized as soon as possible, bringing lasting peace and security to the region.