Ahmed J Versi
The UK and Iran have restored diplomatic relations following last month’s agreement in Vienna on the long standing dispute over the country’s nuclear programme though moves to renew them started two years ago.
British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, visited Tehran on August 23 to open the British embassy. Earlier he had said that he expected bilateral relations to be restored by the end of the year. But Iran’s non-resident Charge d’Affaires to the UK,
Mohammad Hassan Habibollahzadeh, insisted to The Muslim News on August 5 the restoration could be even earlier.
In his first interview with a British journalist, Habibollahzadeh told The Muslims News that agreement to restore relations was made in a meeting between foreign ministers on the margins of the UN General Assembly after President Hassan Rouhani’s election in Iran back in 2013.
“After that many meetings have been held by officials from both sides to resolve some problems before opening of the respective embassies. At one stage we had reached an agreement to open the embassies but there were some problems left to be resolved.”
Full diplomatic relations with Iran were suspended, when all UK diplomatic staff were withdrawn from Tehran and the embassy was closed after hundreds of Iranian demonstrators stormed the building in November 2011 when London banned all financial institutions from doing business including with Iran’s central bank.
A dispute on restoring ties reportedly has been caused by the interference from the
Home Office, trying to block the attempts to reopen embassy in Tehran until some settlement is made about deporting Iranians from the UK whose visas have expired.
Habibollahzadeh confirmed consulate issues were one of the obstacles, but he added they were “not the only issue remaining to be resolved.” There were apparently two other issues but he did not elaborate.
Despite the delays, the British Government insisted it was working closely together to negotiate terms for a visa service with Iran and to resolve a number of outstanding issues but expressed hope to reach an agreement soon.
“We remain committed to reopening our Embassies and we will do so once we have resolved some outstanding issues. These issues relate to the practical functioning of the mission,” a Foreign Office spokesperson told The Muslim News.
Sanctions against Iran are to be removed according to a precise road map drawn up in the nuclear deal together with the implementation of obligations. Likewise, there is also the issue of Iranian assets frozen by the UK and banking issues, which the charge suggested would only happen “after agreement has been implemented.”
Last month, in an interview with the NBC, Prime Minister, David Cameron, said that he told President Rouhani that Britain additionally wanted to see a change in the approach Iran takes to “issues like Syria and Yemen, and to terrorism in the region.”
Habibollahzadeh said Iran had always expressed readiness to start dialogue to solve the regional problems and that after the nuclear deal in Vienna, Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, immediately visited neighbouring countries. “Solving regional issues is our priority.”
Yemen crisis can be the “first example” of a Regional Dialogue Forum that Iran was seeking to establish. “We have four-point plan for Yemen: ceasefire, sending humanitarian aid, starting negotiations between all Yemeni parties and groups and to shape a comprehensive government.”
“We have asked the Gulf states to present their plans. Then we can reach an agreement. If this succeeds then we can also use the same model for Syria and to other areas in the Middle East too,” the likely future ambassador suggested.
He blamed the Syrian problem on the “interference of foreign countries in the region and enforcing some terrorist groups.” Now it is a “big problem not only with Syria internally but also for the region.”
His premise regarding Syria was crystal clear. “First, we support the legitimate Government of Syria. No country, no faction or group has a right to use military means to force political change.”
He discarded any call for the removal of President Assad to resolve the crisis, saying voices were weak and it would cause huge chaos if he did leave the country.
“What is not accepted is that some countries are using military force and armed groups to change the Government in Syria. This is very dangerous. Not only in Syria, even in Iraq, two years ago, we opposed similar policy.”
Iran is a major player in the region and Zarif visited Kuwait, Qatar and Iraq as well as Oman earlier but although its influence is needed to help resolve many regional issues, he has yet to go to Saudi Arabia.
“We have disagreements with Saudi Arabia but it is not something strange that two countries have disagreements on some issues. We also sent these proposals to Saudi Arabia and we received positive response. However we are waiting to see practical steps,” Habibollahzadeh said.
He played down claims recently made about the rights of Sunni Muslim minority in Iran, alleging they cannot practise their religion freely and have not been allowed to build mosques in Tehran.
Three weeks ago in Tehran there was a problem in one of the Sunni prayer places, he said, but insisted it was “a technical issue with the municipality” but it had since been resolved, although it being used by some groups to say there is no freedom for Sunni Muslims in Iran.
“In some parts of Iran, there are large number of Sunni Muslims. We have brotherhood relationship with them. We live in one country. They have many mosques and are allowed to build mosques. They are free to practise Sunni Islam, including implementing their own Shariah laws.”
The Charge d’affaires criticised attempts by the British Government to use the thorny issue of human rights as a political tool.
“Our policy towards human rights is very clear. We don’t have objections to discuss human rights issues not only with the UK but with European countries too. But the problem is that human rights is used as a political instrument. When you politicise human rights it is difficult to reach common points.”
During his brief stay in London, Habibollahzadeh said that as head of the Iranian mission, he had met with various Government officials, think tanks, journalists, Iranian Diaspora and parliamentarians.
After the re-opening of the Embassy and Consulate, he pledged Iran would resume to issue visas for tourists and those wishing to go for pilgrimage to holy shrines. “We are going to reduce visa fees by a third for those wishing to go for pilgrimage,” he revealed.