In May 2000, on the day of the chaotic Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon after 22 years of occupation, I found myself on a hill alongside the then-Foreign Minister of Iran, Kamal Kharazi, who was intently scrutinizing the movements of the Israeli troops with field binoculars.
Kharazi, who was Foreign Minister in the government of the reformist Mohammed Khatami, is now head of the Iranian Strategic Council, and he is in Italy for a European tour as a special envoy of President Hassan Rouhani. While in Rome, he met with the new Italian Foreign Minister, Enzo Moavero Milanesi. Among the topics they discussed were the nuclear deal and the US sanctions that will affect the European and Italian companies that have invested around €27 billion in Iran. Our conversation, however, begins with Lebanon and Syria.
Israel is bombing your positions in Syria. Will there be a conflict between Iran and Israel in Syria, or in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah?
Israel has hit the T-4 base near Palmyra [Syria]. But in attacking us, the Israelis are also targeting the Syrian government, which is committed to the fight against jihadists: with these actions, Israel is actually supporting terrorism. But the Israelis know very well that if they act against Iranian interests, they will receive a proportional response. In the case of the T-4 base, the reply came with the firing of missiles aimed at the Golan Heights. As for Hezbollah, Israel is aware that they are more than ready to respond with force if they attempt an attack like in 2006.
You are in conflict with Israel, but also with the US; meanwhile, Trump is negotiating with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un—who, however, already has the atomic bomb. Maybe they could also negotiate with you. Are there signs of a possible opening?
The United States wants to negotiate with Iran, but it is we who are unwilling to change the nuclear deal signed in 2015. The reason is very clear: we have had experience negotiating with the US, and we have seen how that turned out. They canceled the agreement, in violation of all international law. Iran has respected the agreement, as certified the International Atomic Energy Agency and by the periodic checks of the very same American government. This time, we do not trust the US at all. There is no opening for negotiations visible on the horizon, which would require a decisive change of attitude on the part of the United States.
How has Israeli and Saudi pressure affected the American anti-Iran position?
The US should answer this question, which is being posed by international public opinion: if Israel and Saudi Arabia enjoy American support and are able to deploy sophisticated weapons, why shouldn’t Iran have the right to possess missiles for self-defense? After all, we have heard what Trump said: one of his key political objectives is to have at his disposal the financial resources of Saudi Arabia, while his support for Israel is his first concern, according to the foreign policy moves by the US in the Middle East.
However, with such an attitude, American credibility is compromised. Saudi Arabia has no inkling of democracy and it has never had elections. It is a country owned by one family, but above all, it is the main supporter of ISIS and of terrorists in Syria. In Yemen, they know Saudi Arabia as a killer of civilians and children. Just like Israel does what it wants with the Palestinians, and continues its occupation of their homes and their land undisturbed. Iran has instead fought against ISIS and terrorism, and this is one of the focal points of its foreign policy.
Therefore, in order to negotiate with the United States, must one already have the atomic bomb, like Kim Jong-un?
It is not a question of the atomic bomb, but of power. And it is not an issue of military power, but ideological: Iran and the axis of resistance will not bend to American diktats. This is what is making the US nervous—not our military capabilities, but the defense of our national independence, our sovereignty, our dignity.
The US and its allies are also nervous about the pact with Russia and Turkey—where there are also legislative and presidential elections this Sunday. But is Erdogan to be trusted?
Up to now, the agreement has had highly positive effects. It is true that there are some differences between the three countries, for example between Turkey and Iran, but overall the agreement has brought greater stability to Syria and Turkey. The Syrian government now controls most of the country, and the terrorists are facing many difficulties.
Has Turkey given up on overthrowing Assad?
Erdogan no longer talks about overthrowing him. He is focused on the Kurdish groups, which, according to Ankara, are jeopardizing the security of Turkey’s borders.
Does Iran agree with Erdogan’s anti-Kurdish policy?
We are concerned by the provocations caused by foreign powers in the areas inhabited by the Kurds. But it is not necessarily true that the concerns and positions of Turkey are the same as those of Iran regarding the Kurds.
So you trust Erdogan, but only up to a certain point?
We trust the results of the negotiations in Astana, and the changes in Turkish policy that have made it possible to contain the terrorist groups and to force them into well-defined areas of de-escalation: this result was achieved with Turkey’s cooperation.
Now we come to the object of your mission in Europe. How will the US sanctions affect relations between Iran and the European Union?
The sanctions are not only against Iran, but against the whole world, including Europe. They are unilateral sanctions that affect the interests of all: they are the expression of Trump’s bullying. The United States has rejected the 2015 deal, in violation of Resolution 2231 of the UN Security Council, and it has set itself against the entire international community.
How can one circumvent these sanctions?
The only way is to resist against the United States. The central issue here is not to help Iran; instead, for European countries, preserving the nuclear deal means defending their own sovereignty and independence. At stake are not only the economic dimensions of the deal but the very security of Europe. Europe has the means and ability to circumvent these sanctions, and we have done so in the past as well. Remember that Iran has survived and thrived under US sanctions for nearly 40 years, while European security is being endangered by nothing else than the attitude of the United States.
How do you see Europe nowadays, struggling as it is with disputes regarding migrants and facing impulses toward its disintegration?
What is happening now is the result of mistakes made by the European countries. When the events in Syria began, Europe did not react, but allowed terrorists to gain a foothold in an area very close to them. Terrorism and migration are problems that have also arisen from wrongheaded policies in Libya and Syria: to destroy the security of states is easier, while restoring it is much more complicated. The case of Iraq in 2003 should have taught everyone something. We had expected Europeans to fight against terrorism—but instead, France, Britain and the US were only talking about changing the Syrian regime. Iran and Russia were the ones who fought against the jihadists. And if it were not for Iran, Europe would have suffered even more serious terrorist attacks.