First of all, I would like to voice my immense gratitude for being invited by the Institute of Political and International Studies to be here today. I am extremely honoured for this opportunity to visit the Islamic Republic of Iran and to address such a distinguished audience.
The topic of my speech – a subject in which I have always taken a keen interest, not only when I was Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, but also today as the chairman of two political foundations – is the European Union’s approach to the Greater Middle East, a vast area with boundless human, financial and energy resources, with thousands of years of history and of cultural traditions, with an extraordinary cultural heritage and civilization; and a region that plays a crucial role in the global economy and security. We should not forget that some 55% of the world's crude oil reserves is concentrated here in the Middle East.
But this is also an area that has been devastated for centuries by tragic national, religious and ethnic clashes and is prey to chronic instability ranging from the sixty-five year-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the civil war in Syria to the strenuous attempts being made by Iraq and Afghanistan to achieve normality after the war – yet they are still marked by frequent terrorist attacks and by a form of low-intensity civil strife – and to the ongoing absence of security in Lebanon. I fear that it would be possible to add endlessly to this tragic list, but allow me simply to remind you of the Kurdish question, the difficulties in Muslims-Jewish relations, the great hardship being experienced by Christian minorities which are frequently the target of persecutions, the age-old Shiite-Sunni confrontation and even the rift within Sunni Islam caused by the varying weight of the different religious schools of thought and, to some extent, by the power politics of certain countries of this region.
There can be no doubt that there is no other part of the world similarly exposed to such a dramatic concentration of tension and conflict.
I cannot deny that Europe bears a significant historical responsibility for this situation inasmuch as most of these conflicts also sink their roots in history and have been determined by the arbitrary manner in which boundaries and borders were drawn by the former colonial powers. And that is not all. There is also a more recent responsibility, with the support offered for decades to obnoxious dictatorships in defense of specific interests such as the need to guarantee the European countries' energy supply. The Arab awakening caught Europe by surprise, and has left it without a strategy.
Today – following the defeat of the old “Realpolitik” - Europe must look at the Middle East in a new way, focusing its policy towards the region on the need to ensure peace and stability by advocating dialogue and removing the causes of conflict; combating terrorism, or at least making every possible effort to reduce the grass-roots support enjoyed by terrorist organizations; and fostering the conditions for cooperation and for an active partnership, in the political, economic and security spheres.
Peace and stability, however, cannot be achieved without important preconditions such as the promotion of interfaith dialogue, mutual tolerance and respect, the enhancement of democracy and the protection of individual liberties, of civil and human rights, and in particular of women's right to equal treatment.
Values and principles cannot be imposed, of course, but Europe should seek to encourage and to sustain their spread and to help them put down roots by favouring the formation of partnerships with those countries that recognize these ideals and that base their policies on them.
Today, on the eve of what I regard as a decisive year for the whole region, it is particularly important for the European Union to ask itself questions about the Middle Eastern political scenarios and the EU’s stance on the crises rocking the region.
Elections are due to be held in Afghanistan in April to choose President Karzai’s successor, while the ISAF mission's mandate will be coming to an end, to be replaced by the Resolute Support mission, and the US will begin a dramatic review of its strategy. And all of this is going to happen against the backdrop of a country still struggling to rebuild its institutional framework, its infrastructure, in a word: itself.
The gradual reduction of the international military presence in the country represents a crucial and delicate turning point for Afghanistan, during which it will be necessary to guarantee our full support for the pacification and nation-building processes.
In that same month, the citizens of Iraq are also due to go to the polls to elect their Parliament. In view of the increasing dissatisfaction expressed by a number of Iraqi factions, the fragmentation of the Iraqi political spectrum and the climate of escalating violence, Mr Al-Maliki’s attempt to be elected for a third term may well face a major challenge.
In that country as well, it will be necessary to make greater efforts to put a stop to infighting and to encourage pacification among the many factions that make up the Iraqi political arena; in particular, between the Shia majority and the Sunni community which held power for so long.
At the beginning of next year, we should also see the opening of negotiations in Geneva between the Syrian Government and the opposition, aimed at ending the civil war that is tearing that country apart, that has caused about one hundred-thousand casualties and that has driven almost two and half million people to leave their homes and seek refuge in neighbouring countries and elsewhere, while another four and a half million people have been displaced within Syria itself. Syrians have been leaving their home country at a rate of 6,000 people per day in 2013 – a rate that the United Nations tells us has not been seen since the genocide in Rwanda twenty years ago. That is an absolutely tragic record which there was no need to match and which is in danger of destabilizing the entire region. Syria is experiencing, indeed, a major humanitarian tragedy.
I do not think that the responsibility to be laid at the door of Bashar al-Asad’s regime can be denied. This is a regime that has relied for too long on repression and that does not represent the majority of the Syrian people. I also believe, however, that there is no military solution to this conflict. Moreover, the insurgency is headed up by some of the most extremist Sunni fundamentalist elements, and the many thousands of Islamic militiamen fighting in Syria do not stand for the Syrian people’s rights and hopes.
The only way out is to halt the fighting and to engage in political dialogue in order to launch a democratic transition process respectful of the human and civil rights and the demands of all the ethnic and religious groups and minorities that make up the multifaceted population of Syria. And a regional agreement is needed, involving Turkey, Qatar and, in particular, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In my view, this is the only way of avoiding dangerous contagion from spreading to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, where we can actually already see disquieting signs, or to the Gulf states.
Unfortunately, democracy cannot consist simply in the rule of the majority in any one of these countries on account of their religious and ethnic complexity..
Thus participation in political processes and respect for the rights of each group is an unavoidable condition for peaceful coexistence and for the prevention of displays of intolerance and of terrorist attacks.
In 2014 we should hopefully be seeing some developments also in Egypt, to define the direction in which the country is heading following last July's military coup that ousted the democratically elected President Mursi. No doubt: Mursi was not building a substantial democracy, as a result of democratic elections. The difference between formal democracy and substantial democracy must be kept in mind. And yet, the solution cannot be going back to military rule. We hope to see Egypt return to the path leading to democracy and we trust that the current situation will prove to be only transitory: all political forces must eventually be included in the democratic process. In my view, the exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood will prove a failure and is not acceptable – whatever opinion one may hold of their political conduct.
The most crucial conflict in the entire region and the most difficult to solve for deep-rooted political and religious reasons, remains, in my opinion, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The European Union’s position in this regard is unambiguous. The only possible solution is the coexistence of two states, with the simultaneous guaranteeing of Israel’s security and of the Palestinians’ right to establish a state within the pre-1967 borders.
Negotiations are currently being held between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority, and this time they really do seem to be in earnest. This is also Palestinians’ opinion. The two parties appear to be willing to address even the most controversial issues, which must be solved in the spirit of the UN Security Council’s resolutions. I am referring to Palestinian statehood and to the nature of its sovereignty, to the delineation and management of the borders between the two states, to the question of Gaza, the future of Jerusalem, the delicate problem of the Palestinian refugees, security arrangements, economic relations, water and natural resources, and so on. But without Israel's withdrawal from the settlements in the Occupied Territories on the one hand, and the safeguarding of the Jewish character of the Israeli state on the other, no solution is feasible.
These are questions so serious, so complex and so deep-seated, that they can only be solved through extremely bold action.
I have always looked to the Palestinian cause with sympathy, and I have often openly criticized Israel’s settlement and broader occupation policies. In my capacity as Italian Foreign Minister I also acted to make it possible a de-escalation of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, persuading the Israeli Government to withdraw its forces from southern Lebanon and both parties to accept a stronger UN presence as a buffer and as a guarantee.
Having said that, I wish to underline a crucial fact. If we really want to foster the conditions for resolving this endless conflict, we must also try to understand Israel’s side of the story. The Jewish people were finally able to find a homeland after centuries of persecution, which came to a peak in the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Europeans are only too familiar with this story and we still feel a deep moral responsibility for that tragedy. Only if we recall it can we really understand the obsession with security that underlies Israelis’ policy and ideology.
We must reassure – together with the Palestinian people - the Israeli man in the street. I believe that a peaceful strategy would counter and, in the long run, defeat the more extremist positions that are unfortunately so prominent.
If we want to support people working for peace in Israel, we need to keep in account the security problems, not of the Israeli government, but of the Israeli people.
The enormous challenges that I have described, demand the proactive presence of the Islamic Republic of Iran. That is, the presence of a great country, with a large and well-educated population, abundant oil and gas reserves, huge economic potential, remarkable political prestige, and an impressive cultural heritage.
There are forces that would like to contain, or even freeze the role of Iran. Let me tell you that this is not the interest of the European Union. And, in my opinion, neither is it the interest of the United States which, after the Iraqi adventure, fears getting entangled in a new crisis or in new conflicts and seeks a more balanced order in the region, with a climate of détente and security.
For the above reasons, and for many others that I do not have the time to address today, I strongly believe that the negotiations between the “5+1” nations and Iran and the agreement that was struck in Geneva a few weeks ago are of the greatest importance, despite the fact that the latter is only of a temporary nature and that it does not address the nuclear issue in its entirety. In my view, it marks a crucial turning point in relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran; and this, not only for the countries directly involved in the negotiation process.
I firmly believe that the Iranian negotiators, whose diplomatic skills are common knowledge, will be able, in the months to come, to move ahead with the same mix of resolution and flexibility that has made it possible to achieve a goal which seemed impossible until only a few months ago, overcoming obstacles and difference between the parties' respective positions. I hope that we may expect as much also from the representatives of the “5+1” nations.
The credit for this remarkable result, however, does not go only to diplomacy, despite the essential role which, I would like to repeat, it has unquestionably played. Behind diplomacy there is always politics, there are political choices. And in this case, political choices have made it possible to achieve a concrete result after ten years of sporadic and largely fruitless negotiations.
Without doubts, both negotiating parties should be praised for their achievement. Yet we must acknowledge that the Iranian Government appointed after President Rowhani’s elections, in addition to displaying outstanding negotiating skills, has undoubtedly proven its clear political will to reach an agreement.
Foreign Minister Zarif shrewdly remarked that the negotiators from both sides were able to reach an agreement on the basis of the only possible formula capable, in compliance with the NPT, of combining robust guarantees of non-proliferation with Iran’s entitlement to pursue a civilian nuclear program. Let me put this plainly: while I do not believe that it is in Iran’s interest to possess nuclear weapons, nobody can question the right of the Iranian people to enjoy access to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. This, after all, is the foundation of the NPT.
The interim agreement represents a first important step towards the creation of an effective monitoring system, and above all towards the establishment of a climate of mutual trust between Iran and the international community, which will allow us to overcome the rationale of confrontation and to include Iran among the major players in the building of a new regional order.
In fact, despite the nuclear issue's undisputed importance, the scope of the negotiations went far beyond that issue from the outset. There can be no doubt that Iran’s marked dynamism and new flexibility should be seen in the context of a new vision of the country’s international relations and, in particular, of the Iranian Government’s priorities, aimed at protecting national interests (ranging from security to economic development) on the basis of dialogue and of cooperation with the rest of the world. To outside observers, Iran seems to be willing to throw off the constraints associated with the nuclear issue in order to enter a new phase in its foreign policy.
Europe considers this renewed political activism to be very promising. And I am convinced that new relations based on cooperation with the international community would help Iran to deploy its soft power, thanks also to the tremendous asset represented by its civil society which, in a more open and tolerant internal environment, could release its cultural energy and creativity in full.
In particular, Iran could start playing a positive role in the Middle East. Of course, it will not be easy for Tehran to overcome the historic and deep-rooted mistrust of many Arab states, a mistrust which dates back to way before the 1979 Revolution, but which may be allayed by a new diplomatic attitude, based on cooperation and dialogue, which Mr Rowhani’s government seems inclined to pursue.
A diplomatically active and no longer isolated Iran could greatly contribute, through its important contacts and using its broad influence, to promoting a new regional balance. In crisis areas it could help the belligerents pass from violent confrontation to the search for sustainable compromises, taking into account the demands, interests and security concerns of all the parties involved, including, of course, those of Iran, whose memories of the brutal attack by Saddam Husayn’s forces are, I believe, still very vivid.
I am referring in particular to the valuable role that Teheran could play in the quest for a diplomatic solution to the bloodthirsty conflict in Syria. After all, we have not forgotten the extremely significant contribution that Iran made between 2001 and 2002, when the Taliban were defeated. That was a much appreciated and positive sign of the constructive role that Iran can play in the region – an act which was unfortunately nullified by President George W. Bush’s improvident speech on the “axis of evil”.
In other words, an Iran whose actions are no longer limited by the nuclear controversy will be able – potentially at least – to exert a positive impact on regional developments, from Syria to Afghanistan. This, on the condition that Iran will use the same tools that accounted for its success in Geneva, namely the search for a non zero-sum game, combining the defence of national interests with the pursuit of solutions that can be acceptable for its interlocutors while at the same time generating the conditions for regional stability.
Besides, a nuclear deal with Iran could pave the way for a process, which – I am aware – would be neither short nor simple, of gradual denuclearization of the region. I sincerely and deeply share this great project, ambitious and perhaps utopian, which was launched in 2009 by President Obama. A project that aims at the achievement of a world free of nuclear threats. A new framework of peace and cooperation, of which this nuclear deal could be the very first step.
As I mentioned earlier, the unsolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains, in my view, the most complex of the crises that make the Middle East such an unstable area. The position of the Iranian Government on this matter is common knowledge and hinges on the establishment of a single, multinational state. However, in the proposal submitted to Washington in 2003 – a proposal to open negotiations and to which, as it is well known, the US did not reply – Iran appeared ready to discuss the so-called Saudi initiative, advocating the two-state approach. Moreover, in many occasions Tehran has stated its willingness to support “whatever agreement is acceptable to the Palestinians”. I believe that this amenability should be reaffirmed in this new stage as an important premise to a difficult but essential dialogue.
There are reasons for optimism after the encouraging outcome achieved in Geneva last month, but I think – and even more after the most recent dispute on new sanctions - that we should maintain our caution. The deal may well have positive effects, even if only in the nuclear field. But those positive effects are conditional upon the transition from the interim to the definitive agreement in the six months prescribed in Geneva. We cannot pretend that these six months will not require a sustained commitment to the negotiations and, above all, the preservation of the goodwill that has so far guided both parties.
Furthermore, we should not forget that both the Geneva agreement and, on a broader level, Iran's full return to the global economy and to the international community (both on a regional and on a global level) cause a good deal of aversion and much suspicion. Those who believe in the importance of the process that began in Geneva will have to prove their skill, avoiding attempts by their opponents – of which there will be no shortage – to desperately prevent this normalization process.
The sanctions chapter will remain on the table as a delicate and tough one. We already see it. My view is that we must enter a gradual process, due to the complex legal mechanisms that regulate them. It is worth stressing, however, that many countries, when cutting down their economic relations with Iran, went beyond the mere adoption of sanctions, imposing upon themselves a kind of self-restraint in response to political pressures. Such limitations should be lifted at once.
Looking to Italy, those Italian companies which have been traditionally active in trade with Iran and have customarily invested in this country, are ready, after a long absence, to recommit themselves to re-launching their presence. They are sure of the importance and the potential of Iran as an economic partner. Thus, we have both political and economic interests in the success of Geneva.
Thanks to the turning point marked in Geneva, cooperation will be possible in other areas as well, from the cultural field – so important in a country with such a magnificent heritage – to scientific sphere and to the humanitarian dimension. I am referring, for instance, to cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking.
Prospects are more favourable – and yet much more remains to be done. As I mentioned before, a great deal is going to depend on the goodwill of the parties involved. Of course, relations with the United States, not only on the nuclear issue, are of particular importance. I am aware that the agreement reached in Geneva is mainly due to the convergence between President Obama’s and President Rowhani’s priorities and interests.
And recent attempts by the US Senate to introduce new sanctions, in spite of warnings that they could drive Iran away from the negotiating table, should not induce the Iranian government to give in. Of course, caution is necessary. Yet, I trust that the Obama administration is committed to the achievement of a final agreement. Despite the obstacles and opposition existing in the US.
I would also like to highlight the fact that the role the European Union played in Geneva is far from negligible. Lady Ashton’s presidency of the “5+1” group was not symbolic; it was crucial.
The European Union as a whole and its individual member states are ready to engage with Iran in all possible fields and to foster the conditions for involving Iran in the quest for solutions to the many conflicts and tensions besetting the Middle East, from Syria to Afghanistan. And Italy, whose relations with Iran go back a very long way, is in the forefront.
In this regard, I would like to remind you of Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino’s important proposal to include Iran in the peace talks over Syria.
Let me conclude by saying that the novelty of President Rowhani’s government is not limited – as far as I can assess - to foreign policy alone. I believe that the current Iranian leadership has a comprehensive vision encompassing a fresh boost to the economy, social cohesion, broad political convergence, and care for the younger generations.
A concrete improvement in relations between Iran and the rest of the world (starting with the nuclear issue, but also going beyond that) is closely linked to the prospect of positive and dynamic domestic change: both because of the obvious correlation between the economy and international relations and from a political standpoint. In fact, it is difficult to trigger a process of civil and social growth in an environment characterized by tension and isolation, not just in Iran but anywhere.
What is at stake today is the future of Iran. But not only, since it is clear that the substance of the Geneva negotiations is more far-reaching than the focus on the nuclear issue would suggest. What is at stake today is, of course, the future of the Iranian people. And it is the future of a region which is in a state of extreme disarray and which has a concrete impact on the state of the world as a whole.
For all of these reasons, Europe and – I would like to underline – Italy are supportive and confident. For all of these reasons, I am sure that the EU will be able to offer its support, promoting stronger economic relations and the diplomatic and political incentives necessary to encourage the dialogue which has been recently launched. And I am sure that the European Union will keep its promise and that, from next January, sanctions will start to be lifted.
As progressives we are committed, also in the perspective of the 2014 European elections, to the economic recovery of the European Union, to the construction of a Europe closer to its citizens, to the implementation of policies aiming at growth and employment, rather than austerity. But above all, we want a Europe which should act as a global player rather than the inward looking Europe we have sometime seen in recent years. The agreement with Iran is a crucial test for the new course of Europe. For this reason, I consider today’s initiative extremely important.