Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt was one of the several high-ranking European officials, who traveled to Iran following the election of Hassan Rouhani as the Iranian president in June 2013. President Rouhani, considered a moderate politician, has promised to take up a conciliatory approach toward the international community with a strong determination to bring an end to the decade-long controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear program.
President Rouhani’s platform of “prudence and hope” and his foreign policy agenda based on détente and rapprochement with the West was embraced by the United States and the European Union, and so far, seven foreign ministers of the European Union member states have traveled to Iran to meet the country’s officials and explore the ways to expand the bilateral relations with Iran. Business delegations from France and Germany and several parliamentary friendship groups from the European and Latin American countries came to Iran in the recent months after President Rouhani assumed office.
In his February trip to Iran, Carl Bildt met President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and praised the new turn in Iran’s foreign policy. He also traveled to the historical city of Isfahan located in central Iran and visited the city’s ancient sites and cultural magnets. He published several photos he had taken of the tourist attractions of Isfahan on his social networking pages.
Nils Daniel Carl Bildt was the Prime Minister of Sweden from 1991 to 1994. He was the leader of Moderate Party (Moderata samlingspartiet) from 1986 to 1999 and served as the European Union’s Special Envoy to the Former Yugoslavia. Since October 2006, he has been Sweden’s minister of foreign affairs and has held several other prominent positions, including the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Balkans.
Mr. Bildt took part in an exclusive interview with Tehran Times following his return to Sweden and responded to some of our questions regarding the future of Iran-West relations, the nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers, the recent developments in Egypt, the civil war in Syria, the crisis in Ukraine and the West Balkan nations and Turkey’s bid for joining the European Union.
On the importance of Iran-Sweden relations, he said, “Sweden’s relations with Iran go a long way back, including important commercial ties. Some 100,000 people living in Sweden are of Iranian descent. Therefore I am sure there could be substantial room for further cultural and educational exchanges as well as tourism in the future.”
What follows is the text of Tehran Times’ interview with the Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.
Q: After the Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino, you were the second European foreign minister who visited Tehran following the election of President Hassan Rouhani, marking the first trip by a high-ranking Swedish official to Iran in nearly 10 years. How do you find your trip to Iran and your meeting with the Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif? What’s your assessment of the new political atmosphere that has emerged in Iran following the last year’s elections, and the recommencement of talks between Iran and the P5+1?
A: The declared willingness of the new administration under President Rouhani to negotiate and come to a comprehensive solution to the nuclear issue has been crucial for the progress in political exchanges in the last months. Foreign Minister Zarif and I had frank and open discussions on a broad range of topics; Iran, regional issues and bilateral relations. One area of deep concern which I made clear in all my discussions in Tehran is the human rights situation in Iran.
Q: The Geneva interim accord known as the Joint Plan of Action was a beginning for Iran and the six world powers to find ways to reach a comprehensive and final solution and bring to an end the decade-long controversy over Iran’s nuclear program. Are you hopeful and optimistic that this final solution can be realized? Do you see this determination and resolve in the two sides to work toward a final agreement?
A: We must not lose the momentum created by the interim agreement. The reports from the monthly meetings in Vienna and ongoing technical discussions are encouraging. A comprehensive and final solution should be concluded before the July deadline.
Q: Iran’s nuclear program, regardless of its utilities and technical importance in meeting its growing energy demands, has become a matter of national pride for the Iranians who believe using nuclear program is their sovereign right which some world powers have been trying to deny. What can be a face-saving solution for Iran to continue employing the nuclear energy for peaceful purposes while alleviating the concerns of the international community over the nature of its activities and that it will not deviate from a peaceful path?
A: Just as all signatories party to the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran has the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Once confidence is restored in the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program, it will be treated in the same manner as that of any Non-Nuclear Weapon State party to the NPT.
Q: What’s your viewpoint on the prospects of Iran-Sweden relations? Do you think that there are possibilities for enhanced trade and commercial ties between the two countries? What about cooperation in the field of culture and tourism? Are there any chances that President Hassan Rouhani and Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt can meet in the future?
A: Sweden’s relations to Iran go a long way back, including important commercial ties. Some 100,000 people living in Sweden are of Iranian descent. Therefore I am sure there could be substantial room for further cultural and educational exchanges as well as tourism in the future. With the current sanctions situation, the room for concerted public efforts to expand commercial relations is limited. That said, Sweden will continue to encourage legal and legitimate trade. And, as I said to my Iranian counterparts, with a nuclear deal allowing for the lifting of sanctions the potential for broader economic cooperation will be great.
Q: Let’s get to some of the important issues in the Middle East. The Egyptian people elected their first democratic president after nearly 3 decades of Hosni Mubarak’s tyranny in May and June 2012. But in about one year, he was toppled in a military coup d’état staged by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. How do you see the future of democracy in Egypt? Do you think that the ambitions and aspirations of the 2011 revolution and Arab Spring will fade out in Egypt?
A: I hope that the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections will be conducted in an inclusive and fair manner that can pave the way towards a democratic and stable Egypt. But I find the increasingly repressive climate in Egypt very worrisome. The preliminary decision by an Egyptian court to sentence 529 citizens to death after a mass trial is unacceptable and in breach of international human rights law. The EU has strongly urged Egyptian authorities to ensure each defendant the right to a fair trial, in line with international standards. Capital punishment can never be justified.
Q: Regarding the crisis in Syria, do you think that the Syrian question has a military solution?
A: More arms is not what Syria needs at the moment. A military solution will never be a sustainable solution. The only way to reach a sustainable solution is by the parties to sit down around a table and talk to each other.
Q: What do you think about the chances of Turkey for getting the approval of the EU member states and the European Council to join the Union? Do you think that the official candidates Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey along with Albania which has submitted its application and the potential candidates Bosnia and Kosovo can succeed in joining the European Union in a near future, especially Turkey whose efforts to join the bloc started in 1987?
A: EU accession is a long-term process requiring substantial reform efforts. Even in a positive scenario, new accessions before the end of this decade are not very likely. The EU has made commitments to conduct membership negotiations with all the Western Balkan countries and with Turkey. These commitments must be honored. Turkey’s future membership is of strategic importance, notwithstanding the problems we are experiencing right now.
Q: It seems that EU does not have an integrated approach toward the independence of Kosovo. Currently five EU member states do not recognize Kosovo. Why is it so? However, Sweden seems to maintain strong relations with Kosovo, and in 2008, you were the first EU Foreign Minister to visit Kosovo after it declared its independence. Don’t your relations with Kosovo affect your ties with Serbia?
A: Serbia and Kosovo have both committed not to block each other’s progress towards the EU. The normalization between the two countries is a good example of the transformative power of the EU perspective. Sweden supports both countries’ reform efforts and applauds their courageous decision to start a normalization process with the assistance of HRVP Ashton.
Q: Sweden has always maintained a policy of non-alignment and neutrality in the international affairs, and this is one of the reasons it hasn’t joined NATO. Are you still striding on the same path? Does this policy of neutrality affect Sweden’s approach to such issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war on Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran?
A: Partly this is an old picture. Our membership in the EU means that Sweden is part of a political alliance, where we take collective responsibility for Europe’s security. Sweden will not take a passive stance if another EU or Nordic country suffers a disaster or an attack. We expect these countries to act in the same way for us. Sweden should therefore have the capability to provide and receive military support. We want to contribute to our own and global security.
Over the years, Sweden has therefore contributed in peace support operations led by the UN, the EU or NATO. For example, Sweden has contributed to the International Security Assistance Force mission, ISAF since 2002, and helped the Afghan government create security in the country. We are ready to continue to do so by taking part in a training mission after ISAF. We will also increase our development aid, making Afghanistan the largest receiver of Swedish aid.
Q: What’s Sweden’s stance on the current crisis in Ukraine? One of the main demands of the protesters in Euromaidan was the signing of the EU Association Agreement and Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. Do you think that Ukraine’s problems will be solved if it joins the EU or at least engages in closer relations with the bloc?
A: Sweden strongly condemns the Russian illegal annexation of Crimea and the Russian doctrine of legitimizing the use of military force to protect compatriots in other countries. Through its illegal annexation, Russia has violated fundamental principles of international law, is in breach of its own obligations under a number of agreements, and has jeopardized security and co-operation with global ramifications. We now expect Russia to distance itself from separatists that want to disintegrate the state of Ukraine.
Ukraine is the most mismanaged state of all of the post-Soviet societies. The country’s economy is close to bankruptcy, there are immense problems with corruption, lack in rule of law and a society in need of modernization. Ukraine has a long way to go for before it could qualify for full EU membership. But helping Ukraine is the most important thing the EU can do at this very difficult time. We can assist Ukraine in continuing to develop democracy and make necessary reforms. We can support Ukraine financially, but more importantly we can also give access to the large European economy, the largest integrated market in the world with 500 million consumers and a fifth of the global GDP.
Different calculations show that that the Ukrainian economy would expand between 5-12% from implementing the Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free trade Area with the EU. But these figures do not take into account the increase in GDP resulting from the modernization of the Ukrainian economy that would result from the changes in standards and norms that are integral parts of the agreement. As a gesture of support to Ukraine, in this time of crisis, the EU has already decided to open its market for Ukrainian export by unilaterally lowering customs – the so called Autonomous Trade Preferences.
Q: Sweden is honored to be the homeland of Alfred Nobel who left an invaluable legacy by founding the Nobel Prize which has been awarded to great scientists, scholars and intellectuals since 1901 regularly. What do you think about the importance of this prize and the role it plays in bringing to light the pivotal role of Sweden in the international community as a neutral and non-aligned power?
A: The Nobel Prize is the most important global award in three crucial spheres: science, peace-building and literature. It plays an important role in contributing to long term global development. The fact that it is handed out in Sweden and Norway is of course an addition to the image and soft power of these two countries.
Q: And finally, in line with the stipulations of the Geneva agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, does Sweden have the readiness to move toward removing and lifting the economic sanctions imposed against Iran as a member state of the European Union?
A: As I said, with a nuclear deal allowing for the lifting of sanctions, the potential for broader economic cooperation will be great. But domestic economic reform is [also] crucial; transparency and accountability are vital to a flourishing economy and the rule of law is a cornerstone in which investment guarantees and intellectual property rights must be provided for.