Kourosh Ziabari – Tehran Times: Former Spanish foreign minister Ana Palacio believes that the controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear program should be solved through dialog and negotiations, and that a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear standoff would be in everybody’s best interests.

Palacio, who was the Spanish foreign minister under Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar from July 2002 to March 2004, said that despite the fact that Spain has been a traditional ally of the United States, her government “never subscribed to the ‘axis of evil’ approach.”

“I arranged and conducted a state visit of King Juan Carlos to Syria and of President Khatami to Spain. I strongly believe that exchange, even a critical exchange, is absolutely fundamental and that isolating an actor is never a good way forward,” said Ana de Palacio y del Valle-Lersundi in an exclusive interview with the Tehran Times.

Before her appointment as the Spanish foreign minister, Ms. Palacio was a lawyer in Madrid and a member of the European Parliament from 1994 to 2002. She is affiliated with the People’s Party (PP) and has chaired the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs and Internal Market Committee and the Justice and Home Affairs Committee.

Ana Palacio was the first woman to serve as Spain’s foreign minister and held the most senior post ever filled by a woman in the Spanish government. She currently serves as a member of the international advisory board of the Council on Foreign Relations.

In the interview with the Tehran Times, Ms. Palacio answered some of our questions on Iran’s nuclear program and the Geneva interim agreement, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the boycott of goods produced in the Occupied Territories by some European states, Edward Snowden’s recent intelligence revelations and their impact on the EU-U.S. relations, unemployment in Spain, and the territorial controversy between Spain and the United Kingdom over the sovereignty of Gibraltar.

Following is the text of the interview:

Q You’ve written different articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seems that both U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have deep differences and disagreements with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, particularly on the settlement constructions, which John Kerry has called “illegitimate” and also on Iran’s nuclear program, which Netanyahu insists should be resolved through a military confrontation, while the Obama administration believes it should be settled diplomatically. What’s your viewpoint on these differences and disputes?

A: It is not surprising that the Geneva Agreement has generated pushback from Israel, Saudi Arabia and domestically in the United States and Iran. Beyond the existential security concerns that Israel harbors, the consistent drumbeat regarding Iran’s nuclear program has sounded for quite awhile. We cannot expect an immediate change in tone.

And yet, we have seen a bit of a softening of the rhetoric from Prime Minister Netanyahu in recent days, with his comments that he shares President Obama’s desire for a diplomatic, rather than military, solution. However, the ambiguities that have emerged after the dust settled on the Geneva Agreement- particularly in relation to construction at the Arak facility and with regard to the right to enrichment- have not allayed concerns regarding the viability of a diplomatic solution.

Q: What’s your viewpoint regarding the growth of pro-Palestinian sentiments among European citizens and the issuance of the recent written guidelines by the EU that prohibits the member states from cooperating with Israeli companies operating in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (Al-Quds)? You may also admit that some European firms have banned all forms of trade with Israel to endorse the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement. What’s your perspective on that?

A: It is safe to say that there has been a shift in European attitudes and approach to both Israel and Palestine. This is only natural with the passage of time as the historical weight that influences Europe’s perspective has changed. Europe strongly supports a secure Israeli state and a viable Palestinian state, but for such a situation to be sustainable it must be achieved within the context of legality. This was the motivation behind the written guidelines to which you referred and indeed the idea of an article I wrote a few months ago highlighting the potential role that Europe could play in creating incentives to act within international legal norms.

Q: What do you think is the best solution to the crisis in Syria? Do you agree with a military intervention by the United States and its NATO allies under the guise of humanitarian intervention, or do you prescribe to a political solution reached through negotiations? Given the fact that the UN Security Council hasn’t accepted a resolution permitting a war on Syria, how should the conflict be resolved?

A: We can safely say that military intervention is off the table at this point. Of course, a diplomatic solution would be optimal, but I am not optimistic in the short or even medium-term. The situation in Syria is a proxy contest, or more accurately the site of multiple proxy contests, each of which is extremely fluid at the moment. Until the situation begins to settle regionally and internationally, I am not hopeful that a lasting negotiated settlement is possible.

That being said, the agreement to sit down for talks at Geneva is a positive sign, though the talks are still a ways off and a lot can happen between now and then. In all of this, in the midst of the talk about geopolitics and regional dynamics, there are real costs in terms of human life and suffering as the situation continues to get more desperate with each passing month.

Q: What’s your viewpoint on the recent revelations by former CIA employee and NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who disclosed the details of several U.S. mass surveillance programs on European officials and citizens? Won’t these disclosures diminish European citizens’ confidence in the United States as a traditional partner and ally? What do you think are the reasons the U.S. has been furtively monitoring the online exchanges and phone conversations of European citizens and people in other countries?

A: What struck me about much of the initial outrage was the hypocrisy. This is not a purely American phenomenon. Everybody spies and indeed we have learned about some European spying efforts via the disclosures. That being said, what is troubling about the revelations, and something which I think underlines some of the general European reaction, is the sense that there was insufficient oversight and control. This is reinforced by the reports of massive data sweeps, rather than targeted collection, and indeed, by the very fact that Edward Snowden, a low-level contractor, had access to so much critical information.

Q: Although the United States and the European Union regularly had robust and close relations with each other, they had disagreements and disputes on different issues in recent decades, especially on such matters as the invasion of Iraq, the independence of the Republic of China (Taiwan), controversy over the maintenance of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, extraordinary renditions of the United States in the aftermath of the War on Terror, the importing of genetically modified foods produced in the U.S. by EU member states, etc. What’s your assessment of the positive and negative points in U.S.-EU bilateral ties?

A: This is a critical time for US-European relations. For nearly fifty years the relationship, for all the tensions and differences, had the overarching support structure of security to hold itself together. With the end of the Cold War, this necessity dissipated. For the first decade and a half after the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, America’s hegemonic position obviated its need to make selective strategic choices; this allowed transatlantic relation to continue to move along without a critical rethinking. With global rebalancing and the end of the unipolar era, things have changed and the United States has reconsidered its priorities. Europe and indeed the European neighborhood do not appear to be among these priorities as the Obama Administration has set forth on the much ballyhooed and unfortunately titled pivot to Asia. This changing strategic environment is why the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations are so important. TTIP has been referred to as the economic NATO. This terminology is at the same time apt and too limited. Like NATO, TTIP offers the opportunity to re-infuse purpose and structure into the US-European relationship. But the impact of TTIP could go much further, creating a critical mass for a rules-based approach to international governance.

Q: A few questions on Iran’s nuclear program. It seems that the Israeli government is extremely apprehensive about the nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Iran has struck a “deal of the century”, getting relief from sanctions, and in return has paid nothing. However, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have given reassurances to Netanyahu that they will not give in to a bad deal with Iran. Will the peaceful, diplomatic conclusion of the nuclear standoff be unfavorable to Israel?

A: A diplomatic conclusion to the Iranian nuclear standoff would be in everybody’s best interests, including Israel’s, but only if safeguards are put in place to guarantee that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon. We are already seeing an important first signal of the difficulties of coming to such an agreement in the varying interpretations of the terms of the Geneva Agreement. A good example is the question of whether the Geneva Agreement allows for continued activities at the Arak Complex. Such ambiguity will do little to reassure Israel and does not bode well for an ultimate agreement.

Q: You know that since 2006, Iran has been under several rounds of unilateral and multilateral sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. Some of these sanctions directly target the daily lives of ordinary Iranians through restricting their access to foodstuffs, vital medicine, medical equipment, and other consumer goods. Shouldn’t these sanctions be lifted as a sign of goodwill and respect for the Iranian people, especially now that the new Iranian government has taken up détente and rapprochement with the West?

A: The comprehensiveness and effectiveness of the sanctions, particularly in recent years as they became truly multilateral in nature, is why we have a productive negotiating process to discuss in the first place. Lifting the sanctions before a final enforceable agreement is reached would be folly as it would remove the key impetus for a negotiated settlement. This is why I supported the unfreezing of certain assets and limited reversible sanctions relief as an initial confidence-building measure that is more adaptable than the broad-based lifting of sanctions. Initially this appeared to have been the approach at Geneva, but now it is clear that some of the measures in terms of lifting of sanctions have gone further than it seemed immediately following the announcement of the agreement.

Q: Let’s get to some Spain-related issues. How is the Spanish government dealing with the ETA terrorist organization? It’s reported that the group is responsible for the killing of around 800 Spaniards since the 1970s, and it’s branded by the EU and the United States as an armed terrorist organization. What’s the Spanish government’s approach toward the Basque separatists and especially such organizations like ETA that are intent on realizing their demands through taking up arms and killing defenseless civilians?

A: Since the transition to democracy in the mid-1970s, Spain has taken the approach that ETA should be confronted by the rule of law. There have been difficulties and this has not been an easy path to follow, yet we have persevered in this overarching idea. The government to which I belonged understood that this was the best way forward, balancing the respect for the victims and the reality of politics.

Q: It has been reported that the unemployment rate in Spain had risen to 29.16% by April 2013. It’s a big number for Spain, which is one of the thriving economies of the EU. What measures has the government taken to tackle the problem of unemployment and address the ongoing economic crisis?

A: Thankfully things have started to turn around. It seems that unemployment has finally peaked with an expected decrease next year. Meanwhile, Spain has enjoyed a strong resurgence in exports (up 22% from 2007) which has closed the trade deficit (-€100 bn in 2007 to -€11bn for the first 9 months of 2013) and helped lead to a current account surplus for the first time in a quarter century. These gains have partially been the result of the state of the labor market which has driven down costs, but some credit also goes to difficult labor reforms which have provided companies and potential investors with greater flexibility.

Q: Do you have any updates on Spain’s territorial dispute with the UK over the sovereignty of Gibraltar? The 1976 referendum on sovereignty showed that 99.6% of Gibraltarians want to remain under British sovereignty. Moreover, under Article X of the Treaty of Utrecht, the Kingdom of Castile agreed to formally cede the territory to the British Crown. However, the disputes have continued, and Spain still lays claim to the sovereignty of Gibraltar. What’s your viewpoint on that? Is Spain legally or historically entitled to claim ownership of Gibraltar?

A: Gibraltar is first and foremost a United Nations issue. The British presence in Gibraltar constitutes an anachronistic continuation of colonialism, one which the United Nations General Assembly has demanded come to an end through negotiations between Spain and the United Kingdom. Sadly, these negotiations have not been forthcoming. Meanwhile, Gibraltar continues to be a center of tax evasion embedded in the EU which has a policy of combating such havens. Indeed, there are 21,770 registered companies in Gibraltar for a population of just 30,000. Furthermore, Gibraltar, which falls outside of the EU’s customs territory, has become a major conduit for illegal tobacco smuggling into Europe, importing 140 million packs of cigarettes last year, about 4600 packs per person.

Q: And as a final question: How were relations between Iran and Spain during the years you were the foreign minister? Undoubtedly, relations have declined in recent years as a result of the sanctions and the EU’s oil embargo against Iran. However, following the victory of Dr. Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s 2013 presidential election, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sent a congratulatory message to the Iranian President and expressed hope for the expansion of bilateral ties. What’s your viewpoint on the prospects for Iran-Spain relations?

A: Different Spanish governments have had a consistent belief in dialogue. My government was a clearly committed ally of the United States. Nevertheless we never subscribed to the “axis of evil” approach. I arranged and conducted a state visit of King Juan Carlos to Syria and of President Khatami to Spain. I strongly believe that exchange, even a critical exchange, is absolutely fundamental and that isolating an actor is never a good way forward.

This interview was originally published by Tehran Times daily.