George-IacovouKourosh ZiabariIran Review: The proposal made by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to the UN General Assembly to form a global coalition against violence and violent extremism has received widespread commendation across the world and was adopted as a resolution by the General Assembly on December 18, 2013 with the unanimous vote of the member states.

Iran is now seen as the forerunner of fighting terrorism and extremism, even though it’s located in a geographic region that is replete with ethnic and religious tensions, frequent uprisings and social unrest, shattered with incessant foreign military intervention.

The Conference on World Against Violence and Extremism was held in Tehran on December 9-10, 2014. It brought hundreds of prominent politicians, diplomats, academicians, authors, thinkers and foreign policy experts to Iran to gather for two days of intensive talking, discussion and intellectual exchange on how to tackle the crisis of ethnic, religious and political extremism, especially in the turbulent and volatile Middle East.

One of the high-ranking conference guests was Mr. Georgios Iacovou. Iacovou is the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cyprus. He served as the Cypriot Foreign Minister for two consecutive terms from 1983 to 1988 and 1988 to 1993. He also served a third term from 2003 to 2006, making him the longest-standing politician to hold that position. He has also worked as the High Commissioner of Cyprus to United Kingdom and the Cypriot ambassador to Germany. The 76-year-old career diplomat is a well-known name in his country’s political atmosphere, and ran for the presidency in the 1998 elections. Despite winning the first round, he lost to the incumbent Glafcos Clerides in the run-off with a margin of 1.6%, or 6,000 votes. In that election, he was backed by the Progressive Party of Working People and the Democratic Party.

Mr. Iacovou is the recipient of several international medals and awards, including the Grand Cross of Merit from the Federal Republic of Germany, the Grand Cross of the Order of Isavel La Catolica from the Kingdom of Spain and Grand Decoration of Honour in Gold with Sash for Services to the Republic of Austria. Dr. Iacovou has received an honorary Ph.D from the Athens Panteion University.

Mr. Iacovou told me that he had previously traveled to Iran while Mr. Ali Akbar Velayati was the foreign minister. I sat down with Georgios Iacovou at the lobby of Azadi Hotel and talked to him about the growth of extremism and violence across the world. The following is the text of Iran Review’s interview with Georgios Iacovou.

Q: Mr. Iacovou, thank you very much for participating in this interview. First, would you please tell us about the importance of the conference that you attending, the conference on World Against Violence and Extremism? How much importance do you attach to the fact that Iran is holding this large international gathering? How can Iran play a role in fighting terrorism and extremism?

A: We live in difficult times in the region. The region has been destabilized and essentially there is civil war going on all over the region. And I think it is very important that a respected and important country like Iran should take such an initiative.

It was appropriate and I think the statement made by President of the Islamic Republic of Iran at the United Nations with the topic of extremism and terrorism was very significant. And in that context, this conference is important because it carries the analysis further, but also keeps interest at the problems that don’t really seem to be going to be solved.

So the problems that really started after the World War I was that the great powers divided the area perhaps with ignorance of the compositions of not only the ethnic groups but confessional groups. Because of the political developments as well as religious developments in the region, a new situation has emerged; on one hand, for instance Syria was considered to be very stable; Iraq also was seen so, but Iraq, after the occupation of Kuwait and the war against Iran by Saddam Hussein, was demolished. And I had a message to bring to the Iraqis, to Saddam Hussein, few days before the bombing started, because in the Non-Aligned Movement in those days, we played an important role and I was chairing a committee of ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement at that time. I was absolutely fascinated when I went to Baghdad, by the confidence that the regime had, that it was all strong and resistant, and that the Americans could do nothing about that. But of course everything started from the invasion of Kuwait. And we know the history of what happened; the first attack on Iraq did not in fact change the situation much and Saddam Hussein continued with his actions.

We know how he treated the Kurds, that he in effect established a Sunni supremacy in the state of Iraq; the Shiite people were neglected or in fact discriminated. And upon the second American intervention and the reestablishment of a new state of Iraq, the attempt was a failure because the same mistakes of the past had been repeated and the Sunnis were completely left out. And in Syria, I think – I won’t go into an analysis of the situation there which is complex enough – but something has to be done because what we see here is that a group of self-appointed saviors are trying to destroy the existing order that was accepted since the World War I. And this is where extremism, fanaticism and terrorism and such violent actions grow. I don’t think the foreign powers either have the knowledge or the understanding of the region, and there is room for them to get this understanding. We’ve seen that everywhere that they have taken big initiatives, with predominant military forces in the end, nothing has changed. So we need expertise and wisdom of the region and there are important and powerful countries in the region that can contribute to the pacification of the situation and to finding solutions, because neither we can go back to what preexisted nor ignore the problem and let things develop as if the development is not sure.

Q: You referred to the rise of extremism and violence in the region. What role did the foreign powers, the super-regional and ultra-regional powers play in the fomentation of unrest that has emerged recently in Iraq and Syria and the rise of the terrorist group ISIS?

A: It would be wrong to say that foreign powers did not play any role; after all, they were in Iraq and in Afghanistan with military forces, propping up the nascent and developing regimes, and by and large, their intervention has not been successful, mainly because public opinion in all the countries that have contributed forces were in effect against the military intervention, that was about to cause a large number of casualties; that means introducing troops on the ground to launch a war, and bombing from there, which is never very effective. We have seen this even from the World War II. You cannot change things only by occupying the region and governing the area. And they won’t be prepared to do it when they can’t understand why. So, even regional organizations, as I said yesterday, such as the European Union, which is an important institution, make statements but cannot really make firm decisions on such crucial issues as the issue of Palestine. The European Union makes statements and attempts to solve global issues but it has never really gone into resolving the problem by just exercising its own moral influence. So it requires important countries of the region to contribute to solving the problems. I mean, if you ask an American or British politician – not an expert, but a politician about the historical antecedence of the region and also about the religious differences between the Sunnis and Shiites and some of the smaller groups like the Alawite, they can’t respond. No one would know that in Turkey there are millions of Alawites, maybe twelve percent of the population. They have no voice; they are not heard. They are just a religious community that is kept quiet; no one cares about them. They have no territorial foundation like the Kurds that although are from a Sunni country, they have a geographical presence in the Eastern Turkey. There is of course the Kurdish State of Iraq; it’s a magnet for the Kurds; they are well-known all over the world but others are forgotten.

So, what I have found attractive is that His Excellency President Rouhani had focused [on extremism] at the United Nations. It’s impossible to leave these objects in an antagonistic possibility between, say, NATO and Russia. Russia has always been present in the region. To leave it completely out would not help to resolve the problem. So the only umbrella that I think is apart from the countries in the area – the regional countries, is the United Nations. There must be an umbrella of the United Nations. But I think important and influential countries like Iran can play a significant role in the pacification of the region, to start with. For the moment, the emphasis is only defeating the ISIS and then we’ll think about what we do in the future. Anyway, I think developments move forward also; that’s inevitable, otherwise, they will establish a state; they’re not very far from it. So, the military proponent must go on, but we must think of permanent peace in the future.

Q: I think as a former foreign minister, you have a clear idea of how the international relations work. What do you think about the tensions currently underway between Iran and the United States and the fact that the controversy over the nuclear program has embittered the relations between these two countries? Is it possible to eliminate these misunderstandings?

A: Of course it is possible. I mean, that’s why diplomats are in business; this is the job of diplomats and of course politicians as well. You know, the bitterness in Iran-U.S. relations goes back to many years ago, including the invasion of the embassy, as you remember – the hostage crisis and so on. But I think the fact that the negotiations are still going on regarding the nuclear program is very encouraging in my view, because Iran is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and is committed not to develop nuclear weapons. And of course the International Atomic Energy Agency has been very active investigating Iran’s nuclear program. So, I think it’s on the right path, and in my assessment from what I’ve read and talked to people, is that good progress was made. Maybe the meetings were not successful in producing a final result, but I think it’s encouraging that the negotiations are still going on.

And that will help with the amelioration of relations between the United States and Iran. There is now coincidence of interests as well. I think Iran cannot be written off the map; it’s a big country and it has obviously an interest in the region particularly in Iraq, because every interest that Iraq has, such as being stabilized, not losing territory, etc., matters to Iran as well. And of course no one can accept that international borders be eliminated and people that come from nowhere, including the foreigners – those who adopted new religion even and adopted a fanatic streak of Islam, they come here and fight and create a Caliphate. So, all these points are very important and I think there is a coincidence of the interests and, you know, diplomats must strive to improve the relations as a matter of priority, even leading to cooperation.

Q: As a politician from the European Union, what role do you think the 27-member organization can play in eliminating the concerns over Iran’s nuclear program and in helping the negotiations between Iran and the six world powers come to an agreement?

A: You see; the European Union has a certain tradition; it started as an economic corporation, [namely] the European Coal and Steel Community. It proceeded two more things: it became a free zone, and it became wider. It’s moving towards a political union but it hasn’t quite achieved that. The situation is also, in my view, complicated because some countries belong to other organizations as well, notably NATO, but there are the countries that are maybe broadly sympathetic; however, they are not actually members of any military alliance of any kind and the Partnership for Peace that was set up to accommodate Russia hasn’t really changed. So, international relations are conducted at different levels and the European Union has to support efforts being implemented here on Iran’s nuclear issue. It’s in P5+1 and for important reasons, it was decided to invite Germany and of course this five includes Russia. That’s a good forum. So, the European Union would be informed of what’s going on. Although at the time being, there are some transformations in the EU, including the election of the new Commissioners from the member states, and also the appointment of the new chairman of the Council of Europe.

So, I think the presence of France and Britain in the negotiating group, P5+1, plays a key role, and other countries that have interests, can bring more knowledge and more sensibility to solve the issue, too. There are such countries, for instance, as Sweden that have recognized Palestine. Belgium is also reputed to be one of the first countries that have made the suggestion of recognizing Palestine to the European Union. You see, there are people who lose their patience with the European Union and believe that it is not moving fast enough for the Middle Eastern questions. This is because the Union does not impose on all its members a common foreign policy on all issues.

Q: Do you think that the smaller members of the European Union, such as your country, or the Baltic nations, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have some disagreements with the majority of the European powers such as Germany, Spain and France in terms of such foreign policy issues as Iran’s nuclear program?

A: Well, you know, some world countries are equal but some are more equal than others! So, there is sort of a certain tendency because each country has its own interests and trade. For instance, the sanctions against Russia have cost some countries a lot. The burden is not equal; I mean it has hit us quite a lot. It has hit Greece, for example.

Q: But you have to comply because the decision is made by the European Union?

A: Yeah, we have to comply; and we complied!

Q: Thus, you suffer a lot.

A: Sometimes, not only we suffer but let me mention one important thing. You know; one of the sanctions is that certain individuals are not permitted to obtain a visa. I know a person who – because he was once the ambassador of the Russian Federation to Cyprus, he was put by the European Union on the stop list. And he was coming to Cyprus to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Cyprus-Russia Association, which is in fact a cultural – entirely cultural association. Well, this person couldn’t come to read his address; we couldn’t even let him in. So, this is painful for us to see, but we have to conform. And we don’t have uniform relations; I mean it is not known, but we’ve got over the years very close relations with Russia. Also, because we have the same religion – they are also orthodox as we are ourselves – and we have a cultural affinity that contributes to a close relationship between Cyprus and Russia. And they have been very helpful for us; the people of Cyprus perceive that the United States and the NATO countries are friends of Turkey, while they perceive that Russia is a friend of the Greeks.

So, all these things make international relations complicated. On the other hand for instance, the Baltic countries, because of what they perceive to be a bad relationship during the Soviet period, are all in favor of the United States and Germany and are against Russia and so on. So, international relations are never very easy, but I don’t know if they are as complicated as they are in the Middle East countries.

This interview was originally published on Iran Review.