Kourosh Ziabari – Tehran Times: Following the election of the moderate politician Hassan Rouhani as the Iranian President in the June 14, 2013 elections, the European countries have become more willing to interact with Iran on equal footings and based on mutual respect. In the recent months and following President Rouhani’s elections, several high-ranking European delegations and dignitaries have traveled to Iran, and it’s expected that more Western officials, including diplomats, politicians and lawmakers will be coming to Iran in the near future.

The former Italian Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema was one of the dignitaries who traveled to Iran in December last year to hold meetings with senior Iranian officials, academicians and journalists to explore the ways for the further consolidation and improvement of Iran-Italy relations, which notwithstanding the economic sanctions on Iran, have normally been dynamic and vivacious.

Tehran Times had the opportunity to conduct an exclusive interview with Mr. D’Alema upon his return to Italy.

D’Alema underlined the great importance which his country attaches to relations with Iran, saying that even in the most difficult times Italy never ceased its support for diplomacy with Iran.

Massimo D’Alema was the Prime Minister of Italy from 1998 to 2000 under President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and then the Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister from 2006 to 2008 under Romano Prodi. D’Alema was a Member of European Parliament for Southern Italy from 2004 to 2006. Since June 30, 2010, he has been the president of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies which is political foundation of the Party of European Socialists.

President D’Alema took part in an exclusive interview with us, responding to some questions regarding the future of Iran-Italy relations, the new turn in the course of Iran-U.S. bilateral ties, Iran’s nuclear program and the Geneva interim accord, Israel’s continued blockade of the Gaza Strip and Silvio Berlusconi’s expulsion from the Italian Senate. What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: President D’Alema, would you please talk about the most important achievements of your recent trip to Iran? What meetings have you had in Tehran? Do your trip to Iran and also the recent official visit by Foreign Minister Emma Bonino to Tehran indicate a new turn in the course of Iran-Italy bilateral relations?

A: During my visit to Teheran last December, I had very interesting meetings with President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rasfanjani, Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Takht Ravanchi. And I had also the chance to speak with representatives of Iran’s civil society: philosophers, directors, academics, journalists, students that I met at the Italian Embassy and at the conference which was held at the “Institute of Political and International Studies”, where I delivered a speech on “Europe’s commitment to security and coexistence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East”.

Both in the official meetings and in the informal conversations, my perceptions that Iran is seriously committed to the achievement of an agreement on the nuclear question and to playing a stabilizing role in the region were confirmed and indeed reinforced. I noticed a clear change in the language and in the attitude which is obviously the result of the political developments that have been triggered by President Rouhani’s election.

I have been particularly struck by the frankness and by the friendly mood that characterized our conversations even on those issues that are still open and on which there are still deep differences. For example, I had more than one quite lively discussion on the Israeli question.

I consider Minister Bonino’s visit to Teheran, which took place immediately after mine, extremely important. It is in fact the first visit by a Western foreign minister since the beginning of the Iranian nuclear crisis. So was also the visit of Mr. Pier Ferdinando Casini, who is the President of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Italian Senate. They are clear signs of Italy’s interests towards the Islamic Republic of Iran and of the traditionally friendly relations between our countries; relations that were never suspended, not even in the most difficult moments.

Q: Historically, Iran and Italy have maintained close mutual relations. Italy was one of the first European nations that congratulated the election of President Hassan Rouhani in the June 14 presidential elections in Iran. It’s also Iran’s leading trade partner among the EU member states. How much importance does Italy attach to having steady and firm relations with Iran? Have the EU oil embargo and the UNSC sanctions against Iran affected the bilateral ties?

A: Clearly, we attach great importance to relations with Iran. Not only economic ones. Let’s think of the cultural relations between our countries. Italy has been committed for decades in the artistic field, with important archaeological and restoration projects. Iran, like Italy, is a more than two thousand-year old civilization, and this is a common background that makes easier the collaboration between our countries.

Sanctions have certainly been a grievous choice, and Italy’s decision to subscribe them was not an easy one. The Iranian population has paid and is still paying a very high price for them. But Italy is also experiencing the economic consequences of that decision.

Q: With the election of Dr. Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s President, hopes were revived that Iran’s international stature will be reconstructed and revitalized again. The participation of delegations from 60 countries in President Rouhani’s inaugural ceremony, his meetings with the high-ranking European officials on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and the adoption of his proposal for a World Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) at the UN all testify to this new beginning and the fact that Iran is being rejuvenated in the global scene. What’s your viewpoint on that?

A: My judgment on President Rouhani’s first steps cannot be but positive and I have great hopes that the political initiatives that he has undertaken in his first months in office will be successful and will represent an historical turning point. This new language that the Iranian leadership has adopted, however, shall be accompanied by courageous decisions that, in the longer run, must allow the full deployment of the potential of such a great country. I think that Iran is one of the most important players in the Middle East, a region that is being devastated by tensions and conflicts more than any other area of the world. And Iran can give a decisive contribution to its stabilization and normalization.

Q: What’s your viewpoint regarding the Geneva interim accord on Iran’s nuclear program? This agreement makes Iran committed to take confidence-building measures to allay international concerns over its nuclear activities and also lifts some of the sanctions which were imposed on Iran in the recent years. The deal marks the beginning of efforts to reach a comprehensive, final agreement over Iran’s nuclear program and was concluded after almost 10 years of inconclusive negotiations. What’s your evaluation of this breakthrough deal?

A: I consider the interim agreement reached in Geneva last November of the outmost importance. I dare say that it is an historical step because it could help close an issue, the nuclear question, that has been plaguing the relations between Iran and the Western countries for about ten years. And this has fuelled a climate of tension and mutual mistrust.

This said, I would like to add that it would be a huge mistake if either side missed this chance by failing to make the necessary step forward, that is, moving within the next six months from the interim agreement to the final one.

Q: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the U.S. President Barack Obama had a phone conversation in September 2013, marking the first public direct contact between the leaders of the estranged adversaries in more than three decades. After this phone call, the Iranian Foreign Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State held two meetings in Geneva and had a phone conversation, as well. Are these events indicative of a new beginning in the course of Iran-U.S. relations? Are you hopeful that the two countries can put aside the differences and hostilities and move toward reconciliation and settlement of disputes?

A: he recent contacts between the Teheran government and the U.S. administration are a positive outcome. I think that today, for the first time, there are the conditions for reconciliation between the two countries. And the direct contacts between the two capitals are certainly promising. My personal opinion is that both leaderships have the genuine will to launch a new seasons in their relations, despite the fact that to this aim they will have to overcome the many obstacles that are on their way, both within the United States and Iran, and beyond the borders of these two countries. Indeed, there are many conservative forces that are opposed to any process of normalization in the relations between Teheran and Washington, a political process whose value and range are far beyond the mere interests of the two countries, but concern the whole Middle Eastern region and the whole world.

Q: The UN General Assembly has just passed a resolution condemning the alleged violations of human rights in Iran. Even if we acknowledge that some violations take place, we cannot ignore the fact that many of the U.S. allies in our region, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen are grave abusers of the rights of women and religious minorities, but their crimes are never mentioned and condemned by the UN and the United States. Why is it so? Is it because of their attachment to, and alliance with the United States?

A: Violations of human rights must be condemned always and wherever they take place. It does not matter whether in countries which are in more or less friendly relations with the West. This is my firm belief. Let me underline that the European Parliament criticized without hesitation the United States for the systematic violation of human rights in Guantanamo and for the practice of the so-called “extraordinary renditions” as tools of their “war on terror”. In any case, no one can excuse human rights abuse in his/her own country by saying that such abuse occur in other countries as well.

I would like to remind that Italy is the country that strove within the United Nations General Assembly for declaring a global moratorium on applying the death penalty, in view of its definitive worldwide abolition. Unfortunately, Iran is still one of those countries that use the death penalty, and many NGOs contend that in your country, in some cases, the capital punishment has been imposed on people who were still underage.

I do not want to deny that serious abuses happen in many other countries, particularly in the Arab world, as you suggest. Nevertheless, my hope is that President Rouhani’s new course will affect not only Iran’s international relations, but it will also produce a more open climate within Iran and improve this country’s human rights standards.

Q: In his speech to the UN General Assembly, President Hassan Rouhani presented a proposal for a “World Against Violence and Extremism” and said that it’s crucial that all the world countries take steps to fight extremism and violence. His proposal was adopted by the General Assembly with consensus. What’s your viewpoint about the importance of this proposal and the necessity for the international community to eradicate violence and extremism through practical measures?

A: We are in favor of any international collaboration aimed at eradicating any form of violence and terrorism. And we consider positively any contribution that Iran can give in this direction.

Q: The United States has publicly announced its opposition to the participation of Iran in the Geneva II conference on Syria. However, there are politicians and academics who say that the crisis in Syria cannot come to an end without the involvement of Iran. First of all, do you agree that the crisis in Syria should be solved politically or does it have a military solution? And secondly, what’s your viewpoint regarding the role Iran can play in solving the crisis in Syria?

A: As it is well known, Italy’s government and the Italian Foreign Minister, Ms. Emma Bonino, have called for Iran’s participation to the conference that will take place in Geneva shortly. I firmly believe that Iran could greatly contribute to a political resolution of the Syrian crisis, which, I think, cannot have a military solution. This because, it being understood that Bashar al-Assad holds enormous responsibilities, the conflict now has ethnic and religious features and, as a consequence, no solution will be sustainable in the long run, without ensuring the security of the different components of Syrian society.

Q: The U.S. and EU economic sanctions against Iran have caused a great deal of trouble to the ordinary Iranian citizens. They have cut the Iranian people’s access to medicine, foodstuff and other humanitarian goods. In this light, the sanctions can be considered a violation of the essential rights of the Iranian people. Do you agree with the sanctions regime and the call by the U.S. Senators to intensify them? What’s your viewpoint on the humanitarian aspect of the sanctions?

A: The decision to impose sanctions was a difficult one. However, we shall not neglect the fact that the alternative was to give way to those who demanded a military attack against Iran; A decision, the latter, which would have been devastating for the Iranian citizens and a disaster for the whole international community. On the other hand, President Rouhani’s recent initiatives clearly show that it is possible for Iran to free itself of the sanction regime. It follows that if up to now it has not been possible to remove the sanctions, responsibility lays also with those who have governed your country until yesterday.

Q: What’s your viewpoint regarding the continued blockade of the Gaza Strip and that the besieged citizens of this coastal sliver are denied access to power, fuel, food, drinking water, educational and recreational facilities and other infrastructures? Whose responsibility is it to pressure Israel to abandon its policy of continuing the siege of the Gaza Strip?

A: I think that Israel, for humanitarian reasons, has the duty to allow the transit of essential goods to the Gaza Strip. Regrettably, this has not always been guaranteed in the course of the years. In my opinion, the international community should exert pressure on the Israeli government with the aim of defending the rights of the people who live in Gaza. At the same time, the international community should insist with the Gaza authorities that they introduce measures to stop rocket attacks against Israel and its civil population, as it has occurred several times in the last years.

When I was Minister of Foreign Affairs in my country, I was harshly critical when I addressed the question of the military attacks against the Gaza Strip that caused many casualties among the civil population. I also proposed to deploy a few thousand international observers to prevent mutual acts of hostility. Unfortunately, this was not possible due to the opposition both of the Israeli government and of Hamas. They rejected the presence of those same international forces that have ensured the reduction of tension and the end of the hostilities along the Israeli-Lebanese borders in the last years.

Q: What’s your assessment of the expulsion of Silvio Berlusconi from the parliament and the possibility that he will be jailed? Do you agree with the corruption charges leveled against him? I read somewhere that you said he will be expelled from the parliament, but will continue his political life. Is this because he has numerous media and economic assets and a great deal of wealth which makes him invincible?

A: Silvio Berlusconi has been ejected from Italy’s Senate in conformity with the law that prohibits anyone with a conviction of more than two years from holding elected office or standing for office for a certain number of years that is up to the judges to fix. He has been condemned with a definitive four-year sentence for economic crimes (tax frauds, etc.) from an Italian tribunal. It is not up to me to express a personal opinion on the credibility of the accusations against Mr. Berlusconi, neither in this case nor in the other investigations in which he is involved. In my country such judgemnts pertain to the Courts.

Obviously, even if he is now outside the Parliament, he will keep playing his political role as the leader of Italy’s largest opposition party.

Q: In one of your recent interviews, you alluded to some paradoxes in the Western government’s major policies in such cases as Syria and Egypt. In Syria, we have the U.S. and EU support for the Al-Nusra Front and the Al-Qaeda terrorists who are fighting the government of President Assad, and in Egypt, we have the coup against the government of the democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi and his imprisonment, simply because he was not a pro-West leader. Don’t these double standards and dual-track policies lead to a public mistrust of the United States and its allies? Aren’t these policies duplicitous?

A: I cannot deny that Western countries’ approach to the so-called Arab Spring has been largely contradictory. It was fair to support those people who have fought against obnoxious dictatorships that lacked popular consensus and were often characterized, besides authoritarianism, by corruption.

Unfortunately, however, this has in some cases led to back extremist and fundamentalist groups, which do not seem to be able to ensure the democratic development of their countries.

As for Egypt, I think that President Morsi and the Muslim Brothers have made many mistakes while they were in power; mistakes that have had the effect to estrange large part of the Egyptian public opinion. Yet, I don’t think that the return to power of the Army and the arrest of President Morsi and the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood represents an acceptable solution to the crisis. In my opinion the international community should firmly ask the re-launch of a democratic process in which all the political forces representing Egyptian society should participate.

Q: What do you think about the future of war in Afghanistan? Can Afghanistan stand on its own feet and recover from the wounds of war without the presence of the multinational forces? What’s your viewpoint on the controversial Bilateral Security Agreement between Washington and Kabul that extends the presence of American forces in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 deadline of withdrawal?

A: The Resolute Support mission, which from 2015 will replace ISAF, will have among its main goals the training and counseling of the Afghani armed forces, without any direct involvement in military operation, if not in extreme circumstances and upon request of the Afghan National Security Forces. It is therefore clear that there will be a dramatic reduction of the U.S. and NATO military presence in that country. I think that for Afghanistan the next months will be a difficult test bench and that in order to contain the risk of destabilization, Kabul will need the full support of all its neighbors, including, I hope, Iran.

Q: And finally, you’ve surely heard about Edward Snowden’s revelations on the U.S. mass espionage operations across the world. What do you think about these disclosures and that the United States has violated the privacy of its own citizens and millions of citizens and even political leaders in Europe and the Middle East? Won’t this policy of monitoring the phone calls, emails and correspondences of citizens in different countries discredit and harm the reputation of the United States?

A: For sure, Edward Snowden’s revelations have deeply damaged the United States’ reputation. And they have induced President Obama to commit himself to improving the safeguard of privacy, particularly when the U.S. initiatives affect allied countries or the allied countries’ leaders.

Obviously, in recent years, the fear of terrorist attacks and the need to prevent them have led the United States – and, perhaps, other countries – to adopt measures not always respectful of the right to privacy of the citizens and of the customary rules of cooperation with allied countries. It is necessary to find a new balance between the need of security and the individual and collective rights.

This interview was originally published on Tehran Times daily.