Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade
Discussion with Ambassador of Islamic Republic of Iran
I remind members of the committee and people in the Visitors' Gallery to ensure their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference, even in silent mode, with the recording equipment.
On behalf of the committee I extend a warm welcome to the ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran, His Excellency Mr. Hossein Panahiazar. I hope I got the pronunciation right as I rarely call him by his surname. He is accompanied by Mr. Mahdi Babakazemi, third counsellor at the embassy in Dublin. I sincerely thank the ambassador for accepting our invitation so promptly. The committee has asked him here to discuss a number of issues that have been raised by visitors to the committee or by way of correspondence and we look forward to hearing his views on these. The matters the committee has signalled it wishes to discuss are: Iran's nuclear programme and the associated sanctions, which is an important topic at present and dominates the news headlines; reports that anti-Semitic comments have been made by the Vice President of Iran; the organisation known as the People's Mujahideen Organisation of Iran and related issues of Camp Ashraf; and the protection of human rights in Iran, including the rights of adherents to the Baha'i faith. We would also like to discuss broader issues, including bilateral relations between Ireland and Iran - we consider that extremely important as well - and the prospect of developing a trade relationship. The ambassador has been working extremely hard over the last year or so to encourage trade between Ireland and Iran, and a number of delegations from the educational and agricultural sectors have come from Iran in recent times with a view to improving trade with our country. That is very important.
Before inviting you to make your presentation, I wish to advise you that you are protected by absolute privilege in respect of utterances at the committee. However, if you are directed by the committee to cease making remarks on a particular matter and you continue to do so, you are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of your remarks. You are directed that only comments and evidence relating to the subject matter of this meeting are to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise or make charges against a Member of either House of the Oireachtas, a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I invite you to address the committee.
H.E. Mr. Hossein Panahiazar:
First, I thank the committee for inviting me. It is a pleasure and an honour to be here to discuss the issues of interest for both countries. I will speak in my introduction about my country and perhaps in the members' questions we will discuss all the issues that are important for both sides.
Members will have a general idea about Iran but I will only mention some points. In the name of God, Iran, which is known also as Persia, with several thousands years of history and civilisation, is located in a strategic area of the Middle East. It has 15 neighbours, some of them with a variety of regional problematic issues. Iran has a population of 75 million and is located in a region with a population of 300 million. We have very close relations in that area.
The Islamic revolution of 1979 was rooted in the constitutional movement in Iran in 1905, whereupon, for the first time in that region, Iranian people could realise their right to have a national parliament. Five decades later, in a popular uprising, Iranians were able to overcome the dictatorship of the Shah and introduce a popular government. Unfortunately, it was subsequently suppressed by a foreign-supported coup d'état in 1953, and the Shah came back to power. The struggle was not over, and two decades later new ways of uprising led to the collapse of the Shah's regime in 1979. The Islamic revolution came up with the slogans of independence and freedom, and a new age of political, economic and cultural life began for the Iranian people based on those slogans. Following the revolution the state's main policies basically changed, especially foreign policy. At the top, there was a withdrawal from military alliances. Iran was part of the western military alliance in that region. We hosted more than 30,000 military experts in that time and they all had to leave. We joined the Non-Aligned Movement, ceased our relations with the apartheid regime in South Africa and supported Mr. Mandela and the African National Congress, ANC. We shifted our foreign policy towards supporting the Palestinians' legal rights.
In terms of regional policy, Iran has always taken and promoted peaceful approaches as a part of the solution. It has helped to find just solutions through diplomacy and dialogue. During the past 30 years Iran hosted more than 3 million Afghan and Iraqi refugees and displaced persons. We still have more than 1.5 million refugees and Iran is one of the largest refugee destinations in the world. We have also been a pioneer in the fight against drug trafficking, despite the huge casualties and expense. We have a long border with Afghanistan, approximately 1,000 km in length. In terms of economic capacity, Iran is third in oil reserves and second in natural gas reserves in the world and, as such, is a significant energy exporter.
In terms of bilateral relations, Iran and Ireland established formal relations approximately four decades ago, during which our co-operation has been positive. The two countries have often had common viewpoints and positions towards a wide range of international issues, particularly with regard to disarmament. Political and parliamentary delegations have repeatedly visited each other in Tehran and Dublin. A total of nine parliamentary delegations, including delegations from the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs - now including the term "Trade" - have visited Iran and exchanged views. We are interested in continuing co-operation with the Irish Parliament, and establishing parliamentary friendship groups in the parliaments of both countries will help in this objective.
In terms of economic relations, in the past, between 1976 and 1996, when BSE emerged in Europe and the importation of Irish beef to Iran was stopped, the total annual imports of beef from Ireland to Iran was 50,000 tonnes, which was quite high. Despite the closure of the Irish Embassy in Tehran last year, our embassy attaches great importance to the expansion of relations between our two countries and has worked hard to remove the ban on the imports of Irish beef to Iran. With the efforts of our embassy, a high ranking delegation from the Veterinary Organisation of Iran visited Ireland in April of this year. I am honoured and pleased to announce that the process route of Irish beef shipments to Iran has been concluded and the ban is lifted.
Total beef production in Iran is approximately one million tonnes per annum but we still have a shortage of between 50,000 and 200,000 tonnes, which is mainly supplied from other countries but by the same Irish dealers who used to export beef directly from Ireland. Therefore, the connections still exist. Currently, the bilateral trade volume between Iran and Ireland is about €87 million, €80 million of which is Irish exports to Iran. To speed up the process of Irish beef exports to Iran, as well as to increase the bilateral trade relations, my specific proposal is that a delegation from this committee, headed by the Chairman, Deputy Pat Breen, would travel to Tehran where they can meet their counterparts and relevant officials in the chamber of commerce. Such a trip will surely encourage more business ties between the two countries.
Regarding the other areas for trade and co-operation between the two countries, I will only mention two important fields. With our increasing population, the Iranian market has the potential to attract all kinds of pharmaceutical products from Ireland. Furthermore, because the population in Iran is overwhelmingly young, the numbers of Iranians wishing to attend foreign universities in all fields is increasing. Last year there were approximately 600,000 participants in the entrance exams for PhD courses in Iran but we have only 75,000 places. The remainder of the students will have to reapply for subsequent years or else try to gain entrance to foreign universities. The presence of good, high ranking universities in Ireland means our two countries can work successfully in this area. However, the long process of granting visas to foreign students needs to be changed.
These are the main points that I wanted to raise in my introduction. I should also say that the EU regulations regarding trade with Iran, which were established in 2010, very clearly exempt food, agricultural products, medicines or goods for other humanitarian purposes. The regulations also mention that the normal trade between EU countries and Iran can continue. Therefore, the areas where there is potential for increasing trade between our two countries are outside the restrictions currently in place in the EU.
I am sure the committee will ask questions about nuclear and other issues, so I will leave those matters to the question and answer session to follow.
I thank the ambassador and am glad to see his concern for efficiency. He knows these questions will be asked and he will not have to answer them twice. I welcome the fact Iran is about to lift the ban on Irish beef, which is a welcome boost for Irish agriculture and a vote of confidence in that sector. We look forward to seeing the effect that will have on agriculture here. I also thank the ambassador for his invitation, which we will discuss further in the context of our work programme for the remainder of the year.
I thank the Chairman and welcome the ambassador and his colleague from the embassy. I also welcome the remarks by the Chairman concerning the ambassador's work here in trying to increase bilateral trade and relations between both countries. On the issue of the export of food, especially beef, I understand the ban was lifted last July but that certain technical details must be sorted out before exports can begin again. As the ambassador is aware, the standards of animal husbandry and food production in this country are exceptionally high, right through from the farms to the processing facilities. As a country we have welcomed, over the years, senior veterinary delegations from countries all over the world to see at first hand how our food production system works. We are very proud of that system and the high standards we maintain. I ask the ambassador to try to ensure that whatever technical details are outstanding are finalised as soon as possible. I am sure the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister will be able to meet any of the reasonable demands made in respect of certification and assurance for the products for potential export.
I welcome the ambassador to our meeting. I have a number of questions on various matters.
The nuclear matter was raised. Ireland was a driving force in the creation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. In 1968 it was opened for signature and Ireland was one of the first states invited to sign it. I am proud of that history and believe Ireland should continue to play a leading role in supporting nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
Many parties represented here have no difficulty with Iran developing nuclear technology for civilian, peaceful purposes that are fully supervised. Looking at released intelligence reports from the US and Israel, it appears Iran does not have a nuclear weapons programme. I base that on experts such as Professor Paul Tiller, who worked for the CIA for 28 years, Mr. Peter Jenkins, the British ambassador to the IAEA between 2001 and 2006, and Mr. Hans Blix. I am conscious the director of intelligence reports to the US Congress going back to 2007, when asked if Iran has a nuclear weapons programme, has answered in the negative. Is there any evidence that would suggest Iran seeks to develop nuclear weapons? I am conscious the supreme Ayatollah Khomeini has said that would be a grave sin. Would the grave sin relate to the stockpiling of such weapons or their use? What happened to the 20% enriched uraniam swap deal for Iran that was brokered by Brazil and Turkey? It appears to have been pushed to one side.
I am conscious that there are double standards in the sanctions being applied by some western countries to Iran, including Ireland. Oil sanctions are hurting the Iranian economy. There were reports in the media about the Iranian rial collapsing by 20%. These are not UN-mandated sanctions and Ireland and the EU are not under any obligation to apply them. How are the sanctions affecting the Iranian economy and Iranian people, particularly the poor?
Amnesty International appeared before the committee in October 2010 and outlined reports on human rights violations in Iran. The case of a Nazrim Sotooday was raised as an example of the jailing of a human rights lawyer. She is being held in Evim security prison, where conditions are reportedly dreadful, with reports of prisoners being tortured. Would the Iranian Government have any problem with Irish parliamentarians travelling to Iran and visiting that jail to meet some of the prisoners? We are worried about the reports about torture, prisoners undertaking hunger strikes. I do not expect and answer today but perhaps the ambassador will go back to the Iranian authorities to ask them to open up their jails to a visit by parliamentarians.
Many Irish people would ask why the Assad regime in Syria is supported by the Iranian Government. Is Iran concerned about the sectarian conflict that seems to be getting worse in the region?
Those are huge questions but I would be interested in hearing the ambassador's response on a visit to the prison.
I welcome our guests and hope we will enjoy a good working relationship like that we always had in the past. I visited Iran twice some years ago and we are all keen students of history of the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans so we have an ongoing interest in the area. Some of those regimes were very peaceful and educational and cultural while some were very war-like. It is part of what we are.
The question of weapons grade uranium and the development of a nuclear weapons programme is a difficulty that I understand. Iran says it does not have any such programme and we must be convinced, which is a matter for the Iranians; they must convince the global community. We know there was an unfortunate experience previously with Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. We do not wish to engage in any way in a propaganda war suggesting that something exists when it does not. We need, however, because of the seriousness of the situation in the region, to know what is going on. If something like that is happening, it is of massive importance to Iran's neighbours and the rest of the global community.
Anti-semitism has been discussed at this and other meetings. Because of the sensitive nature of relations in the area anything said by either side to inflame passions is not of any benefit to anyone, not to Iran, its neighbours or the rest of us. I would like clarification of this issue. I am sorry the ambassador must leave so quickly.
Human rights is a huge issue that this committee is particularly interested in. Going back decades, the Irish Government has taken an interest in the issue. While propaganda may give false impressions, from the information we have, and I would like to hear if it is true or not, it appears there is a problem with the observance of human rights in certain quarters with particular reference to the right of the individual to practice his own religion or customs. Deputy Crowe mentioned prisons and people are judged by the manner in which they treat the people who are in custody. It is vital for the benefit of those in power in any administration that human rights are strictly observed. Deputy Crowe's point is valid. Is it possible for international human rights observers to attend and engage with the Iranian authorities to reassure the rest of the global community that basic human rights are being observed? That would be very important and beneficial in the entire Middle East.
I want to give everyone a chance so if the ambassador deals with Deputy Smith's question about Irish beef exports and the technical details that remain to be worked out, and the nuclear question. We will put the other questions afterwards because some questions will overlap and I want to give everyone a fair chance.
H.E. Mr. Hossein Panahiazar:
I thank the Chairman and the distinguished members for their comments and questions. On the issue of beef, some exchanges have taken place and we are working on a certificate. It is only a technical matter. The main decision about lifting the ban was taken after the delegation which visited Ireland submitted its report. We are exchanging letters between the two sides. We just received a letter yesterday and we will convey it today to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We hope that this will be the end of the exchange of letters and that both sides will agree with the terms of the certificate that is going to be issued. I am optimistic that we are near or at the end of this process of issuing the certificate.
H.E. Mr. Hossein Panahiazar:
We are trying to facilitate the traders. I am aware that the importers and exporters are already talking to each other. What we are doing is to lift the obstacle that exists, namely, the ban. In the context of the certificate, which is only a technical issue, it was necessary to exchange some letters between the relevant authorities in Iran and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We received the most recent letter yesterday and we will convey it today to the Department. If there are no other questions arising, I hope the matter will be finalised.
H.E. Mr. Hossein Panahiazar:
I am sure members have all read about the nuclear issue. We are going to supply the committee with a detailed paper in respect of this matter. I should mention the fact that the nuclear programme in Iran was launched in the 1950s. It is not new and it was started with the help of the United States as part of the atoms for peace programme. In 1967 the Tehran nuclear research centre, in respect of which the US supplied a 5 MW nuclear research reactor, was established. The centre was fuelled by enriched uranium. Following the Iranian revolution, the United States cut off the supply of the enriched uranium required for the research centre. The Tehran research reactor uses 20% enriched fuel to produce radioactive isotopes used to treat more than 1 million people who suffer from various diseases, mainly cancers. This is the outcome of the research centre, which requires 20% enriched uranium.
We have tried to import 20% enriched uranium, both through the International Atomic Energy Agency and from other countries. Unfortunately, we have not received a positive response in this regard. A proposal was put forward, by the US and others, that Iran should send out part of the enriched uranium - approximately 1,200 kg - and have it enriched to 20% and then returned for use in the research reactor. This proposal was not successful. The President and Prime Minister of Brazil and Turkey, respectively, came to Tehran and signed the deal. Everything was finalised and I can supply to the committee the relevant letter that was published by the foreign Ministers of Brazil and Turkey. It was our view that problem had been solved and that we would not be obliged to enrich uranium to 20% purity, particularly as this is very costly and we do not need that cost. Unfortunately, the deal to which I refer did not work. We were left, therefore, with a research centre and a reactor on which patients in Iran are dependent. There was no possibility of obtaining the uranium required. As a result, we had no choice other than to produce 20% enriched uranium ourselves.
On 2 October, our President clearly stated that Iran had no alternative other than to enrich uranium to a purity level of 20% after the Western countries had refused to sell Iran the nuclear fuel it needed to operate its research centre reactor for producing the medical products required for patients. The Western countries have refused Iran's requests on several occasions. The President stated that we were even ready to give 3.5% enriched fuel to the West and to get back fuel enriched to 20%. Again, the West was not ready to do this so we were forced to start enriching uranium to a purity level of 20%. The President also emphasised, in New York and again during an interview in Tehran, that Iran is still willing to stop enriching uranium to 20% if the International Atomic Energy Agency members sell the required fuel to it. Last week, in an interview with Der Spiegel in Germany, our Foreign Minister clearly stated:
If our right to enrichment is recognised, we are prepared to offer an exchange. We would voluntarily limit the extent of our enrichment programme, but in return we would need a guaranteed supply of the relevant fuels from abroad.Our proposal is very clear. We are ready to stop enriching uranium to a purity level of 20% if a guarantee is given that the research centre will be supplied with the fuel it needs. The research centre is the only place in Iran which supplies the material required to treat the patients to whom I refer. Some 1 million Iranian patients rely on the materials produced at the centre. As soon as the western countries reply positively to our proposal, we will cease producing the 20% enriched uranium about which they are concerned.
As one of the members stated, none of the reports from either the IAEA or various intelligence services have provided evidence to the effect that Iran is working on nuclear weapons. We have made it clear that we are not engaged in such work. Iran is a member of the IAEA. Inspectors are present at the centres in Iran on a 24-hour basis. They are verifying what is happening and there are cameras on site. We have no plan to produce nuclear weapons. Independent experts from different countries, including from the United States, have produced reports in respect of this matter. Members may have seen those reports but we can certainly make them available to the committee. Our position in this regard is very clear. The only demand we have is that the countries who are opposed to Iran enriching uranium should provide us with what we need and should recognise our rights under the NPT.
I thank the ambassador. When I attended the Conference of Justice and Home Affairs Committee Chairs in Cyprus, I put a similar question to Baroness Ashton who replied that her relationship with the chief inspector of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran has improved immensely during the past 12 months and indicated that they continue to engage in dialogue with each other. The next four members who wish to contribute are Deputies Maureen O'Sullivan and Eric Byrne and Senators Norris and Daly.
I bid the ambassador a good afternoon. We are continuing the conversations we have had on previous occasions. I acknowledge that Iran, or Persia, as it was formerly known, is a very old civilisation, much older than ours. It is also a very cultured civilisation, with a wealth of poetry and literature. It is difficult to reconcile this with the various human rights issues we hear about in respect of Iran.
There are human rights issues in respect of people doing the job they are supposed to do. It is almost similar to the doctors in Bahrain who cannot be doctors and treat people because of issues with the law in that country. People such as lawyers and those in the media are prevented from doing the work they are supposed to do. Lawyers, in particular, end up in jail and being tortured and so on because they are defending other human rights activists. Nazrim Situde has been mentioned. I want to mentionAbdolfattah Soltani,one of the co-founders of the centre for human rights defenders. Last week Mr. Abdolfattah Soltani was awarded the International Bar Association human rights award. He is in prison and is subject to abuse and torture, more than 1,000 km from Tehran which is difficult for the families to visit. The families of these lawyers are also being victimised in society. It is very hard to accept and to understand these things are going on.
I am disturbed by executions, particularly group executions and the execution of people under 18 years of age. His Excellency and I have discussed this already on another occasion. It is the lack of respect for the judicial process, that people in very many countries all buy into. What can be done to stop this barbaric practice - the executions, particularly where young people have been executed. We discussed the role of women in Iran on one occasion. Having spoken to Mr. Panahiazar's wife also, I formed the opinion it was a much more tolerant society and there was no obligation in terms of wearing the burqa as there is in other countries. Then I read about the 1 million signatures campaign, which suggests there is discrimination against women. I would like to know the ambassador's opinion on that.
I know members will raise the issue of religious minorities and Camp Ashraf. I would like to hear His Excellency's comments on human rights issues, executions and women.
I extend the warm hand of friendship to the ambassador, H.E. Mr. Hossein Panahiazar. and congratulate him on the excellent work he has done in opening up the trade relations between Iran and Ireland for beef and sheep meat. We, on behalf of the trade, applaud his efforts.
I have very little in common with his country, in so far as an Irish politician gets a mandate from the people to represent liberal democratic standards. The difference between the democratic society we are used to and an Islamic republic such as Iran is like chalk and cheese.
I am surprised at the sentiments expressed by members of the Sinn Féin Party when they questioned the nuclear enrichment programme. There has been eight fruitless years of negotiations on the nuclear enrichment programme between China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States. These six are known alternatively as the E3+3. Six major powerful nations have been involved in negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issues with fruitless results.
We as a small island country are equally concerned about the welfare of the 75 million Iranians, particularly the beautiful and highly-educated young population. We would hate to see any pre-emptive strike by Israel against the nuclear deposits in Iran. We are entering a very sensitive period, with the forthcoming elections in America. One can clearly see that Mitt Romney would support the Israelis in pre-emptive strikes whereas President Obama has to be more understanding and has supported the extension of the talks. The talks must reach a conclusion. I disagree with my Sinn Féin colleagues. Sanctions are a crude method of punishing a nation. I understand Iran is suffering tremendously from sanctions. The people who suffer as a result of sanctions are usually the poor and less capable who cannot sustain themselves in a sanctioned society. I am pleading with the ambassador to convey to his Government that Ireland applauds Iran's right to nuclear energy. It is, however, the potential military use of the enriched uranium that worries us. We would like to see a conclusion to the negotiations on that issue.
We cannot support the Iranian Government on a vast range of actions. Human rights has been mentioned. We know of examples of the outrageous treatment of women, the horrendous treatment of gay, lesbian and transgender people and the public executions. The hanging of gays from cranes in public places is inhuman. I cannot see the religious context for that type of behaviour. It is horrendous to hear President Ahmadinejad's bellicose outcries about Israel and how he intends to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. That type of language does nothing to secure the security of the 75 million population in Iran. I would be very interested in visiting Iran. Iran has a rather complex border of 1,000 km. I applaud the way it deals with drug trafficking which is a major problem. We in Ireland know the negative effects of drug trafficking on a community or a society. Just because there is a border of 1,000 km with neighbouring Afghanistan, to call the influx of drugs a Zionist plot is confrontational.
There are many human rights issues. The delegates will appreciate that we as a committee and a country apply a very high level of support for those who are activists in the human rights field, front-line defenders, NGO movements and so on.
Until such time as the nuclear issue is brought to a satisfactory conclusion, the sanctions will apply. Until Iran returns to being a society that is more acceptable in the wider game of international politics, there will be pain involved for the people of Iran unless negotiations are successful in dealing with these tricky issues.
I believe that civilised discourse and courtesy are very important values and for that reason I welcome the presence of our guests who will of course be treated with courtesy. I too recognise the immensely rich history of Iran or Persia since ancient times. I have had the privilege as a member of this committee or because I was a Member of Seanad Éireann of visiting Tehran and the remarkable welcome that we were given by the people. Our visit coincided with a religious festival and officials could not meet us in the beginning. We were taken up the mountains and local people were warm and welcoming to the strangers in their midst. I also had the opportunity to visit Isfahan, a city of immense and complex richness and technological advances, even in the 15th and 16th centuries. The beauty of the mosques and palaces in that enormous square is a sight to behold.
I also asked some questions at that stage and I am very heartened that my colleagues, Deputies Eric Byrne and Maureen O'Sullivan, have asked some of these difficult questions. It is important that people do ask the difficult questions because it by answering these difficult questions that friendship is established.
If we conceal these questions and do not ask them, however difficult they are, they will just fester. Some people say that democracy is not suited to every country. I suggest that the ambassador's country, which has an immensely long tradition of jurisprudence, for example, should understand the rule of law. That is not the case at the moment, however. We are aware of that. I have no doubt that the evidence for the things that have been alleged with regard to arrest and torture is overwhelming. The ambassador might not be aware that I have spoken against torture. I was horrified when the Americans attempted to justify the use of torture. I am interested in human rights. It is not a question of whether people are Jewish, Muslim, gay, not gay or whatever - it is a question of the right to respect that is at the core of being human.
When I was in a mosque in the Middle East three weeks ago, I read a document with great interest. I am sure the ambassador and his adviser are much more familiar with it. It seemed to be a kind of last letter of the holy prophet Muhammad, in which he gave his final message to the faithful. He spoke about the need for respect for difference. He said Muslims did not believe they were better because they were white rather than black, or because they were this, that or the other. I thought it was a wonderful and prophetic message, but it does not always seem to be enacted by the Iranian Government. Why make a pretence of democracy when the Guardian Council is in existence? It is easy to win an election if one excludes the entire opposition. I am sure I could be in permanent power - I could attain any position in this country - if I could eliminate anyone who stood against me and did not share my views. That is dangerous because it means the Iranian Government does not reflect the views of the Iranian people. That really worries me. I was very saddened to hear an Irish person who has business interests in Iran saying some time ago that Iran was a democracy because it had just held an election. I rang in - I am glad to say I was put on - to point out that it was not an election as we understand it. I will mention a disturbing case. Mansoureh Behkish was sentenced to four years in prison, having been accused of assembly and conspiring with intent to harm national security, after she established the Mourning Mothers group for women whose children have been killed, forcibly disappeared or detained. It is a natural instinct for mothers to protect their children. How can that threaten a state? The state should foster children.
I wish to speak about the executions in Iran. I am concerned about the method of execution and the increase in the rate of execution. I have protested about this in the United States. I am against the death penalty. People are often killed in Iran because of their nature. I am glad that Deputy Eric Byrne raised the question of gay people. I was horrified to see the photographs to which he alluded. I could not bear to watch the video showing two young men being hanged from a crane on the back of a lorry because they had been in a relationship. I understand one of them was under age. The executions of minors is awful. I would ask those in the Iranian Government to try to put themselves in the position of those people. Those young people were roughed up and humiliated. They did not even have the salve of believing they were shahid, or martyrs. It goes against the very core of decency and humanity that they died in such ignominy, loneliness and despair, deprived of religious comfort and everything else.
I raised this issue with former President Rafsanjani and Mr. Velayati when I was in Tehran. They said I could not understand it because I am not a Muslim. My answer was that I have read the holy Koran. Having read the words of the holy prophet Muhammad, which I treat with great respect, I am aware that he did not appoint such punishments. How can the Iranian Government purport to erect itself as a greater moral authority than the holy prophet himself? That seems to be an arrogance that is very close to blasphemy. I also raised the question of the Jewish people with them. I have been accused by Israel of being anti-Semitic. If everybody thinks I am a different thing, perhaps some little core is right. It is unrealistic to deny the Holocaust, or to arrest tiny communities on the basis of spying. I would worry that inflamed rhetoric might help to provoke an attack, which would be a disaster. I would do everything I could to try to restrain such an attack.
Okay. I would like us to visit Evin Prison. I was involved in getting two people out of it in the 1980s. That resulted from a press and publicity campaign. I think we should be able to visit opposition people like Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and the woman who was detained as well. We should discuss issues of human sexuality. There are times when Mr. Ahmadinejad seems to have a remarkably perceptive view of foreign policy, but then he goes off the deep end. He said in New York that there are no homosexual people in Iran. How did he execute two of them if they did not exist? There is an absurdity there. We are just human. We are just flesh and blood. I can sit here talking to the ambassador in a civilised manner, but I know very well what would happen to me if I was a citizen of his country. As we advance towards full equality, I feel an obligation to speak out for human beings like me who comprise a vulnerable minority and whose lives are in danger in a country that was once so wonderful and civilised.
I welcome Mr. Panahiazar to the meeting. I have to say the Iranian leader's comment that Israel should be wiped off the map was reprehensible, to put it mildly. I would like to hear the ambassador's views on that. It is unacceptable that the leader of a country like Iran, which has such a proud history and culture, said when addressing people at a public forum like the United Nations that an entire country and race of people who have has suffered so much should be wiped off the map. I would like the ambassador to comment on what his Government is proposing for its near neighbours.
I will comment briefly on human rights. If members of the committee go to visit the ambassador's country, we would like to see those whose names have been mentioned here. The first place we would like to go is wherever we can visit the people about whom the human rights defenders have written to us. Why are these people in prison for expressing their views on what we and the United Nations would consider to be basic human rights? My colleagues have already covered the uranium issue so I will not speak about it. I look forward to hearing what the ambassador has to say about it. I will listen to his response on the tape after I have voted.
We will give the remaining Senators who wish to ask questions an opportunity to do so after they return from the division in the Seanad. Perhaps the ambassador might respond to this group of questions, which was dominated by questions about human rights, with reference to the Amnesty International report that was mentioned by Deputy Crowe, the issue of executions and the plight of those who are incarcerated.
H.E. Mr. Hossein Panahiazar:
We have distributed a paper on human rights. It sets out in detail the programme of the Iranian Government regarding human rights issues. I will speak briefly about Iran's co-operation with the UN Human Rights Council. We are working very closely with it. We have participated actively in the universal periodic review. Like Ireland and other countries, Iran has accepted many of the suggestions that have been made by the human rights council. We consider the establishment of the council as the right way to help to promote the human rights situation in all countries of the world, rather than a few selected countries. We have invited the High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Iran.
The preparatory delegation has visited Iran and discussed with the authorities the meetings that will be arranged for the High Commissioner. We have invited all of the human rights thematic reporters to visit Iran. Several of them have already done so and we are trying to arrange more visits.
We are not closing the country to international observers. I am not saying the human rights situation in Iran is perfect. I do not think any country can claim it has a perfect human rights record. I am saying we are trying to do our best to improve the human rights situation in our country. There are articles in the constitution looking after all aspects of human rights.
The new criminal code which is in its last stages in parliament will establish a separate court for minors under the age of 18 years. That court will not impose sentences of execution. Minors will be dealt with differently. Some other punishments have been changed in the new criminal code. Following the universal periodic review, UPR, we are trying to follow up on what we agreed in that council. If one looks at the reasons for handing down sentences of execution, one can see that most of them relate to drug smuggling, which is one of our problems, but it is not only ours. Unfortunately, it is a world problem. Several years ago the level of drug production in Afghanistan was 200 tonnes. Now, it is more than 8,000 tonnes. Iran is one of the routes used to bring drugs out of Afghanistan. We are fighting against drug smuggling, the result of which is the suffering of young people in Iran, Europe and even the United States. All of us are suffering from it. A sentence of capital punishment is mostly implemented for drug smuggling.
The largest Jewish community in the region is in Iran. One can look at YouTube and see that members of the Jewish community in Iran are freely practising their religion. According to the Iranian constitution which has been approved by more than 90% of the people, four religious groups are formally accepted in it. They are Zoroastrianism, the oldest religion in Iran, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The number of churches in Iran is approximately 600. I do not think one would find as many in any other Middle Eastern country. The number of Jewish Kenisats is 35 - the Jewish population is very small - while the number of places for Zoroastrian worship is 33. These communities can either participate in general elections, in which their opportunity to gain a seat is very low, or in their own community elections to have a seat in Parliament. In the Iranian Parliament we have two Christian MPs, one Jewish and one Zoroastrian MP. They have equal rights with any other Member of Parliament. If members of the committee visit Iran, they can discuss with them and visit churches and other places of worship to see how they are worshipping.
This is also the case in central Tehran which I think Senator David Norris visited when he was in Iran. As he has left the meeting, he cannot help me in this regard. In central Tehran one can find a sports and entertainment complex that is exclusively used by Christians. Although, according to current rules, there are separate gyms for boys and girls in Iran, in that complex there are not separate gyms. Christians and other minorities enjoy their traditions and ways of life in their own way and do not seem to have problems. I do not say Iran is the best place in the world, but one should compare it to other countries in the region.
H.E. Mr. Hossein Panahiazar:
I was going to touch on that point also. According to the constitution, as the Baha'i faith is not considered to be a religion, its members do not enjoy the same privileges as members of the four religions do. They cannot, formally, have a separate place of worship. According to the constitution, these religious communities can have their places of worship and schools. They have the choice to send their children to public schools or their own schools, in Tehran or other cities. Baha'is enjoy civil rights like others. They are trading. If one looks at Iranian television, one will see advertisements by many Baha'i companies. Baha'is are trading, working and studying, as others do. They enjoy civil rights, but the Baha'i faith is not considered formally, according to the constitution, to be a religion.
H.E. Hossein Panahiazar:
Yes. In the past we asked applicants to state their religion on public service application forms, but we deleted that question. They do need to mention that they are Baha'i, as it is not recognised in the constitution as a religion. Only Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians and Muslims are formally recognised as members of a religion under the constitution.
H.E. Mr. Hossein Panahiazar:
I can go through details of their cases. They were not convicted on account of their faith or belief. The centre of Baha'i groups is located in Israel. They established a university, without the permission of the higher education Ministry, that is connected directly with their base in Israel and have been informed that this is illegal. We have thousands of Baha'is in Iran. If their faith was the problem, all of them would be in prison. The Baha'i leaders about whom Irish people have heard have all been charged with offences that I can explain to the committee. They were convicted according to the rules and regulations all countries are following. In Ireland, for example, I do not think someone can establish a university without following the rules and regulations of the Minister for Education and Skills. This is what the Baha'is have done.
If members want, we can go into detail on these case by case.
In general, what I am saying is that we are doing our best to improve the human rights situation in our country and we are co-operating with the Human Rights Council. We are aware there are shortcomings and have accepted some of the recommendations made during the universal periodic review, UPR, and are implementing them. We are changing some parts of our criminal code and we hope this helps to improve the situation.
I should mention that Iran is located in a very dangerous area and the main concern at the present time for our Government is the security of our people. Every morning when one looks at the newspaper, one reads about explosions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and other areas near us, but one does not read so much about Tehran or other cities. Our main focus is to look after the security of the people of our country. This contributes to the problems, because when security is the main priority, this highlights areas that could be better and more open. We hope that as the situation in our region gets better, our situation will improve as a result. We have neighbours, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even in Turkey, who struggle every day for their lives when they leave their houses. Many explosions take place in those regions or near the borders. Terrorist activities are ongoing in those regions. We hope this will be resolved and hope to see an improved situation in those areas.
I mentioned our concerns regarding the threats of a strike against Iran. We are completely ready for that. We take the threats of a strike by Israel very seriously in so far as we should be prepared for it. However, we do not think there is a real aerial threat, because as members know, Israel has already attacked Iraqi and Syrian nuclear plants previously. Therefore, if Israel wanted to attack Iran, it would have done it many years ago, not now. Israel knows what the consequences and reaction would have been then. Although we take the threat seriously and are prepared for a strike, we do not have a real concern a strike will take place.
H.E. Mr. Hossein Panahiazar:
I am not an expert in this area, but I think that Israel would, if it could, have acted as it did in the case of Iraq and Syria, at the beginning or many years ago. Israel did not warn Iraq and Syria that it was going to attack them. Therefore, it does not need to warn other countries if it intends attacking. Israel knew the case of Iran was different and a strike was not possible then. However, if we are put in a position where we must defend ourselves, we know how to defend ourselves. A war has been imposed on us for eight years, but we have resisted against war. If one looks at the history of Iran over the past 200 years, there has been no case of Iran starting or initiating a war against a neighbour. We do not have any border conflict with our neighbours and we have not initiated any war. Even our revolution, if compared with other movements in the region, was the most peaceful. The revolution was conducted peacefully, with as few casualties as possible.
Iranians, as Senator Norris and others know, are more concerned about culture, civilisation and human beings as a whole rather than other matters. For example, if one looks at terrorist attacks that have taken place, such as the 11 September attack and others, one will not find even one Iranian national involved. None. In the past 1,000 years of civilization we have looked for peaceful solutions for all problems. With regard to the nuclear issue, we are optimistic the situation will improve without violence. Also, we will work with Europe and other countries to help improve the situation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and all countries with problems.
As members know, Iran has been chair of the Non-Aligned Movement, NAM, for three years. The most recent summit of this group was held in Tehran just a month ago and Iran will remain the chair of the movement, which has more than 120 members, for the coming three years. Ireland will hold the Presidency of the European Union for the first six months of next year offering an area of potential co-operation to help bring about improvements in our region.
Senator Norris mentioned his knowledge of Islam and our beliefs. I recall a letter from one of the Islamic leaders to his representative when he was sending him as governor to Egypt one time. He told him when he was going there that the people could be seen as being in two groups. Some of them would have the same religion, but the others were sharing human beings. Therefore, he could either govern the Muslims there or govern them as human beings, because people are all the same and share the same common areas. We believe that all people around the world share a common essence of being human and that this is the most important common ground on which we should base other relations.
H.E. Mr. Hossein Panahiazar:
There is no doubt the sanctions cause inconvenience. However, we are trying to do our best to reduce the effect of sanctions on ordinary people. We used to have approximately from €30 billion to €40 billion trade with European countries, but as a result of sanctions this has reduced to from €10 billion to €15 billion. We are shifting trade relations to other countries in Asia and Latin America in the effort to reduce the effect of sanctions. Of course, however, this causes inconvenience for the people and the Government. It is not right to impose sanctions on a nation. We have resisted against eight years of war in defence of our right to say the United Nations should condemn aggression against Iran.
What we are saying now is that we demand that our rights in accordance with empathy and international law for enrichment be recognised and we are ready to compromise. If they provide fuel for our research centre, we will stop producing 20% enrichment. We see our proposals as logical. We hope the sanctions will be lifted and regret that, unfortunately, Europe has changed its policy.
In the past the EU only applied sanctions that had been approved by the United Nations, not unilateral sanctions. Unfortunately, in recent years that has changed but the unilateral sanctions, according to international law, have no basis. If we accept that the United Nations is the basis for these kinds of decisions, we should follow that rule and not apply unilateral sanctions.
H.E. Mr. Hossein Panahiazar:
As I have mentioned, according to rules and regulations, food, medicines and other essentials are exempt from sanctions but unfortunately, some of the non-European parties to the sanctions are putting pressure on banks, transportation companies and so forth to create obstacles for the movement of such goods. The sanctions have some negative effects but we are changing the Iranian economy. We are trying to eliminate subsidies, which will result in higher prices. The people understand that such changes will be helpful in the long term.
The sanctions are an inconvenience for the people and the Government but we hope that through negotiations we can reach a compromise and move things forward, because the sanctions are causing suffering on both sides. Iran's trade with Europe was worth between €30 billion and €40 billion but that has now been reduced to between €10 billion and €15 billion. It is not only Iran that is suffering from the reduction in trade. European countries are selling less, which means they are producing less, which leads to job losses in Europe. Iranians and Europeans are suffering and we hope that the sanctions will be lifted soon.
H.E. Mr. Hossein Panahiazar:
With regard to Syria, we believe that the outsiders' policy for regime change is not the way to go. We should let the Syrian people decide their own future. We are not saying that everything the Syrian Government is doing is right. We have been critical of it. At the beginning, the people were only demanding a degree of democracy, which should have been dealt with better. We have made it very clear that it is not acceptable for any government to use mass destruction against its own people. Any government that uses such tactics loses its legitimacy. We are very clear about that. At the same time, we have also asked the countries in the region not to help the armed groups there. The Syrian people are the ones who are suffering. Unfortunately, there is also a power struggle going on within the opposition. They want to gain as much ground as possible to shore up their bargaining position once negotiations begin. We hope that by stopping the arms supplies to the opposition groups and also pressurising the Government to stop using the military against the people, we will have a ceasefire and negotiations for a peaceful solution.
I welcome the ambassador to this meeting. I welcome the fact that it may soon be possible to resolve the issue regarding the export of beef to Iran and I also welcome the invitation extended to the Chairman and members of the committee to travel to Iran and help in the ongoing discussions.
The President of Iran, speaking at a recent session of the United Nations General Assembly, made a very interesting and enlightening speech, where he talked about the problems and injustices in the world and the need for a new order and a fresh way of thinking. He made some interesting points and spoke of:
- An order in which man is recognized as God's Supreme Creature, enjoying material and spiritual qualities and possessing a pure and divine nature filled with a desire to seek justice and truth.This is wonderful but when one looks at the human rights situation in Iran, one wonders if the President is signalling a new vision for Iran and a new way of addressing the problems that have been highlighted by so many of my colleagues today. We are all alarmed and horrified at the reports of summary executions, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, the closing down of newspapers and websites and the threats of the death penalty against Pastor Nadarkhani, whose only crime has been his conversion to Christianity. How can President Ahmadinejad speak in those terms when the reality in Iran is so different? Is there new thinking in that country which will address these issues as a matter of urgency? Does the ambassador foresee a situation where EU countries and the United Nations will look very differently on Iran and on the sanctions, with a view to lifting them? I ask the ambassador to help me understand the dichotomy between what the President says and the reality on the ground. Can he convince me that what his President has said is likely to happen in the future?
- An order that aims to revive human dignity and believes in universal happiness and perfection.
- An order which is after peace, lasting security and welfare for all walks of life around the globe.
- An order that is founded upon trust and kindness and brings thoughts, hearts and hands closer to each other. Rulers must love people.
This is one of our Senators who follows the transcripts of the UN General Assembly very closely. I wish to add a supplementary question to that. A number of parliamentarians from Ireland travelled to Paris to attend a conference with the People's Mujahedin of Iran to discuss Camp Ashraf. At the time, that group was listed as a terrorist organisation in the United States but I understand that designation has since been lifted. What is the current situation in Camp Ahsraf?
H.E. Mr. Hossein Panahiazar:
I thank the Chairman and Senator Mullins for their comments and questions. The speech referred to by the Senator was a general one that applies to all of us, not just Iran. I mentioned earlier that we do not think Iran is perfect and indeed, no country in the world can claim to be so. What the Senator read are the ideals that we aspire to for everyone in the world. We want to see justice for everybody, including the people of Iran.
We have distributed a paper on human rights but I am not sure if the Senator has received it. That paper explains in detail what we are doing in terms of improving human rights in Iran. We are working closely with the UN Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and we hope that things will go well.
I believe the committee already knows that Mr. Nadarkhani has been released. The issue mentioned was not accepted by the court of appeal and he has been released.
Regarding executions, I have explained that criminal courts in Iran can sentence people to execution, as is the case in many countries throughout the world. Most of the cases where the death penalty is used in Iran relate to drug smuggling, which is one of the main problems in the country and region. If this problem is solved and the international community gets to its root cause, which is poverty in Afghanistan and the situation there, we can get rid of smuggling. We are not happy that people are executed and we know it is not the answer to the problem, but at present according to the criminal court if somebody is involved in smuggling drugs - not addicts - the punishment is execution.
The situation regarding Camp Ashraf has been resolved. The group resisted moving to the new camp because it was not ready but it has accepted the move and people are seeking refugee status in other countries so they can move there. Iran will welcome anyone interested in returning. Some people returned to Iran from Camp Ashraf and do not have any problems. Of course those who committed crimes will be tried on their return. Those who did not commit crimes should not worry about returning. We understand other countries are reluctant to accept as refugees those involved in terrorist activities in the past. This is the reality. We hope for a solution for these people, who have now moved to the new camp. The statement by the United States on removing the group from the designated list of terrorist organisations mentioned that the United States cannot forget the group's past terrorist activities which include killing US citizens. We have protested about this removal because we consider it to be a double-standard. We do not have good or bad terrorists; terrorism is terrorism and those considered good terrorists should remain on the list of terrorist groups. We have not seen changes in the group's policy. Terrorist operations supported by this group still occur in Iran. The most recent was the assassination of a scientist. Information has been published on the group's co-operation with intelligence services in killing nuclear scientists in Iran.
I thank the ambassador for appearing before the committee and being so forthright with us. The discussion was very useful. Committee members raised questions on people in prison. I do not expect the ambassador to know where all prisoners are located so if we provide him with the names perhaps he can get back to us through the secretariat with information on where these people are and what future lies ahead for them. Everybody mentioned human rights and I hope the regime in Iran makes available more access to the UN special rapporteur on human rights as this would be very helpful. I ask the ambassador to convey this message. I hope the meeting has contributed to developing mutual understanding between our two countries. We have had a good long relationship with Iran. Nobody mentioned the closure of the embassy but I hope when times get better and trade improves we will-----
Perhaps, and the re-opening of the embassy when we are out of this recession. I thank the ambassador and his staff for the work they have done in the past 12 months in improving bilateral and trade relations with Ireland, in particular with regard to the long-standing ban on the import of Irish beef. The ambassador's announcement on the imminent re-opening of market access is very important and welcome.
I again thank the ambassador for appearing before the committee. We appreciate his presence and we look forward to working closely with him on all the issues raised today, including human rights, trade and a bilateral visit. We hope to include a visit to Iran in our work programme in the near future.