In an interview with IRNA in London, to a question about the future relationship between Britain and Iran and what the obstacles in the way are, Straw said, 'I think relations between the two governments are basically good and an indication of that is that the diplomatic representation is upgraded from the level of charge d’affaires to full ambassador. After Mr. Habibollahzadeh, your government has sent a very good and experienced ambassador and we have got Nicolas Hopton, a very good ambassador in Tehran.'
'Of course, given the history between the two countries and particularly the problem after our embassy was invaded in November 2011, it takes time to rebuild the depth of the relationship, but I hope that its going to go in that direction.'
'There is a specific problem, the current restrictions on the number of visas which are issued in Tehran which is reciprocated here in London and a number of us who are supporters of the best relations between Britain and Iran are doing our best to encourage the government to raise the number of visas that are issued each week.'
'The other big issue is the attitude to the ‘BARJAM’ (JCPOA). As you know, the British conservative government under David Cameron signed up to ‘BARJAM’, both Mr. William Hague and then Philip Hammond were very actively involved in its negotiation.
I am very pleased that the new prime minister Theresa May has confirmed her support for the JCPOA and by all accounts has made clear her support for the JCPOA to the US government.'
The following is excerpts from the interview with Jack Straw:
Q. Theresa May accuses Iran of influence in the region which is very close to new US narration, how much do you agree her and how do you see Iran’s role in the region?
A. It is a matter of fact that Iran historically and today seeks to work closely with the Shia community across the Middle East. So it is no surprise to me whatsoever that it always had this close relation with the Shia community in Lebanon and is open about its active support for Hezbollah, with the Shia communities in Syria and in Iraq and in Bahrain which in one stage was part of Persia and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf.
Indeed the British Navy helped in the 17 century to secure it for Persia.
So it should be no surprise to anybody that Iran has that interest just as others have an equally sometimes opposite interest. As Saudis have a very strong interest in regional influence and always have had, particularly with the Sunni population. And the so called world powers, all over the Middle East for a very long time, famously the British, the French, the Turks and now the US.
But if you are asking me if I take the view of some ‘Americans’ that Iran is the greater state sponsor of terrorism, I don’t recognize that description.
Q. Do you think Britain and Iran could cooperate in resolving regional crises?
A. I hope so; it is the answer. It is in no one’s interest for there to be such polarization in the region as there has been. I am not naïve but there have been periods where there has been good cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran and I know that your president recently visited Kuwait and it always had good relations with Oman.
I would like to see a deeper dialogue with the government of Iran. Unfortunately at the moment the British government has got one huge issue which dominate everything else which is Brexit. But in my view it sought not to stop us from active cooperation.
Q. Tell us about Donald Trump. Do you think Trump could influence British - Iranian relationship?
A. There is pressure in that direction and that’s perfectly public from what Mr. Trump has said about Iran and the fact that he is so much closer to Benjamin Netanyahu the Israeli Prime Minister than Barak Obama was.
Famously Barak Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu were opposed to each other and had no personal relationship either.
So there will be pressure from the US to encourage the British government to support their policy on Iran.
The big question at the moment is what is the US policy on Iran? We know what the rethoric has been and we know what the reaction has been to the missile test recently but it is not exactly clear which direction they are going to go in.
It looks as though, the trump administration will accept the existence of the JCPOA and not seek to withdraw from it or undermine it but they will be seeking to take action as it were round the side of the JCPOA to deter for example banking arrangements to support trade.
I noticed that there has been some new trade contracts signed with Iran but in each case the commentary in the news report says that this is subject to banking facilities.
So that’s a big problem and it’s a big problem for the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce and businesses in Britain trying to do lawful trades with Iran.
I hope that the British government would be making strong representations to the US since we have diplomatic relations with Iran and we want improved trade relations.
It is not acceptable for the US to prevent the implementation of the JCPOA by the backdoor.
Q. What is your outlook for the implementation of JCPOA with a hostile US president?
A. I don’t know how the US administration will react in detail, in fact nobody knows that.
As you know in the US when they change president the officials at many levels change. So the State Department has a major problem at the moment, because it does not have staff. It is not here where as a change of government the staff in the ministries stay the same. Slightly different in Iran because you get changes in senior level to reflect the different personalities of the president but still the ambassadors are still in post but it's not like that in US.
The other issue which is how Iran will react. So if Iran tests more missiles or is involved in actions somewhere in the Persian Gulf which the Israelis and the US and the Saudis all regard as hostile then that will lead to demands in the Congress for some kind of retaliation and strengthening of sanctions.
On the other hand, if there is a more softer approach by the Iranian government that would reduce the opportunity there is for Benjamin Netanyahu and the right wing of the republicans to seize any excuse.
I am sure President Rouhani and Dr. Zarif are very well aware of that as is the Supreme leader.
Q. What should be Iran’s reaction to Trump hostilities?
A. Iran will carry on to represent its interests, but if you want my advice, it is to be cautious in reaction and careful for there not to be errors made.
If you take the assault on the Saudi embassy, it is a public matter, President Rouhani and Dr. Zarif were very upset about that because it is wrong and is against the Vienna Convention, it puts Iran on the defensive just as when the British embassy was invaded back in November 2011.
It was a great news for the enemies of Iran and bad news for the friends of Iran, People like me.
Q. Trump has added Iran in the list of six countries banned from entering the US. This is whilst Iran has not delivered any acts of terrorism in the US. What is your opinion on this?
A. It is a policy without justification as far as I am concerned. I don’t justify it. I think it was a terrible policy and you are right to say that there have not been any Iranians involved in Jihadist terrorism in America or here.
I think about the terrorist incidents here, they are principally people of Pakistani heritage. The majority of 9/11 bombers were Saudis.
Q. Do you think that Donald Trump would be able to compromise Iran any way? If so what areas?
A. What I would like to see is a constructive engagement with Iran, of a kind that President Obama was involved in. If Hilary Clinton had gone in to the post and there had been a consistent approach, in couple years you could look forward to establishment of diplomatic relations with the US.
But that’s not going to happen for the time being.
What now happens is as much of the hands of the Iranian government and Supreme Leader as in the hands of the Republicans and Donald Trump.
If mistakes are made on the Iranian side or miscalculations which feed the anti-Iranian rhetoric in Washington and in Tel-Aviv and in Riyadh then that would make relations more difficult. On the other hand, if over time there is a more sensitive approach, then it will make things easier.
Of course I am aware of the politics in Iran that there are a lot of people who feel very angry about the US role, but a strategic decision needs to be made by the Iranian government about how to handle the new US administration; It does not give excuses; because the people who benefit from that will be the opponents of Iran and the people who want to help Iran will be the people who suffer.
Q. Will Europe stand by US hostile policies towards Iran?
A. I think that the major countries in Europe will pursue their own policy towards Iran. The biggest trading partners of Iran in Europe were Italy, Germany and France; they are making every effort to re-establish trading and investment links and they are in a better position to do so than UK for two reasons. One is that there is no visa problem either way and the second is that their trades are denominated in Euros. So for a British company selling goods to Iran it has to be extraordinary careful not to involve banks which is processing dollars
That also applies to a lot of big European banks, there are some smaller Europeans banks which don’t have dollar accounts anyway so they are in an easier position.
The rest of the European countries will also pursue their own policy.
Q. Do you think that they can survive?
A. They followed US foreign policy when Obama was there, because they read with it, I’ve seen no evidence there following Donald Trump’s policy over the treatment of Iran.
Q. Do you give consultation to the British government to Iran?
A. I talk to them informally. I am more involved in Turkey. I am the co-chairman of the British-Turkish Forum which is a bilateral body. Overtime, I would like to see a British-Iranian Forum as well but I think that will take time to establish.
Q. Have you been ever subject to consultation during the nuclear negotiations?
A. There has not been formal consultation but of course I keep in touch with what’s going on.
Q. How do you foresee the implementation of JCPOA?
A. The outlook is uncertain because of the election of President Trump. He has a policy which is number one hostile towards Iran, but number two he is not a foreign policy expert.
I don’t know whether if he thinks all Muslims are the same, but he might do. I think his understanding of international relations and international history are rather limited. It means there is a big uncertainty there.
I think the other signatories to JCPOA which are Russia, China, Germany, France and the UK want to see it implemented. There is a lot of frustration within the British business and in parts of the government about banking problem. But the difficulty for some of our big banks is that they subject themselves to penalties in the US for breaching sanctions with Iran in the past and had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars and so they simply won’t get involved.
The most obvious case is HSBC that has natural historic links with Iran but they don’t get involved because they think it is too dangerous and that applies to other big banks.
So it is a question of finding alternative means of supporting financial transactions.
Q. Whose role is this?
A. Personally, I think that part of it is the British government’s role. Up until the referendum last year quite a lot of progress has been made on that on that but the British government was not dominated by Brexit and we also had an administration in the US that also wanted to implement the JCPOA.
Q. Is this not compromising UK’s position towards doing its commitment under JCPOA?
A. I think the British government among the other governments apart from US is doing its best to implement the JCPOA. I think everybody is fully aware that it is been said that Iran is implementing its side of the JCPOA, that’s what the IAEA have said and I have read no criticism of what Iran has done.
So it is a difficult situation and its not one that any of us have anticipated. Did you think president Trump would win a year ago?
Q. How do you foresee the future relationship between Iran and Britain after Brexit?
A. It could make trading much easier because we need good bilateral trade deals with major countries of which Iran is obviously one because of its size and significance.
I don’t think it will make things more difficult, at worst its effect would be neutral but it could be a good effect in terms of increasing the pressure on British government to open up an important area of trade links.
Q. What is your opinion about the capacity of trade relationship between Britain and Iran?
A. At the very least it needs to go back to where it was 7 or 8 years ago and as you may know, following the sanctions that were imposed from 2006 through to 2013 our trade dropped off dramatically more proportionately than those in Germany and France and Italy.
So we want to get it back and because it is a very big market and it’s a maturing market and because there are lots of natural connections with Iran including a very large number of Iranians living in the UK we ought to be able to build that trade up quickly.
Q. Don’t you think Britain is left Behind from the rest of Europe to trade with Iran?
A. I don’t think anybody wants it to be left behind, everybody is aware of this danger. Our economy is shaped in a different way from that of Germany and France because so much more of our economy is services including financial services.
So in one set we are more vulnerable to what the Americans can do. That’s just the reality. So working way round this is giving advice to companies about how they can legitimately and lawfully receive payment from Iran and vice-versa without violating OFAC in Washington is very critical.
Q. Whilst Britain is being cautious in trading with Iran, it is selling Arms to Saudi Arabia which in return is being used to kill civilians in Yemen, what is your opinion on this?
A. It is a policy of the British government to encourage trade and investment with Iran. If you go on British government website that’s what they say.
Liam Fox, the International Trade Minister has made speeches about that. So that’s their policy.
Selling arms is something different. Historically we had a big arm business with Saudi Arabia and that goes back a very long time.
Personally, I see nothing wrong in that; I think that’s separate from what is going on in Yemen, where I don’t agree with the British government in backing Saudi Arabia in Yemen, which has led to a huge amount of suffering and we need to see a political solution, not a military solution.
The only victims are the very poor people of Yemen.
Q. What is your opinion about Theresa May’s announcement against Iran in Bahrain?
A. She is responsible for her words. These are not the words I ever used.
Theresa May is the PM, she makes her own statements, but I have a different view about the role of Iran in the Middle East.
I know it had a negative effect in Iran. Mr. Cameron also made some statements after he met President Rouhani, which it did not help.
These statements play into internal politics in Iran and those in Iran who want a better relation with the West find themselves undermined by the statements like that.
Q. Tell us about your memories during the negotiations with Iran?
In the period between 2001 and 2003 I went to Tehran for 5 times and I saw Dr. Rouhani on 2 ocassions. The last time was in October 2003 when we had the big negotiations in North Tehran; He was leading the delegation across the table and there was Dominique de Villepin, Joschka Fischer and myself and it was a very electrifying moment because Dr. Rouhani said we need to go and see the president and three of us saying we have nothing to say to him for because we have not got an agreement.
We weren’t making a threat but Dominique de Villepin said our airplanes are at the airport. We can always go home and Joschka Fischer and I said something similar and there was lots of phonecalls been made and then we finaly got an agreement.
We could have agreed the whole thing ten years ago by 2005. US under President Bush was moving to change its policy but by the time it changed its policy there had been a change of government in Tehran and relations were broken down. It was really frustrating. But Condoleezza Rice became really interested in the issue of Iran and shifted her policy and got president Bush to sift it. But Tragically it was two late.
So I got to know President Rouhani back then and I got high regard for him.