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photo of mousaviinterview Dr. Seyed Mohammad Ali Mousavi

Sept. 11 should have offered opportunities for improvement in the U.S.-Iran relationship. It didn't. ...

Sept. 11, regardless of the devastating cost for the American public as a terrorist act against humanity, provided a great deal of opportunity for many, including Iran and America. It created an opportunity that international body would be united against terrorism. It seems now that some of those opportunities have been lost, including faster Iran-U.S. rapprochement.

In reality, in the past four months, what did happen was a rapprochement for a better understanding between United States and Iran with everyday policies. Iran's great deal of involvement against Taliban in Afghanistan, uniting with ... Northern Alliance, supporting them, the burden of the refugees during the past few months, its involvement in Bonn agreement which inspected interim government of Afghanistan -- all of them provided an opportunity of a better understanding of Iran's foreign policy by Western world, in particular, United States.

The trend was in a positive mode. But the new approach of President Bush labeling Iran within the three countries of "axis of evil," in my view, ruined the opportunities.


Mohammad Ali Mousavi is Iran's ambassador to Canada, and one of only two Iranian diplomats in North America. He is the only Iranian government official approached by FRONTLINE who would discuss terrorism. In this interview he says that Iran provides "moral support" for groups fighting for independence and against occupation, such as Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but that Iran does not support terrorism. Mousavi was interviewed by correspondent Linden MacIntyre in February 2002.


Completely and totally wiped it out? Or set it back?

Set it back. Set it back ... because the past four months was diminishing [the] wall of mistrust. But labeling Iran, in many [people's] evaluation in Iran brought back that wall of mistrust, regardless of all efforts Iran did take in the past four months to be a part of global coalition against terrorism

What was behind the "axis of evil" comment, do you think?

I think the best person to be asked is President Bush what was behind that notion. ... Evaluating the current comments on this issue, it seems it was more or less domestic politics to involve Iran in this notion.

But if you ask some, particularly conservative Americans, what was behind it, they'll talk about a number of things. ... For example, there is no reason in the world for Iran, one of the great oil producers on earth, to have a nuclear power station unless it's for the production of bombs. Iran is developing delivery systems for the delivery of warheads and weapons of mass destruction. What is the answer to that?

The United States is one of the main producers of oil, has a great deal of reservoir of oil, but United States itself has nuclear power. ...

It is very much so a politically motivated allegation. And you see the unfairness of such charges while Israel has nuclear power, is progressing in its nuclear warhead. Then the point of allegation comes to Iran. This is a world should run by international body's rule, not by a country's rule. In such cases, the existing mechanism of control and investigation has been set up. It's IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. They deny such charges. ...

Two clarifications. One, Iran's foreign policy doctrine doesn't include acquiring nuclear power as non-peaceful means. Second, what now Iran try to achieve in nuclear power in Bushehr has been in the past 30 years. It has been a part of policy of pre-revolution. There had been investment there, and it was continued.

Then, Iran's policy is to use nuclear power as a peaceful means of energy, and we continue to do so. That was the reason that we always been open to inspections, and it has been so repeatedly and regularly by International Atomic Energy Agency. It is the main international body to supervise any such acquirement by countries. And not even once they have complained that, or they have criticized Iran that there is a misconduct. There hasn't been. ...

We recognize that you are surrounded by Pakistan, Israel, India, Iraq. You are surrounded by weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Doesn't it make a certain amount of sense that you would also be developing nuclear weapons capability?


No. We have concern, such as you mentioned. Such countries having nuclear power increases concerns, not only in Iran -- in the region. And that's the reason Iran has been an initiator of having Middle East a free zone of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear power. It is not in our doctrine to acquire nuclear power.

The Americans point out that Iran has engaged with North Korea in development of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which would be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

But these are two different issues. Acquiring nuclear power, nuclear warhead, is something, as I mentioned, it is not in our -- it is not happening at all, and there is not one single evidence to show that. Second is the missile issue. Iran moves based on the international conventions on the missile. We have taken it as a defensive power, a defensive strategy, and it is our right, based on the international conventions, to acquire such defensive power for Iran -- as you mentioned, surrounded by countries of a major threat not only to Iran, but also to international peace and security.

Then our missile policy is a defensive one. And actually Iran has been an initiator of missile pact in United Nations to regulate missile policy by all countries, including Iran. Then what is our plan? It is very transparent, very clear under international body supervision and regulatory inspection. There is no secret about this.

Now, the origins of the alienation between -- if not hostility between -- the United States and Iran go back to the beginnings of the Islamic Revolution and the hostage-taking, and the official approval of the taking of the American embassy in Iran. Looking back on it now, was that not a mistake?

One clarification. The root doesn't go back to the revolution. The root goes back to the American involvement in internal politics of Iran during the shah's time. The coup against Mossadeq, the legitimate government [in 1953]. And ongoing American involvement, the creation of SAVAK was clearly by the American support, involvement, training. Ongoing support of the dictator regime of [the] shah against the masses of Iran. The root of hostility or mistrust goes there. And what happened in the hostage-taking was a reaction, the reaction by public against American involvement in the past decades, pre-revolutionary Iran. ...

Now the Americans have a more serious -- and not just Americans -- but there's a perception that while the Iranian people are outward-looking people, and the elected government of Iran is a reformist government, the real power within Iran lies in a realm where nobody is accountable to anybody except God, and that it's impossible to do business with that kind of a system. Are they wrong?

I think they are wrong in understanding the way in which these sets sit to each other. In Iran, mainly what it is being perceived here as non-elected, appointees, many of them are elected. For example, the leadership in Iran which is the highest power, is being elected by a Council of Expertise [Assembly of Experts], [whose] members are being directly elected by the public.

Some of them.

No, no, all of them. All the Council of Guardians, Council of Expertise, which choose the leader, they are being elected directly by the public. To understand the system is difficult, I agree, because it is unique in itself in today's world. [Ed. Note: See an overview of the Iranian political system.]

But the system, based on the constitution, had been set through the public -- sometime directly, sometime indirectly. But there is an ongoing challenge, how these institutions can be put to each other to have one voice, a voice which respects democracy and will of people, not only in elections, but in daily life. ...

And at the same time, to see that we respect values of public, religious values being respected within this setting. Then it is a challenge, because it's a new model that is being cooked there. It has its own impediments, its own progresses. We don't say it has succeeded fully or it has failed. No, it's an ongoing process. And we have a belief and trust that it will succeed, to come to the point that you see all these institutions will work together to provide a system in which we respect the will of people, will interpret the will of people, and at the same time, respect the values of the society.

Even sympathetic Americans and sympathetic Westerners have a hard time getting past Iran's involvement in terrorism. How do you justify the continuing support for organizations that have their fingerprints on acts of violence against civilians?


Like?

Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

We never have supported any groups which take act of terrorism. We have morally supported groups who are fighting for their independence or for their being out of occupations, like Hezbollah, as we mentioned.

More than morally.

No.

Hundreds of millions of dollars.

No. Give us evidence. ...

It is widely reported that Hezbollah, up until recently, was supplied with $100 million a year from Iran, that the Revolutionary Guards were running training camps for Hezbollah fighters and Hamas fighters, that Iran very actively supported Hezbollah with money and --

No.

That's false?

Yes. We deny that. Our support to Hezbollah has been a moral support. We continue to do that, because in our belief, a fight against occupation is not a terrorist fight, it is a legitimate fight. It is not terrorism. We do not distinguish between bad terrorists and good terrorists. Terrorists are bad. Terrorists are evil. ...

Terrorism is a menace of this world. We are against terrorism. But we differentiate between terrorist act with those legitimate rights of people who had been or are under occupation. ...

But what is a terrorist, then?

Okay, terrorists are those who are occupying another country, those who are putting the civilians' life under threat and danger for their political-motivated illegitimate [reasons]. If someone occupies another's country, the occupier is a terrorist. But the one who fights occupation, in any standard, would be a legitimate fighter.

But what about the one who walks into a pizzeria or a bus or into a marketplace and blows up everything around them?

In our official position, putting the civilians' life in danger, no matter where, is not legitimate. Islamically, based on Islamic values, it's not legitimate.

But it's been happening, and it's been happening under the sponsorship of organizations that are considered to be creations of Iranian foreign policy.

It's happening because no one gets to the root of why it's happening, and that actually was our president's message in post-Sept. 11, that to fight terrorism, it requires two issues. One, it requires a global fight, a global coalition to fight terrorism. And secondly, to go to the roots of such act.

If one neglect the root and just look at what is going on, you might eradicate it today; but because the root is there, tomorrow you will have different kind of act of terrorism or act of violence. Then it is there because no one wants to take the hardship of looking into the root of such violence. That's our message. It has been our message.

Go to the roots, and then, if you resolve the roots -- for example, in the Palestinian issue, if you have a fair, lasting peace there, then you have resolved the root. If you give the right of self-determination, give the right of return to the Palestinians who have been kicked out of their own homeland, then you have resolved the root, and there will be an end to this violence.

But if you want to deny such rights -- which are legitimate rights, on any standard -- to Palestinians, and you just want to end violence, it won't end there. And it has been proved in the past years that it hasn't. We are in this belief that whatever Palestinians decide, we respect that. That's their decision; that's their future. ...

Does this justify the provision of arms? Recently a shipload of arms bound for Palestine was intercepted by the Israeli navy. Iran is accused of having been the origin of that shipload of arms. Is this justified by the struggle of the Palestinian people?

No. We haven't been a part of that ship. From the first day that such accusation raised, we ask give us evidence. If it is so, the government of Iran will act strongly against any involvement, any possible involvement by anyone. But a month has passed. Accusations through media have been on the air, but no one has given us evidence.

The strongest rebuttal is that, "Well, we wouldn't have sent it by boat anyway. We usually fly it to Damascus and deliver it by truck." I mean, there is a flow of arms from Iran to Palestine.

That's an allegation. Is there a proof that there had been a flow of arms from Iran to Palestine, from Iran to Damascus and then through Damascus to there? No. We say no. If there is such allegation, if there is such proof, let us know, because you are talking about an issue which we deny. We haven't been a part. It is against our policy.

Then, if there are some evidence, why is Iran being deprived of those evidence? Because our government made it clear, if there is such evidence, we will strongly react against that. We will strongly put those who has committed such issue on trial.

You flatly deny that Iran has provided financial support for Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad?


Exactly.

And you flatly deny that Iran has provided armaments to the Palestinian effort?


This ship, what, what has been --

This specific ship. You flatly deny that? What about the general [relationship]?

... As we said, we believe, and it is not only Iran's belief -- in the Muslim world, if you go to any countries, nowadays even governments of Muslim world, they all take the same approach as Iran takes -- we support morally the cause of deprived Palestinians. But it is up to them. We haven't supported them financially, we haven't supported them through armaments. We deny exactly, and that's actually what I mention. Give us evidence on this issue.

But no one, it seems that in a way, it's a cooking taking place through some pressure group, some lobby groups, on the interest of one individual country against Iran. Why [does] no one provide Iran with evidence on such a major accusation? Have you asked Americans or Israelis, "Why don't you provide the evidence while we are asking for the evidence?"

Americans will tell you that the State Department, the CIA, and that all the American agencies have absolutely, satisfactorily proved that Iran is involved.

What is secret about this evidence that they don't provide it to Iran? ...

In our belief, a fight against occupation is not a terrorist fight, it is a legitimate fight. We do not distinguish between bad terrorists and good terrorists. Terrorists are bad. Terrorists are evil. Our policy vis-a-vis Palestine has been clear. In our view, a lasting peace should be a just peace -- determining the right of Palestinians on their land, the right of a return of refugees. But this is our view. We do not impose our view. It is their decision, the second issue. What they decide, we respect, no matter it is against our view or not. ...

Whatever they decide we respect. We respect Palestinians' decision, because it is those rights. We don't hide our views. ... We clearly give our view, but we don't impose our view. ... We won't be more Palestinian than Palestinians themselves.

But surely it is a major impediment with the United States, for example, that you have not granted the right of Israel to exist.

We believe United States should play a fair role in the Middle East issue. If they don't do that, if they move as they have done up to now, a one-sided, biased approach in the Middle East case, that source of violence will not be resolved. ... You should be fair on your approach within the issue there. If they don't, it would remain there. This is the analysis. ...

When we were in Iran, we saw a lot of evidence of the ongoing tensions between the elected and the reform-minded Iranians and the conservatives. We also heard a lot about repression of dissidents, repression of reformers. People go to jail. People disappear off the street. How seriously do you take the evolution of the Iranian political system?

It is serious, because there is a transition process underway. When you have a genuine indigenous process of reform, which exists in Iran, this process has its negative and positive outcomes. What you hear in Iran -- not secretly, [but] in the street, in the bus, to the people -- this means that this process is going on, that people feel free to tell you their dissatisfaction or their satisfaction. That process is moving forward.

But it is important to notice that if in the past, for example, a year or so, a number of media or newspapers had been shut down; more numbers of those media now have come to the scene. This is an ongoing process.

But isn't it essentially wrong to shut down newspapers because they are critical of ...?

The shutdown has been based on the law. There are some shortcomings within the law itself. The Parliament now is trying to redefine it, to have amendments on the law. Mainly these shutdowns of newspapers had been based on understanding from an article of the law, that if you accuse an individual, then you don't have proof of such accusation, you are responsible. And based on the decision by the court, that newspaper should be shut down.

But that can be a law that's used to totally gag dissent, because inevitably the criticism is going to have to be directed at someone.


Yes, I agree. That's what I said. The shortcoming of the law is that, that the law should respect individual's right, but at the same time, should respect very much so the collective right of the society. But the media had to have a free hand to criticize whatever they -- it seems it's in the interest of the public. That's a shortcoming of the law, which is now being discussed within the Parliament, the reformist Parliament -- to have a new law on media itself.

But the liveliness of these processes -- if one paper is shut down, two papers just come out. It is frustrating to see that at all there is a shutdown. But it is an ongoing process, because it is indigenous. We haven't copied another model of external world. We have very much trust on the success of this process, because it is a process within the society of Iran.

There is concern about the background of a long history of repression, including assassination. A German court has documented what they say are 89 assassinations in Europe. We hear of hundreds of people assassinated in Iran itself. ...

... There had been misconduct in the past. One of them you mentioned, within our intelligence ministry. But it is a free country, and one evidence for that is exactly this: that if there is such misconduct in the most important intelligence institution of the country ... it won't be covered up. And they did it. It was disclosed, and the people brought to court. It hasn't finished yet. That shows that the process of reform is genuine, the process of reform is lively. No one within the government wants to cover it up. But they want to deal with it and try to deal with it correctly. ...

And the government could cover it up. But it was the government of President Khatami which actually raised the issue, disclosed it, and give a message, a counter-message to those who are committing this, that we will disclose it and we will deal with it openly to the public. ...

Then it is a process in Iran, a process of reform against those who want to manipulate power, against those who think that power is always from up to bottom which has been a culture for decades in the shah's period. This process will continue. It has its own cost, unfortunately. But it is continuing, and it is moving in a direction of interpreting the will of people within the states. ...

Ayatollah Montazeri is under house arrest for quite a long time now for daring to suggest that there should be more transparency regarding the Supreme Office. This is what happened to him. He's not allowed out of his house. What does this say about the move toward transparency?

Well that's a special case, Ayatollah Montazeri has had his classes, daily classes -- there have been some problems from the public, a lot of the public against his office, that overall the government decided to protect him and his office of the mobs or those who are demonstrating against his views. And he's not under house arrest, even though there are restrictions of his movements -- mainly because of the security reason for his and his family's life.

You say he's being kept in his house for his own good?

No, he hasn't been kept in his house. He hasn't been kept in his house. He has his daily courses. He goes to classes that he has. He has his own meetings.

He's got guards stationed, video surveillance camera at the front door of his house. ... It has all the characteristics of a house arrest. What else would you call it?

Well, I'm not familiar now with what all the situation these days with respect to this case. But as I said, there are cases which the government should separate misconduct from the rule of law. Misconduct by groups or individuals should be addressed properly and strongly. ... If a law needs amendment, the law needs to be changed. It should be done. And it is the process which is moving forward. It's a reality that, in Iran, there are two views. One is the reform views, and one is the conservative views. And each view has some legitimacy in its power. It is the interconnection and interrelation of these two views.

It is observed very widely that the reform view is a more accurate reflection of what the people want, and that there is an artificial restraint being imposed by the conservative view. ...

And that's what you see that reform is succeeding. I mean, the day President Khatami came to power and today, if you compare the level of transparency, the level of freedom, the level of accepting the will of people within the state, is so much different. It is moving forward. Sometimes it has too much impediments, moves slowly. Sometimes [it] moves fast and strongly.

President Khatami, because he has got a power from the public to move on -- that's what he is doing. He is against, and the public would be against, that he would move reform without rule of law or out of the rule of law and regulations. And if you want to live within the rules or through changing the rules, it takes time. It is not an easy task. It might take a generation or more. That's a process. It's a major shift.

But who decides? The people or the...

It's a combination of the state based on the constitution.

The constitution right now seems to give a lot of arbitrary authority to the clerics and to the arms of military enforcement. ...

No, it is not. But if even we assume you are right, that it gives such power, can reform move out of rule of constitution? That's illegitimate. That's against the will of public that has given to the president to move within the rule of law. If there is wrong within the law, you should change the law, not move against the law.

And that's actually the message, the major message of the president: that even though these impediments exist, our conduct should be within the rule of law. And if the law is inefficient, then we should amend the law; we should change the law through its set process, which is Parliament. ...

There have been four high-profile assassinations since President Khatami came into office. Are they aberrations, or does he have really as much influence as --?

... There have been misconducts, as I said. The major cases have been the ones that the government of President Khatami disclosed itself, a misconduct within the ministry of intelligence. ...

There have been cases. For example, let me give you a United States case, assassination by CIA in the past which no one knew and they denied it totally after 30 years, 40 years, 50 years. Now they are disclosing the documents which show CIA and the government of United States was behind it.

This was a very healthy process in Iran, that the government itself has closed a major misconduct by its ministry of intelligence. That shows the process is healthy, it's moving forward. But it doesn't mean that today there is no misconduct, no. The process of reformation and rule of law is a continuous process. And we hope very soon we reach to a point that any misconduct by anyone would be very soon stopped. ...

How do you explain the allegation that 89 people -- to be specific -- have been killed in Europe?

I don't agree with the numbers, as I said, because many of these allegations and accusations, it's not clear that it has been misconduct of someone or not. But as I said, we should differentiate between the policy of government and policy of a few who might be in power or who have power in some institutions -- and they want to exert either their reading or their policy or they want to put clearly impediments in the reform process.

And the policy of government of Iran never has been, and there is no need for that. Iranian government is strong enough to be in power and has been based on the vote and will of public in Iran, rather than going against its dissidents. Then we should differentiate between government's policy and groups or individuals' misconduct. And what now the government is trying to do is to limit and eliminate any misconduct by individuals or groups out of the rule of law.

There's testimony in Germany that the Council, the most important body in Iran, ordered the executions of the 89 people. ...

For sure, we question such testimonies in courts. It is clear because anyone can testimony anything. What is the legitimacy of such testimony? It's the same as this about the ship [Karine A] that I mentioned. There is such accusation. But if you come back to the existing process it is a healthy process. It moves on. And in this process there is a price, there is a cost; no doubt about it. But it moves on, because it is indigenous, because it has the support of public behind it. It moves on, and it will settle in a point that everyone can interpret its support or opposition within the framework of law under the nation. ...

Dictatorships always defend their actions by saying they are really enforcing the law. How do you change the law if it is against the law to take action against the law?

Exactly -- if it is a dictatorship, it doesn't. It's a vicious circle. But if it's a democratic society that the government, the president being elected by majority of people -- which in our contemporary world is unique in itself, about 80 percent of eligible voters have come to vote and choose in a democratic way the president -- and then the Parliament, which you know is a majority reform Parliament. There is a clear way of the law. Reformist Parliament will amend the law, even if it is blocked by Council of Guardians. There is a third party.

Many argue that the Council of Guardians, the nature of the office of the Supreme Leader, makes the land a dictatorship.

No, not many argue that. Many might argue that there are some problems which need to be responded. ... But there is a process in a democratic society. That process sometimes might be stopped, for example, in this institution or the other, but it will continue. Some of the law had been stopped by Council of Guardians and then had gone to the Council of Expediency, which is set there if there is an argument between Parliament and the Council of Guardians ... then they would be resolved. Then there is a democratic process of amending the law. Sometimes it takes time. Sometimes it's frustrating, but there is a process. And this process is working, actually.

What's it going to take to get Iran and the United States to talk to each other?

I think they were talking to each other in the past few months, especially before Sept. 11, through multilateral channels. With this new labeling of Iran by President Bush, I think they should do something to remove that new mistrust. ... Well, they have made this labeling accusation, which many believes have been wrong -- even within the United States administration now. They should correct that.

Take it back?

Correct. Taking it back is one way.

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