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Ethio-Iranian relations: Old kingdoms in the new era

Ethio-Iranian relations: Old kingdoms in the new era

Ambassador BehzadKhakpour is the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s mission to Ethiopia since 2017. He also serves as Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the African Union as Well as IGAD. Before assigned as full-fledged ambassador to the post he also served as a Secretary of the Embassy of Iran here in Addis Ababa. When he first presented his credential in 2017 to Ministry of foreign Affairs, he vowed his desire in stepping up substantive cooperation in trade, investment and development; enhance a strategic bond on comprehensive matters through high-level exchanges; increase cooperation on social affairs and culture. In connection with the 40th Iranian revolution, YonasAbiye of The Reporter sat down with Ambassador Khakpour to discuss over the anniversary events, the historical and diplomatic relation between Iran and Ethiopia, regional issues, combatting terrorism, as well as the future prospects of trade relation between the two nations. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Your embassy is preparing to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Republic of Irans revolution. Before explaining these events, would you highlight the history of this Iranian revolution?

BehzadKhakpour: This year, we are celebrating the Islamic revolution of Iran which took place in 1979. To mention the root of the revolution briefly, I should say, it goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. Until then, the reforms in Iran had been limited to the will of the Court of Iran and the Kings. We had some Iranian figures in the Court perusing some level of development and reforms in the country. In fact, the war between Iran and Russia in early 19th century ended in the defeat of the Iranian army. The defeat was a shock to Iranian society and made Iranians figure out they were not anymore as such modern and developed as compared to western nations. Lack of appropriate education was the main reason. Therefore, hundreds of Iranian students were sent to the west and a modern education system was established in the country. Newspapers began helping the Iranian people understand the failure of the political System. In 1905, Iran had a constitutional revolution and asked the court of Iran to adopt it. It took more than six years for the Iranian people to reach that goal. However, the demands of the Iranian society to enjoy the freedom and independence were still ongoing. The second biggest movement in Iran which was to achieve independence and freedom was in 1951, while millions of Iranian people came onto the streets and asked for the nationalization of the oil Industry. The main goal of this movement was to enjoy independence from foreign intervention in internal affairs of Iran.

As you have mentioned, public demand to nationalizethe oil Industry was there. Who owned the industry at that time?

It was owned by BP (British Petroleum). At that time, BP was known as an Anglo–Iran Oil Company, and Iranians were opposing the fact that the majority of the oil revenues went to foreign shareholders and not Iranians. Soon, the movement asked for freedom and democracy. At the timeof an escalating protest,the Shah, King of Iran, run away from the country leaving Iran with the first ever democratic government under Mohammad Mossadegh.However, US intervention happened, and an American coup took place in Iran in mid-August, 1953. The popular Iranian government was overthrown by American intervention. As a result, the Iranian people had to wait for almost three decades to have a democratically elected government.In 1979, by the leadership of Imam [SayyidRuhollah] Khomeini, Iranian people made an Islamic Revolution and finally realized their goals, which was nothing exceptIndependence, Freedom &an Islamic Republic. Hence, it brought the 1979s revolution which we are now celebrating its 40th anniversary.

After four decades, how do you see the significance of revolution to the Iranian people in realizing the freedom and independence they had sought to enjoy?

The Iranian people had been suffering from foreign intervention in every single internal affairs of their country. There was interference from Americans and from other western governments in sensitive issues like the Army, Ministries and even in the Courts. They were dictating their wishes and policies to the Iranian government. In the army, there was huge amount of equipment purchase fromthe US but we were unable to utilize them according to our national interests and for each and every single service, Iran’s army was very much dependent on US or western country’s will.This interference, in Iranian internal affairs, was one of the reasons that made Iran cut this sort of relations.

Historically, western interference had been common in many parts of the world including Africa. Is the interference in Iran similar to the colonization-style of interference in Africa?

Our case is different as we had no colonization in our history. In fact, there is a big similarity between Ethiopia and Iran. Both countries had been invaded by foreign countries. As Ethiopia was invaded by Italy, Iran was invaded by Russia and Britain during World WarII. Despite being a so called independent nation,until the revolution, Americans and westerners claimed themselves fully entitled to interfere in every single internal matters of Iran. This was, of course, unacceptable.

As it is often claimed by the Iranian revolutionary leaders and other political commentators, Iran continues “to be bullied by westerners” affecting the country’s regional role as well as its trade and investments. In this regard, can we say, the westerners, who once lost their interest in internal politics of Iran, have continued with their interference?

Yes, that is true. After the revolution, we had this phenomenon–where they [westerners] totally lost their interest in meddling in our internal affairs because they were heavily dependent on the oil of Persian Gulf countries. So, they wanted to keep their domination in oil and the oil reservoirs in that region. Hence, they have tried to overthrow the new government a couple of times. Besides that, they were also supporting Saddam to attack Iran eventually leading us to the war that lasted for eight years. It was a deadly war, the eighth intensive war in the history of human beings. Saddam Husseins regime was receiving huge amounts of support from the West and some other Arab countries.

Let’s discuss the relation between Iran and Ethiopia. How do you describe it,especially their bilateral ties during the past four decades?

The relation of the two countries goes back 2500 years. In Persepolis, the capital of Achaemenid(a Persian Empire) which was built in 500 B.C (Before Christ), there is a rock art which shows the representative from Habasha were in the Court of Persia to attend to the Persian New Year (Norouz) ceremony. Another finding datesback some 1800 years ago, where Prophet Mani (a Persian religious leader and founder of Manichaean, in his teachings to his followers said:There are four most important kingdoms on earth "Persia, Rome, Aksum and China.”For ages, Iran and Ethiopia had tremendous trade relations in the Horn of Africa, Yemen and the Persian Gulf region. In contemporary era and right after the First World War, in the League of Nations (which was the predecessor of the United Nations(, Iran and Ethiopia–that both have never been a colony of world powers–they were collaborating to shape a better world, a world free of Colonialism, injustice and arrogation. Considering the long-lasting relation between the two countries, and the importance of Ethiopia in Africa; Iran opened its Embassy in Addis Ababa some 70 years ago.In fact, this Embassy was the second Iranian Embassy in the whole of Africa after Cairo. Both countries have been enjoyingsafe and sound relations since that time, even changing the regimes in Iran and Ethiopia could not break the brotherly relations of the two nations.

Considering this old relationship, what is the level of political relations you have right now?

Our political relation currently is sound and very good. We feel that we enjoy a closer relationship particularly in international affairs. As it is known, we Iranians reached a nuclear deal with those 5+1 countries in mid-2015. The deal primarily ended all UN sanctions that had been imposed against Iran. Iran is also required to observe some limitations in its nuclear activities. From that moment (the Deal), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified Iranian nuclear programs more than 13 times and confirmed Iran’s full compliance to the Nuclear Deal. The deal (which was endorsed by the UN Security Council and the international community) was put in jeopardywith the US’s withdrawal from the deal. US position against the deal was not welcomed by the world countries including Ethiopia. Ethiopia has shown its support to the nuclear deal  several times, especially in the course of the United Nations Security Council (UN-SC) during its two-year long membership [non-Permanent membership of UN-SC), Ethiopia has emphasized that the nuclear deal is a symbol of multilateralism which all parties should adhere to. Similarly, regarding the situation in Yemen, Iran and Ethiopia have a common position. We have seen that Prime MinisterAbiy Ahmed (PhD) called upon all parties to cease the war and urge Yemenis to solve the dispute through negotiations. Similarly, Iran’s Foreign Minister, some three years ago, proposed the same and asked for a ceasefire and non-military interventions. Iran and Ethiopia, mostly shared the same position regarding foreign affairs and international interference in any other country. Fighting against terrorism is another example where both countries are engaged in combating this threat. Ethiopia fights against terrorism in Somalia while Iran does the same in the Middle East. It is to be recalled that Iran has crushed ISIS in Iraq and in Syria. We did the same in Afghanistan. Generally, both countries have similar views towards global issues.

But why isthe West always accusing Iran of sponsoring or supporting extremists?

Such allegation usually comes from the US.They know better than anyone else what Iran’s contribution to eradicate terrorist groups in the Middle East has been. Accusation is one thing but the fact is different. US’s wrong policies made our region insecure. For instant, US unilateral and illegal invasion of Iraq which was based on lies and deceit brought nothing except power vacuum in that country. This has brought a fertile ground for extremism sponsored by petro Dollars. In other cases like Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and in some cases extendingto Somalia; we have seen the outcome of their interference.

Foreign intervention in Iraq and Syria created ISIS and it has been spreading fast in the region. ISIS has once controlled about one-third of Iraq. Soon after they captured Mosul, they were advancing toward Baghdad. It was Iranians who supported Iraq to defeat ISIS while they were in the suburbs of Baghdad. Same happened in Syria.

There was bigger hope for the 2015s nuclear deal to ease the sanction imposed on Iranand enabling you to address Irans outstanding challenges in banking relations with other countries before Trump’s administration withdrawal from the deal. But, there was good news early this month after France, German, Britain and other EU members showed renewed interest to upholdthe deal. Do you think these EU nations commitments bring as such positive opportunities to help Irans ambition to trade and investment relationships with other countries like Ethiopia?

USs unilateral decision to withdraw from this deal was against the will of the international community. Indeed, Iran has received huge support from all over the world, from EU and the African Union, UN Security Council, NAM or resolute majority of countries. International community won’t accept unilateralism. Therefore, despite the US’s illegitimate sanction, EU is intending to provide ‘Special Purpose Vehicles (SPV or INSTEX) to manage its trade with Iran. According to the nuclear dealwhich has also been endorsed by the UN Security CouncilIran is fully entitled to conduct trade with all foreign currencies around the world. We hope that SPV-INSTEX gradually facilitated trade with Iran.

Coming back to the relationship with Ethiopia, trade and investment based relation has been one other area that the two countries have been promoting. However, Iranian trade and economic relation with Ethiopia have not flourished well compared to other countries inthe Middle East and Asia. Why was trade and investment not able to further achieve the desiredlevels?

Trade and investment was the most important area of Ethiopian and Iranian relations for quite a few years. Considering direct and indirect trade, in 2017, Iran was the third biggest market for Ethiopias export products in the whole Middle East and North Africa region. Still the potentials of economic relationsare very huge. In fact, Iran is importing over USD 8.5 billion of agricultural products and if Ethiopia can provide 2 percent of Iran agricultural import, then it will be able to export over USD 170 million to Iran per year.Since 2016, the trade balance was in favor of Iran. In 2016, Ethiopian export was around USD 2 million whereas Iranian export to Ethiopia was nearly USD 12 million. In 2017,however, Iranian Export to Ethiopia was almost the same amount (USD 12 million) while Ethiopias direct and indirect export to Iran achieved over USD 50 million.

But what was behind the increment of Ethiopia’s export by this unprecedented margin? Was it related to the nuclear deal ending the sanction against Iran, and Ethiopia eventually benefiting from its blessing?

One of the important factors was the nuclear deal. This agreement facilitated trade between Iran and the rest of the world, including Ethiopia. The second one was that of the visiting of Iranian business people to Ethiopia in 2017 and Ethiopian businessmen have also visited Iran. This two sides visiting helped both sides in creating awareness on tradable products. The year 2018 has also been an encouraging year for Ethiopian exports; while in the first ten months of 2018 Ethiopia has managed to export around USD 31million worth of products to the Iranian market. 

Despite the outstanding challenges you have in relations to the unresolved sanction; what are you planning in order to maintain the trade relation you have with Ethiopia?

Currently, we are discussing with the Ethiopian side to boost our trade relations to a higher level. For instance, we want to facilitate the export of live animal and meat from Ethiopia to Iran for the first time. We have received demands from the Iranian side to import something that could be worth between USD 60 million to USD 90 million. Coffee, Maze and fabric are other products that have to be introduced to Iranian Market.

Now Ethiopia is undertaking reformwith the coming of the new administration. What is the hope of the relationship of the two countries in the future?

We believe that the reforms that were brought by PMAbiy Ahmed will boost the existing relationship between Ethiopia and Iran. We have lots of opportunities to come ahead. Iran is the 18th largest economy in the world while Ethiopia is the 5th largest economy and the fastest growing economy in Africa. Since, we donot have an Ethiopian Embassy in Tehran; Iranian Embassy here in Addis Ababa tries to work hard to boost both sides’ trade relationships. We dont hesitate to support and facilitate Ethiopian export to Iran while we keep introducing trade and investment opportunities that Ethiopia offers for Iranian. This is one of the reasons that Ethiopias export to Iran has drastically increased in the past few years despite the luck of banking relationships between the two countries.

Would you briefly explain the events you are holding as part of observing the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution?

We are celebrating this years anniversary of our revolution here in Addis Ababa in various events. For this celebration, we have invited Iranian music band to come to Ethiopia.As part of the 40th Anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, we are also going to organize training courses for Ethiopian ladies whereby they receive trainings on how to produce Persian carpets. This training will be given for one year, and over 200 Ethiopian ladies will be trained. I hope, at the end of the trainings, Ethiopian ladies will have sufficient skill to weave Persian carpet efficiently.Besides that, we will also have poetry night that is part of the celebration. Iranian and Ethiopian poets will be presented to the audience in the upcoming week.