by Miceál O’Hurley
Tehran – As his flight touched down at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defense, Mr. Simon Coveney, was preparing to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr. Javad Zarif. The meeting solidified the decision by Cabinet on 2 March to re-establish Ireland’s physical diplomatic presence in Tehran by the end of 2023. The decision is the culminations of years of planning that will see the Irish Consulate co-located with the German Embassy on Ferdowsi Avenue across from the historic Bakhtiari Mansion. Prior to the announcement by the Department of Foreign Affairs concerning the re-establishment of a diplomatic presence Iran, Ireland remained the only European Union country without a mission in Tehran.
Minister Coveney Visits Tehran
The Irish delegation’s visit to Iran on 7 March, led by Minister Coveney, having taken place only days after Cabinet’s decision, underscores the critical importance the Irish-Iranian bilateral relationship represents to Dublin. Likewise, in the years leading-up to this event, Iran sent one of her most distinguished and capable diplomats, His Excellency Dr. Masoud Eslami, as its Ambassador to Ireland to help pave the way for a more robust relationship. During his tenure, Dr. Eslami has been noted for his congeniality, tact, judgment and scholarship, building a particularly warm relationship with President Michael D. Higgins which saw Presidents Higgins and Rouhani on the sidelines of a UN meeting in New York.
Ireland’s Non-Permanent Membership on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has only served to elevate the importance of the Irish-Iranian bilateral relationship following the virtual collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in the wake of the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from what all but Trump agreed was a verified, functioning agreement.
Speaking to the announcement, Dr. Eslami, the Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Ireland, expressed his appreciation for the broad support Ireland has given over the years to see the Irish mission return to Tehran, “There has been considerable support over the years across the political spectrum for the Irish Government’s decision to reopen the Irish embassy in Iran. I greatly welcome the move by Ireland to re-open its Embassy in Iran and I thank all those who contributed to this development.”
Re-Opening of Mission Part of ‘Footprint 2025’ Plan
Responding to a Parliamentary Question in May 2018 about the lack of an Irish diplomatic presence in Iran then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar noted “We had an embassy there for a long time but it was one of the embassies shut during the financial crisis.” Ireland closed its consulate in Tehran on 31 March 2012. Since then, Ireland has maintained its diplomatic presence in Iran through its Honourary Consul, Mr. Alireza Feizollahi, with then Minister of State Helen McEntee noting it was, “… [not] a substitute for a resident diplomatic presence.” Full consular activities have been managed through secondary accreditation in Ankara during this period with the Irish Ambassador to Turkey making regular visits to Tehran or at times with Embassy personnel travelling to Iran.
Ambassador Eslami further emphasised the continuity of Irish-Iranian bilateral relations despite a lack of mission in Tehran over the past few years, “It should be recognised, however, that even in the absence of an Irish embassy in Tehran, Iran and Ireland have continuously maintained their good diplomatic relations over the past decade. There is a political consultation mechanism in force between the two governments and their leaders have had visits and meetings over the years.” Moreover, His Excellency Dr. Eslami noted the reciprocal importance Iran places on her positive relationship with Ireland, “Iran attaches great importance to enhancing bilateral relations with Ireland which is why it has continuously maintained a diplomatic presence in Ireland. Ireland has also been discharging its diplomatic functions through its embassy in Turkey. The decision to re-open the Irish Embassy in Iran signifies a tangible representation of Ireland’s intentions to expand relations with Iran across different dimensions.”
Minister Coveney has recently expressed his gratitude to the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Tehran, specifically to Ambassador Hans-Udo Muzel, for support to Ireland in re-establishing a diplomatic mission. Ireland’s Chargé d’Affaires in Tehran, Mr. Justin Ryan, will be located in the German Embassy throughout 2021 and 2022.
Mr. Ryan is a graduate of University College Dublin. After a stint in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform Mr. Ryan served in the Department of Foreign Affairs with Irish Aid. He has served in the diplomatic corps in Riyadh and New Dehli before serving as a Second Secretary in Dublin.
Why Tehran? Why Now?
The recovery of the Irish economy since 2012 is certainly one reason Dublin is in a position to have a footprint in Tehran at this time. Indeed, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the Irish economy grew by 3.4% in 2020, albeit seeing the growth limited to the export sector with the domestic economy suffering a severe blow. But the economics are not the only driving force. Government’s ‘Footprint 2025’ plan sought to see Ireland’s diplomatic presence both re-aligned and grown in accordance with shifting international developments. Ireland’s ascension to the powerful UNSC co-aligns with the imperiled JCPOA and the elevation of Iran as a key player in regional stability and enhanced European ties.
The co-location of the Irish Consulate in the German Embassy in Tehran is telling as well. Germany is not only a dominant player in both EU and global politics but is a key signatory of the JCPOA. It is not lost on observers, analysts and players alike that Ireland is quickly emerging as a key facilitator in seeing the JCPOA re-started which will have the collateral effect of lifting the immoral sanctions that have severely punished the average Iranian for decades.Addressing the timing of the visit, Minister Coveney highlighted the importance of an Irish presence in Tehran, “This visit also comes at an important moment in our bilateral relationship, following the decision of the Government this week to designate a Chargé d’Affaires to Tehran, and to work towards the re-establishment of an Irish Embassy in Tehran by 2023.” The accelerated re-institution of an Irish diplomatic mission in Tehran connotes the importance of further enhancing Irish-Iranian bilateral relations.
The EU had agreed, along with the UN and United States to lift sanctions after the 2015 JCPOA’s progress had been verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, when Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal, and re-imposed sanctions against Iran, and secondary sanctions against those who would do business with Iran, Tehran continued to abide by the JCPOA for more than a full year before the deal finally effectively collapsed because of the inequitable situation in which Tehran was left.
His Excellency Dr. Eslami opined about the value of Ireland’s position concerning the deal, “Ireland has consistently supported the JCPOA, based on its longstanding commitment to multilateralism. Iran would welcome Ireland’s positive contribution to overcome the current impasse with respect to the JCPOA. I also believe that Ireland’s appreciation of the terrible suffering caused by unjustifiable U.S. sanctions on Iran over recent years will encourage Ireland to support Iran’s position that these sanctions must be lifted as a first step towards the re-establishment of multilateral negotiations.”Despite promises to make rejoining the JCPOA a policy priority, President Joe Biden has to date followed in Trump’s footsteps, continuing the sanctions and has engaged in a juvenile exchange with Iran in which the Washington, which is no longer even a signatory to the JCPOA, is making demands of Tehran, and even pressing for further concessions, including ballistic missile limitation, before rejoining the deal. Diplomat Ireland has published several articles (Biden Walks in the Footsteps of Trump; and, Interview with Iran’s Ambassador, H.E. Dr. Masoud Eslami) detailing this dynamic, including publishing an Editorial Opinion that President Biden is obliged to take the first steps to rejoin the JCPOA without further delay.
Promoting Adherence to the JCPOA
Minister Coveney minced no words concerning Ireland’s interest in seeing the JCPOA jump-started without further delay, “Ireland has been appointed as Facilitator for Resolution 2231 on the Security Council. This Resolution provides for the Security Council’s engagement with the Iranian nuclear deal, the JCPOA. Ireland is a strong supporter of the JCPOA. In our role as Facilitator, Ireland is keen to maintain a close dialogue with all actors, and encourage all parties to return to full compliance with the agreement.” Beyond Ireland’s advocacy for the JCPOA a the UN and in the EU, Ireland wants to ensure no opportunities are missed to promote the deal, and that included promoting a full return to the JCPOA by Iran, “The visit will also be a valuable opportunity to discuss the JCPOA, along with other key issues in the Middle East, many of which feature on the agenda of the Security Council,” added Minister Coveney prior to last weekend’s visit.
Benefits of Enhanced Irish-Iranian Bilateral Relations
For some in the international community, Iran is seen as a pariah State engaged in a dangerous game of increasing its regional and international influence through asymmetrical relationships and proxy-partners like the Yemen’s Houthi and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. An increasing number of international partners have developed a more nuanced view of Iran over the past several years, fully cognisant of her history and actions. Nowhere is this highlighted more than through the nations who became signatories to the JCPOA.
Indeed, the JCPOA became the lynchpin mechanism for the US to finally begin to draw-down its over-dominant role in the region while maintaining her vital national interests, a move necessary to finally see the region reach its own diplomatic maturity free of Washington’s heavy and un-steady hand. The reduced threat provided for by the JCPOA promised the US’ regional allies greater security and therefore less demand on a US presence in the region marked by two major wars in the past decades.The signatories to the deal, commonly known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, or, sometimes within Europe, sometimes as the P3+3), spent years negotiating a painstaking deal that would see sanctions lifted on Iran in essentially in exchange for verifiable restraints on uranium enrichment to ensure Iran’s nuclear development remained for peaceful, energy purposes. The lifting of sanctions not only represented a reconsideration of what had become historic views of Iran, but a growing recognition of Tehran’s importance in achieving a more stable regional environment.
From her seat on the UNSC, Ireland has seized upon the opportunity to be a active, named facilitator promoting regional peace, understanding and prosperity, especially with regard to the JCPOA. The benefit is not only regional or international, however, a more robust Irish-Iranian bilateral relationship offers significant benefits to both Dublin and Tehran.
A careful review of the Proceedings of Dáil Éireann show that as far back as 8 November 2016, Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked then Taoiseach Enda Kenny about Iran’s offer to sign a contract to purchase €2 billion worth of Irish beef. Patrick Kent, then President of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association (ICSA), anticipated, “…huge opportunities for exports of beef and sheep meat to Iran” if Ireland were to re-establish a diplomatic mission in Tehran. ICSA Secretary General Eddie Punch added, “Iran is in a deficit in terms of red meat. They consume one million tonnes of red meat a year. [Ireland] can’t afford not to do this.”
Graphic Depicting Promise of Trade Capacity and Deleterious Effect of Economic Sanctions on Iranian Economy (Source: Central Bank of Iran/IMF – Diplomat Ireland Graphic)Bord Bia, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, as well as 17 Irish food companies, conducted a trade mission to Tehran in 2016 after the JCPOA was signed and sanctions were lifted. Noting Iran’s well-educated population of 80 million people, some 40% of whom are under 25, and an economy then projected to expand by over 2% annually in the ensuing years owing to the lifting of sanctions, new trading opportunities were emerging in Iran for Irish food exporters to increase their share of a market. In 2015, Irish agriculture trade with Iran was limited to a mere €4 million, largely because of sanctions.
According to the Central Bank of Iran, its economy it grew 12.3% in 2016, demonstrating its capacity for robust trade with Ireand. However, by 2018 Trump abandoned the JCPOA and re-instituted sanctions and secondary sanctions, the consequence of which was a sharp halt to Iran’s economic growth. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasted Zero economic growth in 2020 because of renewed sanctions. Should the P5+1, with Ireland’s support and urging, prevail upon President Biden to rejoin the JCPOA and lift sanctions, Ireland’s renewed presence in Tehran could prove a much-needed, post Covid-19 boon to the Irish economy.
Agriculture is not the only sector that would be mutually beneficial to both nations. From pharmaceuticals to medical supplies and from technology to education increased trade between Ireland and Iran would be highly beneficial and desirable by both nations, offering Ireland potentially billions of Euros in new trade opportunities. More importantly for the Iranian people, better access to food, pharmaceuticals, medical care, travel and tourism as well as education and cultural exchanges would lift them out of the immoral suffering caused by indiscriminate sanctions that have endured for almost 40 years.
Meetings With Iran’s President and Foreign Affairs Minister
Minister Coveney’s meetings with the President of Iran, Dr. Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister, Dr. Javad Zarif, proved exceptionally warm. Participants on both sides indicated the discussions focused on the JCPOA as well as regional peace and security issues. Special attention was given to Irish-Iranian bilateral relations in advance of the re-opening of an Irish diplomatic presence in Tehran. Following the meeting, Minister Coveney released the following statement:
“As Facilitator for UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which underpins the Iranian nuclear deal, the JCPOA, it was a particular priority for me to visit Tehran early in Ireland’s tenure on the Security Council. This is a crucial moment for the JCPOA. I am in ongoing contact with the parties to the agreement and today’s discussions with President Rouhani and Minister Zarif were intensive and productive. Ireland encourages all parties to return to full compliance with the JCPOA. There is a historic window of opportunity to return to dialogue and agree a path back to the agreement. I emphasised to my Iranian interlocutors that Ireland is ready to support and facilitate these efforts in line with our Security Council role…. I also had the opportunity to discuss a number of issues on the Security Council agenda with Minister Zarif, including Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East Peace Process.
Ireland Understands Iran’s Regional Influence
Iran has been engaged in supporting Ansar Allah (‘Supporters of God’), colloquially known as ‘Houthi’, in their enduring campaign in Yeman which began with the 2011 Revolution. The US, opposed the Houthi, citing their attacks on its regional partner, Saudi Arabia. However, despite both domestic criticism from Congress and international pressure, the US has failed to reign-in their Saudi Arabian partners in their military operations in Yemen. Saudi Arabia stands accused of using and supplying arms that have allegedly been used in the brutal oppression of innocent Yemenis. However, in recent weeks, President Biden announced the US would be removing the Houthi as a ‘foreign terrorist organisation’.
Syria’s brutal internal conflict is another area where Iran has held great influence. Shia militia are deemed to be Iran’s proxy agents inside of the deeply war-torn Syria. The blame for the atrocities in the country and the brutality of the war that continues to rage has touched every actor with a stake in Syria. Again, Minister Coveney raised the issue with Minister Zarif, inviting Iran to support Ireland’s efforts to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid through Norway’s efforts and address violence in Syria, not to mention Afghanistan.
Minister Coveney spoke to the issue of Iran’s influence in the region amongst the Houthi in Yemen, “I emphasised Ireland’s full support to the work of UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and the importance that we attach to all parties agreeing to a negotiated solution to the conflict. It is unacceptable that 24 million Yemenis are in need of humanitarian assistance and that half of Yemeni children under 5 suffer from acute malnutrition. Political will is needed to end the conflict and all those with influence should encourage the parties to engage seriously and urgently with the efforts of the Special Envoy.”
“I also highlighted the need for progress in Syria, under the terms of Security Council Resolution 2254. Ireland has a key role on the Security Council along with Norway in ensuring ongoing humanitarian aid to all those in need in Syria and I asked Minister Zarif for Iran’s support in our work on this file. We discussed Afghanistan, where Ireland and Iran share concerns at the increase in violence in recent months and urge all parties to the negotiations to renew their commitment to making progress on a comprehensive peace deal.”
Shared Concern Over Plight of the Palestinian People
A significant topic of the discussions between Minister Coveney and Foreign Affairs Minister Javad Zarif focused on the status of the Palestinian people and the Occupied Territories. Minister Coveney spoke encouragingly about the shared Irish-Iranian concern for the Palestinian people:
“Minister Zarif and I also welcomed the forthcoming Palestinian elections and noted the importance of all parties engaging in a constructive and transparent manner. The holding of elections in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and in Gaza is a crucial step towards Palestinian unity and reconciliation, giving a voice to Palestinians throughout the occupied Palestinian territory, and renewing the legitimacy of national institutions, including a democratically elected Parliament and Government. I reiterated Ireland’s firm commitment to a negotiated two-state solution that ends the occupation that began in 1967; with Jerusalem as the capital of both States, on the basis of international law, including relevant UN Security Council resolutions.
Minister Coveney also discussed recent developments in Ireland, the EU and Iran with President Rouhani and Minister Zarif. These discussions touched on the Covid-19 pandemic, access to vaccines and well as political and economic developments and human rights issues.