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"Iran is unknown and misunderstood"

Posters of former leader Ayatollah Khomeini (left) and current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on February 10

(Keystone)

Thirty years ago Iran became an Islamic republic, when the Shah was overthrown and religious clerics assumed control under supreme leader Ayatollah Khomenei.

Tim Guldimann, the former Swiss Ambassador to Iran, talks to swissinfo about the possible impact for Iran of the arrival of United States President Barack Obama in Washington and of forthcoming elections in Tehran in June.

In a break from the policy of former President George W. Bush, Obama has said he is willing to start talks with Iran, which Washington accuses of supporting terrorism, meddling in Iraq and seeking nuclear weapons, all charges Tehran denies.

Iran sent one of its warmest signals yet on Wednesday over prospects for improved relations with Washington, when Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki praised Obama's election promises and declared that change would be "happy news".

A day earlier, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran was ready to hold talks, provided they were held in an atmosphere of "mutual respect". Notably, Ahmadinejad did not mention tough preconditions for talks as he had in the past.

swissinfo: Iran is celebrating 30 years of its Islamic revolution. What are Iran's main objectives?

Tim Guldimann: To secure the respect and recognition of western countries, especially the United States, over its role as a regional power. But for various reasons, such as its seizure of the US embassy in 1979, the Islamic revolution and human rights abuses, Iran has become a pariah state.

But if we compare it objectively with other countries, especially in the light of human rights and democracy, we have reason to believe that the nation is unknown and misunderstood. Iran clearly has certain contradictions and faults, but it should be given the role it deserves, as it offers huge potential.

swissinfo: While attention has focused on Iran's nuclear ambitions, it has meanwhile launched its first satellite. Certain people believe Iran's space programme is a cover for developing ballistic missiles. What do you think?

T. G.: Officially, Iran denies any links between its nuclear and military programmes. It's clear that the country wants to create a nuclear capability, but at the same time Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, officially rejects any military plans for this programme. Of course, certain developments give rise to doubts, especially as it's very expensive to produce nuclear energy, but we are a long way off for now.

For me what's extremely important is the country's sense of pride in wanting to show its people and the world how technologically advanced it is. Can you remember the shock when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite? It wanted to show that it was a great power. Iran is doing the same by launching its own satellite, a symbol of its technological progress and prestige.

swissinfo: Should we be afraid of Iran?

T. G.: What is dangerous is not Iran, but a confrontation with Iran. An escalation could encourage it to actually develop a military nuclear capability and therefore make it dangerous. But personally, I am not afraid of Iran's ambitions.

swissinfo: Why are relations with the international community so tense?

T. G.: This is especially a western attitude. Russia, for example, plays a different game, despite the fact that for historical reasons relations between the two countries are very difficult. But Moscow says it is not scared of Iran's nuclear ambitions, even if it voted in favour of UN sanctions following Iran's refusal to stop enriching uranium.

The same goes for China and certain Arab countries, which are concerned about a nuclear arms race in the region. But things are not that simple and you can't really say that the entire international community is against Iran.

swissinfo: A growing number of voices suggests joining Iran in its efforts to stabilise Afghanistan. Obama said he prefers a more diplomatic than military approach. Are things changing in this respect?

T. G.: That's what Obama announced, but you shouldn't underestimate the damage caused by the Bush administration. Iran had a very constructive attitude towards Afghanistan following the September 11 terrorist attacks up until January 2002, when it found itself, together with Iraq and North Korea, accused by Washington of belonging to the "Axis of Evil".

Over these three months Tehran contributed substantially to western efforts in Afghanistan: the US attack against the Taliban and the Bonn conference to establish the government of Hamid Karzaï.

Iran therefore feels the US didn't properly thank it for its efforts, and it's not surprising that it is reticent to help western nations. That being said, it's in Tehran and Kabul's interest to be good neighbours and I wouldn't exclude the possibility of Iran changing its position concerning regional stabilisation if the US gives it the respect it's looking for.

swissinfo: Iran's presidential election will take place on June 12, with the former reformist president Mohammed Khatami due to stand. Could that change matters?

T. G.: Yes, because if Khatami stands there will be a real choice between two very different candidates, despite inherent restrictions in the religious system. After all, apart from Israel, Iran is the only country in the region that enjoys a system where the election result is unpredictable.

In 1997 Khatami was elected with popular support. But if he is re-elected in June he will face a very difficult economic and social situation caused by the fall in the price of oil, which has gone from $150 to $44 a barrel, and strong opposition by conservative movements.

swissinfo-interview: Isabelle Eichenberger

Swiss-Iran relations

Ties between the two countries go back to the 17th century when Swiss clockmakers settled in the Persian Empire.

Switzerland opened a consulate in Tehran in 1919, which later became an embassy in 1936.

Because of its neutrality, Switzerland has over the years represented the interests of a number of countries in Iran. Since 1980 it has represented the US, and Iran in Egypt since 1979.

Iran is one of Switzerland's most important trading partners in the Middle East. A trade agreement was signed in 2005 but has not yet been ratified.

In 2007 Switzerland exported goods worth SFr763.4 million and imported goods worth SFr38.6 million from Iran.

There were 183 Swiss expatriates based in Iran in 2007.

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Tim Guldimann

Born in Zurich in 1950, Tim Guldimann joined the Swiss foreign ministry in 1982. His early diplomatic career included postings in Cairo, Geneva and Bern.

From 1996 to 1997 he headed the OSCE Assistance Group in Chechnya, and from 1997 to 1999 he was head of the OSCE Mission in Croatia.

From 1999 to 2004 he was Swiss Ambassador in Iran and in Afghanistan.

The Swiss diplomat served as Head of the Mission in Kosovo from October 2007 to October 2008.

Since mid-2004 he has been on temporary leave from the Swiss foreign ministry, but has taught political science in Frankfurt, Bern, the European College in Bruges and Warsaw. He currently works at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva.

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