ISNA- British ambassador to Iran after 4 years of tensions and cut ties between Tehran and London, started his work here in September 2016.
After 2 years in Tehran, Nicholas Hopton expressed satisfaction over the development of political and economic relations between the two countries.
Pointing out that UK would remain in strong support of full implementation of JCPOA, he stressed that the deal is the best solution to establish peace, safety and security not only for Iran but also for the region in general. And could be a basis for building up ties with Iran and promoting relations between Iran and Britain.
British ambassador also said that establishment of trade relations between Iran and Britain, particularly in banking sector would take time and hoped it would improve in near future within the framework of JCPOA.
Nicholas Hopton, the British Ambassador answered the questions raised by ISNA in an interview:
Q: Since Iran and the UK have resumed their political and economic ties for two years, what is the precise volume of bilateral relations including trade?
A: The bilateral ties have expanded very well in the past two years. The important point is that our focus has been on expanding economic ties wherever possible since the Embassy re-opened. The British Embassy tried hard to link Iranian and British companies following removal of sanctions and implementation of the JCPOA since January 2016. It is an honour to say that the growth of economic ties have been quick and many important contracts have been concluded between Iranian and British companies and that many other negotiations are on the way.
The precise extent of bilateral cooperation cannot be easily estimated, but we are sure that the growth of trade between the UK and Iran has at least doubled. This is important and the British government stresses supporting the JCPOA and endeavours to increase the bilateral trade in the future.
As far as the priority of the UK for investment in trade, tourism, oil and gas, etc. in Iran is concerned, the relations between Iran and the UK are historical and we have had many close interactions during different eras. Our relationship has been complicated at times, but there have been many positive periods in bilateral relations and our priority is to support implementation of the JCPOA in order to deepen bilateral ties.
The JCPOA is a great diplomatic achievement. As part of our support for the JCPOA, our team at the Embassy has been doing its best to interact with different bodies in the country not only in Tehran, but also throughout Iran, including Chamber of Commerce.
I recently visited Golestan and Gorgan provinces and met the Governor General and Head of Chamber of Commerce. I visited Tabriz and Rasht and was in Shiraz last weekend. We are doing our best to have a vast interaction and have mutual understanding of our bilateral trade which makes the JCPOA stronger and shows that the JCPOA has really been an achievement.
Q: One of the outcomes of the JCPOA was removal of sanctions, particularly in oil, gas and petrochemicals and many countries have already got involved in interaction with Iran in different fields, but there is no sign of the British Companies in oil sector yet. Considering the new oil contracts that were signed with Iran, particularly the one that was signed with French Total, do you think there are appropriate grounds available for the activity of big British Companies in Iran?
A: It is a reality that that establishment of trade relations between Iran and European companies, particularly the British ones has not been easy. The international sanctions against Iran have been lifted for two years. Some expect to witness immediate changes to the economic ties, but these developments need time to happen. As we have noticed, building confidence in banking relations between Iran and the West takes time. Some financial institutions and banks are interacting and some British companies operate under the current circumstances, but the reality is that it takes longer than we hoped. The British government is trying hard to assure its economic sector to facilitate conclusion of contracts in both directions.
British companies have already started working with their Iranian counterparts. Companies like Shell, Rolls Royce, British Airways and Airbus (which is partly British) have started interacting with Iran. They have concluded important and big deals with Iran and this will undoubtedly contribute to strengthening bilateral relations.
Q: The British and European banks have not started working with Iran despite the two years past from conclusion of the JCPOA, can you make any promises or give some hope that this will happen in the near future?
A: The challenge that we, as the UK and the European parties as well as Iran face at the moment has two sides. The British banks and financial institutions based in London are not sufficiently confident to start their activity in Iran and support trade yet. This confidence is built when bilateral cooperation increases and when Iran gradually joins the international economy.
On the other hand, we need more changes and revisions to the Iranian banking system. This trend has started and I am very pleased that FATF announced following the latest important meeting it had with Iran that Iran has made very good progress to reach the required standards.
There is no doubt that the global financial system has moved forward during the decade that Iran was under sanctions. During this time some rules were made to create different conditions and that is why it takes time for the Iranian banks to be able to reach the required level of international standards and deal with the international and British banks. At the same time, I am confident that, as I said, we need to work in Iran, in the UK and generally in Europe on this issue as it is a priority in order to facilitate bilateral trade.
Q: Why is it that the European banks, particularly the British ones do not trust the Iranian side? Is it because of the pressure imposed by the US or the British government?
A: The British Prime Minister, in a meeting with President Rouhani at the UN General Assembly in New York, said that they had a transparent dialogue regarding different issues including bilateral and multilateral subjects. She made it clear that the UK supports the JCPOA strongly and the UK will have close cooperation with all parties of the nuclear agreement to make the JCPOA successful. This is the policy of the UK and whatever happens, we keep repeating that the JCPOA is the best solution to establish peace, safety and stability as well as more welfare not only for Iran, but also for the other member states of the nuclear agreement and for the region in general.
To answer your question about why the British banks are not yet fully confident about conducting business with Iran, I have to say that this is a two-way road. The British government does everything possible to assure that the British banks and financial institutions will resume interacting with Iran following removal of sanctions. It should also be said that it is the banks’ own decision. They are private banks and make decisions independently from the government.
Some of these banks face issues due to the remaining American primary sanctions including the financial institutions that trade using USD. They have restrictions for working with Iran. There are financial institutions active in the UK that have trade with Americans and use USD for their transactions. This reduces the possibility of cooperation between big international banks including British banks with Iran. But I hope that confidence will increase in the future and financial institutions manage to work with Iran again and help make the JCPOA successful.
Q: There are problems with issuing visas like the middlemen that take advantage of the situation and make Iranians upset. What are the latest arrangements made by the Embassy to resolve the issue?
Of course part of the reason for resuming bilateral ties and normalizing relations was to make sure that the citizens and businessmen of the two countries could travel freely back and forth. Since we re-opened the visa service in Tehran in February 2016, the British government has tried hard to increase the number of appointments available to Iranians applying to travel to the UK. We started from small numbers as this process takes time to progress. Resuming normal activity and provision of a full visa service takes time. We were closed for four years from 2011.
I am pleased that we have made good progress and we will be able to offer more visa appointments in Tehran in the future. I know that the number of appointments available at the
moment is not commensurate with the demand from Iranian citizens. We do our best to eliminate any opportunity for the criminals to abuse the system.
Iran should also help to facilitate this. One of the ways to do so will be to make sure that the number of Iranian citizens who travelled and stayed illegally in the UK will return to Iran.
The ongoing discussions between the Iranian and British officials have progressed well, but the two sides still need to take some actions. Hopefully, as negotiations continue we will see an increase in the number of Iranians able to travel to the UK.
The other option available to Iranians is to apply from a third country such as Turkey or UAE. I appreciate that this is not ideal, but our eventual goal is to be able to offer more appointments here in Tehran.
Q: Ms. Teresa May made some comments two years ago during her visit to the region against Iran. Should we expect the UK to put all its eggs in the basket of the littoral states of the Persian Gulf or create a balanced relation between Iran and the other countries?
A: The UK has had old ties with many countries in the Middle East. We have had close cooperation with Gulf states and this is part of UK foreign policy. We have traditionally good ties with Iran and the UK has been willing to expand those ties since the JCPOA was concluded in order to use the relations for contribution to the peace, stability and welfare of the region.
The British government does not find contradiction between its ties with both sides of the Gulf. We can have close ties with all our partners and at the same time maintain relationships across the region. We work to reduce any political problems and differences that we face in the Middle East in favour of strengthening bilateral relations.
Q: What is the UK’s policy toward the countries that violate the JCPOA?
A: The JCPOA is an agreement among five permanent members of the UNSC as well as Germany, the EU and Iran. Thus it is an agreement made by all these parties and is well supported by them. The UK continues working with the partners that are committed to successful implementation of the JCPOA. We will also continue working with them all to encourage them to be faithful to the nuclear agreement of 2015 and its clearly specified terms and conditions.
Q: Why did the UK object to Iran’s purchase of yellow cake from Kazakhstan when everybody was for it? Was there a technical or political reason?
A: The JCPOA has defined clearly all technical limitations of Iran with regard to nuclear arms. Part of that is concerning yellow cake that Iran can buy and store. This was a very technical issue, but the main problem that the UK had with this in the joint committee was that London was not convinced that Iran needs that large volume of yellow cake from Kazakhstan and that is why the UK found it in contradiction with the JCPOA terms and conditions.
The Joint Committee of the JCPOA is held regularly and the opinions of the members are discussed explicitly. It is not right for me to discuss the details, but I have to say that the UK’s position has completely been for supporting successful implementation of the JCPOA.
Q: Are the technical questions and ambiguities in this regard still in place?
A: We have had transparent and constructive discussions with Iran and other members of the joint committee and have received clear answers from Iran. I am pleased that this is one of the areas of mutual cooperation that is progressing.
Q: Is the UK completely against purchase of this consignment by Iran or will change its mind in the future?
A: Things could certainly improve and we continue our discussions. The issue of purchasing yellow cake is one of the many technical issues which have been raised in the regular meetings of the joint committee and I am confident that it will be discussed further.
Iran is able to raise similar issues, so do the other parties of the JCPOA and all have the right to express their views whether for or against it. This is why the joint committee is important and the UK continues contributing to it.
Q: The American President continues making comments against the JCPOA. Don’t you think that this approach by one of the parties to the nuclear agreement will damage the spirit of the agreement seriously?
A: I cannot talk about the position of the American government. What I would say is that the British government strongly supports the JCPOA. We work with our partners to contribute to the success of this agreement and to ensure that the financial and economic aspects of the agreement grow so that President Rouhani can demonstrate the positive effects of the JCPOA to the Iranian people.
The British government is fully and strongly committed to the successful implementation of the JCPOA because it believes that this presents the best option for the establishment of peace, stability, security and welfare for the region. The UK continues to have better ties with the Iranian government in order for Iran to return to its constructive and normal position in the international community.
Q: How did you feel when the Embassies re-opened in Iran and the UK and was your impression of the Iranian diplomats’ reaction to it?
A: I was very pleased about resuming diplomatic ties with Iran in September 2016 and both sides took important steps to support it in order to advance bilateral ties and cooperation, and help those relations reach a new level which is happening.
I work closely with my counterpart in London, Hamid Baeidinejad, who represents Iran very well to present Iran’s views and promote Iran’s position in the UK. Many Iranians live in the UK and I think that he supports them and their interests very well. As far as the British government is concerned, we are committed to upgrade bilateral ties to a new level and use the JCPOA as an infrastructure in doing so. We have different opinions in some cases such as regional conflicts and we need to have more discussions to find solutions to them and to be able to have a better understanding of our positions and manage to resolve difficult issues through diplomacy.
Q: You participated in the soccer match where Persepolis was exercising, are you interested in soccer?
A: Yes, I am very interested in soccer and I am happy that my son attended the training session in Tehran. I watch Iranian soccer matches and I am pleased to say that your national soccer team plays very well. I also congratulate you for qualifying the World Cup in Russia. I am looking forward to watching the matches involving Iran and British teams in Russia next year.
Mr. Hopton did not respond precisely to the question of naming his favourite Iranian or British soccer player, but added, “I don’t think that it is right to mention specific players but Iran’s performance in qualifying for the World Cup is an excellent achievement.” When Iran was in China and I was watching the matches, Iranian team played very well and the atmosphere was very good as the players were very good. I enjoy watching football.
Q: What do you think about Dr. Zarif as an expert diplomat?
A: I met Mr. Zarif. His role in the nuclear negotiations was very important. He showed what a skillful diplomat he is. He has a long experience in international relations, particularly when he was working at the UN in New York. I had the honour of meeting Mr. Zarif several times and we had very good discussions. I respect his diplomatic ability and find interaction with him very constructive.
Q: Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry named the JCPOA a historical agreement, what do you think?
A: As my Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary said clearly, the UK finds the JCPOA a ‘massive achievement”. It is one of the most important new diplomatic achievements. The UK will remain committed to it.