Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations Majid Takht Ravanchi in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently issued an urgent call for a universal truce to warring parties worldwide to support the global public health battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

It is not clear yet, however, that the US and Iran have answered that call to put aside their differences as both countries grapple with their own severe outbreaks of the lethal disease.

Iranian Ambassador to the UN Majid Takht Ravanchi says that owes more to Washington than Tehran as the US stands firm on its imposed sanctions and overlooks the severity of the pandemic by blocking medical equipment shipments to his country.

In an exclusive interview, Ravanchi tells Asia Times’ long-time contributor Kaveh Afrasiabi that Iran is ready to make amends with its regional rivals and that the US remains the main obstacle to Middle Eastern peace and stability.

Asia Times: What is Iran’s response to the call by UN Secretary General for a universal truce in light of the growing coronavirus pandemic?

Ravanchi: The Secretary General’s call for a comprehensive ceasefire should be taken seriously by the international community because it can play an important role in the fight against Covid-19, which is a pandemic affecting the whole world. 

In addition to the Secretary General’s appeal for a universal truce, he and a number of UN high officials, governments, parliamentarians including from the US and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have called for the lifting of sanctions so as to enable the countries affected by the coronavirus to better fight it.

Iran is one of the countries which have been hit hard by Covid-19. The continuation of illegal and inhuman US unilateral sanctions against Iran undermines our efforts to defeat this menace. 

Unfortunately, the US does not heed the international community’s call to lift the sanctions and, once again, exhibits its animosity towards the Iranian people who are working hard to combat the virus. It seems that the US does not recognize the severity of the problem. 

The disease doesn’t recognize borders and no country is immune from its threats. The whole world is in the same boat. Either we will win or lose together. The pandemics cannot be contained unless all capacities at the international level are employed and a concerted and well-coordinated plan to defeat this pandemic is executed by all countries. 

Therefore, the required resources should be available to all countries that are affected by the virus.

Asia Times: Is Iran ready to halt tensions with the US and its allies in the region?  

Ravanchi: Many of the problems in our region are rooted in the US military presence in this neighborhood. Furthermore, Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has exacerbated tension in the region. We are not responsible for the current tense situation. The US has come to the Persian Gulf from thousands of miles away from its shores.

They are selling billions of dollars’ worth of deadly armaments to certain countries in this region. They are making every effort to sow discord amongst regional countries. The best thing that can happen in the region is the US withdrawal from this sensitive part of the world. This has been expressly called for by the Iraqi parliament and this position is shared by the people in the entire region. 

The US is definitely not interested in the improvement of relations between Iran and its neighbors. We have always said that we want to live in peace with our neighbors. We want best of relations with them. Last year, President [Hassan] Rouhani introduced an initiative for the establishment of a regional security arrangements in the Persian Gulf, called Hormuz Peace Endeavor (HOPE).

We believe that through inclusion [rather] than exclusion, cooperation [rather] than rivalry, good neighborliness [rather] than interference in the internal affairs of others and detente [rather] than tension building, regional countries can build a better and safer region.

Asia Times: What are the pandemic’s effects on Iran and its foreign policy priorities?

Ravanchi: There is no doubt that the pandemic has changed the world. Besides the hardships that it has brought about to an overwhelming majority of nations, particularly the precious lives which have been lost as a result, the world economy has been badly affected by this virus.

Iran is no exception. We have been hit hard by the pandemic and are striving hard to contain and hopefully defeat it soon. We have one of the best medical staffs in the world who are working hard all across Iran to help the patients. They have done a great job in saving lives despite the fact that inhumane sanctions continue to create hardships for our people including in the medical field.

Nowadays, Iran’s foreign policy is geared towards working with other countries in the direction of total elimination of this pandemic. A number of countries, including some neighbors, and international organizations have provided assistance to Iran. At the same time, the US continues to impose its illegal sanctions against our country. 

As the latest example, last week the US banned South Korea from selling coronavirus diagnostic test kits to Iran. At this critical juncture, the Iranian people will never forget those who are helping and those who are hurting them.

Asia Times: With respect to the Iran nuclear accord, given your own personal involvement as a key member of the nuclear negotiation team, what is the status of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) agreement, and how do you foresee its future prospects? 

Ravanchi: JCPOA is the result of more than 12 years of intense negotiations with a number of countries. For almost three and a half years, Iran honored all its JCPOA commitments.

When in May 2018 the US, in violation of its international commitments, withdrew from the nuclear deal, our European partners in the deal pleaded with Iran not to do the same and leave the deal.

They promised us to compensate the damages inflicted on us as a result of the US’ withdrawal. We accepted their request and waited for almost a year to only witness that the promises made to us by our EU partners were not kept.

It was at that time in May 2019 when Iran had to act in accordance with articles 26 and 36 of JCPOA and ceased performing certain parts of its commitments. We have clearly stated that as soon as our European partners go back to the full implementation of JCPOA, Iran will immediately reverse back its steps and go back to the full implementation of JCPOA too.

Asia Times: Recently the European mechanism to trade with Iran, known as INSTEX (Instrument For Trade Exchanges), has finally been operationalized.  How do you interpret this development with respect to Iran-EU relations? Are you optimistic about the prospects for positive evolution of these relations? 

Ravanchi: INSTEX had been in the making since the US exited from JCPOA and it took more than a year to be operational. Its success is yet to be known and depends on European countries’ ability to provide it with the necessary liquidity. We have always emphasized on our JCPOA rights to be materialized through available mechanisms.

If INSTEX can do the job, we welcome that. If other mechanisms can do it, we are fine with that too. The important thing is that Iran should enjoy the dividends enshrined in the deal. Up to now, one instance of trade has been registered through INSTEX. That is a good thing.

However, what needs to be done is to expand the scope of this mechanism to include non-humanitarian trade as well as to make financial resources available to INSTEX so that it can facilitate large amounts of trade.

INSTEX needs to be financed, either through the money received from Iranian oil sales to Europe or through direct financing by European countries. Iranian oil is not under EU sanctions. Therefore, Europe can buy oil from Iran for immediate or future use. 

EU’s approach towards Iran, including in the area of trade and business, particularly when the infamous maximum pressure policy of the US is becoming harsher, will be a determining factor in the future for long-term Iran-EU relations. 

Asia Times: Iran has sought financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but the Trump administration has sought to block it. Do you anticipate that the IMF will withstand American pressure and assist Iran?

Ravanchi: Many countries have been affected by the Covid-19, requiring assistance from abroad to cope with different aspects of the pandemic particularly its economic fallout. Some affected countries have requested the IMF to provide financial assistance to them.

The IMF has a number of methods to address these requests and one of them is “Rapid Financing Instrument (RFI)” which is designed, as its name implies, to provide rapid assistance to countries in need.

Iran has requested the IMF to provide it with a US$5 billion loan through this mechanism because we have been hit hard by the virus and is one of the most eligible countries to receive such assistance. It is an open secret that the US is doing everything possible to delay the IMF’s decision on Iran’s request with the ultimate hope of persuading IMF Board members to reject it.

In the eyes of Iranians, US hostility towards them is given. Now the IMF’s credibility is on the line. Our talks with the IMF are still ongoing and we hope the Fund will soon make the right decision to grant the loan to Iran.

Kaveh Afrasiabi is co-author of the recent book Trump and Iran: From Containment to Confrontation.