Words MAXMILIAN WECHSLER
THE timing couldn’t be better for an interview with His Excellency Mr Mohsen Mohammadi, Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Thailand. He’s just completing his first full year here, and this month marks the Iranian national day and 38th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.
Wearing a well-cut suit with a collarless shirt, the trademark dress for Iranian government officials, Ambassador Mohammadi greeted us at his residence in a quiet neighbourhood off Sukhumvit Road. The splendid Persian rugs and artworks give the place an air of elegance and warmth.
The ambassador began the interview with an appeal for fair play for Iran from the world community: “On the eve of 38th anniversary of the victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran on 10th of February 2017, I would like to take this opportunity to point out some facts regarding Iran and Iranians.
“The aims of the revolution successfully carried out by the Iranian people were reflected in their slogans during the protests in 1979 calling for independence and freedom from the US-backed regime of the Shah and the establishment of Islamic Republic, chosen by the people in a referendum with 98 percent approval on April 1, 1980.
“The revolutionaries succeeded in overthrowing the throne and achieved their declared goals, but from the very first days of the republic, we have been the target of attacks and plots by the powers who lost their interests in Iran and the region, as well as the leaders of some countries who fear they will meet the same fate as the Shah. From the very beginning we have faced violent acts, including terrorist attacks and separatist activities with support of some foreign countries. In one terrorist bombing 73 high-ranking Iranian authorities were killed. In another attack, the president and the prime minister were assassinated.
“The sounds of alarms warning of air attacks still echo in the ears of Iranians of my generation. I still well remember thinking when hearing the alarm, ‘Is this our turn or our neighbours’ turn to be hit?’
“We experienced the unfair behaviours of some Western powers, and the lack of assistance from international organisations that were supposed to safeguard international humanitarian laws and protect the Iranian people.
Therefore, Iranians today insist to be treated fairly and without discrimination and enjoy the same rights as other members of the international community. We cannot forget that Saddam Hussein came to be regarded as an enemy of humanity not when he was invading Iranian territory and killing Iranians with weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons, but only when he attacked Kuwait! I am pleased to say that today, after so much has happened, we now have good relations with Iraq.
“We have paid a high price for the freedom and independence of our Islamic Republic. We have been treated with discrimination because we dared to stand on our positions and win our revolution. Unfortunately because of the propaganda of the main global powers dominates the international mass media, the voice of our people has never been heard clearly. The big international news agencies like CNN never have a good word to say about Iran and don’t even mention us unless it has a negative connotation. Even when they are broadcasting the weather for our region, Iran is not mentioned.
“All the negative news is partly because the global powers lost the benefits they enjoyed in Iran before the overthrow of the Shah’s regime. For example, Iran was one of the biggest importers of American military equipment, as well as from the UK and sometimes France.”
Somewhat surprisingly, according to various websites the Iranian Air Force still flies many old US-made war planes such as F-14, F-4 Phantom, F-5 and C-130 Hercules. They have modern Russian-made and locally produced planes as well.
Asked about the longstanding sanctions imposed on Iran, the ambassador replied: “I can’t say that we weren’t unaffected by the sanctions. Fortunately we are a wealthy country, so we found ways to bring in goods which got around the sanctions. The problem was that we sometimes had to pay more for these goods. In addition, the sanctions presented an opportunity for the Iranian people as well, the private and the industrial sectors to be independent. We decided to produce most of what we needed inside Iran.
“We are not a nation seeking war or violence, and we are not an extremist nation. We are a nation seeking peace, justice, dignity, and equality in rights. In our Shiite religion, extremism and bloodshed have no position, and this is why we are the safest and most stable country in the region, without the terrorist attacks that our neighbouring countries are facing these days.
“Speaking personally, as someone who was injured by chemical weapons and who lost his brother in the war Iraq imposed on Iran, and someone who witnessed the suffering of his mother after she lost her son in the war, I really hope for a day when nobody in the world has to experience war. I hope that such discriminatory behaviour from an unfair world order will never be repeated against any member of the world community again.”
Taking a diplomatic direction
In my student days I was always thinking about following a career that would bring me new experiences every day,” said the ambassador. “One day I saw an announcement to recruit students for the Faculty of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). I thought, ‘this is what I am looking for.’ Entering the faculty was a big turning point in my life. After graduating I joined the MFA in 1991 and started my diplomatic experience.
“I am a career diplomat. I worked in different departments of the MFA, such as West Asia, West Europe, CIS countries as well as the Disarmament Department and I was posted previously in Uzbekistan, Finland and Germany, but this is my first experience of East Asia.
“Before coming to Bangkok I was the head of a department that covers five central Asian countries which were formerly part of the Soviet Union. So I was expecting to take a post in that region, but I was suggested this post in Bangkok. It was a surprising suggestion, but I thought it was a good opportunity for me to discover another part of the world. This is my first mission in the capacity of ambassador. Officially I started my mission on January 25, 2016, and I am very happy to be here. Thailand is a very interesting country with an amazing culture. There are so many attractions and such lovely people.”
The ambassador said that the origins of the strong bilateral ties between Iran and Thailand today can be traced far back through history. “The relationship between Iran and Siam and in fact between Iran and East Asia dates backs to the Sassanid Empire era, before Iran became an Islamic country. The first official Iranian political mission in Siam was established in 1686, during the reign of King Soleyman (Safavieh Dynasty), but written records now in the British national museum confirm that there were already many Iranians in important positions assisting the Royal Family and in government administration of Thailand at that time.
“One of the most famous Iranians who lived in Siam in ancient times was Sheikh Ahmad Ghomi, a merchant and clergyman who came here in the 16th century and was well received by the King Narasuam Sug Tam. He served as a sincere and trusted friend to the King, and after more than 400 years he is still remembered by Thais as a great man and by Iranians as a source of pride and honour. He was appointed by the King as Sheikh-al-Islam (supreme leader of Muslims community) in Siam. His tomb is located at the centre of Rajabhat University in Ayutthaya city and the anniversary of his death is still commemorated.
“In modern times official diplomatic relations between Iran and Thailand began in 1955. The Iranian Ambassador in New Delhi was appointed as the first accredited Ambassador to Thailand in 1956. Since then, the bilateral relationship has always been friendly, based on mutual respect and interests. There have been no conflicts or tensions to speak of between our two countries.
“In 1985, when we were at war with Iraq, the Thai minister of foreign affairs in a speech at the United Nations denounced Iraq as the invading party. The people of Iran will never forget that. My appointment as ambassador to Thailand occurred simultaneously with the lifting of the unfair politically motivated sanctions against Iran. This can be considered to be a turning point in our status on the international stage. In the past year many countries around the world are looking at Iran as a land of new opportunities, and the Thai authorities are well aware of this.
“In January 2016, just a few days before I left Tehran for Bangkok, Dr Don Pramudwinai, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand, was at the head of a big Thai delegation from the government and private sectors which visited Iran holding the 9th Joint Economic Commission. This was followed just two weeks later by a visit from Dr Somkid Jatusripitak, Deputy Prime Minister and Economic Affairs Minister, which resulted in the signing of six agreements, mostly in the area of economics.
“Subsequently, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, visited Thailand in March 2016, attending the 14th Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) ministerial meeting in Bangkok. During the visit he met with his Thai counterpart as well as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to follow up the latest developments in bilateral relationship.
“In October 2016, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani paid a formal visit to Thailand, to pursue bilateral as well as multilateral objectives in the framework of the second ASEAN Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) Summit. The President was accompanied by four Cabinet members, the head, as well as various representatives of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce. President Rouhani met with Prime Minister Prayut and Thai Cabinet members. They discussed the latest bilateral developments and ways of expanding the already friendly relationship between our two countries. We are laying plans for a visit from Prime Minister Prayut to Tehran this year.
“These high-level delegations demonstrate the desire of the governments on both sides to begin a new era of cooperation after the removal of illegitimate sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“One more visit I want to mention is that of Her Royal Highness Maha Chakri Sirindhorn to Iran in 2004. This was a joyful occasion for all Iranians,” said the ambassador.
He added that there is already a very good level of mutual understanding and cooperation between Iran and Thailand.
“With support from Thailand, Iran was accepted as a member of the ACD and more recently the TAC (ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation). With Iranian support Thailand was accepted as an observing member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. As Iran and Thailand are effective and influential members of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO, an intergovernmental regional organisation established in 1985 by Iran, Pakistan and Turkey) and ASEAN, respectively, we share an understanding of the importance of regional alliances and laying the groundwork for increased cooperation between West and East Asia.”
Economic and cultural ties
Regarding trade, the ambassador said: “From Thailand we import rice, rubber, electronic and auto parts, cooling and ventilation devices, paper, wood products and fruits.
“We export to Thailand oil, steel, petrochemical and ceramic products, minerals, fisheries products and some electronic parts.
“We also export a small number of our famous Persian carpets, which are very popular in Thailand among the wealthy. These days some carpets are produced by machine. But the really good ones are still hand-woven and they are very expensive. The making of fine carpets in Persia started thousands of years ago. Some great examples of classic Persian carpets are on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
“So many areas of cooperation have been explored and is at the agenda by both sides. For example, exchange of knowledge in automobile manufacturing, new technologies, nanotechnology, pharmaceutical and food industries, agriculture, fisheries, clean and renewable energy, mutual investments, implementing joint projects in third countries and so on.
“Alongside the efforts to strengthen political and economic cooperation, Iran and Thailand have always paid attention to the cultural dimensions of the relationship and encouraged interactions between our peoples.
“The number of flights between our two countries has increased significantly. More than 120,000 Iranian tourists visit Thailand each year, but the number of tourists from Thailand to Iran is far less. Thailand has a very impressive presence in the tourist industry, and we are pleased to accept help from the Thai side to improve our prospects as a tourist destination. Minister of Tourism and Sports Mrs Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul has taken a very positive approach toward strengthening cultural interactions between Iran and Thailand. She visited Iran in August 2016.
“During this visit and during the visit of our president in October, Mrs Kobkarn had some very constructive discussions with her Iranian counterpart. She is going to Iran again in February 2017 and during this trip a memorandum of understanding on tourism cooperation will be signed.
“A media group from Thailand visited Iran and prepared enchanting reports and films regarding the tourism attractions of Iran. Iran has 7,000 years of written history and has an astonishing number of unique attractions, including for ecotourism. There are 15 places in Iran registered by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.”
Asked if there are particular sites he would recommend, the ambassador said: “It depends on the tourists’ preferences. Iran is a wide country and there are so many attractions to see. We have mountains, desert and coastline. We have four seasons at the same time. Now in some regions it may be minus 20°C, and in others plus 30°C. We have very good options for eco-tourism.”
Asked about warnings issued by Canada, the US, Britain and other countries to their nationals about the risks of visiting Iran, Mr Mohammadi said these were overblown. He called the warnings more negative propaganda.
“In most countries, even those which are the major tourist destinations in the world, or even in the above mentioned claimant countries, there may have been some areas with some degree of security risks for foreigners. Iran is very big country. We border 15 countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran is under attack by illicit drug traffickers who smuggle drugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Europe. There is a huge amount of money to be made from drugs, so it is very hard to stop. We have so many martyrs who have died combating the drug traffickers.
“We recommend that tourists keep a safe distance from some border areas, but with other parts of the country, we guarantee the safety and we do believe tourists in the very beginning of their arrival, will find Iran as the safest country in the region.
“I can absolutely say that Thais and other foreigners can visit Iran and be confident they will have a safe and very enjoyable experience. Even during the sanctions, those who visited my country returned home with a positive opinion about Iran and Iranians.”
He pointed out that the Iranian embassy maintains a cultural centre in Bangkok. “This is a centre with a special approach that looks to boost bilateral cultural relations in all aspects, as well as provide courses in Persian language and traditional Persian painting. Promoting better understanding between Muslim and Buddhist communities is one of the pursuing objectives of this centre as well. The centre has organised so far two rounds of dialogue between individuals and organisations. Some Buddhist leaders and monks from other countries, including Myanmar, have participated in the dialogues.
“I believe that through such initiatives it is possible to create better understanding between religions which ultimately can prevent horrible incidents like those befalling Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority. Let me point out that our mission in Thailand also covers Myanmar and Laos.”
Religious tolerance in Thailand
“I want to take this opportunity to comment on the situation of the Muslim community in Thailand. I have seen so many positive developments in this regard during my past year presence in Thailand. I can refer to the holding of the Molud-Al-Naby ceremony (commemorating the birth of the Prophet Mohammad, peace upon him), which was attended by His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, as well as several Eftar (fast-breaking) ceremonies in the holy month of Ramadan with joint participation of many Buddhists. These include ceremonies organised by the prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs.
“Muslims in Thailand are free to hold their religious ceremonies and gatherings. I must confess that unfortunately even in some Muslim-majority countries, Muslims don’t enjoy such a level of freedom. I believe that the tolerance, patience and peaceful coexistence I see here, have roots in the rich culture of Thailand’s society. As well, the mentality and way of thinking of Thai authorities, particularly the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, have played an important role in strengthening of this valuable feature in Thai culture and really is admirable.
“I have seen very constructive recorded remarks by the late King on the subject of Islam. He ordered the translation of the Holy Quran to the Thai language and visited so many mosques and Muslim religious schools. He granted financial and medical support to the Muslim community, and even participated in different Muslim ceremonies, including the Shiite Ashoora ceremony.”
Mr Mohammadi’s wife, Batoul Kalantary, is with him in Bangkok. Their two sons are university students in Tehran. The ambassador, besides Persian can speak English, Russian and some French.
“I love handicrafts and antiques a lot. I brought some Iranian hand woven ‘tableau carpets’ with me to Bangkok and I sometimes buy antiques and wood carvings from markets in Bangkok.
“I also love Iranian classical music, mountaineering and hiking. There are some beautiful mountains north of Tehran which provide me the chance to enjoy climbing and hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter.
Now I am 55 years old and there is no possibility for mountaineering close to Bangkok, so I do a lot of walking among ordinary people. I enjoy communicating with them, watching them and acquainting myself with the Thai culture.”
CV OF H.E. MOHSEN MOHAMMADI
· Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Bangkok, since February 2016 Positions
· 1991-1993: Desk officer of Pakistan affairs, 2nd Department for West-Asia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of the Islamic Republic of Iran
· 1993-1997: Second Secretary, Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Tashkent
· 1997-1998: Desk officer of Uzbekistan, 2nd Department for Central Asia and Caucasus, MFA of the Islamic Republic of Iran
· 1998-2001: Deputy of the 2nd Department for Central Asia and Caucasus, MFA of the Islamic Republic of Iran
· 2001-2004: Deputy head of the mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Helsinki, Finland
· 2004-2006: Desk officer of European Parliament in 1st Department for Western Europe, MFA of the Islamic Republic of Iran
· 2006-2007: Desk officer of Biological Weapons Convention, Department for Disarmament and International Security, MFA of the Islamic Republic of Iran
· 2008-2011: Minister Counsellor, Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Berlin, Germany
· 2011-2012: Desk officer on Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and Conventions on Chemicals, National Authority for Conventions on Chemicals, MFA of the Islamic Republic of Iran
· 2012-2016: Head of 2nd Department for Central Asia and Caucasus, and National Secretary for Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, MFA of the Islamic Republic of Iran