Roberto Toscano was Italy’s ambassador to Iran from 2003 to 2008, and has also served as a diplomat in New Delhi, Geneva, Washington, Madrid, Moscow and Santiago. He has written five books, including Soviet Human Rights Policy and Perestroika, and, with Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, Beyond Violence: Principles for an Open Century. Iranian intellectuals and civil society activists regard Toscano as one of Europe's most gifted diplomats, and consider his knowledge of the country rare. Serving in Iran left him with concern and affection for the Iranian people, but also brought to mind the “late revolutionary regime” he knew in Moscow. Now, as another nuclear deadline impends, he reflects on the long and uneven trajectory of Europe’s relations with Iran. He spoke to IranWire by phone from Madrid.
What events shaped European governments’ perceptions of post-revolutionary Iran?
At the beginning, there wasn’t much difference between the US and Europe, in the sense that the Shah’s government had good relations with both the US and Europe. The concern was that apart from what was happening in Iran, this could be the beginning of something wider — a revolutionary wave. It was like the beginning of the Russian Revolution, when people thought, and the Bolsheviks hoped, that it would be the beginning of a big, Europe-wide onslaught of communism.
The same kind of hope and fear were perceived at the beginning of the Iranian Revolution. But Europeans realized that that was not going to happen. Europe, quicker than America, realized that much as they disliked the government in Iran for obvious reasons — human rights, a backward approach to society — it would be manageable.
Were there particular human rights abuses that resonated with Europeans early on?
We Europeans have — and this divides us from the United States — a strong objection to the death penalty. The idea that Iran would apply the death penalty for nonviolent crime, for example, to drug dealers. There were episodes where homosexuals were executed, or minors. And of course we objected to the lack of political freedom.
To what extent did Iran accuse European governments of aiding Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War?
With Europe they asked, “How was Saddam able to build a chemical weapons capacity?” There the finger was pointing at Germany. But mainly it accused the US. Both for the good, and for the bad, Iranians see the US first, and Europe is really second fiddle.
Did you see any element of anti-Europeanism in the revolutionary ideology?
No. As a matter of fact, when Khomeini was biding his time and waiting to go back to Iran, he was in a suburb of Paris, and among his inner circle — very young, very intellectual people — a lot of people were influenced by the more radical left wing ideologies popular in Europe. The revolution was a strange mix of retrograde Islam and progressive or even radical European thought.
When did you see European and American attitudes to Iran begin to diverge?
The real point where I started perceiving a divergence with the United States — we had the same goals, but we didn’t have the same evaluation — was vis-à-vis President Mohammad Khatami, beginning in 1997. Many people in the US thought he was just a smiling face.
My country was the first to recognize that Khatami was different. Italy in no way aspires to be a big power, but I can tell you, we took him seriously. In 1997 Italy had a Thatcher moment. It was the equivalent of Margaret Thatcher meeting Mikhail Gorbachev and saying, “We can do business with this man.”
The result was an increase in Italian tourists going to Iran, and an increase in business interests in Iran. Many of the latter didn’t prosper, though, because of the inefficiency of the Iranian system, and because of the change in politics when Ahmadinejad came along.
How did you compare Khatami and Gorbachev, based on your experience of the Soviet Union?
When I came into office in Iran and saw the choreography of power, I thought, this looks so Soviet. I was at the embassy in Moscow between 1975 and 1979, and I find so many parallels. Late revolutionary regimes have something in common.
I am sure that people who were against Khatami, including the Supreme Leader, had that parallel well in mind. My judgment is that Khatami was Gorbachev, phase I—the Gorbachev who wanted to change and liberalize, to have perestroika [literally “restructuring”], to save the system, but not Gorbachev, phase II, who decided, “To hell with it, the system is beyond salvation. Let’s call it quits, comrades.”
Khatami is still within the logic of the system. In Europe, we understood that this was not the end of the regime, but it was a version of the regime, maybe, with which we could coexist. Italy gave real credit to that phase, which of course ended in 2005 with the coming of Ahmadinejad.
What did the Ahmadinejad era do to relations with Europe?
The Ahmadinejad parenthesis was very harmful. When Khatami showed he was going too far on democratization, Khamenei stopped him. In his second term he was really not doing anything. The regime got scared of the quick tempo of the demand for change that was pushed by the people themselves.
The regime decided, “These guys around Khatami are typical elitists.” There is a lot of resentment in Iran, like in other countries, of those who are favored, those who are rich, who are educated. So Khamenei invented Ahmadinejad, who was Mr. Nobody. He represented the common people in a populist, demagogic way. He was embarrassing for the Iranians, and worrisome for us. That also went too far. And so Ahmadinejad was also frozen. During the last phase of his tenure as president, he wasn’t doing anything.
So what now? No populism. Someone who is presentable abroad is needed. Some gesture towards Iran’s growing middle class. The Iranian middle class is a huge phenomenon, and the regime cannot afford to alienate it. They have to be given something, but not too much. Rouhani is not a second attempt at reformism, at liberalism, but a centrist. Reformists voted for him, but he got the votes of moderates even within the conservatives. He has put all his eggs in the nuclear basket. If he fails, Rouhani will be frozen like his predecessors.
How have Iranian representatives reacted when you have tried to talk to them about human rights?
You don’t need to be an Islamic Republic to stiffen up whenever people from outside want to check what you’re doing on human rights. When you talk about human rights, they retort. The Soviets did the same thing. They would say, “Well, yes, there are rights, but there are also duties: being a citizen, being loyal to your country…” So they try to make rights less than unconditional.
Then they say, human rights are also economic, social, and cultural rights. Incidentally it’s true. Human rights are not just political rights. They try to say, if one country puts young people from all social backgrounds in good public schools, that’s human rights, so let’s see who applies those rights and who doesn’t. They try to widen the debate.
On the death penalty, Iran is in good company, from China to the US. But up to a certain point there is a possibility to talk in an incremental way. Another thing they tell you is, “There are worse guys than us on human rights, and you have double standards.” Sometimes I had trouble denying that.
It’s always been very erratic. Even today, there are some strange things, like a court sentencing the people who had made a videotape of themselves dancing to the song Happy. President Rouhani himself said “Oh come on, let them have fun.” But evidently, there is no agreement on those issues.
What were the EU’s main achievements in advancing its human rights goals in Iran?
Stoning hasn’t been practiced for quite a long time. Under sharia law, theoretically, you can have stoning, but even when I was there, it was under some provincial judge, and then the central government gave a reprieve. Evidently stoning, for the central government, for the regime as such, was really embarrassing. They know what happens in those cases.
The way that sharia is applied can be softer or more rigorous, and I think it’s being applied in a softer way. But of course, unless things change, there is always the danger that a conservative judge in Zanjan or Tabriz will go ahead with a stoning. There is no guarantee that human rights will be respected just because people at the center have become more sophisticated or aware of the political cost of being too brutal.
How has Europe’s focus on the nuclear issue over the past decade affected its dealings with Iran?
At the end of Khatami’s time, everything became nuclear. At the beginning the three European countries that started negotiating — Britain, France and Germany — focused not just on nuclear, but on regional issues and economic cooperation. Along the way these things disappeared, and we ended up talking only about nuclear enrichment. We narrowed our relationship with Iran to technical detail. In negotiating, if you have different items, it’s possible to negotiate by giving and taking, but if you have one little thing only, it’s very difficult to find a solution.
Nuclear nonproliferation is a concern not just of the United States, but for everybody. The Middle East has enough problems. Imagine a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. It’s a nightmare. It’s something we believe in as much as the US, for good reasons.
But there are some nuances where Europe is concerned: the French are especially hardline. They like their status as a nuclear power. It’s a limited club they hate seeing enlarged. The British have been pretty tough too. But it’s interesting. Germany and Italy, the two non-nuclear powers out of the main Europeans — although Italy is not on the negotiating team — have been demanding on respect for the Nonproliferation Treaty, but more flexible on how to obtain the result.
What do the three European governments on the P5+1 negotiating team have at stake should nuclear negotiations fail?
Let’s be frank. At the core of the issue, it is one versus one, meaning the US and Iran. And then these things are moved to the 5+1 where they are, in a way, ratified. So with all respect to the three European participants, it’s not what it was in the beginning when they were the only ones negotiating. Now the game involves a wider circle of subjects, some of which have to be dragged along. I’m talking about Russia and China.
I’m not so sure that a bad deal is worse than no deal. What does no deal imply? With all the problems in the Middle East, the so-called Islamic State, for example, we really don’t need to open another military front. We want a deal that addresses our concerns, of course. I have no doubt that someone like Javad Zarif means business, in the sense that his priority is having a country that is not handicapped by isolation.
If it goes wrong, other things will go wrong. One thing that worries me most, because I care about the people in Iran — and one should be able to distinguish between the people and the country on one side and the regime on the other —
is if this goes wrong, it means that this centrist, more relaxed, more civilized Rouhani stage can be reversed, and what comes afterward would be worse for the Iranian people, and for the region, and for us. So if there is a reasonable possibility —not at any cost— it should be pursued.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.