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Iran's "Ungrateful" European Friend

By Ebrahim Gilani (Source: Mianeh)

Wartime assistance that Bosnia received from Tehran counted for nothing when it came to crucial UN vote. The Bosnian decision to back the latest round of United Nations sanctions against Tehran in June has caused some irritation in Iran, where many see it as poor reward for years of support.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejed receives Emir Hadzikadunic, the new Bosnian
ambassador in Tehran.
(Photo: Danial Shaigan, Fars News Agency)

As well as feeling let down by Bosnia's policy of pro-western pragmatism, some Iranians are pointing the finger of blame at their own government, saying the debacle is a result of mismanaged foreign policy.

The sanctions approved by the United Nations Security Council on June 9 place restrictions on banking and other financial transactions that might contribute to Iran's nuclear plans.

This time, Bosnia and Hercegovina, whose Muslim administration received support from Iran throughout the 1992-95 war, was set to play a critical role in the vote because it had been elected as one of the Security Council's ten non-permanent members at the beginning of this year.

Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki visited Sarajevo in late April to lobby Bosnian officials, telling them that his country's nuclear programme was entirely peaceful.

But even at this early stage, it was already clear which way things were going. At the end of Mottaki's visit, Haris Silajdzic, chairman of the Bosnian presidency, issued a statement indicating that the country would vote for sanctions and linking this to its aspirations to join the European Union and NATO.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attempted to lower expectations, telling the Sarajevo newspaper Dnevni Avaz in early May that Tehran did not expect Bosnia to vote against the Security Council resolution, despite all the assistance his country had provided in the past.

Abolhasan Navvab, deputy secretary general of the Ahl ul-Bayt World Assembly, speaks at ceremony commemorating Iranians who died fighting in the Bosnian war. His brother Mohammad Hossein was among them. (Photo: Mahmoud Hoseini, Fars News Agency)

Davud Vafayi, a Balkans expert based in Tehran, says the Iranian authorities have recognised that "for Bosnia, EU accession is a strategic priority, and they have decided to accept this reality".

On the day, the UN resolution was carried by 12 out of the 15 votes, including Bosnia's. Yet there were other alternatives - non-permanent members Turkey and Brazil voted against, Lebanon abstained.

While the Tehran government has not made an issue of its disappointment, there is a sense among some Iranians that in a situation where Bosnia might have acted otherwise, it displayed ingratitude.

As Abbas Abdi, a journalist and social affairs analyst, put it, "Bosnia could have made recompense for a fraction of the Iranian aid provided to it during the war."

According to Abbas Heidari, head of the Iranian-Bosnian Friendship Association, Sarajevo has issued a verbal apology to Tehran for the stance it took. He made the claim in an interview he gave to the Mehr News Agency in the presence of Bosnia's ambassador in Tehran.

Heidari expressed a sense that Iran had somehow lost its way in the relationship with Sarajevo, saying, "If we Iranians still had the same influence in Bosnia as we did before, this wouldn't have happened."

Others agree that Iran's Bosnia policy has not brought the right rewards.

"Iran's policy of supporting Bosnia has not been conducive to helping the national interest when that's been needed," Abdi said.

A former Iranian diplomat in Europe said the experience was "just one more example of the Islamic Republic's numerous foreign policy failures."

A professor of political science in Tehran described how the post-war years had seen Bosnia gradually distancing itself from Iran and moving closer to the US and the EU. The now imminent plans to join NATO and the EU could only speed that process, he said.

It is all a far cry from the days when the embattled Bosnian state was short of friends, weapons and other kinds of support.

Iran saw an opportunity to gain a foothold in Europe, and invested significant efforts to achieve this.

The foreign minister at that time, Ali Akbar Velayati, has since described how Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asked him and Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezayi to do all they could to assist the Bosnian Muslims resist the "crusade" being waged against them.

Khamenei named a senior regime figure, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, as his special envoy on Bosnia, with responsibility for delivering military, medical and financial assistance. In the face of a UN arms embargo on all warring parties in the former Yugoslavia, Iran sent arms shipments to the Bosnians, and a number of junior Revolutionary Guards commanders were dispatched to Bosnia.

Near the end of the conflict, the UN Security Council lifted the arms ban at Washington's behest. Some US officials have made it clear the policy was reversed in order to curb Iranian influence in Bosnia.

In 1995, Iran was among the first states to recognise Bosnia and Hercegovina; it had opened an embassy the previous year.

But during the Dayton peace talks that brought the war to an end, Bosnian diplomats were already telling their Iranian counterparts that their government was under strong US pressure to curb Tehran's presence.

Ambassador Hadzikadunic inspects photographs of the war in Bosnia at an exhibition held in July in Tehran. (Photo: Ali Haddadi Asl)

According to a Bosnian diplomat in London, who asked to remain anonymous, "Iran's strident policies during the war scared the West and made Bosnia keep its distance."

Thus, as peace and stability gradually returned, Iran found its position being eroded in Bosnia. Another sign of the weakening relationship came when Iran began requiring entry visas from Bosnian nationals and ended direct flights between Tehran and Sarajevo.

Despite its reduced role, Iran still retains a presence in Bosnia, with a TV channel, a radio station, and cultural programmes such as a branch of the Mullah Sadra Foundation that are designed to promote its particular brand of Islamic ideology.

Srpska Republika, the Bosnian Serb entity within the state, has naturally shown little warmth towards Iran in the years since the war. But perhaps surprisingly, Tehran has drawn closer to Serbia itself. The value of Iranian trade with Serbia last year was more than triple that with Bosnia. At a political level, Iran has offered support by refusing to recognise Kosovo's independence from Serbia.

As the latest UN sanctions began taking shape earlier this year, Iran made a concerted attempt to court Bosnia with economic incentives. The first ever joint commission on economic cooperation convened, leading to the two countries' finance ministers signing preliminary agreements on trade, transport, communications, banking, insurance and tourism. Iran's export bank agreed to underwrite sales of goods to Bosnia, initially to the tune of 150 million euro, and the Iranian embassy in Sarajevo was given two million euro to be spent on construction and industrial projects.

None of this was enough to change Bosnia's overriding strategy of moving closer to western institutions. As the presidency statement issued in April put it, Bosnia did not have a short memory and would always be grateful for past Iranian help, but it had to look after its own strategic interests when it made decisions at an international level, including at the Security Council.

About the author: Ebrahim Gilani is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist and foreign policy analyst based in London.

About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting ( the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.

... Payvand News - 08/10/10 ... --

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