Having inherited a Lebanese origin, Denmark’s Ambassador to Iran has recently begun his mission in the country and is trying to maximally increase the economic and political ties between Iran and Denmark after the implementation of the JCPOA. In his interview with AVA Diplomatic, Danny Annan makes references to Denmark’s support of the poor all around the world, including those in Mali, Niger and Ghana and stresses the will of the Danish officials to fight the IS.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with
Danny Annan, Denmark’s Ambassador to Iran
You began your work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark in October, 1996. Was there any special motive behind such work choice?
I have always been interested in politics. Ever since I was a child I always followed the news. I’m half Lebanese, so when I was a child, there was the civil war in Lebanon, and I remember sitting with my dad basically every night, watching the news. So I always had special interests in the Middle East, which can also be seen in my work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with four and a half years posting in Damascus where we covered four countries, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Later on, I was posted in Lebanon for one year, and also, in Copenhagen, I’ve been dealing with the Middle East for four years. Now, I’m very lucky and happy to be in Iran.
What was your father’s job?
He had a flower shop with my mother.
Interestingly enough, You bore witness to the civil war in Lebanon as a Lebanese-Danish child. Please explain to us how you found the politics, atmosphere, circumstances and incidents of the time.
Well, it was not nice to see a country in conflict, esp. when you have relatives in it.
Between 1999 and 2003, you served as deputy to ambassador in Syria. How much of the current Syrian crisis can be traced and detected in that period?
I would say there were not visible signs. Of course, everybody back then knew that the stability in Syria also came with a price. The price was less political rights. But my impression during my years in Syria was that the Syrian people were very happy and proud about their country. I feel very sad for what has happened in Syria. It’s almost like a second home to me. What happened and what keeps the conflict going, I believe, is, of course, the lack of political freedom, but also because the Syrian economy suffered. Some of the areas in Syria were hit by a very severe drought that made life in villages very difficult. Finally, I believethat the most important factor that led to trouble in Syria was because those who were not happy with the regime saw that it was possible to change the regime in Tunisia with Ben Ali to flee and in Egypt with Mubarak being removed from power. Then why not in Syria.
Taking into account that you witnessed Hafiz Assad’s ruling during your time at Denmark’s embassy in Syria, how different do you find it from that of Bashar Assad’s?
I should mention that I was posted in Syria when Hafiz Assad died. There were lots of expectations for Bashar Assad. Access to information was eased. Before he became President and before the father died, he was head of the Syrian internet/computer society. It made him more popular. And also in the first months, there was also more political freedom. It was the so-called Damascus spring. But later on, some of the political activists were put back in prison. So I think a lot of people had big expectations for more freedom, and initially, there was more freedom, but later on the system got tough again. I believe for most Syrians, the most important development in the early years of Bashar Assad rule was the economic opening with foreign direct investment bringing more jobs and prosperity to Syria.
In the Middle East, we are seeing the unfilled gap of democracy. And as a half-Lebanese, yet Danish diplomat, you worked in Lebanon for quite a while. Arab countries of the Middle East have now for years been struggling with the establishment of democracy.
The problem is basically that in the political culture of the Middle East, there is a political game called “Winner takes it all!” meaning that if you have the power, you don’t want to give it away; if you have the power, you will make sure that the economic possibilities will be primarily for the people who support you. When you have sectarian systems that creates tension it is easier for outside powers to use the tension in the country to put people up against each other. I’d say Lebanon is a fantastic example of Shias, Sunnis and Christians where different outside powers have been supporting them inside Lebanon so they could fight for 15 years and still fight today politically.
Large waves of immigration have been caused by the outbreak of conflicts in the Middle East, and we are seeing paradoxical approaches on Europe’s part toward them. What is the approach of the Danish government in this regard?
Our approach is that when they arrive in Denmark, we give them asylum, if they fulfill the criteria of becoming a refugee. We have been taking a lot of refugees in the last 35 years; we took a lot of Palestinians when there was civil war in Lebanon; a lot of Somalis in early 90s; we have ever since the 90s taken many Afghans and Iraqis, and lately, a lot of Syrians. Our government believes it is very important to help, and I do believe that we are one of the biggest contributors internationally when it comes to helping Syrians in Syria and in the neighboring countries. We have provided substantial assistance to the Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan; not just the refugees, but also the host communities to avoid a conflict between them and the Syrian refugee population.
Why did the parliament of Denmark pass a bill in accordance with which the valuable assets of the refugees are confiscated once they come to the country?
That, of course, created a lot of international attention which was a surprise, because there is nothing strange in it for me. If I go to the authorities as a Danish citizen and ask them for help, they immediately ask me what I have myself; what I have in my pocket, wallet or bank account. Refugees were not treated differently from the Danes. There was no discrimination.
But why their valuable assets?
We have one of the most developed social welfare systems in the world. If you need assistance, you can have it throughout your entire life paid by the government. If you need to go to the hospital, it is free of charge. If you want to study, it is free of charge. All the way through school and through university, I didn’t pay anything. And for this very developed welfare system to work, we also need to be sure we only provide assistance to those who need the assistance. Many other countries have exactly the same rule.
Denmark stands amongst the very few countries that spend more than the UN-determined limit (around 0.7% of the country’s GNI) on fundamental collaborations in poverty-stricken African, Asian and Latin American countries. Which areas receive the majority of such spending?
Denmark has for years been one of the leading countries for providing development assistance. We are actually one of the few countries in the world that gives 0.7% of GDP. Development assistance has several objectives, but I would like to stress two of them. The first principle is that we would like to help the poorest; so we help several countries in Africa, the poorest of them like Mali and Niger and several others; not only poorest countries, but also inside the country the poorest people. We are very happy, when we see that – partly – by using the international assistance, some of these countries develop so much that they would no longer need the same amount of assistance. One example is Ghana. Now we are focusing more on trade for the mutual benefit of Denmark and Ghana. Another good example is Vietnam with a lot of economic growth. They no longer need our assistance to the same degree and also their trade is becoming a more important factor in our bilateral relations.
What do they (Ghana and Vietnam) mostly invest in? Education, agriculture or other areas?
If it is a country where the government has developed the necessary control mechanisms we can apply direct budget support. Then the government itself can make its own priorities in education, health or infrastructure. But of course, we do not give the money if it is disappeared or spent on purposes other than what it is supposed to be.
Can you name a country with a trustworthy government?
I have not been dealing with this issue for a long time, so I don’t know where we stand today. But we also do project ourselves in cooperation with local partners and that could be within healthcare, infrastructure, education and so forth.
On his trip to Tehran and meeting with Iran’s President Rouhani, the Danish FM stressed counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries. Is there any specific plan designed in this regard?
There has been a lot of bilateral contacts between the Iranian and Danish governments in recent years and months, and the IS has always been on the top of the meetings most of the times and both governments share the idea that we need to terminate the IS.
What measures has Denmark thought of to fight the IS in Syria and Iraq?
What the Danish government believes is that we need to help people directly affected by the IS and conflict. We give substantial humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria both inside and outside the country. And, as I mentioned before, we look at the size of the Danish population. We are among the biggest contributors to the people of Syria and we do it fast. When Mosul was taken over by the IS in June, 2014, three weeks later, I went with my minister to a refugee camp outside Mosul for Iraqi internally displaced There is also capacity building. We have been assisting some areas in Syria. When law and order broke down, we have been helping them build a local police, for example. And the last part is military intervention. Initially, we only participated in the fight against the IS in Iraq, but within the last few months, it has been decided by the Danish government to also engage in Syria to fight Daesh. We believe it is a serious threat to the Syrian and Iraqi people, but also to the wider region and the international community. So we are fully committed to fighting the IS. Last February, we had a man inspired by the IS and their philosophy who committed terror attacks in Copenhagen. So it is an issue and an obligation for all of us to fight the IS and the mentality.
Now that everyone is talking about military interventions against the IS, please explain a bit more about the mechanism and quality of Denmark’s participation in this procedure.
I don’t recall the exact figure, but I remember that in Iraq, we had contributed with trainers who would train Kurdish forces up in Sulaymaniyah and in Iraq’s al Anbar with Iraqi forces to train to fight the IS. So, yeah, we sent trainers and aircrafts.
After President Rouhani won terms, Iran went on to practice a more flexible foreign policy with other countries and that is one thing to notice throughout the visits of European officials to Iran for sure. How do you evaluate the future of ties between Iran and Denmark?
Very good. Even before the lifting of sanctions, we have seen very fast-developing and positive relationship between Denmark and Iran. We had several ministerial visits, two Danish FMs coming here and an Iranian deputy minister going to Copenhagen. We have more visits in the pipeline. But not only on the political level has there been positive interaction between the two countries, but also there is person-to-person interaction, and we have seen a lot of progress. Just to mention a few examples, recently an agreement was sign between a university in Denmark and one in Iran about archeological cooperation. We also have Danish and Iranian doctors working in the field of neurology. And finally, I would also like to mention that Denmark’s Ombudsman is working together with the Iranian General Inspectors’ Office. And last, but not least, the bilateral trade is really blooming. If you look at the first five month of 2016 and the total result of 2015, so far, there has been 66% increase in Danish export to Iran. It is my clear expectation that our bilateral trade will continue to the benefit Iran and Denmark.
The Danish Institute for Human Rights maintains a close connection with the Human Rights Department of Iran’s Judiciary. Furthermore, Iran’s Department of Human Rights had a committee sent to Denmark to hold the 3rd round of human rights dialogs in Copenhagen. What topics were covered during the talks?
I did not participate in the meetings between the Danish Human Rights Institute and Iran’s Department of Human Rights. The information I got from Iranian and Danish sides is that they are really happy with the cooperation.They discussed issues of mutual interests; so these are very constructive meetings. And from the positive feedbacks I got from them, I am quite sure that the cooperation will expand.
Can I ask what positive feedbacks we are talking about here?
First of all, they continue to have meetings. So they would not be interested in meetings if they did not see a purpose in them. And also at the last meeting in Copenhagen, they signed an MOU where they further formalized the future cooperation.
What plans are there to extend economic relations between the two countries?
Yes, we had an MOU signed between the Danish Credit Agency and Iran’s Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finance. The purpose of it is for Danish companies to have easier access to export credit, when they enter the Iranian market.
Was the case of Denmark’s import from Iran also brought to the table?
We have oil and gas in Denmark; so the biggest commodity Iran normally sells is what we do not buy; because we have it ourselves. But of course, you have world-class Persian carpets and world-class pistachio. However, I have to be honest with you and say that I do not know much about Iran’s export to Denmark.
Is everything all right for joint investments between Denmark and Iran in the Middle Eastern market?
For sure, I think there are very good opportunities. Iran is a stable country, and you need stability when you want to make major investments. The biggest pharmaceutical company in Denmark, to give you an example, Novo Nordisk is investing $80mn to build a factory in Iran, but at the moment, they have about 170 employees and the number will be more than double the coming years. Other Danish companies are in the process of establishing themselves in Iran. That will help contribute to Iran’s growth and job creation.
Over the past few years, Denmark had played a pivotal role in constructing railroads in Iran. Why has the cooperation of Danish companies faded in Iran after that?
I don’t know! We have very good consultancy companies in Denmark, but you have them in Iran, too. In the 30s and 40s, a Danish company called “Kampsax” which was basically responsible for trans-Iranian railroads from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. We had opportunities before and we have some now. Another good example is Danish Feta in the 80s. Before the 80s, we exported a lot of feta to Iran, but then, we lost the market, because the Iranian government wanted to produce it locally. So some companies lost business, but it gave business to other companies; companies who provided the machinery for cheese production, and today, with Danish machinery and ingredients for cheese production, and the skills of Iranian cheese producers; I would say, when it comes to feta cheese, you have one of the best cheeses in the world.
Iran also dominates the market of Iraq and some other areas with its cheese expertise.
Yes, exactly. I have been visiting some Iranian dairy companies where Danish companies export ingredients and machinery. And they are telling me that they are exporting to Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkmenistan and so many other countries. And I believe with these Danish equipment, productivity can increase and with some Danish ingredients, quality can increase. And it will be to the benefit of Iran if you have an even better cheese product to export to all the neighboring countries.
Over the past few days, Iran’s Mahan Airlines launched direct flights between Tehran and Copenhagen. What other measures can be thought of to further ease the comings and goings of the two countries’ citizens?
What we have done is to open a visa application center. So if people want to go to Denmark, we have made it easier for them to apply for a visa. They go to the visa application center; hand over their application; when all the documents and the visa application are checked, then it comes to the embassy, and the purpose is to make it easier for Iranians to come to Denmark for a visit.
How are banking collaborations between the two countries?
As we can see from the meetings and here, on a daily basis, there are still problems when it comes to international banking relations. I will say the biggest bank in Denmark has opened up for transaction with Iran. So the bank has agreements with many Iranian banks and businesses can work together between Denmark and Iran.
Is the banking networks of the two countries connected to each other?
This particular bank is cooperating with 10 Iranian banks. So it is possible. If you ask Iranians to work with these banks, and I have account in this Danish bank, it is possible now to do business between the two countries. But I am sure we all would have liked to have further developed banking relations, but we also have to remember we are talking only some months since the lifting of sanctions. And some of the banks have not done all the research yet. It takes time, and I am quite convinced that at the end of the year, we will see a much better picture than what we are seeing today.
Would you mention the name of the bank?
Can people freely interact with Danish banks now that the banks are connected?
No, there has to be a business contract.
What principles and key potentials form the most significant economic topics between the two countries?
Denmark has a very diverse economy like Iran. So there are several fields of economic cooperation in which I see very good opportunities for both Denmark and Iran. Just to mention a few areas, oil and gas are an obvious area for cooperation. Another area is water and we all know there is not enough water in Iran. We need to look at ways of using the limited resources in a more efficient way. In Denmark, it rains all the time, and we have plenty of water. Even with all the water, we developed very good technology for using it in the most efficient way. We already talked about renewable energy, and I think it is a very important area when it comes to economic cooperation. Food production is another area we talked about before. Machinery, equipment and ingredients are good areas for cooperation. But if you look at our trade statistics, actually, the area where we have the highest amount of trade is in pharmaceuticals and 54% of Danish exports to Iran is pharmaceuticals. And just to rest the case of Novo Nordisk, I should say that company is investing $80mn in Iran, which is the company’s belief in the future of working with Iran.
Is there a detailed plan for cooperation in the field of renewable energies between the two countries?
There is no plan as such. There is no written plan between the two countries. In Denmark, we have so much expertise when it comes to renewable energies. And I know that several Danish companies are already in negotiations with Iranian companies and government about renewable energy. I think the decision of the Iranian government to focus on renewable energy is very wise, because it is good for the environment. I have been in Iran now for one year, and in winter time, you cannot see the mountains because of pollution. It is very sad for everybody. So for the environment, I think it is a very good idea. It is also good for the economy, because if Iran can generate energy from renewable energy sources, like wind power, then it would not have to use its gas and, in some cases, oil to produce energy. You can export it to the outside world, and generate more income for the country. So I think from all aspects, it is a very good decision to focus on.
What about the mining sector? Is there any cooperation?
We have a big Danish company in the mining sector that does business in Iran. It is a very important sector when it comes to Iran. I was in Zanjan six months ago and South Khorasan one month ago, and I can see that mining is a very big business in Iran. We have some Danish companies who, I believe, will be able to supply some technologies to Iranian mining companies, which means Iran can produce more and export more.