Following the lifting of visas for Iranian citizens who wish to visit Serbia, serious, practical steps were taken to improve the political and economic relations between the two countries and with the appointment of the Serbian Ambassador to Iran and his plentiful efforts to develop trade ties between Iran and Serbia, a new perspective is being drawn between the two countries. To learn of what has been specifically done in the bilateral relations between Tehran and Belgrade, we conducted an interview with the Serbian Ambassador to Iran that you may find below.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with
Dr. Dragan Todorovic, Ambassador of the Republic of Serbia to Iran
Interview by Mohammadreza Nazari
I would like to congratulate Your Honor on your appointment as Serbia’s Ambassador to Iran. Please explain to our readers where and when you started your diplomatic career?
Welcome to Serbian Embassy in Tehran and it is my pleasure to host you here. My position in Iran is great achievement for me. I am a diplomat and until now I have had some missions abroad and also I had some tasks at my Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was twice in Libya as diplomatic; first time from 1998 to 2002 and the second time from 2009 to 2014. Between Libya, I was in Damascus in Syria from 2004 to 2007 and from Syria, we covered also Jordan and Lebanon because in that time we didn’t have our embassies in these two countries. So we were in charge also for Lebanon and Jordan. I was in Saudi Arabia where I was sent to open our embassy, the embassy of Republic of Serbia in Saudi Arabia because we didn’t have diplomatic relations before. Now we have diplomatic relations and we have embassy in Saudi Arabia. Finally I came here to Iran and it is the first time I am working as an ambassador. I think the most important thing that I am in a friendly country; in a country which has very good relations with our country.
Considering your presence in Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, where does this country stand in Serbia’s foreign policy?
From before Serbia has good relation with not only Arab countries, Serbia has good relations with all countries in the Middle East. If we consider the Middle East as big Middle East from Morocco to Pakistan, we have good relations with all countries. We have no problem with any country.
Did events in Bosnia and Herzegovina affect your relations with the Muslim countries?
We didn’t have any problem because we always had very good relations with Bosnia-Herzegovina. We were in the same country; Yugoslavia. All problems in Bosnia-Herzegovina are problems in the frame of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was problem between people who live Bosnia-Herzegovina. So we have also a huge Muslim community in Serbia. All those have the same right like all others. We have ministers who are Muslims. We have ambassadors who are Muslims. We have very famous scientists who are Muslim. So we don’t have any problem with Muslims and we respect all religions. For example chairman of the mixed committee with Iran is our minister who is Muslim and also he is my friend. We don’t have any problem in our communications with all other countries in the Middle East because we don’t make any difference between people in our country. In our country all people have the same rights, absolutely the same rights.
In 2012, the EU imposed a number of sanctions against Iran and Serbia, with no membership in the Union, accepted and implemented them; an approach that stirred criticism even inside Serbia. Please explain a bit about what happened back then.
For us every country is the same and Iran was friendly country for us and Iran is still friendly country. Before the sanctions, during the sanctions and after these sanctions we pushed our relations to be much better, to be on a higher level. Even during the sanctions against Iran, not sanctions by European Union only, it was sanctions from the U.N. in New York. It was not a sanction by one country. But this was sanction from the U.N. We had very good trade exchange. We are very happy because today there is no sanctions against Iran and we are very happy because many other countries from the European Union came to Iran to trade with Iran, to make business with Iran and it means that Iran made a big step forward in its position. We fully respect Iran. We know your situation very well because we were also under the sanctions and we can understand all Iranian people who were also under the sanctions. So sanctions were not any obstacle for cooperation between our governments and between our countries. We had the exchange of visits even during the sanctions. It wasn’t any sanction from Serbia against Iran. Serbia is always against all sanctions. Serbia was under the sanctions, so Serbia is always against all sanctions against anybody.
Given your diplomatic background in Arab countries, how do you evaluate their vision and standpoints toward Iran?
We have good relations with all countries in the Middle East including the Persian Gulf countries. We fully support this announcement of the new Iranian government that good relations in the Persian Gulf and in the neighborhood is one of the priority of Iranian policy. We fully support all announcement that negotiations are the only way to resolve any problem. Of course we have good relations with all countries. I am ambassador in Iran. I wish our relations with Iran is the best one possible. So we don’t interfere in any relations between countries in the Middle East. We want to have good relations with all countries in the Persian Gulf regardless of relation between these countries.
In your opinion, what can help ease tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
We cannot comment on foreign relations of any country. We just have to say that we respect all countries. We have relations with all countries so we don’t want to comment on relations between countries in the Persian Gulf.
You have done considerable studies on Persian culture and literature. What did pique your interest in Persian language and literature?
I will tell you very frankly; Persian civilization and Persian culture, Iranian culture is very old and has a very long tradition and because of that even when I was a student of university I studied Persian culture. I studied Persian Literature. I also studied Persian language in the Iranian cultural center in Belgrade 24 years ago. So cultural relations between our two countries are very strong and has long tradition. Every year Iranian cultural center in Belgrade organizes Week of the Iranian Film in Belgrade. Very often some Iranian music groups visit Belgrade and other cities. For example I watched this year in March or April Naghmeh Group from Isfahan. Naghmeh Group was twice this year in Belgrade. Last year Iran was a special guest in Belgrade international Book Fair. Also many Iranian books are translated to the Serbian language and today we have our students studying Persian language in two universities in Belgrade. I think that our cultural ties are very strong. Our minister of culture this year was in Iran and on the basis of this visit and agreement between him and Iranian side, a group of Serbian journalists was some days ago goal in Tehran and Shiraz. They were received in the ministry of culture. They visited Parliament and many cultural places in Tehran and also many cultural places in Shiraz including the tomb of Hafiz. It means that both sides want to strength our cultural ties.
Which Iranian prominent cultural or historical figure is less known in Serbia?
All Iranian persons of are most welcome. In Serbia people know a lot about Iranian culture, about Hafiz, Ibn Sina, Rudaki. We have we have many books translated to our language. We have translated from Robaeeyat Omar Khayyam. We also translated some new books from your writers. We have translated a book from Dr Velayati. We have also translated books related to religious part f our cultural relations for example from Hussein Tabatabaee. It’s a very famous religious philosopher. We have many books translated from Persian to Serbia language.
There is fine exchange of culture, sports and politics between Iran and Serbia, but what are the potentials for developing economic ties between the two countries?
This is the most important question for the Iranian side and for our side because we have very good political, cultural and sport relations, but our economic relations much we can do. So we are now in the process of strengthening our economic relations. During all visits of this year, we talked about it and we made many deals and agreements to boost our economic relations. For example during the ceremonial procedure of the doctor Rouhani, our president of the parliament was here and she was received by Dr Rouhani and also by a Dr. Larijani. The most important part of their talks related to the economic relations. Also we expect this year to organize fifteen mix committee session in Belgrade. This is a very important thing for both sides. So we canceled the visa for Iranian citizens. This is also was a big step towards better economic relations. We hope that business people and companies from both countries can meet each other easier and we really expect that our economic relations will raise very soon and very quickly.
Banking relations between the two countries can effectively improve the level of economic ties. What executive approach is in practice to move behind the existing problems?
We already started resolving this problem and this problem is recognized by both sides. Even your side is ready to resolve this problem and the our side also. So soon we can expect a meeting between two central banks in order to resolve this problem. We are not the first who will do that. As we saw some days Chief of Central Bank of Croatia was here. Yesterday here it was President of the central bank of Brazil and he also had talks about this problem. So we already started resolving this problem because this is the biggest problem in the economic field from. From one our side, cancelled visa, from the other side we will resolve the banking process. Then there is no obstacle in boosting our economic relations.
How large is the trade volume between the two countries?
Last year we had almost 20 million Euros trade exchange. According to statistics from the first half of this year, this is almost ten million Euros. This is not enough and acceptable for you and us. There is a will from the both sides to increases this value.
Who is the trade balance favor of now? Iran or Serbia?
This is almost the same. Sometimes it is in favor of Iran and sometimes for Serbia.
What are the most exported items between Iran and Serbia?
We are Mostly agriculture country. We have very good agricultural production and products which we can send and trade are mainly from the agriculture. So From Iran side, Iran is oil and gas country and this is the best solution to see how to increase trading. Also Iran exports this kind of products to Serbia as Kilim, also some kind of the fruits like pistachio which are very famous Iranian products. So we also cooperate in the industry of production of the cars, railway like wagons. But this is not only the question of Trade exchange. This is common work here or in Serbia or in to go to third place. Both sides are ready for investments In Serbia and also our investment here. Also we expect that now the number of the tourists from the board will be increased. So we have many possibilities to Increase our economic relations. So this session of the mix Committee will be very important just to fix in which fields we can do much better.
We saw a while ago the lifting of visas on the part of the Serbian government to further ease touristic visits, whereas direct flights should also be established to witness the real effects of this decision. What measures have you thought of in this regard?
Charter Flights were the first step. Since last months, we had negotiations about direct flight from Tehran to Belgrade. I hope that until the end of this year, we will make agreement about this flight. This is very important for both sides. Because we also want to be some center in the Balkans from where Iranians can continue their trip to other European countries. So I’m really optimist in order to have direct flight between Tehran and Belgrade until the end of this year. We are negotiating about that and we are Almost to the good Results. So we had several meetings until now. Experts from air Flights had many meetings and they continue and we hope very soon everything will be done.
Which airline are you carrying out negotiations with?
From our side, it is Air Serbia and from your side, it is Iran Air.
Have you gotten into talks with other Iranian airlines?
According to the agreement, some other Iranian flight Agencies will be included. Price of flights is the decision or your agencies. Even we don’t see know how much is the expenses of traveling from Iran to Serbia. Iran Agencies decide about prices of flights. We all hope that prices of tickets will be will be lower for me it’s very good that I can buy ticket with a small quantity money.
You referred to the visits of the two countries’ delegations. Taking into account that Serbia’s President made an invitation to Mr. Rouhani to visit Serbia and he did the same for his Serbian counterpart, when will the first meeting between Presidents be held? Where?
This is very good question. You have to ask Dr. Rouhani and my president. They will tell you. For us is the most important that two presidents see each other. Your president is re-elected and our president is elected this year. Your president sent congratulation to my president and my president sent congratulation to your president. Both presidents are ready to receive another one. Two presidents we’ll decide who will come first.
Over the past few months, we saw Serbian officials visited Iran. What agreements did those visits bring about?
Arrival of a high level officials from my country for inauguration ceremony of Dr. Rouhani was a sign of friendship of our country toward Iran. This visit was to participate in this inauguration. It was 24 hours visit and talks were with very good results. This is not a visit for resolving some problem or to negotiate some concrete problem. It was a visit which means we are friendly country and we want to be here during the inauguration of your president because we respect Iran and Dr. Rouhani. But at the same time they made some agreements about our cooperation and you will see very soon what kind of agreements they had.
Dr. Zarif shall visit Serbia before the end of 2017. What will the agenda be on this visit?
We expect the visit of Dr Zarif to Belgrade until the end of this year and this visit is very important for us because Dr Zarif is personnel friend of my minister and my minister is waiting for Dr Zarif to host him. My minister of foreign affairs was here two years ago. And he Invited Dr Zarif officially to come to Serbia and we hope that Dr Zarif will have good agenda. We also hope that Many Iranians businessmen will go with Dr Zarif to Serbia. It will be good opportunity for negotiating about economic issues because Dr Zarif said that the economic diplomacy is one of the priority for the Iranian foreign policy.
Is it determined in which areas shall the negotiations be carried out?
First of all, we want to sign two MOU between two ministries of foreign affairs. We have one memorandum of understanding about cooperation between the ministers of foreign affairs and the second one is a Memorandum of Understanding between diplomatic academies of two ministers of foreign affairs. Therefore since the beginning of this year, we had two important visits from our ministry of Foreign affairs. In January our deputy for bilateral relations was here. After him political director of our Minister of Foreign Affairs was also here as a special envoy of our president and they had very good talks with Iranians diplomats here. This visit of Dr Zarif will be the top of this good relations between ministries. So we expect that not only this MOUs will be signed but also this visit means that our economic and trade relations will be much better after the visit of Dr. Zarif.
There are fine Serbian coaches working in Iran. What consultations have been conducted to promote sports ties between the two countries?
We signed last year a program of scientific, cultural and sport relations between two countries. It means that the both countries are interested in in sport relations. Now today we have two famous coaches in Iran. One is Igor Kolaković coach of your national team in volleyball and the second one is Mr. Alexander Ciric who is coach of your water polo national team. I talked to Mr. Čolaković some days ago and he will had your national team to Japan in a very important competition and Iran expects that could be between the first three countries in the competition. Every success of Iranian national team will be a good sign for boosting our sports cooperation.
Is there any negotiation to have a friendly match between Iranian and Serbian Football Federations?
This is a very good idea and I will propose to my side to do it as soon as possible. As we know Iranian national team will go to Russia World Cup and yesterday we succeeded in Ireland. It means that Serbia will also go the Russia World Cup. Thank you for this idea. I will propose a friendly match between the Iranian national team and the Serbian national team as soon as possible.
There is a section in tourism called medical tourism, which has quite a lot of potentials of cooperation. Have there been any negotiations between the two countries’ medical and health institutions?
It will be one of the topic in the mix Committee. Our Chairman of Mix committee proposed and announced that it will be one of the topic. We have many Iranians doctors who studied in Serbia. Some of them live now in Serbia. Some of them are here. They help us to finalize this deal and be sure that definitely it will be one of the question during the mix committee.
If there is anything left regarding the bilateral, we’d be glad to hear them.
I want to stress that our bilateral relations, especially political relations are very good. The both presidents want to see each other. We expect the visit of the Dr. Larijani until the end of this year because our president of the parliament who was here in the Ceremony of inauguration and was here two years ago. Mr. Larijani is going now. I was in Parliament some days ago, talking to the parliamentarian group of friendship between Iran and Serbia. The delegation of the Iranian friendship group will very soon to Serbian parliament and also the president of the Committee for the foreign policy of the Serbian parliament will come very soon to Iran because he’s invited by Mr. Boroujerdi who visited Serbia in March. So in the frame of Parliament you can see that we have very very huge activities. Activities are also existing on the level the foreign ministries. We expect a visit of the Dr. Zarif. So we have some other visits. Our minister of culture was here now. I’m really happy because during only one month and one week, forty days, I had the many works here on the field of the bilateral relations and I can say that I must be very satisfied with all I saw in Iran. I saw that Iran is really friendly country for us and we are also friendly country for Iran and what is the most important: I saw very strong wish in the Iranian side and in my side that we must improve all kind of relations. There is no absolutely any obstacle. Also I want to thank all Iranian officials who really helped me a lot during my short stay. I really had the opportunity to give my copies to Dr Zarif after one week. I had Opportunity to give my credentials to Dr. Rouhani after only three weeks of my coming to Iran. This is my honest honor to be Iran as a representative of Serbia. I want to say finally that our trade exchange is much bigger than it is today. This is my main aim.