After two decades now, following the decision of the officials in Iran and Czech to promote the level of diplomatic ties, Mr. Čumba, resident in Iran since August, 2016 as the Czech Charge d’Affaires, was promoted and appointed as Ambassador to Tehran. A prominent diplomat, he played an outstanding role in resolving the hostage case in Lebanon and freed the abducted Czech citizens in the country, and is now working to draw a new perspective in economic and political ties between Prague and Tehran.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with
Mr. Svatopluk Čumba, Ambassador of Czech Republic to Iran
Interview by Mohammadreza Nazari
Mr. Ambassador, first and foremost, please tell us where you began your diplomatic career and what positions had you held before coming to Iran?
I entered the Foreign Ministry in 1994 after the separation of the Czech Republic with the Slovakia Republic when the Ministry was looking for diplomats, and after spending 2-3 years in Prague, my first posting was as a junior diplomat at our Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela. Afterwards, we spent missions in China, Nigeria and Madrid and then came Lebanon which was my first ambassador’s position and now we are here.
You played a role in resolving a hostage taking situation and as the news has it, you successfully did your part. Please explain about your positive, effective role in working out the problem.
So, one of the priorities of the diplomatic missions and a diplomat is to trying to assist or help the citizens in need. These challenges come from time to time. Maybe one of the most challenging issues I was facing during my mission in Lebanon was trying to assist a group of Czech citizens who were kidnapped for 7 months. They disappeared in Lebanon. But this is not a personal issue or personal effort. (When) this comes, the role of ambassador was like to contact the appropriate authorities and officials from our side with those who could help in Lebanon and trying to coordinate, things like that.
Hostage taking is a political and security matter and when an ambassador engages in solving it, he runs into various aspects of it. What memories do you have from those days that might interest our readers?
You can imagine it’s a sensitive issue, even after the resolution. What could be openly said is mainly that to succeed is a result of careful investigation of the police forces of the two sides, of the intelligence services, support on the part of the governments; sometimes a little bit of luck. What I can say is what everybody knows; after these months, the result was that the group was released.
Your Honor must have enjoyed fine administrative and bargaining qualities to have been able to act as a coordinator in this process.
My role, with support of the whole Embassy, was to coordinate. This whole issue was above all a great success of both Lebanese and Czech authorities working together to solve the issue; the crucial aspects were professionalism of investigators, police and security services of Lebanon and Czech Republic. My small role was to put them together and then, follow the issue with them till the happy ending.
Given your time in Lebanon, how do you evaluate Iran’s role in the developments of the Middle East?
It was really in Lebanon when I got aware of the importance of Iran for the development of the region. First, I was impressed when I saw the southern neighborhoods of Beirut that were destroyed during the 2006 war; how they were quickly rehabilitated with Iranian assistance; how grateful the inhabitants of this Shia part of Beirut were towards Iran. Then I spent five years in Lebanon, every day with the continuing crisis in Syria, and I got more and more aware of the importance of Iran. I think maybe also some other regional players had not been aware of its real extent before and only during the continuing conflict in Syria they have learned that Iran is an important player, too, who has its interests in the region and whom it is necessary to speak with.
Was that image positive or otherwise?
I also witnessed the terrorist attacks against your Embassy in Beirut and I went there to present condolences afterwards, visiting the place shortly after the explosions. That was also something that struck and assured me even more that we have the same targets to face: the terrorism is a threat both in the region and in the West or anywhere else. I hope more politicians are now aware of this. A sad story is, that your former ambassador to Lebanon, Mr. Roknabadi, whom I knew closely and who was not harmed in the terrorist attack against the Embassy, passed away not much later, after the tragic events in Mena.
We see how other countries affect the political arrangements in Lebanon. How do you view the developments of Lebanon’s political sphere?
You know Lebanon and esp. Beirut is the melting pot of all these foreign influences since many decades, and what I had learned from books before coming there I was really meeting afterwards; it was fascinating to see that it really is what you can see in the movies or books; you can see all these influences on this crossroad and for some reasons, Lebanese people are still able to cope with this and survive things other nations maybe couldn’t do with. It was very interesting and a very enriching experience for a diplomat. I learned that Lebanon is a fountain of tolerance; you can be Sunni, Shia or Christian. They have no problem. They can cohabitate. This was an incredible experience to see the Lebanese hospitality and friendliness. But also the Iranian hospitality that we are experiencing here is something we were not used to before.
How long did it take from when you were appointed as the Ambassador of the Czech Republic to Iran to when you put forward your credentials? What was your priority up to point of promoting ties to the level of ambassador?
So after my arrival last year, I had to follow two main directions; one was to continue supporting progress of economic relations; supporting the delegations coming to Iran to use these new opportunities, situation and opening of Iran and coming back to the place in the international trade that Iran deserves. The other thing was trying to continue helping, easing and smoothing the official contacts with the aim to exchange again the ambassadors, both Iran’s to Prague and Czech to Tehran, as the two Foreign Ministers had agreed. You may know that following the previous visit of our Foreign Ministr Zaoralek to Tehran also your Minister Zarif visited Prague. I was privileged to accompany him there.
It was announced in Iran in November that the level of diplomatic ties was promoted to ambassadors and Ambassadors shall begin their work shortly.
Let me explain the process a little bit. I arrived in Iran in August, 2016 as Charge d’affaires and that means officially there was no ambassador heading the Embassy. I was ambassador by-carrier but not recognized by the other side; the same with your ambassador in Prague. What was announced by the two Ministers was the decision of the two sides to exchange fully fledged ambassadors. This is a process that culminated with granting the agreement to the proposed ambassadors to Iran and Czech Republic. It was only then when the level was really raised.
How much was the location of the Farsi office of Radio Free Europe in Prague barring the promotion of diplomatic ties between Iran and the Czech Republic?
Of course, we understand that this was a sensitive issue for the Iranian government and fortunately, the two sides found a formula on how to deal with this.
Can you explain about the content of this agreement if it is not confidential?
I prefer to keep it the way I already said. And I truly believe that it is for the benefit of the two sides that this issue is not any more a burden conditioning the bilateral relations.
How much can the strengthening of diplomatic relations between the two countries affect the increase of their bilateral ties?
Exchanging Ambassadors between two countries means that the two sides are ready to develop relations in many fields, not just diplomatic or political. This is a confirmation that the two sides are ready to sit as partners together at the table and discuss issues of common interests; even the issues where the positions are not the same; respecting the partner and discussing openly what is important for one or both of them.
What changes have been applied to the ties between Iran and Czech after the JCPOA was signed?
Of course, this issue of signing the JCPOA was a crucial point. But I have to say that the bilateral relations started to move even before this. One sign of this is that right when the JCPOA was being signed, our Foreign Minister was in Iran at that moment. Since then, Czech political and business delegations are coming came here and many Iranian delegations went to Prague.
What perspective have you depicted for increasing the trade and economic relations between the two countries in 2017?
The preliminary data show the steep rise is continuing (since) last year. It was like 50-60% more than the previous year. Now this trend is continuing. It’s not like a jump to other level, as many people expected, both here and abroad. You are aware of the continuing restrictions, esp. from banking sectors that are limiting the quicker rise. But I should say it’s growing steadily and the trend is positive.
One of the important aspects of promoting the economic horizon between the two countries is holding joint economic sessions/commissions. When will the next session be held and what is its agenda?
This idea of joint economic forums or mixed economic commissions is related to an agreement signed between Iran and Czech Republic on economic cooperation. Last December, there was a big Iranian delegation in Prague taking part in this joint economic commission. Afterwards, several specialized working groups were established for sectors of energy and mining and agriculture being formed now. We hope that either at the end of this year or beginning of the next year, there should be a second meeting of this joint committee. It is always a great impulse to further developing the business ties between the two sides.
Which Iranian products have the highest export rates to Czech? Have the variety and export of these commodities increased?
Ok, so the main part of the Iranian export to the Czech Republic is still dried fruits and nuts. Then there are some electrical appliances, according to the statistics, and Iranian carpets.
To enhance economic ties between the two countries, banking systems should have consistent, systematic cooperation. What are the existing problems in this area and how can they be resolved?
True. (In) banking relations, there are two issues; one is allowing transfers of a person and the second is supporting businesses and investment opportunities. I would say there must be or should be efforts to solve the issue on the two sides; on the side of the western banks, I can see some of them are still lacking courage. Maybe the pressure on them could be also a matter, and then, they need to be a little bit encouraged by the governments of the two sides. And I think this will come with other business opportunities. On the side of the Iranian banking sector, there is a need for some reforms and transformation. We are ready to assist with this and share our experience from the 90s – after the changes in our country, we had to transform dramatically not only our banking system but also the whole economy. We have already offered to share our experience with your side.
What is your priority in developing transportation between the two countries?
During the past two years, we have witnessed dramatic increase of interests of Iranians’ travelling to the Czech Republic. With this came also the interest of companies to establish direct flights between Tehran and Prague. So far, the limitation was the capacity of the visa section of the Embassy. Although we increased the number of our consular officials and we are issuing several times more visas than two years ago, it is not sufficient. The solution we see in outsourcing the visa processing system. Within few weeks, we should start cooperation with already selected partner and, afterwards, the capacity will be multiplied. Then, the vision is that either Iranian or Czech Company will establish at first chartered flights during the touristic seasons and afterwards, the natural step would be the opening of regular direct flights.
Is that clear how many Iranian tourists have chosen Czech as their first destination/
I think this year, it’ll be at around 5 or 6 thousand. It would be four times more than two years ago.
How many Czech citizens came to Iran for touristic purposes last year?
I don’t possess this information. I don’t know.
Considering that the visa issuance is carried out within the Schengen framework, we can’t possibly look for easing the visa issuance process between the two countries. We hope that through their negotiations with the Schengen officials, Iranian authorities can further ease the going and coming of the two countries’ citizens.
In fact, I don’t see the main problem being the process of issuing the Schengen visas. The process itself takes some 10-12 days. It is not dramatic. The real problem the Iranians are facing when trying to apply for visas is the long waiting time for visa appointment to bring the application, especially before and during the high seasons. The capacity problem is the same at most other European Embassies in Tehran and we are all struggling to solve it.
At the end of 2016, Iran’s Foreign Minister met with Czech Officials on his trip to the Czech Republic, and a number of agreements were signed to boost economic cooperation. Can you explain about these negotiations?
The Foreign Minister’s visit is directly related to the agreement on cooperation between the two Foreign Ministries. The Ministries agreed to hold regular consultations on the level of vice ministers. Actually we are preparing a next round of this. Institute of international relations of the Czech Foreign Ministry and IPIS (Institute for Political and International Studies of your Foreign Ministry) also signed an agreement. Just after your FM’s visit, Minister of Economy, Tayebnia was there. We have now signed all basic economic agreements, only the agreement for promoting and protecting investments awaits for being signed within few weeks.
Is there any specific plan for the visits of Czech Officials to Iran in 2017?
You know 2017 was or still is a little bit complicated on the two sides. In the first part, you hold the presidential election. In October, we celebrate parliamentary election in Czech. So it was maybe more complicated to bring Ministers and other high officials here and there. Vice Ministers are going, of course. There is open invitation for our Foreign and also Prime Minister to come to Iran. Also your Speaker of the Parliament, Mr. Larijani, has a pending invitation to Prague and we hope to be also able to prepare his visit soon.
What plans does the Czech Embassy in Tehran have to elevate cultural relations between the two countries?
Last year, there was a series of cultural events presenting Czech music in Tehran. Then we had exhibition of photographs from the Czech Republic in Niavaran Cultural Center made by Iranian photograph. Actually, we are preparing concerts of traditional music in November here and also an exhibition of modern graphics.
Such concerts have been held in a commercial manner with tickets sold for them which is not considered a positive step. How do you see this?
I can assure you that (in) the concerts we are preparing in November, we have no intention of getting any profits from them. I don’t know yet if we will be able to prepare them only here or also in other cities – we are thinking about Esfahan or Tabriz. But if we will be selling tickets, our intention is to give all earning to the charity. The whole project is being prepared like this. Artists are not expecting to get rich after their concerts here, because they are just interested in presenting our culture here in Iran.
We saw you visit Lorestan to assess the potentials of economic and cultural collaborations. Please tell us about what was achieved on that trip.
This is interesting. Always, the idea of going to the region is to try to find partners who match together. We already made these exploratory missions to several other regions. When we visited Lorestan, I found out that it is a touristic, attractive place. I was impressed by the beautiful mountains, waterfalls, industry of fish production, it has strong agricultural sector. We found out that the region is very similar to and compatible with what we have in South Bohemia. Moreover, the two sides are willing to find new partners. Business people from these communities have something in common. They can exchange experience. There is an agricultural university in the capital of South Bohemia and the same is in Khoramabad.
What province will you visit in the future?
Now we are thinking at the Embassy of Hamadan and Markazi.
Have you made any specific plan for Czech businessmen to meet and consult with their Iranian counterparts?
Arak and Hamadan were for our exploration mission from the Embassy. But we are also preparing some business missions. At the beginning of October, we will have a group of people coming here for an international fair. Delegation of Czech Chamber of Commerce is intending to come to Mashhad. And with another two upcoming economic delegations we are going to Isfahan and Shiraz. We have also two Deputy Ministers from the Ministry of Industry and Trade coming with two separate delegations. So this is what we prepared for the immediate future.
What is your most important economic priority as the Ambassador of the Czech Republic to Iran?
Now we look closer on the sectors of wastewater treatment, water management and agriculture and of course, continuing supporting exchange in sectors of energy and transportation (urban transportation and railroad).
The Czech Government makes an annual contribution to Afghan refugees in Iran through the UNHCR. How big was this sum last year?
The area of humanitarian actions, support to refugees and people in need and support to human rights are since many years priorities of Czech foreign policy. You mentioned our support to UNHCR here in Iran is, but it’s also part of wider regional support to the activities of the UNHCR both in Iran and Pakistan to support and assist above all your and Pakistani people and governments to cope with this demanding issue. Last year, I believe the amount for the UNHCR office in Iran was five million crowns (300 thousand dollars). Just few days ago, the Czech FM confirmed the continuation of this support for the UNHCR office here but also the UNHCR in Pakistan.
Is there any supervision from the Czech Embassy on how the country’s donations to the UNHCR are allocated?
This kind of support is always project oriented. We always verify that our support is used for agreed purpose. Last donation served for rehabilitation of several school centers. I must say that we feel very deep dedication and professionalism from the part of the representatives and the Director of the UNHCR in Tehran.
When was your last field assessment carried out?
I was not in Iran at the time of the handing-over ceremony of the projects of the UNHCR we co-sponsored last time, my Deputy attended on my behalf. But there are other projects, of course. Last time I visited a center for rehabilitation of drugs depending persons here in Tehran. This non-governmental organization that we are regularly supporting has several thousand volunteers working in all the provinces.
Are Czech NGOs active in Iran in terms of providing reliefs?
As far as I am aware, no.
Do you have any plan in mind to bring the two countries’ NGOs closer together?
This is not being planned. The Ministry offers a project that it will finance and then it depends on the part of these organizations to show their interest. And even if not, there are still other ways to help those who need it here.
Do you have any additional explanation regarding the development of bilateral relations between the two countries now that the interview has come to an end?
I hope it will go as smoothly as it has gone so far. I also want to use this opportunity have to thank all Iranians I have met so far for their hospitality I am receiving here. In fact, it is so surprising for me that I’m even afraid of asking people on the street for ways to go somewhere, because it’s quite normal that they would accompany me to the place and I’m still not used to this. Thank you.