HE Dr M Stigelbauer, PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies, the Austrian Ambassador to Tehran
HE Dr M Stigelbauer, PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies, the Austrian Ambassador to Tehran
Cultural Relations with Austria

Cultural Relations with Austria

Interview with HE the Austrian Ambassador

KM- Excellency, may I begin the interview by asking you a personal question? I understand you are a scholar in Islamic studies and that you speak Arabic, Persian and Turkish.

His Excellency- My Arabic is good; my Persian, unfortunately, is very bad, but I can make myself understood; and I don't speak Turkish at all.
As to my studies, I have a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies. The Persian language is a great hobby and I am learning it from a private teacher. Today, I can express more or less all I wish, but I am not fluent.

KM- What exactly was it that attracted you to this field of study?

HE- In Austria we have a history of Islamic studies going back quite a few centuries. We became interested in Islamic studies because we shared borders with the Ottoman Empire. We were in fact often at war with the Ottomans. The first Austrian institution for the study of the Islamic languages, Turkish, Arabic, and Persian, the Imperial Oriental Academy, was actually established in 1752. This was an institution to train diplomats for the Middle East and the successor of this institution now is called the Vienna Diplomatic Academy. Today, we no longer teach Islamic studies and languages there, because the scope of our diplomatic relations has expanded to embrace the whole world. But in the 18th century the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, Persia as Iran was then called, and North Africa made up the focus of Austria's diplomatic attention, because Austria was a neighbor of the Ottoman Empire and there were frequent wars between the two countries and so it was necessary for the Austrians to know their neighbor and enemy quite well in order to have a good understanding of this very important country and be able to establish relations with it.

KM- My next question is going to be somewhat political, contrary to the normal policy of Events magazine, which is more of a cultural nature. The question is this: as you obviously know, at the moment Iran is going through critical times with all this talk about nuclear energy and so on. What do you think that Iran should do in these circumstances? What course of action should it take vis-à-vis the European Union?

HE- Iran is of great importance to the European countries and they wish to continue favorable relations with it. There are several options open to Iran, several courses of action to follow with respect to the EU as regards negotiations, and Iran has been acting wisely and there is great hope that eventually these negotiations will be successful. There are negotiations going on about economic relations, political matters, and human rights. But there are some outstanding issues in the area of nuclear energy activities which will hopefully soon be resolved. The main thing is that people are talking, negotiating, and trying to settle matters, and so soon there should emerge some favorable and mutually acceptable solution.

KM- I understand that Austria will hold the rotary presidency of the EU in the first half of 2006. What do you think Austria intends to do with respect to Iran, during its presidency?

HE- I cannot truly give you any details at the moment as I am not yet in a position to do so. But I can tell you that among all the EU countries Austria has always cherished its relations with Iran. You may remember that under our first EU presidency, in the second half of 1998, we reestablished, as the EU presidency, the dialogue between the EU and Iran. At that time I was in Vienna working at our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, acting as the Deputy Director for the Middle East and African Affairs. We played a significant role in reestablishing the dialogue and worked very hard towards this objective, and towards good relations with Iran. We had good relations with Iran during the Revolution, before it, and after it. In fact we never broke off our relations with your country. We remained friends at all times. As the European presidency in 2006, I am sure we will continue the same trend and policy and we shall as always continue advocating relations with Iran among all our EU partners.

KM- Excellency, I hear that you are very interested in cultural affairs and expanding relations between the two countries in this area. What do you think the two countries can do and what are they actually doing in this sphere?

Austrian historic sitesHE- I should point out here and now that the Austrian Embassy has one of the largest and most effective cultural sections in Iran among all EU countries, perhaps among all the countries that have embassies in Iran. In fact since the 1950s we have had a Cultural Section which is now known as the Austrian Cultural Forum and which has always provided full presentation of Austrian culture in Iran. We provide concerts, lectures, exhibitions, and we hold German language classes at various levels with 1600-2000 students. We have some excellent large-scale cultural programs in mind for the whole of EU to offer during our EU presidency: large-scale concerts, exhibitions, displays of museum items etc from one of the two countries in another.
Something else that is veryimportant is cooperation between Austrian and Iranian universities and higher education institutes. There are agreements between Tehran University and Vienna University, between Shiraz University and Graz University and we are trying to expand this network of cooperation. But Austrian universities have a high degree of independence and autonomy; so we confine ourselves to organizing direct negotiations and cooperations between Austrian and Iranian institutions. We don't dictate the exact manner of cooperation but we do our best to encourage such cooperations and I think we are quite successful.

KM- Don't you think there should be a lot more publicity about the cultural programs that you hold in Tehran, so that more people will know about them and participate in them and benefit from them.

HE- In Iran we have certain cultural and religious limitations. Firstly, our cultural programs have to go through certain official channels. As far as publicity is concerned we have to cooperate with the authorities and observe certain regulations. In a way, and to a high degree, it is up to the authorities how and when the cultural events should be held and previously publicized but we are trying our utmost to do as much advertising as possible and to cooperate increasingly with private entities and entertainment agencies that are interested in serious artistic work such as classical music, good plays etc, but private entities have limited means. For example, there are no important private museums in Iran. In any case, we are seriously following up our plans for cooperating with Iranian authorities to improve our cultural programs.

KM- Excellency, one thing is not quite clear to me. If you present a program, say a concert, with the approval of the Iranian authorities, then why should you face obstacles in publicizing and informing the public in good time?

HE- We always offer our programs here in conjunction with Iranian partners and it is largely up to them to advertise as much as necessary and to do this, the Iranian environment is very important.

KM- Finally, Your Excellency, I should like to ask you if you have a message for our nation as to how we should act, what measures we should take?

KlimtHE- This is a difficult question to answer as I do not like to interfere in other people's affairs, be it the Iranian nation or an Austrian friend of mine. All I can say is that Iran is a civilized country with a large number of educated people. The obvious advice I can give them is that Iran will be able to make good use of its human resources as well as its natural resources which are not confined to oil and gas. Your country is rich in many natural resources. I hope Iranians will be able in future to make still better use of their excellent potentials and vast resources.

KM- By the way, how do you find life in Iran and living with Iranians?

HE- I have spent most of my life in the Middle East but I find Iran and Iranians to be distinctly different from other Middle Eastern countries. Iranians are highly civilized; the people I deal with, for example, are very well educated. And it is very pleasant to live with Iranians who are very hospitable and most kind. My only regret is that my work does not allow me enough time to travel in the country as much as I would have liked to.

KM- Thank you very much, Excellency.

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