An interview with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited several countries in the Middle East last week. In this interview he discusses the Iranian nuclear problem, the war in Lebanon and peacekeeping, Russia’s contacts with Hezbollah and Hamas, and the role of Syria.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has suddenly declared support for the Road Map peace plan and the possibility of meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. That is what Russia was persuading Israel to do. Moscow is also counting on a peaceful resolution to the growing crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who has just returned from a visit to the Middle East, discusses these issues here.

Question: You have hinted recently that someone who is pushing for international sanctions against Iran is actually pursuing other goals besides preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Why not say it straight out: the Americans are seeking regime change in Iran.

Sergei Lavrov: First of all, I never said it’s the Americans. Secondly, I didn’t say that regime change is the goal. As in any other tense situation, each side has both proponents and opponents of a non-confrontational solution. Some are exacerbating the confrontation in their own interests. I can’t see any other explanation for calls for immediate full-format sanctions against Iran. And that’s no joke – it is happening. What would we achieve by imposing sanctions? Doing so would only drive both Iran and the UN Security Council into a corner. Though sanctions certainly are part of the international community’s arsenal. The UN Security Council’s resolution on Iran says as much.

But when, and how, should this instrument be used? Iran responded in August to the six-country proposal. Although this response can’t be described as entirely satisfactory, it still preserves the opportunity to continue dialogue which would make it possible to start negotiations based on the six-country proposals. These negotiations should be conducted on terms that leave the international community with no suspicions about Tehran’s goals. The six countries called on the Iranians to freeze their uranium enrichment activities, and we believe that some additional effort in working with Iran will enable such an agreement to be reached. The hope is still there.

But Tehran’s actions should also include fewer abrupt moves. We believe that Iran has no interest in creating a situation where it would be isolated. The Iranians have to understand that agreeing to negotiate is in their basic long-term interests. Unfortunately, the reactions of our Iranian colleagues don’t always seem appropriate to the efforts made by Russia and other countries.

Question: So, in other words, you believe that Iran is aiming to resolve the problem through negotiation? But doesn’t it seem to you that we’re dealing with something irrational in Iran?

Sergei Lavrov: Irrationality is frequently encountered in present-day international affairs. It would be more productive if Iran responded more constructively to proposals made by Russia and other countries in the group of six. But it’s also irrational to talk to Iran in the language of ultimatums. This is an ancient civilization – a proud people. And we ought to think of the people, not any personal sympathies or antipathies.

Question: All the same, Russia used to talk less of using sanctions – but in the past few days it has said that it doesn’t rule out supporting sanctions if Iran doesn’t change its behavior. How would you explain these changes?

Sergei Lavrov: These aren’t changes. The very same UN Security Council resolution, passed in late July, calls on Iran to respond to the six-country proposals and includes a provision regarding the possibility of considering measures consistent with Article 41 of the UN Charter – but only if efforts to resume negotiations make no progress. Article 41 entails economic measures, unambiguously ruling out the use of force.

Question: In contrast to Article 42, which does entail the use of force – and which US representative John Bolton insists on applying.

Sergei Lavrov: I’m not going to comment on the statements of US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton. They’re fairly harsh, adding even more irrationality to a situation which has plenty of it already.

Question: But unless there is some progress from the Iranians, Russia simply wouldn’t be able to use its veto if the UN Security Council votes on sanctions against Iran.

Sergei Lavrov: We always retain our veto rights. Like any weapon, it should be used with great caution. Like any weapon, veto power is most effective when it remains unused, but everyone knows it’s there. The UN Security Council allows for the possibility of using economic measures – that is, sanctions. But that doesn’t mean anyone is fully committed to doing so. We shall be guided in our choice of methods by the actual circumstances, and our partners are well aware of this – we have a firm agreement with them.

Question: So Russia will be guided by the situation surrounding Iran’s nuclear dossier. What do you mean by that?

Sergei Lavrov: The extent to which there’s a real threat to peace and security. And whether there is such a threat at all. The extent to which the professional efforts – continuing, despite everything – of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors in Iran can fill the gaps in the international community’s knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program over more than 20 years. And the extent to which selected actions bring us closer to our common goal: preventing any violation of the nuclear weapons non-proliferation regimen.

Question: If things go that far, would it be possible to develop a milder version of sanctions? In a form that permits Russia to continue building Iran’s nuclear power plant at Bushehr?

Sergei Lavrov: Anything is possible. Sanctions are possible, and so are breakthroughs in negotiations. I repeat: the only common goal that unites us all is to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran has stated repeatedly that it is not aiming to do so. We want proof that this is the case. This is necessary because previous governments of Iran were engaged in secret nuclear activities over the past 20 years, and the IAEA didn’t know about it.

Construction at Bushehr is continuing, in line with IAEA requirements. And although the requirements didn’t specify it, Russia has insisted on Iran signing an official protocol on returning Bushehr’s spent nuclear fuel to us, once the power plant starts operating. This is an additional guarantee for observance of the nuclear non-proliferation regimen. With full transparency, this cooperation is exemplary from the standpoint of how countries can work together in developing nuclear energy. Let’s not forget – although some of our partners do forget this, for some reason – that the quality of our cooperation in Bushehr is a very important anchor that holds Iran within the framework of observing the non-proliferation regimen. Besides being a commercial enterprise, the Bushehr nuclear power plant also has political significance.

Question: Have you familiarized yourself with Iran’s response to the six-country proposals?

Sergei Lavrov: Of course.

Question: Russia has some questions about that response. What are they?

Sergei Lavrov: Iran, the author of this document, regards it as confidential. So work on considering certain provisions in it is also confidential, and I simply don’t have the right to reveal this.

Question: But the Iranians made a fool of Moscow from autumn of 2005 onwards, on the question of establishing a joint venture to enrich uranium on Russian territory. Isn’t that enough to disillusion us about Tehran’s position?

Sergei Lavrov: I wouldn’t describe it as “making a fool” of Russia, since they said right from the start that our proposal would be considered as a supplment to their own activities in this area, not a replacement. Their answer was understandable, if unsatisfactory for us, since it maintained the uncertainty which still hasn’t been overcome.

Question: The Israelis maintain that Iran could have nuclear weapons within a couple of years. Others say five years. What kind of information does Moscow have on that? When might Tehran have a nuclear bomb?

Sergei Lavrov: Some have even said two months. This is based on assumptions about Iran’s current level of uranium enrichment activities. And these assumptions sometimes include the uncorroborated theory that the Iranians are doing all this for the purpose of establishing a military nuclear program. All substantial countries make predictions, of course. And I’m not trying to lull anyone’s vigilance, but when you are faced with panicky forecasts, it’s best to remember patience, which enables situations to be resolved by means of negotiations.

Question: The topic of Iran is connected with the war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah in July and August. Some say that Tehran was behind Hezbollah’s attack on an Israeli patrol – with the aim of distracting the international community from the Iranian nuclear problem. Do you agree with this version of events?

Sergei Lavrov: There are numerous theories floating around, with regard to who stands behind whom in the Middle East and far beyond its borders. It’s inadvisable to accept such theories on faith, immediately, becoming a hostage to them. But everything in the Middle East is so interwoven that those in any capital who make a decision to use force must understand all these interrelationships. The speculations you mentioned can’t be ignored, if only because they shape the opinions of some politicians, as well as public opinion. But there is increasing support for taking an integrated view of all these events. This process might be called an international conference, or something else, but the important thing is that the positions of all sides should be taken into account.

Question: But the Israelis have already rejected the idea of an international conference on the Middle East. So what’s the point of convening one?

Sergei Lavrov: They only said they don’t support the idea of an international conference as a one-off event that attempts to solve all problems at once. But they agree with us entirely that Mideast peace will be established only when all the problems are resolved – the Palestinian problem, the Lebanese problem, and the Syrian problem. And that requires taking all existing interconnections into account. So everyone involved has to be included in the discussion. This could be done under the auspices of the United Nations or someone else. But it’s by no means useless to hold a gathering for everyone who influences events in the Middle East, directly or indirectly. The Israelis acknowledge that only comprehensive regulation will put an end to the conflicts. And this will be discussed at the UN General Assembly session in New York this month.

Question: Do the Israelis really acknowledge that?

Sergei Lavrov: The Israelis have their own ideas about how to move toward it. They prefer to move step-by-step, giving priority to the Palestinian question. But I’ve just been assured by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that they attach great significance to normalizing the situation in Israeli-Syrian relations. Yes, this would require steps to be taken on both sides, but the fact is that the Israelis acknowledge the need for this and are prepared to work on a solution. And regulation in Lebanon is also impossible in isolation from the other problems. But Russia will take a flexible postion, since no conference is possible without agreement from all sides.

Question: Especially Israel’s agreement.

Sergei Lavrov: Definitely, Israel’s as well.

Question: All the same, in the past Israel has managed to resolve problems with its neighbors step-by-step and separately. It signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994.

Sergei Lavrov: The Palestinian refugee problem is more acute in Lebanon. This is recognized by all as one of the key problems – along with the fate of Jerusalem and final border demarcation. This is reflected in UN Security Council decisions and in the Road Map peace plan. For example, some of the people I spoke with in Israel recently hinted that Israel and Lebanon would be able to sign a peace treaty as soon as the dispute over the Shebaa Farms territory is resolved.

Yes, the problem of those heights does need to be resolved. Proposals regarding this are already being prepared by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1701 on Lebanon. The Israelis are now telling us: let Syria and Lebanon decide who owns those territories, and then we’ll negotiate with one side or the other to decide when to transfer control of the heights, and to whom. Then, according to the Israelis, at least one problem will have been solved – the Lebanese problem – and this direction will be completely covered.

But the Lebanese told us that no, this direction won’t be completely covered until there’s a solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees, some of whom are living in Lebanon. And Lebanon will be the last Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora spoke to us about this. Meanwhile, the Palestinians maintain that the problem of Palestinian refugees should not be discussed separately – it should be discussed in the context of establishing a Palestinian state. There are many such examples.

Question: Unlike the United States and Israel, Russia does not consider Hezbollah or Hamas to be terrorist organizations. Some Hamas leaders were even received in Moscow earlier this year. After this, why can’t Russia say to them: guys, release the Israeli soldiers, holding them hostage leads to problems. Russia maintains unique relations with these groups – so why doesn’t it use its influence and put some pressure on them?

Sergei Lavrov: The issue of hostages and prisoners is very sensitive, and I don’t wish to go into details. But efforts are being made, and I hope they will produce results. Russia isn’t alone in not classifying Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations – the same view is held by the United Nations and many other countries, including some Western countries. We hope that Hamas will become a political force that will work to unite Palestinians and move toward peace. We didn’t restrict ourselves to inviting Hamas leaders to Moscow in spring – we are continuing to work with them.

Moreover, we are actively supporting the initiative of Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian national administration, to form a national unity government. He shared this idea with President Putin at their May 15 meeting in Sochi, and President Putin considered it a wise idea. Palestinian unity is extremely important for pacifying the situation.

Question: Some Palestinians from Mahmoud Abbas’s team told me that Hamas was invited to Moscow prematurely. They said it would have been better to force Hamas to change its stance on peace talks with Israel, before inviting it to Moscow. That would have been a victory for Russian diplomacy. So were we too hasty?

Sergei Lavrov: If the criteria for any diplomatic activity is the ability to demonstrate success to the public, that’s one school of diplomacy. But actually, success can be achieved in various ways. At the time, we were sure that Hamas, having won an election in January and formed a government, must recognize its responsibility. Hamas had become a legitimate force, and contacts with it should no longer be confined to whispers in hallways. It would have been egotistical of us to tell Hamas: first you reverse your position and give us a diplomatic success, and then we’ll talk to you. We don’t get involved in international efforts for the sake of making an impression. We’re sincerely interested in results. Inviting Hamas to Moscow was very important, so that Hamas leaders would be made aware of our position directly, not through underground contacts.

Question: So why not invite the leader of Hezbollah to Moscow?

Sergei Lavrov: Hezbollah is a separate organization, a legitimate Lebanese organization, now cooperating with the international community in the cause of implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1701. At this stage, Hezbollah is showing restraint, and there’s no evidence that it will breach the Resolution. We do have contacts with Hezbollah, but their level and location are decided depending on circumstances.

Question: So at this stage we’re not planning to invite Sheikh Hassan Nasrullah to Moscow?

Sergei Lavrov: No.

Question: I’ve recently spoken to Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who said that Syriais blocking negotiations on freeing two Israeli soldiers in Lebanon and one in Palestine. According to Peres, the Israeli government is counting on Moscow to put some pressure on Damascus. Is Russia exerting such pressure?

Sergei Lavrov: I have already attempted to draw a distinction between actions aimed at producing an immediate political effect and actions which may take more time, but eventually produce a reliable result. They might have a polticial effect, but the main goal is the result, not the effect.

Question: Understood. But does Moscow support the idea of establishing an international tribunal to try those suspected of assassinating former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005? This could also affect Syria, after all.

Sergei Lavrov: Syria is already affected by the actions of the international commission investigating that murder. The international investigators – and the Syrians are cooperating with them – visited Damascus recently. We are in favor of continuing this cooperation. The truth must be established. President Bashar al-Assad has assured President Vladimir Putin that he’ll make every effort to ensure that Syrians cooperate fully with the investigation. And this promise is being kept, although this isn’t often mentioned, for some reason. Another example of good news not making the news at all.

As for a tribunal, especially regarding proposals to extend its mandate to consider the murder of not only Rafiq Hariri, but other political murders in Lebanon, I wouldn’t be too hasty about that. We need to wait for the next report from the head of the international commission, and see what it contains. Of course, political assassination is unacceptable.

Question: Why is Russia so determined to avoid participating in the peacekeeping operation in Lebanon?

Sergei Lavrov: By no means all countries are taking part in the peacekeeping operation. And Russia is already involved in the UN Provisional Forces in Lebanon – represented by military observers, not a military contingent. Russia is not avoiding this. Still less are we avoiding Lebanon or the Middle East. At this stage, we have studied Lebanon’s needs – over 70 bridges there were destroyed during the war – and our assistance in the form of engineering troops for rebuilding bridges is no less necessary. We have no need to prove anything to anyone. Everyone in the Middle East knows that Russia is working for peace.

Question: In Damascus, you met with President Bashar Al-Assad. Does Syria’s young president understand the degree of the danger that threatens his country – starting with international sanctions, and so on?

Sergei Lavrov: Syria is a key player in the region, and a long-standing partner of ours. President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian government, and the Syrian Foreign Ministry are aiming to help resolve the region’s problems. The entire Middle East region has inherited a very difficult legacy – this applies to Syria, Israel, Lebanon, and the Palestinians. When new leaders come to power, this should not be perceived in an idealistic pastoral light – a new person comes in, and suddenly everything’s supposed to be perfect. The change of generations is a complicated, painful process, and abrupt movements can often be harmful. We believe that the Syrian leadership is moving in a direction that will lead to peace. But during the war in Lebanon, there was a real threat that both Syria and the Palestinians could be drawn into that war.

Question: Was it a real threat?

Sergei Lavrov: Yes. And the fact that it didn’t happen says a great deal. Restraint was exercised. I know for a fact that both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas were categorically opposed to the war. And it also helped that Israel, for all the ambiguity of the military operation, took measures to ensure that air-strikes did not hit Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The consequences of any such strike could have been unpredictable. We were on the brink of a very serious conflict, which would have made the war in Lebanon seem like – not a stroll in the park, perhaps, but a far less significant or acute event.

Question: The Israelis seem to have found some Russian-made weapons in Hezbollah arsenals they captured in Lebanon. Allegedly, it might have come from Syria. Is it true that you’ve agreed with the Israelis not to raise this issue in the media while the investigation is under way?

Sergei Lavrov: No, it’s just a working issue. Any partners will have questions for each other from time to time, since life is many-faceted. And publicity is a disadvantage in resolving these questions. Once again, we come back to teh question of what our goal is. Either to make a favorable impression on the public right now, or to ensure that no one can breach their obligations. We’ve chosen the second path, which entails calm and professional investigation of whatever questions arise.

Question: Is the evidence produced by the Israelis substantial?

Sergei Lavrov: We have chosen the second path.

Question: All right, let’s get back to the question that opened this interview. In responding to the question about whether the Americans might be seeking regime change in Iran, you moved away from the topic of the United States. But is any other country capable of enforcing regime change these days?

Sergei Lavrov: I cannot assert that the Americans are planning regime change in Iran. The Iranian people will sort out their own country. The proud and ancient people of Iran, creators of a great civilization, deserve to be equal partners with all other countries of the region in solving the problems of the Middle East. Actually, the six-country proposal addresses this. Iran was promised that integrated regulation, developing from resolution of the nuclear problem, would include enabling Iran to take its worthy and rightful place in discussing regional affairs. This takes up only one line in the proposals, with economic and nuclear issues being specified in more detail. But in political and psychological terms, pursuing this idea of involving Iran in regional affairs as an equal partner could be much more effective than any economic promises.