Africa, Syria & Iran: Vitaly Churkin Interview on Russia Today
Washington has a lot of influence on countries like Qatar, which is reportedly the main source of weapons and support for the Syrian rebels, so they are not absolved from responsibility, Russia’s ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin told RT.
With a civil war raging in Syria, French intervention in Mali, the risk of a military strike against Iran and the increased threat of Islamic terrorism in North Africa, the international community is faced with a series of complex challenges that offer no simple solutions.
Ambassador Churkin explained to RT why diplomacy is the only way out of the crises in Syria and Iran, why Mali was a legitimate intervention, and how the rush to unilateral, military action cripples efforts at legitimate, multilateral solutions.
RT: I’m very pleased to introduce Russia’s envoy to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin. Ambassador Churkin, thank you very much for making yourself available for this interview.
Vitaly Churkin: Thank you.
RT: Let me begin with Iran. Russia is about to sit down yet again for talks with five other world powers on Iran’s nuclear program. The negotiations are due at the end of February. The US Vice-President Joe Biden said that the US was ready for direct negotiations with Iran. Do you see it as a breakthrough, as a serious push for diplomacy on the part of Washington?
VC: Well, hopefully, and of course we are looking forward to the resumption of the talks of the six with Iran in Astana in late February. And we have always welcomed the possibility of direct contacts between the United States and Iran. Unfortunately, over the years there has been some back-and-forth: some positive statements on the one side were met by negative statements on the other side.
This time, I understand, there’s been a strong negative statement from a high level from Tehran which was saying that those talks were impossible. The Iranians are notoriously difficult negotiators, and of course the subject matter is very complex, so on each particular issue there are always very difficult discussions, and it is quite a challenge to make headway. But we believe that there has been some headway on the substance of those discussions, and we hope that there is a good point from which the negotiators can proceed with making some progress.
RT: Just speaking more generally, when talking about progress in relations with Russia, I heard many times members of the Obama administration say, “Well we’ve got Russia” – quote unquote – “on board – to put more pressure on Iran.” In what context, in what ways do you see Russia on board with the United States on Iran? Do you see points where Russia is on board with the US on Iran?
VC: Our American colleagues have an interesting way of describing the situation. They very often tend to talk, as you tried to quote them, in terms of the American positions and others coming over to those positions. This is not the case at all, this is not the way we see it. When we enter into some discussions with the United States and other partners in various situations we try to find a common position, so sometimes they move towards us, sometimes it’s a compromise where we have to come together midway, this is the way we find a compromise.
We’re prepared to continue working together within the format of the six, even though we make no secret of the fact that we think that some of the things which are being done by some members of the six are counterproductive because, in addition to Security Council sanctions, they piled up all sorts of unilateral sanctions, which we believe are not needed as a matter of principle. Because once we agree to work together, once we develop a certain system based on Security Council resolutions, to add anything on top of that is the wrong thing to do, and in our view this is creating some humanitarian problems in Iran which should not be there, and it’s creating some bad blood in the talks with Iran which is not really necessary.
RT: If the US and Israel, together or separately, were about to make the decision to strike Iran, is there anything that could stop them?
VC: I hope common sense and good reason will stop them because this would be the worst thing to do. First of all, the opportunities for a dialogue are there. Nobody, no member of the six, including the United States, maintains that the Iranians have already made the political decision to develop a nuclear weapon. They accept, they say, that as far as they know the Iranians have not yet made that decision. Since this decision has not yet been made – even according to them – then certainly there is room for diplomatic discussions, for diplomacy etc. etc.
A military strike would certainly make no further talks with Iran possible, so every opportunity for political discussions would be lost. I agree with those who believe that in fact that would give a great push to those in Iran – if that strike were to happen – who might be advocating building a nuclear bomb. So that would be an irrational dangerous step, to say nothing of the regional repercussions of the conflict with Iran because now we are facing instability in the region as one of the ‘standing on its own feet’ phenomenon. Until recently we were talking about common threats which we needed to face, like terrorism, international economic crisis. Now I would suggest a new common threat which we have to come to grips with and do something about it – it’s instability in a major region spreading from Mali and Libya in northwest Africa all the way to Iran.
RT: Speaking of Mali, how do you assess France’s military operation there?
VC: I believe the extremists of the north made a pretty bad miscalculation, they got carried away and they decided to make a military move to the south, heading towards the capital, Bamako. Then the government of Mali requested the French to send in the troops, and they did. And we understood; we had no objections, because in terms of international law it was a completely clear request of the government, because of a clear threat to its security and integrity of the country. So we supported that in our discussions in the Security Council.
Basically, everything that is happening – and now the African troops have moved in, too, in support of the French – is within the context of the resolution of the Security Council. We do have, let’s face it, sometimes quite acrimonious discussions in the Security Council, but this is not one of those situations. This is a situation where people understand the dangers, and also have a very frank exchange of views about what needs to be done in order to avoid finding ourselves, putting the United Nations in an overly precarious or dangerous situation.
RT: What effects did the Arab Spring have on the situation that is unfolding in Mali right now?
VC: One repercussion of the Arab Spring was the dramatic events in Libya. In the course of that crisis lots of weapons were brought into Libya, and there were lots of weapons as it is. But still, many more weapons were brought into Libya. During the recent hearings, which then-Secretary of State Clinton had in the House of Representatives, one of the congressmen said that they had information that Qatar “with a wink and nod from the United States”, as he put it, brought in 20,000 tons of weapons into Libya. And, you know, [with] 20,000 tons – you can arm a small terrorist army. And of course, this is exactly what happened.
In Mali, we definitely see a spillover of the Libyan crisis to a neighboring country. And most likely, the spillover has affected other places as well. For instance, it may well be – there are many indications to that effect – that the terrorist attack in Algeria close to the Libyan border also had some sort of Libyan connection in terms of people, maybe weapons, terrorists emanating from Libya participating in that attack.
RT: Did you say “at the wink of the United States”?
VC: This is his expression. And I think, “at the wink and nod of the United States”. In my understanding of English, it means some kind of encouragement, so the United States was aware of that. And, incidentally, he…
RT: (interrupts) I want to ask, actually, about Syria. The US now insists that their support for the Syrian opposition is non-lethal. Could it be that the allies of the United States are providing weapons “at the wink and nod of the United States”?
VC: Well, this is definitely the case. I mean, the United States chose to stay clean of the bad guys. At some point of the crisis they realized that things were going very wrong, that terrorist groups were coming in, the radical Islamists were active. And they were beginning to realize, maybe before some of our other Western colleagues, that things were making a very dangerous turn, and that the original scenario that they had in mind – that it will take just a couple of months to topple the Assad regime and then democracy will triumph – was completely unrealistic and had nothing to do with the actual situation on the ground. But the United States is an extremely powerful country, definitely with a lot of influence on, for example, such a country as Qatar, which is, reportedly, the main source of weapons and support for armed opposition.
If the United States wanted to be logical and really take a stand, it certainly could make it clear to those who supply weapons to the Syrian armed opposition groups. So the fact that they simply say that they themselves are not doing that does not really absolve them completely from responsibility of what is happening there in terms of the activity of armed opposition groups.
RT: You said that at some point US officials started to realize… I think that is a sense that a lot of people are getting. Because the Obama administration seems to be a lot more cautious talking about Syria now as opposed to a year ago, for example. They talk about how complex the situation is on the ground. So have you noticed that change?
VC: Yes, this is what I am saying. This change is clear, and this change is clear here in our informal discussions in the Security Council. Clearly, one could feel that their understanding of the situation has become much closer to our understanding of the complexity of what is going on there. So this is what I think makes it important to continue our dialogue in that format. But there is one disconcerting thing, among other things. There is a lot of talk about chemical weapons in Syria, which is a valid concern, and we have also talked very seriously with the Syrian government and they’ve given us all sorts of assurances that, as they put it, if there are chemical weapons in Syria they do not intend to use those weapons. But to our liking there is too much talk about that in a sort of a threatening context – that should something happen, then all sorts of things will be done. So sometimes it does give us an impression that somebody is looking for a pretext for a military intervention, to say nothing of the fact that this kind of narrative, we fear, might provide an incentive for the opposition to do something extremely dangerous with chemical weapons.
RT: What kind of interference, what kind of an international effort would Russia support?
VC: Now I think what Syria needs is more diplomatic support. We were the only ones who were trying to work both with the government and the opposition to bring them to the table, to try to form that transitional body, which is referred to in the Geneva document. Now our partners keep saying that the Geneva document is indeed the only rational document, point of departure, which is there on the table in order to try to arrange a political dialogue between the government and the opposition.
RT: Why were they reluctant then?
VC: I suppose they were still clinging to their idea of toppling the government and the opposition was not prepared to go into dialogue with the government. Our Western partners made a mistake and sent a very bad signal when they recognized the newly formed National Coalition on the basis of a platform which rejected any dialogue with the government and which called for the destruction of the government structures. But on the basis of that platform they did recognize them.
However, recently there’s been potentially a very important development, and this is the statement by the leader of that coalition about which initially we were very skeptical, and still it has many problems with this coalition. It doesn’t have much of a unity within itself, it has some contradictions with other opposition groups. But still it’s there. We have to take it as a fact. And the leader of that opposition, Mr. Ahmed Muaz al-Khatib, recently made a statement which attracted a lot of attention, saying that he is prepared to enter into dialogue with the government. He gave some preconditions for that. But it was crucially important that for the first time from an important member of the opposition this statement was delivered.
So what the international community should do now is to encourage this kind of attitude. And of course, this statement came after a statement which was made by President Assad in early January, which was criticized by many, because it was not going far enough, because it was too tough, etc. And maybe much of that criticism was accurate but he did talk about dialogue with the opposition as well.
So in our view, the role of the international community working from various directions is to try to grab those threads from both sides and to see if they can meet.
RT: Thank you.