‘Israeli attack on Iran would harm US interests’ – former Russian PM

If Israel attacks Iran, then Tehran will move straight into Iraq, rendering the US oil bonuses and all the lives lost in two Persian Gulf wars meaningless, believes veteran Russian diplomat Evgeny Primakov.

Also a former prime minister, Primakov discussed with RT what lessons must be learnt from military campaigns in Iraq and Libya.

RT: Mr. Primakov, thank you very much for coming here. A lot has been happening in the world recently. Iran and Israel, for example, have been exchanging very harsh words recently. While there may be nothing new about that, Israel seems to be driving itself into some sort of self-isolation. Should we expect any unreasonable steps from Israel? 

Evgeny Primakov: I think you are right in saying that it is Israel which is driving itself into international isolation, and that shows in many respects. One, and perhaps the most dangerous, aspect is the escalation of tension around and even preparations for an attack on Iran. This is very dangerous.

Another aspect of the isolation is that Israel, the government of Israel, in its fight for the status quo, is pushing the Palestinians to assert themselves as a state in various international organizations. They've already succeeded at UNESCO. This also adds up to isolation for Israel; it sets public opinion against Israel. Then there was the other situation. You probably remember the incident with Obama, Sarkozy, and that microphone they thought was inactive. There were rather unflattering comments from both sides regarding Israel. Everybody now puts the emphasis on Sarkozy, who said Netanyahu was a liar. But Obama said, "…and I have to deal with him every day!" So Obama was no more flattering about Netanyahu than Sarkozy was.

All this, I think, goes to show that Israel's policy is not right – in my opinion, totally wrong, if you will.

RT: So you do admit that it is possible that Israel may attack Iran?

EP: Yes. Unfortunately, I do. I really hope, though, that it never happens, because this may lead to very dangerous consequences. Some say that the USA is just waiting for Iraq to restore its oil production capacity and to start supplying oil to the world market, after which the USA will clear Israel to attack, but I would say this is not quite correct. If there is ever a strike on Iran, I think that Iran will do everything to gain control of the situation in Iraq. 

And nobody knows how events in Iraq are going to develop after that. Right now, Iran has great authority and influence in the Shia community.

RT: You've said that Israel has gradually been losing a significant part of its influence. It broke its connections with Turkey and Egypt. We all heard what Presidents Sarkozy and Obama said about PM Netanyahu. Moreover, they’re experiencing a local economic crisis. What role do you see Israel playing in the future?

EP: I believe the best role for Israel is to have the kind of leader that it used to have historically, like the prime minister who supported peace and who was killed; a leader who would find a compromise settlement with Palestine and Syria. It's important that I mention Syria, as this matter cannot be resolved with Palestine only.

RT: Do you believe that the fundamental problems of today's Israel lie with the county's authorities?

EP: I certainly do. It's also a matter of public opinion, of course. But the latter can change. Take the present Arab Spring, for instance. It's absolutely obvious to me that it broke out in Tunisia and Egypt without any external preparation. I don't share the opinion of those who believe that it's been stirred up by Americans or Europeans and so on. It was a spontaneous outrage, a rebellion, if you want, a revolution, as some put it. But what's the outcome, and what further implications will it have? The way I see it, Americans, in their approach to the Arab states, are combining their willingness to protect their national interests in this region with a certain romanticism. One has to be a romantic to believe that the Western democratic model could be transferred to an Arabic country, if that's what they really want to do.

RT: So Islam and democracy are incompatible?

EP: It's not a matter of Islam; it's also a matter of traditions and historical experience, religion and mentality. You cannot just export revolution, or democracy to another country. In this sense, they're similar to Trotskyites, who also believed that they could just bring revolution to a country in spite of its local conditions, even when its situation wasn't suitable for it. The forces in charge of Israel should be able to assess the situation soberly, and to understand the danger of extremist activities of any kind. They should be willing to find a peaceful solution based on a compromise with Palestine and then with Syria. It's possible to reach a compromise in all very acute issues.

Israeli's security should certainly be discussed, and backed with certain activities. It could be done. But most importantly, what's been stopping this from happening? On one hand, it’s the position of the Israeli leadership that’s been striving to consolidate the status quo. On the other hand, the Americans have been reducing their activity in this matter, which is quite comprehensive, as they want to take time out for the election period. The pre-election period doesn't encourage the US President to work actively on the Middle East settlement. This pause on the part of Americans is well-grounded from their viewpoint.

RT: Is it dangerous? 

EP: It is very dangerous, because, as we've mentioned in the beginning, there's a possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran. The trends that have been developing could result in a strong escalation of pressure. 

RT: Do you think Iran wants a nuclear bomb anyway?

EP: I'm strongly convinced that Iran wants to have the opportunity of being capable of creating nuclear weapon technically upon a political decision, if need be. So far, a political decision hasn’t been made. Certainly, nobody wants to see this happen, neither Russia, nor the US or Europe. But we disagree in terms of methods for ensuring this doesn’t happen. Our Western partners believe that we should escalate pressure. We're against doing it as we believe it's a road to nowhere. 

Disagreements among the leadership could actually play a positive role for Iran to ensure it doesn't get nuclear weapon. Presence of this kind of force in the authorities means that it really exists. During Khatami's presidency, various democratic elements grouped around him; and they did not disappear. Therefore this stopping mechanism may perhaps work one day, and Iran may decide that it doesn't need all this suspicion, and that it should become completely open for the IAEA. Putting pressure and imposing sanctions all the time may actually cause the country to brace up, on the contrary. This is not a smart policy.

RT: There is also the subject of the Arab Spring. You said you don’t believe there had been any external influence…

EP: No, that's not what I said. I said I don’t believe it could all have been spurred by an outside influence at the start.

RT: …and at the end?

EP: And then, of course, there was influence. You could see it with your own eyes in Libya and in other countries. I was in Washington at the moment when events in Egypt began, and there was huge turmoil there. I talked to Madeleine Albright and some of my ex-colleagues and they were taken quite off-guard by those developments in Egypt, because Mubarak used to be a pro-Western ruler. He had always done what they had thought was right; he was against terrorism and extremist Islamism. The Americans are still trying to gain control of the situation and retain the position which they used to have and which will give them a foothold for the future. It is wrong to think it was America who overthrew Mubarak or the Tunisian president.

RT: Mr. Primakov, what looks most terrifying to me is the fact that in all those countries – in Egypt, in Libya, and in Tunisia – we now have Muslim extremists in power.

EP: No, this isn’t true. You're wrong about that. First of all, it's a conglomerate of forces, and I think that we can't be talking about a complete triumph of Islamists, either in Tunisia, or in Egypt as yet. They are going to win some seats in the parliament, perhaps even more than expected, but we should keep in mind that various Muslim organizations evolve with time. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, is not the same organization anymore as the one that wanted to overthrow or kill [President] Nasser a while back. The Muslim Brotherhood is different now. Of course, there are extremists among them. At the same time, though, I think that all this Arab Spring outburst has had an effect on Islamic organizations as well, because traditional Islamic organizations in Tunisia and Egypt have become more moderate than before. 

RT: So it's a positive influence?

EP: Yes, it's positive in this respect. There is no craziness in them. Look at the party the Muslim Brotherhood is creating in Egypt. They have announced that even Christians can join the party. At the same time, they are not talking about abolishing the secular state and introducing Sharia norms in social and political life. Nobody is talking about that.

RT:But the new leaders in Libya have declared that they are going to build a new state based on Sharia law. Is it possible?

EP: Well, some people might say that in Libya. Libya is not Egypt, after all. First of all, the Americans, and all the Westerners for that matter, still haven’t analyzed the anti-Gaddafi forces and seen what they are made up of. This is just plain unprofessional, after all. There might have been some democratic group there displeased with Gaddafi, but mostly there are tribes, you see.

RT: So you think Libya is not going to become a fundamentalist Islamic state?

EP: Nobody knows when Libya is going to recover from chaos. Look at Iraq, for example. It's been more than eight years, and they still can't stabilize the situation. The TV never stops reporting new casualties – 15 dead, 30 dead – every day in Iraq. Bombs, explosions and so on. It happens so regularly that people get used to it. We start thinking this is normal. But it's chaos! Over eight-and-a-half years of occupation, there has been nothing they could do. In Libya, it's going to be even tougher. So I don’t think they've had much success in Libya.

RT: According to the Levada-Center survey, 25 per cent of Russians believe Gaddafi was killed for knowing too much.

EP: At any rate, the US media wrote that Washington had discussed various actions regarding Gaddafi, termination of his life among others.

RT: Finally, we've been watching Syria, and it now looks like the unrest has receded, and an election is coming up. Do you think when this election happens, Bashar al-Assad can remain in power?

EP: I think in the case of a fair election, he can remain in power. Not many people actually think about peculiarities in these events.

In the two countries, Libya and Syria, the Arab Spring started with armed resistance to the existing regime, and I want to stress the armed fact. The question is: who gave them arms? Therefore, I don't think everything is that simple in relation to both Syria and Libya. When I said earlier that those events were not prepared or interfered from within, I rather meant Egypt and Tunisia. This certainly also includes Bahrain, home to the United States Fifth Navy Fleet – they didn't need any unrest there. 

RT: Can we say that currently, Syria has avoided the threat of military intervention by NATO and so on?

EP: I believe so. I don't think the West is prepared to take this action now without the Security Council's backing. I think we're smarter now than at the time when the first Security Council resolution was adopted. We will not adopt another resolution using vague terms which could be used to legitimize these activities. 

So I really don't think this is happening. Furthermore, the Arab League is very unlikely to support it.