​'US-Iran thaw would change whole Middle East' - Russian Envoy to UN

Iran the peacemaker, is that possible? Will the US pay less attention to Israel's calls for a strike now that Iran and the US have a clearer way of communication? Is it all Rouhani's achievement, or was the US itching for a chance to? This and more in our talk with Vitaly Churkin, Russian Ambassador to the United Nations.

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Sophie Shavardnadze:Our guest today is Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s envoy to the UN. Mr. Churkin, it’s great to have you on a program with us today.

Vitaly Churkin: Thank you very much. Good to be here.

SS:The resolution on Syria is obviously a victory for Russian diplomacy, but the resolution has in a way also restored UN credibility that was kind of lost in recent years over the inability to make a joint decision. Is this a one-time thing? Or we’ll see more decisions like that?

VC: Well. I hope, we will. I think the most important thing about this resolution is that it’s really paving the way for the implementation of this project of eliminating all chemical weapons in Syria and making sure that no chemical attacks can be possible in the future. So, it’s a very good success for Russia, and I think it’s a good success for the US because we have been working together very closely with our American colleagues on this. This resolution allowed the US to avoid this very thorny and very delicate issue of the possibility of use of force in Syria. Of course, for us a very important result of the adoption of this resolution is that the use of force in Syria is not regarded anymore internationally as something which can be regarded as an imminent threat. So, now all the focus is on the specific work which needs to be done for the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria. It’s very encouraging that things are moving very fast.

SS:Do you think these things are achievable in the timeframe of the resolution?

VC: I think they are achievable. Those timeframes coincide with the framework agreement, which was reached by Russia and the United States in Geneva on September 14. This is a difficult schedule but I think there is reason to believe that this is a realistic schedule provided there is cooperation from the Syrian government, which we see is there. And also provided there is required cooperation from various opposition groups. One important element of this resolution 2118 is that it makes demands, and not only on the government of Syria but also on various opposition groups.

SS: I was going to ask you about that, actually. Do you trust either side in Syria to comply? Do you think both sides will comply?

VC: Well, we hope they will. But it’s not just a matter of trust. The resolution does say that should there be a failure to comply by any of the parties in Syria, then this matter will be considered by the UN Security Council, where measures will be taken. And those could be various measures under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, including various measures with regard to the opposition groups or opposition figures, which could be making problems for the implementation of these resolutions. Also what I think is important and encouraging is that it’s not just we and the United States, it’s the international community who is interested in having this project of the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria succeed. Clearly, Israel has a lot to gain from that because they’ve been regarding the chemical arsenal in Syria as something, which can really have very dramatic impact on the security of Israel. I think the countries of the region should be interested in that, because the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria would pave the way into tackling in the very difficult problem of creating in the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. And there is another incentive for this thing to succeed and this is that it will create a political momentum which will allow us to move from an agreement on chemical weapons in Syria to an agreement on a political settlement of the crisis in that country and convening the Geneva 2 conference.

SS:The supporters of the use of force in the resolution argue that at the end of the day, with or without the resolution, there is no mechanism to ensure that Syria complies. How do you respond to that?

VC: Yes, there is a mechanism of course, and this is what the OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] is all about. There are inspectors who are going to be there and there is strong language in the documents of this Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, strong language in the resolution, which has been adopted - that we have access to all the sites and individuals, which are relevant to the objective of the elimination of chemical weapons. So, the whole thing would be very thoroughly verified. It’s not that it’s going to be done at random and the words of the Syrian government or anybody else will be simply taken in without checking on those words. Incidentally, I have to add that initial information which was provided by the Syrian government was very good. Even our American colleagues who, of course, traditionally are suspicious of everything the Syrian government does. They rated the quality of that information as a 4+ in a five grade system. So, it’s a very high mark and every indication is that the Syrian government is taking this very seriously and is working well together with the international community on this issue.

SS:But the US and French intelligence services have given Russia evidence - data suggesting that gas attacks in Damascus were launched from a military base controlled by the 104th Brigade of the Syrian Guard, who three days earlier were handing out gas masks. Barack Obama told this to Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg at the G-20 Summit. Did the Russian side look at this information?

VC: Well, I’m not quite sure, what information you are referring to because actually as far as I know we haven’t received much information. I mean we have heard some conclusions, well-known conclusions from the United States, a four page document, which was released by the US government saying that they concluded that on August 21 it was the Syrian government, who conducted that horrible attack in Guta - not far from Damascus, actually on the sort of fringes of Damascus. But we have not seen any proof of those conclusions. Also you will recall that after there was a delay in investigating the March 19 incident, at the request of the Syrian government. Our experts conducted an investigation and they produced a very thorough and detailed report. And this is a big difference between our line of thinking and the American line of thinking and acting, because we produced a report and we gave the report to the UN Secretariat, and we gave the report to the Americans and some others members of the UN Security Council. So, we did not share just the conclusions, we shared the report.

SS:Is that the report that said that it is the Syrian rebels who used the chemical weapons?

VC: Absolutely. That was the report which we made public essentially in July, actually gave it to the Secretariat and some members of the Security Council, which in our view concluded quite strongly – and we gave the evidence and the technical details, why we came to that conclusion - that home-made sarin and a home-made projectile was used to carry out that attack. It’s quite telling that on August 21 we were told by the Sollstrom Committee that that was basically the same type of sarin which was used on March 19, only of slightly higher quality. In our view, it confirms our strong suspicion, if not conviction, probably it would be more accurate to say ‘conviction’, that the August-21 incident, or the August 21 use of chemical weapons, was also something that was generating from the opposition rather than the government – opposition by way of provocation trying to lead to foreign military intervention to an American strike, etc. This is another thing, which we’ll need to look at in the Security Council by the end of October. We hope that then we will have more clarity on that. Incidentally, that was really a tragic mistake, to put it mildly, by our western colleagues, who were interfering in the rapid investigation of the March 19 incident because I think that had this investigation taken place on a timely basis, immediately, it could have well prevented the tragic use of chemical weapons on the 21st of August. But now, of course, now we can only deal with the consequences of those tragic events.

SS:Can I ask you really briefly before we take a break, I mean there is no one opinion about this possible strike on Syria - some people are categorically against in America, other people are saying that Obama is too soft and he should have gone ahead with the whole thing. Have you come across an opinion different from what the state officials are saying in public behind the scenes? Like, have you spoken to your counterpart, for example, in the UN? Do they have a different opinion, behind the scenes?

VC: Well, of course, I’m not talking about my American colleagues, because I don’t want that sort of publicity about the conversations we have with them. Of course, they mostly stick to their official line. But in the UN, of course, on many instances it’s an obvious thing, I believe, that a military strike would have had dramatic and unpredictable consequences, which could have created much more of a mess than we actually already have in Syria, and then it would have made the war in Syria an American war. In Syria there is really no alternative to a political settlement, and there is another very important reason for that, there is another important reason to put an end to it. It’s that the terrorists of Al-Qaeda affiliated groups are really gaining the upper hand, vis-à-vis the so called moderate opposition in Syria. So, unless there is a political deal between the government and the so called moderate opposition, they will not be able to overcome the terrorist onslaught and Syria will be really facing the prospect - and the international community - of Syria becoming a kind of platform for terrorist activity in the region and beyond.

SS: Another big story is Iran’s peaceful performance at the General Assembly. Was it expected?

VC: It was hoped for. I don’t think it was expected but there were some original indications that the new running president might want to take a different line compared with his predecessor. But we’ll see what happens. We just have a few days to wait because in mid-October they are going to have the first meeting of the Group of Six, with Iranians continuing negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue.

SS: Do you believe this possible thaw in the relationships is purely the result of Rouhani’s coming to office in Iran, or have circumstances come for the US to shift its stance?

VC: It’s hard for me to speak about the United States - how they will shift their stance. I think the United States has a very strong vested interest in having this issue of the Iranian nuclear program resolved peacefully. That would mean that the international community would have an assurance that Iran does not have some clandestine military program; that would mean having certain limitations on the way Iran conducts its business in its peaceful nuclear program. At the same time, that would involve what Iranians want to achieve and this is sort of lifting, of course, all the sanctions and also allowing them to conduct their peaceful nuclear program including enrichment – again, within certain parameters to be agreed upon between them and the Six in a way, which would not see interference from others trying to introduce some sanctions on them, because they are doing that. In addition, to the negotiations with the Six they will have to resolve their long standing contacts and issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency, because they are the ones who are negotiating with Iran on the matter of alleged activity in the nuclear field associated possibly with production of nuclear weapons, past nuclear activity. So there are two tracks there and both have to be dealt with effectively in order for the problem to be put to rest after all those years of cooperation. Incidentally, one specific thing which I think could happen, as you know, one issue which has not yet been resolved for the purpose of convening the Geneva 2 conference, is whether Iran should participate or not. We very strongly believe that they should because they are an active player there - their role cannot be ignored. Their support for an ultimate deal would be very important. Our western colleagues are objecting to that saying that Iran’s position towards Syria is not constructive enough. I believe there should be movement on the nuclear front. Then their position might change also with regard to Iran’s participation in the Geneva 2 talks on Syria. So, there is a lot which can happen in the positive way, should there be real movement between Iran, the Six and the international community with regard to their nuclear program providing assurance that it is a peaceful program, but also lifting all the sanctions and allowing Iran to operate this nuclear program freely without any interference.

SS:Israel is not about to stop pushing for action to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Do you think we’ll see Obama pay even less attention to that? Now, that there is a chance for clearer communication between the United States and Iran?

VC: Well, I can’t speak for the Americans, but I’m sure that President Obama has to pay a lot of attention to the views of the Israelis. He had a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in the White House. In the United States they cannot possibly ignore the opinion of the Israelis, but I believe that the Israelis have a very strong interest in the success of those talks as well because they will not benefit either in the long run, should there be a military strike. They may have some kind of a short term satisfaction but in the long term I think the security of Israel will suffer, should there be a military strike in this context of the nuclear program in Iran. I think that the Israelis are making no secret of their doubts about Iranian sincerity, and certainly will be insisting on double checking on everything the Iranians are saying and the negotiating positions they are putting on the table. But the final outcome will not be contrary to Israeli security interests, if the talks are successful and the problem is resolved peacefully.

SS:On a different subject: With Hugo Chavez gone, Ahmadinejad out of power, and more moderate Hassan Rouhani in, the General Assembly is a little bit less of a show now. Are the voices of other countries, not seen as leading nations, heard there at all?

VC: No, everybody is heard in the United Nations. And I think it’s a good thing that such a situation without an unhealthy interest to things which are more propaganda than actual political life is better. It provides for a healthier political debate. I remember some media reports that the 68th Session of the General Assembly was over after just two or three days of the general debate. In fact, the general debate is only ending on the 1st of October, and important discussion has taken place in the course of that debate – a statement by the Foreign Minister Lavrov, some important statements from other countries. So, the value of the general debate and the General Assembly is only enhanced when attention is not distracted by sometimes showmanship or the kind of exchanges which catch the eye of the media but are not helpful, and not even relevant to the subject matter of the actual problems the United Nations have to deal with.

SS: President Obama recently talked about American exceptionalism when it comes to world matters, something he was criticized for by Vladimir Putin. What has to change for the US to become more discreet in dealing with conflict zones and even how they describe their role in the international community?

VC: Well, let me say what President Putin said in his article in the New York Times was very well understood by a large part of the international community. We have had many colleagues coming up to us and saying how much they appreciated what President Putin had to say in the article in the NY Times. But we have to reckon with this philosophy of the United States - it’s not just president Obama, I think it’s a part of American ideology that they happen to believe that the United States is a unique nation. Sometimes they talk about it in different ways. Previously President Obama made a lengthy statement about it, I think in Strasbourg 2 or 3 years ago, where he said: well, we believe that we’re unique, Greece may believe that it’s unique etc. I think, with all due respect, President Obama was a little coy in that point describing this problem because, of course, in the United States it’s more than that. Part of this kind of American ideology is the belief that the United States has really this God-sent right – or an obligation – to be above everybody else, and therefore to, in various situations, dictate the terms of events. In fact, the latest round of discussion on this matter and president Putin’s article was prompted by the fact that President Obama mentioned that in the context of his intention, or the intention of the United States, to use force outside of the framework of international law. That, of course, is very dangerous. We all can think about our countries in very affectionate ways. And of course we Russians love our country and believe it’s a special country as well. But that does not lead us to a conclusion that we can act outside of the framework of international law. Quite the contrary, we keep stressing that international law must be respected. So, there is a certain predicament the United States has to face and they need to understand - and President Putin’s article I hope will help them do that – that this line has no admirers in the international community. When they say that, lots of shoulders are shrugged, lots of eyebrows are raised, for instance, in the corridors of the United Nations. It’s not something which people internationally find attractive; it’s a sort of reality which we have to reckon with and I hope our American colleagues will also reckon with that reality as they were reminded by President Putin.

SS:Surely! I want to turn your attention to another issue that hasn’t really been spoken about widely: The Christian issue in the Middle East and in Syria. The Christian town of Maalula is constantly being hit, and it’s almost been leveled. In addition to that, Christians from all around the Middle East are fleeing the region. Is the UN finally willing – two years on – to address this issue?

VC: Well, you’re talking about the Middle East. I would say that what you said is something of an overstatement. There are serious problems and there are a lot of discussions in various formats in the United Nations of those problems. And they have to be dealt with country by country. Generally speaking, we are very disturbed by a kind of an aggravation in the Middle East, especially of interfaith and inter-communal differences within the Muslim religion, between various religions. This is something which is very dangerous and which has to be dealt with. In Syria this is a particularly stark problem in the course of the conflict. This is another reason to put an end to it as quickly as possible and to reach political accommodation to bring about the situation in Syria, where all religious groups, including the Christians, can live in peace with others and would not be subjected to oppression, persecution and violence from whomever. This is an important goal we keep in mind as we try to move towards a political settlement in Syria.