A Conversation with Manouchehr Mottaki

Thursday, October 2, 2008

(Note: Min. Mottaki's remarks are provided through an interpreter.)

BARBARA SLAVIN: The last time that we met was in July, I believe. You came to the United Nations and you invited a bunch of journalists to have lunch with you, which was very nice. And you said at the time, quote, "The first word diplomats learn is compromise."

Do you remember?


SLAVIN: Compromise, right. And you suggested that Iran was willing to accept what's known as the freeze-for-freeze proposal; that Iran would suspend adding centrifuges at Natanz, for six weeks, while sanctions, new sanctions would also be suspended for six weeks. And this would be a way to start formal negotiations, including the United States. And the Bush administration got very excited and they sent Undersecretary of State Bill Burns to Geneva to sit down with Mr. Jalili, your chief nuclear negotiator.

There was a lot of expectation that there might be a breakthrough. But you haven't accepted freeze-for-freeze. Nothing has changed. Does Iran reject this idea completely? Or have you simply given up on negotiations while the Bush administration is in office?

MOTTAKI: Well, one of the words, when it comes to the Islamic Republic of Iran, you hear repeatedly is justice. Justice means a balanced compromise. Therefore the previous word; I am forced to define it again so that there are no misunderstandings.

When it comes to our legal activities and peaceful nuclear activities, we are going about our business, so to speak. And the technical agency of the United Nations, in this regard, is the IAEA. And more than any other state, so far, we have cooperated with the agency. And a witness to this claim is the agency itself.

They have talked about certain issues. They have put to us their questions, ambiguities. One-point-five years ago, here, in this forum and in other places, I announced that we are ready to answer all questions, to do away with all misgivings, concerns, ambiguities. And the agency, well, they informed different parties that if they have any questions, they should give them to the agency.

Naturally the U.S. gave many questions to the agency, talked about different misgivings, ambiguities. In accordance with our agreement with the agency, we responded one by one to those questions. And the agency later, in a written fashion, they wrote a letter, letters rather to us stating that what Iran has given us, information Iran has provided to us is correct.

This, for all practical purposes --

SLAVIN: Mr. Minister, with all due respect, the question is about freeze-for-freeze. (Laughs.)

MOTTAKI: Therefore we answered all the questions that the agency had.

We took another huge step. We said, we announce that we are ready to start a comprehensive cooperation. Mr. Solana later came to Tehran and proposed a package.

He submitted a letter by the six ministers to me and a -- (inaudible) -- which built with the modality of the negotiations. In that modality, the point which you referred to earlier is there: negotiations in three stages.

The first stage, without preconditions; entrance into the second stage, as you said earlier, six weeks. The precondition for that was freeze-for-freeze. Later a third stage: Entrance to that stage, the precondition was suspension.

Now, based on this, the Geneva talks started, because we also, well, earlier we had submitted our own -- (inaudible) -- or modality for the negotiations. Our agreement with Mr. Solana in Tehran was that in the talks, we are going to agree on a common modality.

Therefore one party was not supposed to answer to the other party. The talks went ahead. Mr. William Burns participated in the talks. We were told that the gentleman represents the president of the U.S. in the talks. And at the highest levels, offices in my country, we welcomed this initiative.

Therefore whenever a direct action is taken by the U.S., we will not ignore. Well, my substantial talk here has to do with the fact that Mr. Solana was told that, you know, no one in Iran will accept suspension. And the gentleman said, yes, I know that nobody in Iran will approve of suspension.

Let us talk over another phase. And talk on another stage is ongoing. We have submitted our own modality, as you understand. In the Iranian modality, what we have there says or talks about agreed action. This is -- this relates to an agreement between the two parties to take a practical step. We remain true to our own modality.

Therefore at the moment, Mr. Solana is supposed to give us a new modality and set aside the whole request for suspension. So what remains is freeze-for-freeze.

There are out there ideas which have been tabled, in the past two years, such as a pause or the rate of growth or increase or some other ideas. In the context of these talks, we can reach an agreed point. This can be anything. What remains, it carries the same weight as this agreed point.

SLAVIN: Sir, realistically though, are there going to be talks before our elections, before we have a new president announced? And isn't Iran looking toward the next administration?

MOTTAKI: I think that everyone is looking and following the American elections.

(Note: The minister continues in English from this point forward.)

MOTTAKI: (In English.) (Off mike) -- you free from this translation. And maybe you will be more patient to follow my -- (off mike) -- English, but that is more direct, I think.

SLAVIN: Thank you.

MOTTAKI: Everybody is looking to the U.S. election because everybody is considering -- I mean, all the parties, different countries, are considering what will be the next policy of the United States. (Off mike) -- we can find some criticize of ongoing policies in the United States. That's why in our understanding, the next president in the United States has no choice but to follow sincere and substantial development for changes in the U.S. future policies, policies towards Latin America, policies towards Middle East, policies towards Iraq, towards Afghanistan, and towards Iran, of course.

SLAVIN: So the answer is yes, you -- (laughs) -- are waiting for the next administration, which seems perfectly reasonable, frankly, to all of us here.

I'll ask you one more nuclear question, if I may. I want to open it up to the floor very quickly. And that is that there has been a suggestion -- in fact, President Ahmadinejad, at the breakfast that I attended last week, mentioned that Iran had proposed an international consortium on Iranian soil to enrich uranium and that Iran had proposed this three years ago. Is this still something that Iran would consider favorably? It's been mentioned in track two discussions recently.

MOTTAKI: As president answered to this question in the meeting which you have referred to, yes, we can consider that proposal if anything is there, any proposal is there, from different parties. But it does not mean that we stop ongoing peaceful and legitimate activities which we have in our country.

SLAVIN: If I may, with the indulgence of the audience, since your answers were rather long, just ask you a couple of other quick things. There's been a lot of talk about opening a U.S. interests section in Tehran. If the U.S. makes a formal request -- this administration, the Bush administration -- will Iran agree?

MOTTAKI: I think realizing of the word of "if" in United States takes a lot of time, because this six months we are under question, "if" United States raises such a request; yet we are not faced with raising such a request. Till now, everything was through the mass media, and the mass media-based answer also you have received.

Let's be a little bit patient. And if we receive such request, then we will answer to the question.

MR. SLAVIN: (Laughs.) Okay, no hypothetical questions for you.

One other that's very important and has also been in the news. Our ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, complained bitterly this week that Iran is trying to influence the Iraqi government not to accept a new status of forces agreement with the U.S., a new memorandum of understanding. Doesn't Iran want to keep the country stable, in which case presumably you would want to see American troops remain a little bit longer, yeah?

MOTTAKI: It is familiar to Iran that anywhere U.S. policy is failed in our region, they're looking for some party, some third parties or some countries, some group, to refer to them and put the responsibility on their shoulders. We don't know how to behave with different critical approach of the U.S. administration. One day we are requested to sit and negotiate for Iraq. We have -- (inaudible). One day some commander says that the situation is better, good improvement is taking place and Iran has cooperated with Iraq. The other day something else. One day Mr. Gates says something.

But what is the truth? Six years your forces are there, more than hundred -- 120,000, 130,000 forces there. Just three months after starting the war in Iraq, Mr. Bush said the war is over in Iraq.

SLAVIN: I get your point --

MOTTAKI: Yes. About the security agreement --

SLAVIN: -- about the United States blaming others, but the question is about -- the question --

MOTTAKI: -- security agreement. U.S. has made hostage Iraq, under the seventh chapter of the United Nations, just for imposing such, you know, will against Iraq. If the people on the streets and the officials in the government, in the parliament and anywhere, and the religious leaders very openly and clearly opposed to this imposing agreement -- imposing of the agreement, then we do believe the U.S. administration should follow the realities what is going on there.

And we were asked, what's your opinion? I said, we as a country in the region, our understanding is this. That doesn't mean that it is Iran's position, that's Iraq's position. And you have so many security agreements with the other countries. But in a stable and normal situation, you sign agreement with different countries. Why there is such a force in some very critical circumstances with which the officials of Iraq from any parties say that insisting on signing of this agreement will make a differences among the officials there in Iraq? These are the realities which in our understanding should be considered and take to consideration of the U.S. administration.

SLAVIN: One more, and then I promise I'll open it up. Where is Muqtada Sadr? Is he in Iran? And if so, where?

MOTTAKI: Now I don't know, but sometimes he was in Iran. At the time being, I don't.

SLAVIN: (Laughs.) Okay.

Ladies and gentlemen, please raise your hand, wait for a microphone, identify yourselves if you would, and let's begin with the lady in front here.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Dr. Sheri Fink, ProPublica. Mr. Foreign Minister, I'd like to ask you about the detention of two internationally known HIV/AIDS physicians, the brothers Dr. Kamiar and Arash Alaei, without charges, in Evin Prison's Section 209.

I understand that doctors around the world have been calling for their release. And I wanted to ask you: With threats from disease that cross borders so easily, what does their detention mean or signal for Iran's engagement in the global public health arena? And are there plans to release the doctors?

Thank you.

MOTTAKI: This is a question which was raised when my president was here, and he instructed to consider the situation. I do not have any information in details. Generally, I can tell you that all the Iranian citizens are equal in front of law, and nobody will be arrested but to break the law. But what is the reason for such arresting which you have referred to, I have to consider. I have no details.

SLAVIN: I raised that question with President Ahmadinejad last week at a breakfast at the U.N., and he said he would look into it.

Yes, gentleman here on the end.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Prem Kumar with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. Foreign Minister, what is Iran's view of the peace negotiations that are currently under way between Syria and Israel? And if the two parties were able to reach an agreement, how do you think Iran's relationship with Syria might change?

MOTTAKI: We do support strongly returning -- returning back the Jolan to -- to --

SLAVIN: Golan.

MOTTAKI: -- Golan -- to Syria. That is Syrian territory, as we believe that the Shebaa Farm should be returned to Lebanon, and the other part of the Palestine to Palestinians. And this is our very clear position. We support Syria for taking back its territory which was occupied by the Israelis' regime.

SLAVIN: Mr. Minister, in that light, there was a proposal by the Bahraini foreign minister that got some attention. He suggested a regional security forum that would include Iran, Turkey and Israel, along with Arab countries. I wondered if that's something that Iran could imagine attending.

MOTTAKI: I have a very close relation with my brother, Sheikh Khalid, but I don't consider such a proposal has the potential to be realized in the region. If you consider the regional groups in Middle East, in none of them Israel is as a member. And the -- (inaudible) -- Israelis' regime is participating in some other regional group because nobody will accept this regime as a part of the region in the realities.

SLAVIN: But if Israel returned the Golan and there was a Palestinian state, would Iran's position change?

MOTTAKI: I think yesterday -- yes, it was yesterday -- I met the secretary-general, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, and I followed what my president discussed with Mr. Ban Ki-Moon about our position towards Middle East and our plan for a root-base solution to the situation in the Middle East.

Our position is very clear. Iran did not accept it, or did not recognize, two regimes after Islamic Revolution in Iran. Those two regimes -- one, apartheid regime in South Africa and the next one the Israelis' regime in Palestine. And after removing of the apartheid regime in South Africa, we reestablished and resume our diplomatic and good relations with South Africa, current regime. And in the Middle East we do not recognize still, and we will not recognize, this regime. You know our elaboration, our explanation, on this issue. I'm not going to take the time.

SLAVIN: I know your position. I know, I know, I know. But I asked you a theoretical or a hypothetical question and you wouldn't bite, so we'll go back to the audience.

Yes, Megan.

QUESTIONER: Megan O'Sullivan, Harvard's Kennedy School.

Hello, Mr. Minister, and thank you for speaking with us tonight.

As you may know, there's some debate among those of us who follow Iran closely about whether the Iranian government would, in fact, accept an offer from a new administration for a dialogue without preconditions. So my question to you is, are you in a position to state definitively here that the Iranian government would accept the offer of a dialogue from a new administration if there were not preconditions attached?

MOTTAKI: Thank you very much for your question.

Till now, we really -- the former presidents or foreign ministers of the United States made some statement and raised some proposal, very nice, and looking for a better relation with Iran. And also, the candidates who are on the way of the White House, they say time to find some -- they raised some position.

And we take note those position and the nice voice, and some proposal may be constructive. But they are not in the administration. We have no way but to look to the White House. Despite of some very, you know, small changes in some areas, we don't see any serious changes in the White House.

Then you are asking about the new administration. All right, let's look to the new administration.

In my understanding, U.S. needs a real reconsideration of its policies toward different area, as I said earlier. If we see such a change not in, you know, speaking or talking -- taking practical steps and showing the seriousness -- since last 30 years, we have shown that any positive step will be respond by the counter positive step.

Some of the audience here, they have the memory of Iran's participation for taking some step in Lebanon to solve some problems, 1980s or beginning of 1990s. And Iran's position towards Afghanistan, Iran's position even when Mr. Burns participated in Geneva talk, you have seen our reaction. It shows that in a -- based on respected manner, Iran is in the position to consider seriously any constructive approach from the other side.

SLAVIN: Yes, in the front.


You mentioned that when you need to deal with the United States, you look to the White House. Our secretary of State reports to the White House, and we know precisely where the decisions are made.

In your country, we are sometimes a bit confused. Can you help us understand whether your instructions come from the supreme leader, your president, some combination, some other group? And if there should be a disagreement, whose instructions do you follow?

MOTTAKI: If you consider the Iranian constitution, it will answer very easily whole question. In Iran, the position, authorization and responsibilities of the officials are very clear. The most important thing is, for the main topics and issues related to the national interest of our country, always you have seen consensus-based approach from Iran.

While I am emphasizing on this, to prevent any misunderstanding, during previous government, some in the West believed that we should work in Iran with a part of the government and ignore the other parts -- we have to concentrate on this group and ignore the other group. Eight years they have followed that policy.

During President Khatami's time, suspension of uranium -- of enrichment took place. But please do not forget, at the same period, when President Khatami was in power, we have stopped suspension and start enrichment. It shows that suspension was a national-based -- national interest-based decision which took place, and the stopping of suspension also was through the same policy.

Now, after Khatami, another mistake is taking place. And again, some believe that we can concentrate on a part of the ruling in Iran and ignore the other part in Iran. That will not reach to any answer.

We in Iran may have different opinion, which is quite normal everywhere in the world. But for the basic and vital issues in my country, everybody stand on the same common and consensus-based position. I have a lot of example for that, which I am not going to take your time.

SLAVIN: Yes, in the middle.

QUESTIONER: Susan Woodward from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Most of your discussion has been on your western border. Could we move to your eastern border, and what you propose for stabilization in Afghanistan and Pakistan?

MOTTAKI: Very good and interesting question. Thank you very much.

We see a lot of concern on Afghanistan. We consider very shaky situation in Afghanistan. When I am talking about concern, please take note that it is not a concern for our country own -- our own country. We have learned since last 30 years how to live safe among the crisis which surrounded Iran. I'm not talking about the concern of Iran. I am talking about a regional concern, and that is extremism.

The scenario which we understand today is, to do second -- to repeat for a second time, the strategic mistake in their behavior with extremism in the region. Some believe -- I'm not talking about the United States -- some specific European partner in Afghanistan, they are working now and considering for the possible returning of extremism in power in Afghanistan. The only condition which they put is not to affect West or Europe, if I may say.

This is dangerous. Why? Because extremism has no border. Yesterday it was in Afghanistan, and today in Pakistan you hear Pakistani Taliban. Taliban is Asian, is going to become a culture there. If yesterday was in Afghanistan and today in Pakistan, where will be tomorrow, India?

QUESTIONER: Mr. Minister --

MOTTAKI: And after India, China? And then where? So --

QUESTIONER: Mr. Minister, you've said you wanted American troops out of Iraq.


QUESTIONER: Do you want American troops out of Afghanistan, or do you support the idea of sending more troops there to try to stabilize the situation?

MOTTAKI: Another good question. (Laughter.)


MOTTAKI: Towards Iraq, we see some improvement since last six months. But we should take care. Some parties are making propaganda that is because of increasing the number of the -- the foreign troops to have gone to --


MOTTAKI: -- Iraq. That's not true.

The reason is giving back the files of ruling of Iraq, particularly the security files, and the good management of the Iraqi government in combatting with terrorism. These are our consideration. This is our analysis. If it is so, it is the best time for U.S. and the foreign forces in Iraq to propose a plan for withdrawal from Iraq. This is what I mentioned in Sharm el-Sheikh, Istanbul, and in Kuwait.

Situation in Afghanistan is more complicated. And we do believe that it is necessary to prepare a new road map, regional-based approach, and, of course, parallel with the other main parties who are related with Afghanistan, because in Afghanistan presence of the foreign troops are based on resolution by the -- by the Security Council.

The nature of the presence of foreign troops is different than Iraq. And that's why what is necessary, rearrangements for preparing -- preparation of a new road map toward Afghanistan. And Iran several times mentioned that is in the position to give its consultations, cooperation, and we are doing by ourself.

Three main problems are there in Afghanistan: security problem, narcotic problem, and the differences among the coalition government there. That is another dangerous, the competitors among the coalitions who cannot take place or be replaced for Mr. Karzai. For time being, we do not see any alternative for Mr. Karzai there. But they are in the position to prevent some happening in Afghanistan. That's why situation is complicated, very shaky, and a lot of concern is there.

Three weeks ago, we have been in China with my president, and we could see the concern from Chinese also. India is concerned, Central Asia is concerned, Russia, and the others in the region. And I do believe that the best should be concern.

Those who started negotiation with the leader of the extremism in Musa Qala and continuing now in the European capitals, they are responsible for any problem which may face the region and out of the region in Afghanistan.

SLAVIN: I've heard this, yes.

I think we're out of time. If somebody has one more urgent question, I'll take it. If not, we will thank the minister very much for his time.

MOTTAKI: Well, thank you.

SLAVIN: It's been an absolutely fascinating discussion. Thank you, sir. (Applause.)

MOTTAKI: Thank you.








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