Iranian Foreign Minister Salehi 'We Condemn Chemical Weapons'
In a SPIEGEL interview, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi discusses the civil war in Syria, his government's "condemnation" of chemical weapons and his belief that Tehran is in a strong position to initiate negotiations for a settlement between the opposition and government in Damascus.
Ali Akbar Salehi looks exhausted. In the last 48 hours, the Iranian foreign minister had a lengthy meeting in Jordan with King Abdullah II before flying to beleaguered Damascus to discuss the situation in Syria with President Bashar Assad. He had hardly returned to Tehran when he accompanied his own president on a campaign trip within Iran, which is in the middle of an election campaign.
Still, Salehi found the time to meet with two SPIEGEL editors in Tehran last Thursday. Israel had bombed targets in Damascus only 10 days earlier. The power struggle in Syria has been escalating since the beginning of the year, and chemical weapons may have been used.
Iran, Assad's large ally, is playing a key role, both openly and behind the scenes. After two conferences on Syria last year, Salehi is now planning another meeting with the aim of putting an end to the bloodshed.
Moscow Plays for Time
Moscow and Washington have the same goal and have announced an international summit on the Syrian crisis. The Russians, however, have been doing everything possible to support the Assad regime. In addition to supplying weapons and ammunition, Moscow has troops stationed at its naval basis in the Syrian port city of Tartus and in air defense positions.
In reality, Moscow appears to be playing for time, primarily to prevent United States President Barack Obama from intervening militarily. Because poison gas was allegedly used against civilians, Obama could be forced to do just that, even though he doesn't want to be drawn into the war. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Obama's current preference is for a negotiated solution rather than to overthrow Assad. The American president wants to preserve the government apparatus in Syria to avoid total chaos.
While the West is noting with concern the strengthening of Sunni fanatics among the rebels in Syria, Alawites, who are fighting for Assad, are calling for a campaign against their Muslim adversaries. The Shiite Hezbollah from Lebanon is also involved, with thousands of its men already positioned in Syria.
According to Western intelligence information SPIEGEL has obtained, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Qasem Soleimani decided in early March to move their liaison office from Damascus to Tehran as quickly as possible. They also aim to send more fighters to Assad's aid.
Salehi, 64, is a key figure in the Middle East and one of the few Iranian politicians to enjoy the trust of many powerful figures in the region while at the same time having an appreciation for the West. A nuclear physicist, Salehi is seen as relatively open-minded. He earned his PhD at the elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and he is more familiar with the Iranian nuclear program than most.
Most of all Salehi, like few other members of the government, has the full support of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on all key policy issues in Tehran.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Foreign Minister, you have just returned from Damascus, where you spoke with President Bashar Assad. Israeli fighter jets bombed several targets there 10 days ago. How did Assad react to the Israeli attacks?
Salehi: He was unimpressed by the military strike. The man I met with is extremely determined and sticking to his course. I had the same impression six months ago, but this time the president seemed even more resolute. Those who believe that Bashar Assad is becoming fickle or that his government is collapsing are suffering from an illusion. The president is pleased with the progress his military is making. He says that his military leaders have the upper hand.
SPIEGEL: That contradicts all the information we have. Instead, the rebels appear to be advancing.
Salehi: I don't believe that Assad is portraying the situation unrealistically. When the conflict began two years ago, many said that his government couldn't last long. And now? He's still there. Don't underestimate Bashar Assad.
SPIEGEL: What is your assessment of Assad's restrained reaction to Israel's air strikes?
Salehi: It isn't a sign of weakness. The president responded levelheadedly. The next time Syria will strike back, he told me.
SPIEGEL: Assad is threatening war with Israel?
Salehi: The president said that his people are literally urging him to defend himself, fiercely and immediately. The situation will escalate if the other side doesn't hold back and continues to bomb the Syrians' military and research facilities.
SPIEGEL: That's Assad's version. According to information obtained by Western intelligence services, the attack targeted weapons transports bound for the Lebanese group Hezbollah, which is aligned with the Syrian regime.
Salehi: You know, you can claim everything is a Hezbollah facility in an attempt to justify intervening in Syria's internal affairs.
SPIEGEL: But you certainly aren't denying that Iran supplies Hezbollah with weapons, some of which are transported through Syria.
Salehi: But they don't even need that. Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah said recently that he is very well supplied and has no need (for weapons). Independent from that, Hezbollah is engaged in a resistance that we support. And the Syrians have little need for our help. President Assad has a large army with hundreds of thousands of men under arms. Over the decades, his government has armed itself against its ruthless enemy, Israel, and he doesn't need a few guns from here or there.
SPIEGEL: Western intelligence agencies say that Iran already has a plan B for the event that Damascus can no longer serve as a hub for Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah: an airlift between Tehran and Beirut.
Salehi: I'm tired of constantly having to deny accusations that are completely absurd. If anyone is making such claims, he should provide proof.
SPIEGEL: Then how do you explain the Israeli attacks?
Salehi: It was a coordinated campaign between the rebels, who are losing ground, and the Zionist regime. The Israelis came to the aid of the rebels by attacking the Syrian army. It wasn't about their positions or Hezbollah arms depots. I received reports that a rebel commander even publicly expressed his gratitude for the Israeli support.
SPIEGEL: Actually, isn't Assad under more pressure than the armed opposition?
Salehi: This president has the situation completely under control. He is very well informed about everything that is going on. Bashar Assad believes in victory and will resolutely pursue his path.
SPIEGEL: Does he seriously believe that he can survive this conflict?
Salehi: I wasn't under the impression that Damascus is under siege. The city seems vibrant and clean, the streets are crowded, there are traffic jams and people are going to work. On our approach to the airport, I saw farmers working in their fields in the surrounding countryside. Even I was astonished by how normal it looked.
SPIEGEL: Your description is a far cry from what our colleagues are reporting from there. They say that the rebels are already in the city's suburbs.
Salehi: I have a different analysis. According to our information, the population does not support the armed portion of the opposition. People are increasingly realizing that many of the insurgents are mercenaries, controlled by foreign powers ...
SPIEGEL: ... do you mean Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries?
Salehi: As foreign minister, I can't name any names. But there are countries that support these mercenaries. A few months ago, there may have been some sympathy for these rebels among a portion of Syrians, but that has now changed. The people have awakened and now oppose them.
- Part 1: 'We Condemn Chemical Weapons'
- Part 2: 'The Struggle for Syria Is Partly a Proxy War'