SPIEGEL INTERVIEW with Iran's Foreign Minister: 'We Warned the United States'

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, 53, discusses efforts to resolve the conflict over Tehran's nuclear program, his country's right to resist and its offer to help bring peace to Iraq.

Manoucher Mottaki, foreign minister of Iran: "We have prepared ourselves for both a solution at the negotiating table and a confrontation."
AP

Manoucher Mottaki, foreign minister of Iran: "We have prepared ourselves for both a solution at the negotiating table and a confrontation."

SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, fears are growing all over the world that the intensifying conflict with the United States over Tehran's nuclear program could lead to a new military conflict. Do you share this concern?

Mottaki: There has been conflict between the United States and Iran for the past 28 years. Look at the war in Iraq and the US's unilateral approach. Time has shown that our view of things can prevail, even, more recently, in parts of the United States. Now we have sat down at the table in Baghdad with Washington, and one of the messages of this meeting is: There are political and diplomatic ways out of the crisis, but increasing military strength is not a solution. However, there are still irreconcilable differences when it comes to the conflict over Iran's nuclear program.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it a serious mistake to underestimate the US's resolve? Saddam Hussein experienced that first-hand.

Mottaki: We underestimate neither the United States nor the Iranian people.

SPIEGEL: Does this mean that you would be prepared for an attack on your nuclear plants?

Mottaki: The United States cannot support another crisis for its taxpayers. Certainly, the Americans have always made it clear that they are keeping all options open. From the very start, we have prepared ourselves for both a solution at the negotiating table and a confrontation. Naturally we prefer the first option. We hate war. But we also view resistance as our obligation.

SPIEGEL: Is Iran's nuclear program truly so important that you would even risk going to war over it?

Mottaki: Every country in the world sets its goals and should also be able to achieve them. On March 5, 1957, exactly 50 years ago, we signed a treaty with the United States that granted us the right to acquire nuclear power plants. The first sentence in that agreement guarantees that the peaceful use of atomic energy is one of the fundamental rights of all nations. We consider the right to development to be inalienable.

SPIEGEL: The international community would certainly be more willing to believe your claims if Iran had not repeatedly deceived the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Mottaki: There have certainly been some open questions with respect to the past. However, our current work on the nuclear program is completely transparent. There are absolutely no deviations from this program. However, there are some concerns over the future. We are willing to answer all further questions concerning the past and will provide the necessary assurances and guarantees for possible future problems.

SPIEGEL: The veto powers in the United Nations Security Council don't appear to take much stock in such assurances. They support sanctions.

A satellite image of the Natanz uranium enrichment plant: "We have always been a powerful country."
AFP

A satellite image of the Natanz uranium enrichment plant: "We have always been a powerful country."

Mottaki: Every country is obligated to respect the decisions of the UN bodies. But the Security Council should not jeopardize its legitimate powers through illegal behavior and pressures from individual member states. There is a historical precedent. Iran is in the process of completing the nationalization of its oil industry. The beginning of this nationalization process was the subject of debate in the Security Council 50 years ago. It too was seen as a threat to peace and stability at the time, which of course was absurd. In the nuclear conflict, the question that now arises is over which offence we are actually being punished for. Uranium enrichment is one of the fundamental rights of every country.

SPIEGEL: Could you imagine, as a compromise, negotiations over outsourcing uranium enrichment to another country?

Mottaki: If we consider the history of treaties with other countries, then we have serious doubts about that.

SPIEGEL: Are you referring to Russia's current refusal to supply the fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power plant -- the construction of which is nearing completion?

Mottaki: We cannot invest billions of dollars in our nuclear power plants and then rely on the help of other nations to produce and supply the fuel.

SPIEGEL: How do you imagine a solution to the conflict?

Mottaki: First the path to new negotiations must be cleared. If the Security Council refers the treatment of Iran's nuclear program to the IAEA once again, we can take up the ratification of the supplementary protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in our parliament ...

SPIEGEL: ... which would allow the agency's inspector to conduct inspections at any time.

Mottaki: Only if the case is withdrawn from the Security Council at the same time. The two must be treated equally, although we doubt this will be the case. Nevertheless, we will view such steps as an attempt to build a bridge between the positions of both sides.

SPIEGEL: But Tehran is also considering cutting off oil shipments to the West if new sanctions are imposed.

Mottaki: We are the ones who must tolerate sanctions today, and that's why we are opposed to boycotts to achieve political interests. But of course we too must be granted the right to a full energy supply.

SPIEGEL: So you are using oil as a threat, after all?

Mottaki: Securing our energy supply has always been an established element of our policy.

SPIEGEL: Your president, who has a penchant for provocation, has cancelled his appearance before the Security Council in New York. Are you perhaps secretly relieved?

Mottaki: Why? The president's first speech before the General Assembly was already very constructive. At the time, he proposed that governments or private companies from other countries invest in the Iranian nuclear program. Can anybody think of a nuclear program more transparent than this?

SPIEGEL: You speak of building bridges, but thanks to his shrill speeches, your president is more notorious for demolishing bridges.

Mottaki: It so happens that we are confronted with statements of those seeking to deny us the right to use nuclear energy under any circumstance. We see this as an attempt to rob us of an inalienable right, and that is the only price we will never pay. Our president has always supported dialogue.

SPIEGEL: He caused an international outcry when he suggested wiping Israel off the map.

Israeli security and emergency personnel simulate a chemical weapons attack near Tel Aviv: "We consider the Zionist regime in Palestine to be illegitimate."
AP

Israeli security and emergency personnel simulate a chemical weapons attack near Tel Aviv: "We consider the Zionist regime in Palestine to be illegitimate."

Mottaki: We see the constant repetition of this accusation as a sign that some countries are determined not to address the real questions but to suppress them. World War II was a tragedy that happened to take place in Europe. Many millions of people died in that war, including Jews. Who were these Jews? All documents prove that they were Europeans. Why should the Islamic world be responsible for the consequences of that war?

SPIEGEL: We see the most important question as a different one: Is Iran willing, after more than a half-century, to recognize Israel's right to exist?

Mottaki: We consider the Zionist regime in Palestine to be illegitimate. It is wrong to claim, as many do, that people without a country arrived in a country without people. There were many inhabitants of Palestine, and the Jewish survivors of World War II were not a people without a country. They were Europeans.

SPIEGEL: And because you deny the Jewish state its right to exist, you support its archenemies, like the Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah.

Mottaki: Hamas and Hezbollah are not terrorists. We call this resistance. You are making a big mistake if you view the events in the region too much from the perspective of the United States. America has already made enough mistakes in this region. One is that it gives the Zionist regime free rein to conduct its aggression.

SPIEGEL: Even if Washington's actions aren't always the smartest, this by no means justifies supporting extremists.

Mottaki: If one truly wants democracy -- the declared goal of the Americans -- one must also accept the consequences. Both Hamas and Hezbollah succeeded in democratic elections, and they owe this success to their resistance to the Zionist regime.

SPIEGEL: So the bloodshed in the Middle East will continue?

Mottaki: It doesn't have to be. We are seeing recent approaches in America to a constructive policy for the region, which makes us hopeful.

SPIEGEL: Despite this domestic American criticism, especially of the Iraq policy of the administration of President George W. Bush, many US politicians believe that your country is helping fuel the Iraqi civil war between Sunnis and Shiites by supplying weapons to fellow Shiites.

Mottaki: Washington is simply trying to divert attention from its failed Iraq policy with these kinds of claims.

SPIEGEL: Do you deny that Iran has interests in its neighboring country, especially in the Shiite south?

Mottaki: We have no interest in Iraq being broken up into a Kurdish north, a Sunni central portion and a Shiite south. That would make the horrible situation even worse. This is why we support the government in Baghdad in its attempts to save the country's unity.

SPIEGEL: Tehran's growing influence is already sparking fears among Arab neighbors of Shiite dominance in the region.

Mottaki: But we Shiites are the minority in the Islamic world. If Shiites play a more dominant role in one country or another because they are the majority there, this is no cause for concern. Our strength is not a threat to anyone. Our religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has issued a fatwa that forbids sowing discord between Sunnis and Shiites. Those who do so are neither Shiites nor Sunnis. Besides, as we see in Iraq, this conflict between fellow Muslims is being brought into our community from the outside.

SPIEGEL: It is an irony of history that Iran has the "great Satan," the United States, to thank for its new strength. Shouldn't you be grateful to Washington for having liberated Iran from its enemies, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Mottaki: We have always been a powerful country. We can look back on a long and great history, and we have enormous capacities and possibilities. The Americans are now paying the price for not wanting to listen to us, and others. We warned the United States against spending billions of dollars to arm Saddam and the Taliban. By bringing down these regimes they simply corrected their old mistakes. We just hope that the US will not make any further mistakes.

SPIEGEL: German troops are also deployed in Afghanistan. The German navy is patrolling the Lebanese coast. Could this adversely effect relations with Iran?

Mottaki: The Germans are involved in Lebanon at the request of the Beirut government, whose decisions we respect. As far as the Afghanistan mission is concerned, I hope, together with my German counterpart, (Foreign Minister) Frank-Walter Steinmeier, that people will see the Germans mostly as development workers and not military personnel. However, we are very concerned about developments there and have warned our German friends that the situation could spin out of control.

SPIEGEL: Should there be further talks with the United States over solving the conflicts in the region?

Mottaki: The meeting in Baghdad was worthwhile. Our exchange was very constructive and productive. No one spoke badly about the other. We are prepared to forget the mistakes of the past. We should turn to the future, especially in the case of Iraq.

SPIEGEL: Does this mean that you will meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and that you plan to shake hands with the Americans?

Mottaki: As a devout Muslim, I adhere to our Islamic principles and will certainly not shake hands with Ms. Rice. As far as we are concerned, resolving the crisis in Baghdad is more important than all symbolic gestures. All parties must work together to bring the suffering in Iraq to an end.

SPIEGEL: Will Tehran be as constructive if Washington continues to intensify pressure in the nuclear conflict?

Mottaki: We will not allow our brothers and sisters in Iraq to suffer because the United States wants to deprive us of our right to uranium enrichment. But this will not make it easier to find a solution for Iraq.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Foreign Minister, we thank you for this interview.

The interview was conducted by editors Dieter Bednarz and Hans Hoyng.

Note to readers: SPIEGEL conducted its interview with Mottaki prior to the news on Friday that Iran had detained 15 British Navy personnel Tehran said had illegally entered into Iranian waters near the border with Iraq. It also preceded Saturday's move in the UN Security Council to broadened sanctions against Iran.

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