The West suspects Iran of providing support to Hamas in its ongoing fight against Israel. SPIEGEL spoke with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki about the ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip and whether the West truly understands the Middle East.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, the representatives of Israel and the Palestinians have arrived in Cairo for talks. Do you expect the fighting in the Gaza Strip to end?
Mottaki: To answer that question, we know too little about what is being discussed there. It is disconcerting to us that these talks are taking place so quickly without there being any clarity over what will emerge from them.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, 55, told SPIEGEL that "US presidents have only caused problems in the Middle East."
Mottaki: We demand that the fighting to stop and that innocent people cease falling victim to this attack. At the same time, the legitimate rights of the Palestinians cannot be overlooked. If Hamas and the people of Gaza back an initiative to end the crisis, we will support the outcome of the talks.
SPIEGEL: You sound very skeptical.
Mottaki: I am afraid that by attacking Gaza, the Zionist regime is making the same mistake it made more than two years ago in its campaign against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. At the time, the Israelis wanted to destroy the Party of God, and they failed. Today they want to destroy Hamas, and they will also fail on that count.
SPIEGEL: Is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak the wrong broker?
Mottaki: We are talking about political goals, not individuals. We want an end to the fighting. We should stick to the process of resolution in the United Nations Security Council in New York, which was ratified by many countries.
SPIEGEL: Would you have preferred to be the broker?
Mottaki: It isn't a question of who acts as the broker, but of the aggression coming to an end. To that end, we have sent delegations to many Arab countries. Our position in this matter is very clear: Israeli troops must withdraw from Gaza. In addition, the blockade on the Gaza Strip must be lifted. The Rafah border crossing to Egypt must be opened, as well as the port in Gaza City, so that humanitarian aid can be provided. Only then can we conduct comprehensive talks about the future of Gaza.
SPIEGEL: But the rocket fire on Israeli cities must be stopped just as quickly.
Mottaki: You seem to forget that the Israelis sealed off all of Gaza for months. Nevertheless, Hamas held back for a long time.
SPIEGEL: Israel would not have gone to war without the deadly provocations stemming from the rocket attacks.
Mottaki: Hamas proved for a long enough time that it keeps its promises, even though the other side did not live up to its assurances. The borders were not kept open as promised. Hamas was no longer willing to accept this without responding.
SPIEGEL: Now you sound like a Hamas leader. The visit to Damascus by the head of the Iranian security council, Said Jalili, shows how close Teheran's relations with the group are. Jalili met there with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. What message did he deliver?
Mottaki: Jalili traveled to Syrian primarily to meet with President Bashar al-Assad. Tehran and Damascus coordinated their position, and we agree on our demands. Meshaal was one of the Palestinian leaders with whom Jalili spoke subsequently. We have also come to an agreement with him.
SPIEGEL: Teheran allegedly spends millions of dollars to fund Hamas, as well as supplying weapons to its militant wing.
Mottaki: That's what Israel's representative to the UN in New York has claimed.
SPIEGEL: You can't just sweep it aside that easily.
Mottaki: I reject these claims. They cannot be serious conclusions by Western intelligence agencies.
SPIEGEL: Rockets were fired into northern Israel from southern Lebanon on Thursday. Was this the work of your fellow Shiites in Hezbollah?
Mottaki: Perhaps this is what the Israelis are saying. We have not found any confirmation for that.
SPIEGEL: There was calm on the northern front for 12 days. Will the militia become involved in the war, after all?
Mottaki: I don't know. Hezbollah is an independent movement.
SPIEGEL: Without support from Iran, the extremists from Hezbollah and Hamas would never have become as strong as they are now.
Mottaki: We also cannot accept these assertions. Such analyses are indicative of the false perspective of the West. There is, however, a new situation that prevails in the Middle East, one that Western countries must finally accept. The peoples of the region no longer accept the old hegemony of the USA and its retainer regimes, like the Israeli government. For eight years, US President George W. Bush did everything he could to maintain this dominance -- in vain.
SPIEGEL: You say that the United States is behind Israel, and we see Tehran behind Hamas. Is a proxy war taking place here?
Mottaki: Israel carries out the business of the United States, but Hamas is a democratically elected party...
SPIEGEL: ...that wants to destroy Israel. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also said that the regime must be "eliminated from the pages of history."
Mottaki: First we should resolve the conflict in Gaza. To that end, the West must view the region through a different lens. Hamas represents the people of Gaza...
SPIEGEL: That's what you say.
Mottaki: And the mass murdering must come to an end.
SPIEGEL: By making such harsh accusations, does Tehran hope to distinguish itself as the advocate of the Palestinians in this crisis, so as to underscore its claim to power in the Islamic world?
Mottaki: We maintain good relations with all countries, and what we want most for the region is stability.
SPIEGEL: We don't buy your altruism. Iran gained tremendous influence through the US war against Iraq, and it has attempted to capture a dominant position in the region.
Mottaki: We have always played an important role. We are a large people with great political, economic and strategic capacities, which we wish to use to benefit the region. We have our own efforts to thank for this position, and the intervention of others is not necessary.
SPIEGEL: Barack Obama will be inaugurated as Bush's successor in the United States next week. Do you expect the change in the White House to improve the chances of better relations between Tehran and Washington?
Mottaki: Until now, US presidents have only caused problems in the Middle East. The new man in the White House bears great responsibility for his country's reputation in the Islamic world, as well as for seeking better relations.
SPIEGEL: Will Tehran cooperate more constructively with Obama than with his predecessor?
Mottaki: We will calmly wait and see what course the new administration will take in the Middle East. Then we will react accordingly.
Interview conducted by Dieter Bednarz and Hans Hoyng
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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