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.
'The Struggle for Syria Is Partly a Proxy War'SPIEGEL: You are condemned to optimism. Your government can't afford an overthrow of the Assad regime.
Salehi: Damascus is indeed an important partner for us, one that we don't want to lose. But some countries make it too easy for themselves. They believe that by striking Syria they'll weaken us. In that sense, the struggle for Syria is partly a proxy war. And we admire the Syrian government for putting up such impressive resistance.
SPIEGEL: But the threat is growing for the entire region.
Salehi: There will be serious consequences if Israel doesn't exercise restraint. You can burn down an entire forest with a single match. However, an expansion of the conflict would be extremely dangerous for the Zionists, which is why they'll think carefully about what they do.
SPIEGEL: Does the Assad regime enjoy your unconditional support, even if it uses chemical weapons in the civil war?
Salehi: We too were the target of many poison gas attacks in the eight-year war with Iraq. We condemn chemical weapons.
SPIEGEL: Then you would have to drop your support for Assad, if there is evidence that he is using chemical weapons.
Salehi: We are decidedly opposed to weapons of mass destruction of all kinds.
SPIEGEL: But the regime has huge stockpiles. And there are indications that poison gas, albeit in very small amounts, was used in Syria.
Salehi: But not by the president's troops. It was the Syrian government that brought the victims of poison gas attacks to the attention of the United Nations. I am convinced that the foreign mercenaries were the culprits. Nevertheless, I wrote a letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and urged him to investigate these horrific incidents. We have called upon the UN to send inspectors.
SPIEGEL: Civilians were among the alleged victims. Why would the rebels do something like that?
Salehi: So that Assad can be blamed as the culprit. And perhaps to see how the United States responds. President Barack Obama has said that the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons is his red line. The rebels want to draw America into the war.
SPIEGEL: You draw the same red line as America, "the Great Satan" -- an odd alliance.
Salehi: It's a question of one of our fundamental principles: We will never tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction, no matter who uses them. If others share our principles, we welcome it, no matter who they are.
SPIEGEL: Moscow and Washington want to prepare an international conference on Syria. Will you participate?
Salehi: We haven't received an invitation yet. But of course we would attend. We are a power factor in the region. We could initiate negotiations between the opposition and the government in Syria. But the conflict can only be resolved if everyone seeks a solution without restrictions. For us, this means that the end of Assad cannot be a precondition of talks.
SPIEGEL: So what solutions does Tehran propose?
Salehi: We aren't acting on our own, but instead are in constant contact with our friends in Cairo. The Egyptians have a plan, and even if we don't agree with them on all the details, we do support their proposals.
SPIEGEL: Is a new Cairo-Tehran axis taking shape?
Salehi: We are expanding our relationship and hope that Egypt will be able to achieve a great deal in the Arab world with its political influence. We share three demands on Syria: There should be no foreign intervention, the country's integrity and sovereignty must be preserved, and the government and opposition should form a shared interim leadership. This leadership must lead the country into a new era. There is no other alternative.
SPIEGEL: Do you also envision a solution for another major conflict, the dispute over Iran's nuclear program?
Salehi: We have a right to the civilian use of nuclear energy. Our entire nation wants us to defend this right.
SPIEGEL: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly provoked the West. Will Iran be more accommodating toward the global community after it elects a new president on June 14?
Salehi: There will be strictly no compromises on this issue, regardless of the new president's political stripe. Nevertheless, I hope that we will be able to find more common ground in the next rounds of negotiations, and come up with a solution that benefits both sides.
SPIEGEL: It sounds like the same old story. Tehran is trying to buy time so that it can continue to pursue its nuclear program.
Salehi: I see movement on both sides. I am confident that we will make substantial progress. And the next president will undoubtedly approach the matter with new vigor. His most important task will be to improve Iran's international relationships. We have many experienced politicians. My wish for the new president would be to overcome the problems that have existed for decades.
SPIEGEL: Here in Tehran, we are hearing that you will likely be the foreign minister in the next administration, as well.
Salehi: That decision will be up to the new president, but I would be happy to continue serving my country.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Foreign Minister, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Dieter Bednarz and Clemens Höges
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2013
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with permission