Steinmeier Sees Improvement in Nuclear Row With Iran
Ralf Beste, Konstantin Von Hammerstein, Spiegel Online:
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, 50, discusses the change of course in America's Iran policy and the chances of reaching a peaceful agreement with Tehran. Prospects for a solution to the nuclear row are looking better than they did last year, says Steinmeier, but he remains cautious and is looking for an Iranian response to the international offer by June 29.
SPIEGEL: Minister Steinmeier, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has described the international proposal for negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program as a "step forward." How do you interpret the signals from Iran?
Steinmeier: We haven't seen a definite sign or real reaction yet. However, it is encouraging that we are apparently experiencing a phase of deliberation in Iran for the first time. Tehran has always quickly and brusquely rejected all previous offers. This makes me to hope that we are now dealing with a different situation. READ MORE
SPIEGEL: The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, traveled to Tehran on behalf of the Group of Six -- the United States, Russia, China, France, Great Britain and Germany -- and presented the Iranians with the choice between cooperation and confrontation. What exactly does this mean?
Steinmeier: We decided to keep the contents of our proposal confidential. This is the only way Tehran can take its time to reach a decision, which of course doesn't mean that the Iranians have all the time in the world. We have a clear idea of when the process of deliberation should come to an end...
SPIEGEL: ...that would be on June 29, the date of the summit of G8 foreign ministers in Moscow.
Steinmeier: That's right. There should be a definitive response from Tehran by then.
SPIEGEL: The fact that the Iranian government has been considering the proposal doesn't necessarily mean very much. In the past Tehran has often changed its mind and its mood quickly.
Steinmeier: This is why I am still a long way from spreading too much optimism in this regard. All I can say is that things have been worse. Last August, for example, our offer to negotiate was immediately and categorically rejected. At least this isn't the case now. I hope the Iranian leadership understands the benefits involved in resuming negotiations, and that it can find its way through the door that's been opened.
SPIEGEL: Iran's neighbors, Pakistan and Israel, have nuclear weapons. The country is practically surrounded by American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some would even say that, from an Iranian point of view, this justifies efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.
Steinmeier: But Tehran itself claims that it isn't even working on a nuclear weapons program. It's the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, which suspects the country of having engaged in secret research toward developing nuclear weapons in the past. The issue now is to eliminate this suspicion.
SPIEGEL: Even the start of negotiations wouldn't be a true guarantee that Iran will in fact cooperate. Iran's former chief negotiator Hassan Rohani, for example, has admitted that one of the purposes of earlier negotiations was to give the country more time for secret research activities.
Steinmeier: For negotiations to make sense, the IAEA must be able to improve its inspections in Iran. But so far Tehran hasn't been willing to do so.
SPIEGEL: The power structures in Iran are ambiguous. Do you even know who is in charge in Tehran?
Steinmeier: That isn't easy to decipher. We deal with our official contacts, but we also ask partners in the region, such as Turkey and a few of the Gulf states, to exert influence on the Iranian government through their own channels of communication.
SPIEGEL: In essence, your proposal appears to involve paying Tehran for its willingness to negotiate.
Steinmeier: That's a completely incorrect interpretation. Our proposal defines a new basis for doing business. Iran is demanding that we do not take any further steps to resolve the conflict in the UN Security Council while negotiations are underway. We want Iran to refrain from creating any new issues during possible negotiations. The document accommodates these two demands. Negotiations could begin once Iran suspends its enrichment activities. In return, the members of the Security Council would be prepared to suspend their efforts to adopt a UN resolution. In other words, we're talking about a double suspension that makes it possible for both sides to sit at the negotiating table.
SPIEGEL: Who would sit opposite the Iranians and perhaps even sign an agreement? The Group of Six, which includes Germany?
Steinmeier: That would be my personal preference. We already know that the three European countries, High Representative Solana and the United States would participate. Russia and China have not given us a final commitment yet. However, I hope that they too are prepared to take part in the negotiations.
SPIEGEL: There are other interested parties. Italy and Japan, for example, would like to play a role, because both have business interests in Iran.
Steinmeier: We shouldn't discuss the format of negotiations before we even have negotiations.
SPIEGEL: But one thing is certainly clear: If it does come to negotiations, there will be an effort to keep the group of participants small. If negotiations were to fail and you and your colleagues had to decide in favor of sanctions, this would only work if the number of participants is as large as possible.
SPIEGEL: How should I respond to that? That's a hypothetical assumption. Three or four months ago, many expected this conflict to create a rift in the international community. But that didn't happen.
SPIEGEL: You yourself have not ruled out economic sanctions, unlike former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
Steinmeier: Yes, I am still not ruling out economic pressure.
SPIEGEL: How large must the Coalition of the Willing be for sanctions to work?
Steinmeier: I think the term "Coalition of the Willing" is totally unsuitable. It stems from a different phase in American foreign policy.
SPIEGEL: But you're unlikely to assemble more than a small coalition, because it will be very difficult to gain EU or UN approval.
Steinmeier: Nothing is easy when it comes to this issue. I can happily confirm that from the gruelling experience of many nights of negotiation. But so far there has always been agreement in the bodies of the UN and the IAEA.
SPIEGEL: Why did the Americans agree to direct talks with their arch enemy Iran?
Steinmeier: Washington's participation substantially increases the value of the offer to negotiate, because specific American elements can now be incorporated. I can only hope that this step, which the Iranians certainly didn't expect, will also be given appropriate consideration.
SPIEGEL: But why did the Americans do this?
Steinmeier: The US administration quite simply wants to provide its own contribution to a resolution through negotiation, because it believes that this is the best approach.
SPIEGEL: Isn't it about more than that? After a 27-year ice age, the United States, by agreeing to direct negotiations, has fundamentally changed its course toward Iran.
Steinmeier: You're apparently further along in your analysis than I am. What I am certain of is that the United States has changed its stance regarding the EU negotiations. Until now Washington has supported our efforts, but without taking part directly.
SPIEGEL: Germany is the only non-nuclear power in the Group of Six. Wouldn't it increase your credibility if you were to call upon the five nuclear and veto powers, Russia, China, the United States, Great Britain and France, to reduce their nuclear arsenals as well?
Steinmeier: We are in favor of applying the (Nuclear) Non-Proliferation Treaty effectively. It includes the nuclear powers' commitment to disarm, and we should urge them to do so. This is why I do in fact believe that, beyond the current Iran conflict, we must review the status of nuclear weapons worldwide.
SPIEGEL: The five veto powers should disarm their nuclear arsenals. How would this work?
Steinmeier: It can only work through joint efforts. Reforming the Non-Proliferation Treaty would be one example. We will also have to discuss the extent of nuclear arsenals.
SPIEGEL: Many countries in the southern hemisphere accuse the veto powers of hypocrisy. Iran is supposed to forego nuclear weapons, yet the United States possesses an enormous arsenal.
Steinmeier: Yes, this is in fact a fundamental contradiction in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is based on the assumption that we live in a world in which there are countries that have nuclear weapons and countries that do not. Nevertheless, the effort to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons is correct. And this is especially applicable to the region of the Middle East, where an Iranian atomic bomb would set off a nuclear arms race.
SPIEGEL: Germany is playing a central role in the Iran talks. Doesn't this make you feel a bit uncomfortable at times?
Steinmeier: Why uncomfortable? I am in favor of self-confident modesty. In my view, this means that we should not overestimate our abilities and should only assume responsibility within the scope of our capabilities.
INTERVIEW: RALF BESTE, KONSTANTIN VON HAMMERSTEIN
Translated from German by Christopher Sultan