(Asharq Al-Awsat) During the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg during the recent war in Lebanon, you said the world should not be satisfied with extinguishing the fire of conflicts and wars that erupt every now and then in the region, but adopt methods which would lead to a radical and absolute solution to the Middle East problem and to the establishment of a Palestinian state. What steps is Russia taking now to reactivate the Quartet Committee and implement the road map plan?
(Lavrov) This is true. The Middle East problem cannot be radically solved except by making joint efforts on all tracks. I can specifically say that conflicts erupt every now and then in the region, including the recent war in Lebanon, because the Middle East conflict has not been resolved. This is what the G-8 summit said in their St. Petersburg statement. The Quartet met in New York in September and adopted a specific statement aimed at returning the disputing parties to talks. It gave special attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to the efforts aimed at returning things to their normal track without ignoring the other tracks. We are discussing these issues with our colleagues in Egypt. President Putin has recently held several telephone contacts with his counterparts, including Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora. This is in addition to my regular contacts with my colleagues in the region. We stress the need to continue to look for middle solutions in order to return to the table of negotiations. Like many other things, ultimatums are fruitless. This is what we see today in the attempts being made to form a national unity government in the Palestinian territories. There is no doubt that Hamas, which won an authorization from the electorate, must be part of the solution and not the problem itself. Hamas, as we know from our contacts with it and its representatives, is ready to move toward a common ground.
Asking Hamas to completely change its positions is unrealistic as I have repeatedly said. We must look for what is possible. Diplomacy or politics is the art of the possible. What is possible or available must be entrenched and the path should be paved for the next step. We supported the Arab League initiative to hold a special UN Security Council session and an international conference on the Middle East. It seems that this conference will not be a one-time thing, but a continuing process that includes the three tracks with the aim of bringing the Palestinians and Israelis as well as the Lebanese and Syrians together. It has to define the goals and look for solutions in all directions in a manner that guarantees results which can be called a comprehensive settlement. We are fully satisfied with the level of coordination we have with the Egyptian friends. Also I am confident that the Middle East issues will be top on the agenda during President Mubarak’s visit and talks with President Putin.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) President Putin and you repeatedly said that sanctions are not the ideal solution but Russia accepted the UN Security Council resolution which imposes sanctions on North Korea. Some commentators attribute this to the UN Security Council’s adoption of the Russian viewpoint and the issuance of a resolution on Georgia — a resolution Washington had earlier rejected.
(Lavrov) The sanctions which we say cannot resolve conflicts are the economic and trade sanctions which primarily lead to deterioration in the people’s living conditions. When we are faced with the threat of weapons of mass destruction and when talk is about a country which withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and which did not return to it in spite of all appeals, action to prevent this country from obtaining materials and equipment directly linked to the technology of manufacturing nuclear weapons will then be justified. This is what the UN Security Council resolution says about the North Korean nuclear explosion. I think all those who had doubts that the explosion would be a nuclear one have now overcome their doubts. They have now new facts stressing that the explosion was nuclear. This, of course, is a serious step toward blowing up the nonproliferation regime. Diplomatic and political methods should first be used to prevent such development. The UN Security Council resolution also supports a political resolution of the nuclear problem of North Korea and calls on it to return to the table of political negotiations. Russia is working actively to implement this resolution. President Putin had telephone conversations with the South Korean president and other leaders of countries participating in the six-party talks. Also my deputy Aleksandr Alekseyev is currently in Pyongyang.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What about linking Moscow’s approval of the resolution to Washington’s approval of the resolution on Georgia?
(Lavrov) I believe that facts are the best proof. The resolution and earlier the draft statement on Georgia were based on the practical side of the problem, including the testimonies included in the UN secretary general’s report. It was difficult to object to all that we included in the resolution and all the appeals made to the Georgian leadership to implement the previous UN Security Council resolutions and all past commitments. During the stage of preparing the statement, some imagined or believed that the issue could be ignored, but the seriousness of the situation and the crisis brought about by the Georgian leadership left us no other choice but turn the draft statement into a resolution. Approving the statement required unanimity, but we said it could still be put to the vote. Politically, I believe it would be shameful if anyone tried to vote against the resolution or abstained from voting on it. I think these are the reasons for supporting the issuance of the resolution.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) will sanctions be imposed on Iran like North Korea?
(Lavrov) I said we view sanctions as a means to block channels through which serious technology can be used for purposes conflicting with the ban imposed on the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We declare our readiness to look into this issue within this framework and the required timeframe to make the concerned country cooperate. As for Iran, it is required to eventually answer extremely serious questions, whose results have long been known to the IAEA, whose inspectors conveyed them to the Iranian side. The issue is really one that deals with the most serious aspects of the nuclear cycle and suspicions in this regard should be dispelled. Therefore, we believe that any measures taken to influence the Iranian nuclear program must be based on what exists or may exist to reach sensitive technology. Besides, it is absolutely inconceivable legally to compare North Korean actions with those of Iran. One country carried out a real nuclear explosion, walked out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and pursued the method of confrontation against all appeals made to return to talks. Another country continues to cooperate with the IAEA although it still has not replied to all the questions asked. It does not reject talks. Therefore, we must have wisdom and farsightedness and find reasonable solutions to the issue of the conditions needed for the resumption of talks.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What about possible sanctions against Syria as threatened by Washington?
(Lavrov) I cannot speak for the United States. There are countries which unilaterally threaten to impose sanctions. The United States imposes many sanctions unilaterally. This does not serve the issue. As for Iran, the United States has tightened its law which bans cooperation with Iran. It applied this law not only to the US firms, but also the firms of other countries. We frankly announced that this does not help reach collective stands at the UN Security Council or help “the international six-member body” continue to pressure Iran into returning to the table of negotiations at the UN Security Council. By the way, this happened during the vote on a resolution concerning the issue of North Korea. At the peak of coordination of stands, the United States unilaterally imposed sanctions on North Korea. Japan did the same. This does not reflect collective work or joint search for solutions to this or that problem. We told our US partners that this position is incorrect and harmful. We told them that if they wanted to work with others they should work collectively with them. As for Syria, I do not frankly know why it should be punished.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) There are claims that it supports terrorist organizations.
(Lavrov) International terrorism is our common enemy and we will fight it relentlessly and without making any concessions. We will seriously study any accusations the international community levels at this or that country about its connection with terrorism. We will not take into consideration any unsubstantiated accusations. In our assessment, Syria is cooperating actively in the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. The UN inspectors often visit Syria and meet with the Syrian officials and submit their reports to the UN Security Council. I have not heard any accusation that Syria has failed to carry out its duty. Here I would like to note that war in Lebanon was a massive tragedy but it is now past history although it cost the Lebanese people tens of years of reconstruction. Praised be God, this war did not turn into a comprehensive regional war. This did not happen because the Syrian leadership adopted an extremely responsible position and avoided all that could implicate it in a military conflict.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Has President Putin’s visit to Qatar and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia next year been decided?
(Lavrov) During his first Middle East tour, President Putin told reporters that his visit was the first to the region but would not be the last. He then visited Morocco. I think he will be happy to visit the region once again. We have good relations with the countries you mentioned and will decide future visits in the light of the plans and programs of the leaders of these countries and those of our president.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) What about relations with Saudi Arabia?
(Lavrov) I visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last year and held fruitful talks with the foreign minister and the secretary of the National Security Council in an atmosphere of mutual confidence. Also I had the honor of meeting with the custodian of the two holy mosques. Our economic, trade, and political relations are progressing well. Our cultural relations are also developing with all countries in the region the way they are developing with Egypt. There is a special area in our relations with Saudi Arabia during the pilgrimage season. We are thankful to it for its support and cooperation in the field of receiving our pilgrims and looking after their security. Also the pilgrimage quota for Russian Muslims increases every year. Saudi Arabia is considered one of the most important players in the region. Russia is pleased that Saudi Arabia was the first to suggest periodic meetings between the Quartet and representatives of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, which are most actively involved in the search for middle solutions in the region. During the last meeting in New York, agreement was reached to hold these meetings periodically. We are true friends of all countries in the region. As friends, we are ready to give advice and extend assistance as much as we can as is the case with the military engineers who are rebuilding the Lebanese infrastructure and economy.
(Asharq Al-Awsat) Commenting on Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin-Jasim’s visit to Moscow, the newspaper Kommersant said the purpose of the visit was collecting Russian debts to Qatar. It was also reported that President Putin promised to visit Qatar in return for the release of the Russian citizens Qatar accused of assassinating the former Chechen president. How true are these reports?
(Lavrov) I believe it is naturally possible to attribute such a thing to the newspaper. If the name of the paper is Kommersant, we will then have to make sure that what is meant is the logic of “give and take.” (Sentence as published) But we do not act on the basis of this logic. We in Russia develop our relations with this or that country on the basis of the value of relations themselves. We are ready to view any country that wants to develop its relations with us as our partner. There is no doubt that Qatar is an old partner in the Middle East and the Gulf region — a partner whose weight increased during the last 10 years. It is a qualitative weight in our relations with the outside world and before anything else because there are mutual interests. We have the issue of cooperation to discuss. Trade between our two countries is not that large although we have good political relations. I often speak to my colleague. We met in New York. Also I visited Qatar earlier this year. Political dialogue and periodic consultations are held on bilateral relations and regional issues. They in Qatar as well as in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which I visited, are worried that the Iranian nuclear program might develop into a confrontation. The Qatari foreign minister made a number of initiatives aimed at keeping the Iranian nuclear program away form the freezing point. He made active attempts to reach middle solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We welcome this initiative and other such initiatives. We also seek to work in this direction in order to extinguish the hotbeds of conflict in the region and find political solutions. Therefore, there is something to talk about with Qatar. We can talk about bilateral relations and multiparty relations. I repeat that we appreciate these relations, which are of mutual benefit to the two sides.