London, Asharq Al-Awsat – In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, US Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte discusses the latest developments in the Middle East including; the stalled political process in Iraq, the Iranian nuclear issue, the Arab peace initiative, and the ongoing crisis in Darfur.
The following is the full text of the interview:
Q: You followed the Iraqi situation for quite long time and have been involved in it perhaps more than other people. The British think-tank Chatham House described the situation in Iraq saying that there is a distinct possibility of collapse and fragmentation and calls for a major change in US and British policy and strategy. Do you agree with this assessment?
A: No, I don’t. Firstly, the crux of the problem in Iraq is in Baghdad, and I think that has been recognised and that is why there is a Baghdad security plan and such a huge level of effort being invested to try and bring both sectarian violence and the movement of population within Baghdad under control, and there has been a measure of success since the inception of the Baghdad plan. Now, we are at the point where forces are getting up to the desired levels and our commander, General Patraeus intends to make some kind of assessment in September. I think we need to wait and see the outcome of that process but I certainly would not agree or subscribe to the Chatham House conclusions.
Q: You wrote at the end of your term as ambassador to Baghdad in 2005 that it would take five years for this situation in Iraq to stabilise…
A: That’s right…
Q: Do you still think it will take five years or may be longer?
A: That was my assessment at the time, in February/March 2005. After our invasion of Iraq, its institutions had been devastated. There was no army and the government basically evaporated as well, therefore, it takes time to help a country rebuild those institutions, so I thought at that point that five years from 2005 was a reasonable period of time that would be another three years from now. I think that sounds reasonable. I am not saying [that it will take] another three years at the current level of US involvement. I would hope sooner rather than later that we would have more of a support role rather than a lead role; and that we could be in a position to reduce our military presence but I think a significant level of effort will continue to be required from ourselves and other friends of Iraq.
Q: You once said that the political clock in Iraq is not moving as fast as you would like it to be. What do you think needs to be done for the clock to move faster?
A: Well, we have alluded to some of the things already [in this interview] but of course assuming greater responsibility for security, taking more of a lead role where possible by the army and by the police forces [could help]. Progress in the area of national reconciliation on such matters for example the Debathification law, or the law for the distribution of oil revenues and other legal instruments that would promote the process of national reconciliation and mutual respect for each other’s human rights amongst the diverse religious and ethnic groups in Iraq [would also play a part].
Q: There had been criticism in Washington of Maliki’s government. What are your views on the performance of the Iraqi government?
A: It is the elected and duly constituted government of Iraq. I think that it is making its best effort to improve both the security and the political situation and I think that it recognises that in order to improve the situation in Iraq, it must work towards some kind of meaningful understanding and reconciliation with other groups. Therefore, I believe that it is trying as hard as it can and that it deserves our support.
Q: Do you think that there is too much influence on Iraq from Iran?
A: I think the Iraqi government is a nationalist government, and that notwithstanding the fact that a number of these political leaders were in exile in neighbouring countries including Iran, this does not mean that they are somehow politically beholden to any of the neighbours, and I think certainly the past has demonstrated that the Iraqis are a very proud people who want to conduct the affairs of their own country and they do not wish to serve the interest of any other state.
Q: What will happen if the September deadline for the benchmark fails?
A: I think that “deadline” may be too strong a word. September was indicated as date when General Patraeus would offer his assessment. I think we have to wait to see what happens and what the report says. We can then assess what the next step might be.
Q: President Bush did not rule out penalising the Iraqi government. What sort of steps might be taken in this regard?
A: Well I would accent the positive here. We are a friend to Iraq, we want to support it and we are very keen that they [the Iraqis] are able to advance both politically and economically. If you look at our behaviour, our policies, and our posture since 2003, everything that we have done has been directed at helping that country stand on its own feet and I would expect that would continue to be our attitude.
Q: A meeting was held between Iranian and US officials regarding Iraq on 28 May, 2007. The US Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, was not optimistic about the meeting, as he said he was not expecting much. What was the point?
A: The principle point has been to try to engage the neighbours of Iraq in a way that is supportive of that government, that country, that economy, and try to interest them in doing and engaging constructive and positive things to help develop Iraq. Our purpose in talking to the Iranians is to talk to them about Iraq and what it is that they can do and also what they can stop doing in order to promote stability in Iraq. We have concerns that they are supporting some of the extremist Shiite groups, we think that is a mistaken policy on their part and we would like to ask them and engage them in being helpful to the duly constituted government of that country.
Q: While Vice President Dick Cheney talks tough on Iran, the US State Department seems to be taken a softer approach. Is this a dual strategy or is it a reflection of divisions within the administration perhaps?
A: We have a consistent policy towards Iran. It is a unified policy, there are no divisions. We have made clear from the beginning that we do not rule out military or coercive options but our priority and our focus at the moment is on finding a diplomatic political solution to the different issues we have with the government of Iran starting with Iraq on one hand and the nuclear issue on the other hand and that of course, regarding the nuclear issue, is why we have been pursuing action through working with the European 3 and others in the Security Council to try and resolve this nuclear question.
Q: Regarding the nuclear issue, you have a personal assessment that Iran would not possess any real capabilities to create nuclear weapons until 2010 or 2015 perhaps. Is that the US assessment?
A: That remains the assessment. It is a judgment that the intelligence community reached in 2005, and it has not changed.
Q: Can one deduct from that that the US is in no hurry to take the military option?
A: No, I think that this was not a policy prescriptive assessment; this was simply the best judgment of the intelligence community as to when it thought that capability was likely to be available. It was not designed to suggest one policy or another. I should add that we think it is important that Iran cease its enrichment program immediately. We have had at least two Security Council resolutions that have been passed to that effect. This is a view that is shared, it is not a unilateral view of ours; it is shared by the entire Security Council.
Q: Let us move on to Gaza and what is happening there. What can the US do to help the situation?
A: We are certainly engaged in diplomatic efforts. Miss Rice [Condoleezza Rice] spoke to Mahmoud Abbas as well as Prime Minister Olmert; we have also encouraged dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis and regular meetings between Abbas and Olmert. So, I would say to the extent that we can help through diplomatic meetings, we would like to do that.
Q: What support can the US give to the Arab peace initiative as a way forward to help the peace process?
A: We think that that is one of the proposals for peace in the Middle East that should be taken into account as we move forward and try to find a peaceful solution to the problem in the region.
Q: Recently, you pointed out the situation in North Africa as a cause for concern with regards to terrorism. Do you fear that the situation might get worse?
A: Yes, it could. I think that my reason for flagging the concern was firstly because there has been some increase in violence in Algeria itself and an increased number of terrorist incidents. The other thing is that the Algerian extremist group, the GSPC [the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat] as it is called recently carried out a merger with Al Qaeda, which I think is something that caught everybody’s attention because it suggests that Al Qaeda may seek to expand its activities into the Maghreb region. That is the reason for our concern. I encountered that concern also during a recent trip through parts of the Sahel.
Q: What is happening in regards to the pursuit of Bin Laden. Do you believe that he is still alive?
A: Our estimate is that he is alive. I think that through the various actions that we have taken, we have narrowed his scope for activity and we have been successful in incapacitating a number of his closest lieutenants. I would not say that we have abandoned our hope or ambition of getting Bin Laden but as you correctly pointed out, that has not been accomplished so far.
Q: What are the most likely steps [to be taken] in Lebanon with regards to the international court in the case of Hariri’s assassination, and establishing that court under Chapter VII? Will it complicate or help resolve the situation in Lebanon?
A: The first thing I would say is that it is important that the people who are responsible for the assassination of Rafik Hariri be brought to justice and that is the whole purpose behind seeking the establishment of such a tribunal. It has been frustrating that so far the tribunal has not been established with the mechanisms available in Lebanon and that is why we are supportive of the idea of seeking to establish such a court through the mechanism of the Security Council resolution.
Q: American officials including Secretary Rice met with the Syrians recently. Is that an indication of a softer approach towards Syria than before?
A: I think this reply would be similar to the one about Iran. The Syria discussion again is in the context of Iraq, the recent neighbours’ conference and the fact that we believe that the neighbours should be engaged constructively and engaged to behave constructively in Iraq. So, this is, if you will, like a follow up to the neighbours conference and part of our effort to try to persuade Syria to play a more positive role in the stabilisation of Iraq.
Q: Will the US accept the offer from the Sudanese government to try those named in taking part in Darfur’s atrocities?
A: Well, certainly until now we have supported the idea that they be brought to justice before the International Criminal Court. That has been our position and remains so.
Q: With regards to Turkey that may be a source of concern at the moment due to the ascendancy of Islamists, how do you view the situation?
A: I think that the important thing in Turkey is that that they deal with the situation through their own constitutional process, and they seem to be doing that. With regards to its membership to the European Union, I was asked about this recently in Paris and I said that I hope that the French will keep an open mind to the question of whether or not Turkey should become a member of the EU. We think that it is important Turkey is integrated into Western Europe and would favour its membership. We also are concerned that if the door was closed to Turkish membership, it may have some negative repercussions.