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Assistant US Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman Talks to Asharq Al-Awsat | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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New York, Asharq Al-Awsat- Assistant US Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman has stressed that there is a sense of urgency for dealing with the Iranian nuclear dossier and explained in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat in New York that Iran has an “opportunity” at the 1st October meeting to cooperate with the international community and allow the [International Atomic] Energy Agency [IAEA] inspectors to enter the secret Qom installation.

He said: “We are not going to wait forever…and prefer if Tehran seizes the opportunity now so as not to compel us to talk about other options.” The US official added: “The important thing now is that the IAEA can be able to inspect fully the new facility and the aim from building it. The Iranians are claiming it is for peaceful purposes but one has to be surprised why Iran built it in a military site belonging to the Revolutionary Guards and in an underground tunnel. All these are questions which the IAEA experts must answer.” He stressed that US intelligence is certain of its information about Iran and that there is no similarity between the intelligence about Iran and the one about Iraq. He also said that the United States wants the peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians to be resumed immediately and revealed that US and Syrian officials discussed on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly [UNGA] sessions a US role on the Syrian track and a way for starting the Syrian-Israeli negotiations.

The following is the full text of the interview:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that the US, French, and British accusations of Iran’s concealment of a secret underground installation “are baseless” and that Iran had informed the IAEA about it a long time before the date for which Iran was supposed to report the new facility to the agency. Are you still accusing Iran of deception?

[Feltman] This is another proof of Iranian deceit. Iran sent on Monday a message to the IAEA admitting building a second uranium enrichment facility. The message did not contain any details that could help the agency follow up the matter. This prompted President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and President Nicola Sarkozy to disclose the information we have because we want the IAEA to look closely and investigate it. No one disputes Iran’s right to possess a peaceful nuclear program. This is its right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT]. But Iran has responsibilities too that go hand in hand with this right. Iran reminded us once again this week of a history of deception and lies and attempts to conceal activities it is carrying out. We have at this moment a sense of the need to act quickly in the Iranian dossier. We have a meeting on 1st October in Geneva for the 5+1 countries with Iran. I hope that after the developments of this week Iran will have the motives to be transparent, present the required documents, and allow the IAEA inspectors to visit the new facility and carry out their investigations.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] When did you know about the new installation in Qom? Did you learn about it years or months ago?

[Feltman] I do not want to talk about intelligence information. But we have known about the facility in Qom for some time, watched it with concern, and collected more information as time passed. But the important thing now is that the IAEA can be able to inspect fully the new facility and the aim from building it. The Iranians are claiming it is for peaceful purposes but one has to be surprised why Iran built it in a military site belonging to the Revolutionary Guards and in an underground tunnel. All these are questions which the IAEA experts must answer. Therefore Iran must allow the inspectors to enter the installation, inspect it, and see all the documents about it.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] According to Iran’s obligations under the NPT, should Iran inform the IAEA beforehand of all installations under or during construction?

[Feltman] I am not an expert on the NPT details and therefore cannot comment on the legal aspect of the issue. But I can say that Iran’s behavior has made it lose the international community’s trust. This is the essential problem. Iran needs to restore the international trust that its nuclear program is indeed for peaceful purposes and that it is complying with its international pledges. Frankly, at this stage I do not believe anyone in the international community trusts Iran’s intentions. This is the problem. By cooperating with the IAEA, allowing the inspection of the site, and providing the inspectors with the necessary documents, Iran can rebuild the international community’s trust in it.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why were the leaders of China, Russia, and Germany absent when the revelation of the new installation was made?

[Feltman] According to my information, the intelligence about the new installation was American, British, and French. But Russia, China, and Germany backed the statements of the leaders of the United States, France, and Britain about Iran. The Chinese and Russian presidents supported our stands in press statements while Chancellor Merkel was not in Pittsburgh in the first place where the G20 summit was held. She had other commitments. But it must be remembered that the 5+1 countries, which are involved in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, have the same stand. Russia and China stand with us on the same ground about what is required from Iran on 1st October.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] This is the [first] time Iran builds a secret nuclear installation without informing the agency. Do you suspect Tehran of carrying out other secret nuclear activities?

[Feltman] I do not know what activities Iran has and I do not believe anyone knows what activities it has. This reflects the weak trust in it and the deception it is practicing which was exposed dramatically this week. There are five UN Security Council [UNSC] resolutions on Iran and many IAEA reports criticizing Iran for its trickery and deception.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The United States, Britain, and France presented the intelligence information they have about the Qom installation to the IAEA so that it can take action. What are you expecting the agency to do specifically? What do you want from it?

[Feltman] We expect the IAEA to investigate the installation, learn the intentions from building it, and why it was built and to take from Iran the necessary documents so that Iran can demonstrate its transparency and compliance with international laws before the world.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] French President Nicola Sarkozy called on Iran to reveal all the information about the Qom installation by December. Is this a timetable? What will happen if Iran does not comply?

[Feltman] I believe it is in Iran’s interest to cooperate with the IAEA about the new installation because Iran continues to say it does not intend to build a nuclear weapon. All right. Iran now has an opportunity to prove this by opening the Qom site to international inspections and informing the IAEA about the relevant documents. In other words, Iran should view the IAEA’s request to enter the site for inspection as an “opportunity” for demonstrating to the world that it is cooperating with the agency and is not concealing any secret activities. I do not believe there is a precise timetable but there is an international sense of the inevitability of dealing with the Iranian dossier urgently. We have the 1st October meeting which is an opportunity for Iran to demonstrate its cooperation with the IAEA, its transparency, and its compliance with international laws, considering that Iran’s experiences are not encouraging.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] So there is no specific timetable for Iran to open the Qom installation to international inspection?

[Feltman] We have a sense of urgency and that Iran should cooperate now. We will not wait forever. We prefer it if Iran seizes the opportunity now so as not to compel us to talk about other options.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In 2007, US intelligence assessments indicated that Iran had stopped working on the military aspect of its nuclear program in 2003. Following this week’s developments about Iran, are you still holding to this assessment or has the new information in your possession changed it?

[Feltman] I believe that US intelligence is still holding to its 2007 assessments about the military aspect of the Iranian nuclear program in 2003 even after the revelation about the new installation. But the more Iran allows the IAEA to inspect the more we will know. I will leave the matter at this point to US intelligence officials whose latest estimates are that the military aspect stopped in 2003.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] President Sarkozy accused [former] IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei of concealing information about the Iranian nuclear program. Do you share his view? And what is the information you suspect was concealed?

[Feltman] I am not an expert in IAEA affairs but we support it and its director general in terms of the work they are doing and its financial obligations and budget. We want it to have the tools so as to be able to do its work around the world and have a passageway to the nuclear installations in the world, including the Iranian ones.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You provided the IAEA before few days with the new intelligence information about Iran. But some are apprehensive of a “mix-up of intelligence” and “its political use” fearing a scenario similar to what happened in Iraq. Are you sure of the validity of your information and the accuracy of the way it was analyzed?

[Feltman] I believe that our intelligence officials are certain of the information they have. We saw President Obama with President Sarkozy and Foreign Minister [as published] Gordon Brown in Pittsburgh speaking together about the new installation. I therefore say that the level of certainty in the intelligence information we have is high. But the important thing now is to have the IAEA carry out an inspection on the ground and obtain explanations from the Iranians about it. President Obama said: “This is the information we have but the IAEA must investigate the matter.”

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you inform countries in the Middle East of the intelligence information you have about the Qom installations?

[Feltman] I cannot talk about the exchange of our intelligence information.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The 1st October meeting is extremely important. What do you specifically want from the Iranians?

[Feltman] To fulfill their obligations under the NPT and UNSC resolutions.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this include freezing the enrichment of uranium?

[Feltman] There is an offer from the 5+1 countries, “freeze in exchange for freeze”, that is, freezing the enrichment in exchange for freezing the sanctions. This could be a preparatory point for entering into negotiations. There are also several steps which Iran can take that are constructive and put us on the right track for rebuilding trust in Iran amid much international suspicion of it. But the choice is now Iran’s. We in the 5+1 group took the option of going to the 1st October meeting totally committed to trying to solve the crisis through dialogue. For the first time, the United States will not be an observer at the meeting but will be a direct negotiator with the Iranians. These are the steps we have taken so as to demonstrate to Iran that we are totally committed to dialogue so as to resolve the issues that are causing us concern.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] We move to the Middle East peace process. The tripartite summit between US President Barack Obama, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was received well in the West on the basis that it helped launch the peace process but was received with many doubts by the region’s countries and people because of the failure of US efforts to persuade Israel to stop building the settlements. Has the United States changed its approach to peace and accepted Israel’s continued building of settlements during the negotiations?

[Feltman] Let me recall that the US President spoke before the UNGA about the two-state solution and the issues we must discuss so as to reach a final solution, which are the borders, Jerusalem, security, and refugees ones. In his speech, he said that US policy on the settlements issue has not changed. We do not recognize or accept the legitimacy of the settlements. President Obama’s aim from the tripartite summit with President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu was to convey the “sense or urgency” which we feel and that the time has come for returning to the negotiating table. The absence of direct negotiations had made it impossible for the two sides to move a step closer to the contentious issues. We will not solve the Jerusalem, refugees, security, borders, and water issues without negotiations. We want to see meaningful negotiations as quickly as possible. President Obama’s message to President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu was: “The time has come. We have much to do and we should start immediately.”

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What will happen now? Will Senator Mitchell meet the Palestinians and Israelis soon? To discuss what specifically?

[Feltman] Even here during the UNGA meetings we held many meetings apart from the tripartite summit and the Quartet’s meeting. We met the Arab leaders and foreign ministers to discuss how do we start the negotiations and pave the way for them so that they succeed. We want success. We do not want negotiations for their own sake. We want negotiations for the sake of peace. We met the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] countries and then with the GCC foreign ministers plus the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Iraqi ones. The peace process was one of the issues discussed at these meetings. We are searching for ideas for resuming the negotiations. Senator Mitchell met Israeli and Palestinian officials here in New York. I met Arab League Secretary General Amr Musa who also met with Mitchell. All this was within the context of setting the general framework from which we can launch a meaningful peace process. We are hoping to resume the negotiations in Washington next week. We know that the ground needs to be paved but we also know that not resuming the talks will not lead to solving the question of the settlements or any other question and will not achieve the Palestinian people’s aspirations for a state. We therefore want to start the negotiations as quickly as possible.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] So we will start preparing for a peace process while Israel builds more settlements without US calls or efforts to make Israel reduce or lessen its pattern within the framework of the confidence-building measures?

[Feltman] We made our viewpoint to the Israelis very clearly, which is and as President Obama said, that we do not accept the legitimacy of the Israeli settlements. We are expecting both sides to fulfill their obligations toward the other party. One of these clear obligations in the roadmap is for Israel to stop building settlements. We will continue to pressure Israel within this framework. But will stopping the negotiations serve the efforts to stop the settlements? We do not believe so. We believe that modern history proved that failure to reach settlements in the final solution issue did not help the Palestinians. For the Palestinians to achieve what they need, we need to return to the negotiations. The US President is committed to using his position to do so. Senator Mitchell is working seriously in this dossier. Secretary of State Clinton is engaged in the process too. Let us seize this opportunity now to deal with these issues and reach settlements in the final solution issues to build the Palestinian state.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in his speech before the UNGA in New York that the Palestinians must recognize the jewishness of the Israeli state before reaching any final settlements. Do you back this Israeli condition? Do you see it as an obstacle?

[Feltman] I do not think it is right to make the fate of the negotiations dependent on “appellations or brands.” If we have two states side by side, a Palestinian state and an Israeli one, who will live in the Palestinian state and who will live in the Israeli one? The Palestinians will live in the Palestinian state and the Israelis in the Israeli one. Most of the Israelis are Jews; I do not say all of them. Israel is a democratic country with an energetic Arab minority. Most of the Jews around the world also consider Israel their state regardless of whether they live in it or not. So, regardless of any name the Israelis want to call their state, this does not change the fact that the majority of Israelis are Jews and that the world’s Jews consider Israel a “national homeland for the Jews.” Whether the Palestinians and Arabs accept or reject what Netanyahu is saying, the fact of the matter is that the majority of Israelis are Jews and consider Israel a homeland for them. I do not believe that this is a problem for which the Arabs or Palestinians should suspend the negotiations.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What you are saying is the same as what President Mahmud Abbas is saying but the reverse of it. He says: Since Jews are Israel’s majority, why then the Israelis are insisting that the Palestinians should recognize the “jewishness” of the state as a condition for reaching a final peace?

[Feltman] I do not know. This is not an issue that should make the negotiations difficult. Let us move to the negotiations first. Let us negotiate at the earliest opportunity.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] President Obama reiterated in his UNGA speech the talk about a comprehensive peace process within the framework of a regional initiative? Is there a possibility of peace talks on the other peace tracks with an American presence?

[Feltman] We have spent most of the time talking about the Palestinian-Israeli track and I believe this is appropriate because we do not want another war like the Gaza one last winter. But this should not be at the expense of the other peace tracks, either the Syrian-Israeli track or the Lebanese-Israeli one. We want a comprehensive peace in the Middle East and we do not see any competition between the various peace tracks as some might believe. On the contrary, we believe that these tracks complement each other. Achieving a breakthrough in a certain track might give impetus to another. We do not want to give the impression that by talking too much about the Palestinian-Israeli track we are ignoring the Syrian-Israeli one because we want to see the Syrian and Lebanese tracks move forward. We discussed with the Syrian officials in New York the issue of negotiations with Israel.

But there are other aspects of the regional initiative and they concern the environment, water, health, and many other things that transcend just one country in the region. We want to see an exchange of expertise to confront the common challenges because the water, environment, and health problems do not stop at national borders. They cross them.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Syrians expressed several times their desire to enter into peace negotiations with Israel with a direct American presence. Do you wish that now?

[Feltman] We want to see a Syrian-Israeli peace track soon. But the two sides have different viewpoints about how to start the negotiations. Washington is talking to the two sides about how we can find an acceptable way and an entry for starting the Syrian-Israeli negotiations that is acceptable to both sides. We still have more work to do to achieve it within this framework.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there some reason for delaying sending the American ambassador to Damascus?

[Feltman] The process of selecting, choosing, and approving takes time. The US administration is new and there are appointments that have not been made yet. The matter depends on the bureaucracy move. But there is no political reason for the delay.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has the Syrian-Iraqi crisis which erupted after the19 August bombings affected the US openness toward Syria? What is your stand on the Iraqi wish for an international investigation of the bombings?

[Feltman] We have expressed repeatedly our concerns about networks operating inside Iraq from neighboring countries. This is not pointing the fingers of accusation at a certain country but an acknowledgment of a reality. Let us cooperate collectively to prevent these bloody attacks in Iraq. As to the issue of the international investigation, it is better to leave it to the UN secretary general.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] But the United States had previously called Syria byname among the countries which it urged to dismantle the networks inside them?

[Feltman] Yes. We believe that there are networks operating from inside Syria and we have discussed this repeatedly with the Syrians. The latter agreed to cooperate with us in some case. But Syria is not the only problem. There are networks in other countries too.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is Washington satisfied with the level of Syrian cooperation in the matter of Iraq’s security?

[Feltman] I believe we are on the point of a fruitful start concerning this matter.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] When you referred to other countries that have networks in their territories, did you mean Iran?

[Feltman] Yes. I basically meant Iran.