20 March 201222:07

Interview of S.V. Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia, with the Kommersant FM Radio Station, Moscow, 20 March 2012


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Question: How can you comment on the execution of the two men convicted of carrying out a terrorist attack in Minsk? This caused a rather strong reaction from the European Union and many Russian citizens who came with candles and flowers to the Belorussian embassy last weekend. Is there any official comment of the Russian side on what has happened?

Sergey Lavrov: The act of terror on the Belorussian underground railway was horrible, just as any terrorist attack that causes death of many people. Russian citizens have also repeatedly suffered from terrorism, including in the subway. Beyond doubt, war on terror must be ruthless. At the same time, our attitude to the death penalty is well known. It's been a long time now, since the very moment of joining the Council of Europe that we declared a moratorium on capital punishment and we have been observing it. There are special resolutions adopted by the Constitutional Court in this regard. And the Russian leadership has been committed to this moratorium and these resolutions. As a matter of principle, we would like all European countries to join this moratorium. Of course, this is an internal affair of each state.

The attitude to capital punishment in Russian society is controversial. Our leaders have repeatedly commented on this issue in reply to the appeals for an official abolishment of the death penalty. I will repeat, this is a very delicate subject. The public do not seem to have a unified position on this issue. At this stage, it is best to preserve the moratorium, I think.

Question: Many people say that Russia has close communication channels with Belarus and a special role in that country. Have there been any attempts to discuss this topic with the Belorussian President A.G. Lukashenko?

Sergey Lavrov: Russia is interested in Belarus's full membership in the Council of Europe. The artificial barriers set up on this way by some Western and Central European countries are unfortunate. I am sure that the movement towards full membership in the Council of Europe will help resolve the problem of imposing capital punishment because its abolition is one of the conditions for COE membership.

I will repeat, in our case a moratorium is in force, although the obligation to abolish the death penalty is formally effective. At this stage, Russia is observing the moratorium which will be long enough, I think.

Question: On the eve of the presidential election, V.V. Putin published an article in Moscow News newspaper where he set out his vision of foreign policy. Many people, including abroad, called it a ‘second Munich speech' by analogy with his speech in 2007 which was rather tough on the West. What is your idea of Russia's foreign policy during President Putin's term of office? Don't you find that a lot of anti-American and anti-western rhetoric on the part of some Russian politicians including V.V. Putin have adversary effect on the actual foreign policy pursued by Russia?

Sergey Lavrov: To begin with, I am in principle against sticking on any labels including anti-American and anti-western. However, I understand that the journalists are often inclined to make some generalizations which would be vividly perceived by the listeners, readers and viewers. I don't think that the ‘Munich speech' of 2007 and, moreover, the article ‘Russia in the Changing World' were tough. They are honest. It is an honest pronouncement on the key foreign policy issues. The article "Russia in the Changing World" is a major geopolitical document setting out the views of the then-candidate and current President-Elect of the Russian Federation.

The message of the article is an appeal for using the entire potential of our cooperation with our principal partners. I will give two quotations. The first one is about the U.S.A. It says that in our relations with the United States we are really ready to go far, to make a breakthrough. The second quotation is related to our relations with the European Union and the entire Europe saying that Russia proposes to move towards the creation of an integrated economic and human area from the Atlantic to the Pacific, i.e. a community the Russian experts call ‘the Union of Europe'. This reflects our basic approaches to relations with the West. I don't think there are any anti-western trends lurking there.

Another matter is that we are ready to establish relations with Europe, the U.S. and any other country of the modern world only subject to the principles of equality of rights and mutual respect for interests. This is an irrefrangible law of international communication and we will steadily seek these very approaches from our partners. We are pursuing a self-determined and independent foreign policy; however as a responsible member of the world community we fully comply with all our obligations. In the current environment when a brand-new multicentre system of the world order is being shaped we are in demand primarily due to the said nature of the Russian approaches. They are essential and are not focused on the present day only; their starting point is that matters must be handled with mutual respect and meet in good faith any undertaken obligations.

Question: For several years now we have been discussing the issue of what is more important – the values or the interests. Is it expedient to establish our relations with Europe subject to economic or, strictly speaking, political interests only, without taking into account relations in the humanitarian area, including serious discrepancies in the understanding of democracy, freedom of the press and other similar issues?

Sergey Lavrov: I think that if we approach the issue of interests and values on the basis of uniform rather than double standards, there will be no insuperable contradictions here.

What does ‘values' stand for? Universally, values are what is contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted soon after World War II and the foundation of the United Nations Organization. This declaration contains universal approaches to ensuring the respect for human rights and their observance, and these approaches are acceptable to all states. Any attempts to supplement these universal approaches with any auxiliary visions of human rights, as is the case with sexual minorities which from time to time triggers a nervous reaction of the European Union, since we are trying to protect our society from the propaganda of homosexuality, are beyond the scope of the universally accepted values. After all, other civilizations also have their values which will hardly strike root on the European soil.

Taking into account that the overwhelming majority of our population practices Orthodoxy or adhere to orthodox traditions, such supplements to the universal values are unlikely to be fruitful. The only response of most of our population they evoke is rejection. The same can be said about the recent tricks of young women at the Epiphany Cathedral at Yelokhovo and the Christ the Saviour Cathedral. Some people in the West interpreted them as a playful manifestation of freedom of speech. Russian society will not accept that. This is sacrilege and blasphemy.

Speaking about interest, I will say once again that I see nothing contradictory between adhering to national interests and protecting human rights. A normal state (I hope Russia is normal and is perceived as such) does nothing for the promotion of its interests which would conflict with the protection and security of the rights and liberties of its citizens. Moreover, it is in the interests of a normal state to subordinate all its foreign policy activities to the goals of internal development. This idea was expressed as far back as in the 19th century by A.M. Gorchakov. Today we are actively introducing this principle in our activities. The goals of internal development are certainly subordinate to the goals of improving people's life, providing for not only their social welfare, but also political comfort within the framework of the system being created by the state.

Question: What role is played by foreign policy rhetoric in the Russian home affairs?

Sergey Lavrov: By force of duty, I monitor the course of election campaigns in foreign countries and the way they employ, say, the Russian issue. This is of immediate interest to us. I can assure you that according to my reasonably sound assessment, the influence of the foreign policy issue during the election campaigns in Russia on home policy is just minor as compared to the way foreign policy issues are exploited in the election campaigns in the United States or France. In American electioneering, the Republican forces sometimes really diabolize relations with Russia, and the Syrian subject in the U.S. and France is used with a clear goal to ‘stir up' population and score as much as possible through such aggressiveness in the international arena. I think the influence of the foreign policy issue during election campaigns is several times and several orders as low and does not have the ultimate impact on the ideas the candidates want to deliver to the electorate at parliamentary and presidential elections.

Question: In the last four years, the Russian-American relations, which you have mentioned have been in the tideway of ‘restart' initiated by B. Obama's administration. Referring to the President-Elect, you are saying that the bilateral relations can be upgraded in terms of quality. What can such quality upgrading consist in? What is your vision of the development of the Russian-American relations in years to come?

Sergey Lavrov: During B. Obama's presidency we have undoubtedly achieved quite a number of actual results. One of them is the establishment of the President Commission that has structured the bilateral relations with the aid of its twenty working groups covering all conceivable areas of inter-state communication including interaction between the representatives of civil society. Another achievement is the entry into force of the Agreement on Strategic Nuclear Forces, Agreement for the Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy, signature of the Treaty on Visa Regime Facilitation, and the Agreement on Cooperation in Adoption of Children. The two latter agreements are in the course of ratification now. We certainly take mutual interest in promoting investment cooperation in every way because for the time being it looks unsubstantial, as compared even to our European partners. I can say the same thing about the trade volume. There is a keen interest lately promoted by the presidents in stepping up innovative cooperation in advanced technologies and joint development of innovative and upgrading projects. We pay an increased attention to contacts between people including in terms of cultural and humanitarian exchanges. This year we are celebrating the 200th anniversary of Fort Ross in California founded by Russian migrants. A vast activity programme has been scheduled to involve such participants as the administration of the State of California and representatives of the U.S. federal authorities. This is going to be a really very impressive event.

Of course, we have problems, too. Any two states with extensive interests cannot but have issues of controversy. The most acute problem to us today is the missile defence issue.

Question: It should seem obvious to everyone that nuclear war between Russia and the United States is impossible. Sergey Viktorovich, why is the missile defence system the ‘stone in a shoe' for the Russian-U.S. relations?

Sergey Lavrov: It is quite clear to me that neither the U.S. nor the NATO are going to strike at us. They are telling us about the absence of such plans every day and every hour in literally the following way: "Come on! What are you worried about? We have neither intentions nor capabilities to attack you". However, one wise man, as far as I remember Otto von Bismarck, once said that it was the potentials rather than the intentions that prevailed in military arts.

Any General Staff of any state will arrange their activities and give recommendations to the nation's top leadership on the basis of what they see in terms of infrastructural development on land and in the current environment also in the outer space, rather than what they are being promised. The interrelationship between the strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms as well as the necessity to ensure balance in this area in order to maintain strategic stability and strategic parity has been recognized since the very first contacts on security problems between Moscow and Washington as far back as in the Soviet period. The acknowledgement of this interrelationship was documented in the legally binding Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 which for decades indeed ensured strategic stability by letting neither party to the Treaty succumb to the temptation of outplaying somebody in the build of armaments which might have changed the strategic balance in their favour.

When the U.S. Administration withdrew from the Asnti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, this offered an opportunity to disrupt that balance. At present, we are witnessing a true creation of a U.S. global missile defence system, the European segment of which is aggressively developing on a unilateral basis. Without even waiting for the Alliance's decisions, although the system is called a NATO one, the U.S.A. signs treaties with Poland, the Czech Republic, Rumania, Turkey, and Spain. As the saying goes, they are creating concrete facts on land.

Question: The U.S. missile defence system is alleged to be directed against Iran, terrorists and so on. Is there a probability of a U.S. attack, if it is your own words that the United States will not strike at us?

Sergey Lavrov: I said that I do not see any such intentions either at present or in the foreseeable future. However, life goes on, and let us not forget that it is a four-stage system. Once the fourth stage is completed, if everything is the way it is scheduled now, the Russian military experts clearly see there risks to our strategic deterrent forces. Moreover, when we ask our American counterparts if the fourth stage is the last one, they say they have no restrictions whatsoever, reasoning that the U.S. Congress has prohibited restricting the system in any way. This means that there may be a fifth and even a sixth stage. What will be stipulated under those stages, we do not know. I repeat, even the fourth stage is being estimated as quite a serious risk to the Russian strategic deterrent forces.

Now let us see why it gives rise to our concern, although the system is directed against Iran. We are being told that the system is necessary for repulsing the threats growing in the southern direction and originating from outside Europe. Our proposal is to commit to writing clear guarantees that it is not directed at anyone within the European region. We also propose to develop clear-cut geographic and technical criteria that will allow to make sure at all stages that the system is developing for repulsing potential threats originating from outside Europe. In reply to that they just tell us to believe their bare word that the system which has been designed, is being practically implemented and embodied in steel and electronics is the only right one. We are being told: "Join us, and in the course of this cooperation you will understand that the system is not working against you". Our answer to that is: "All right, but can we sit down together and develop criteria that would let us make sure of it?" The answer is: "That is not necessary, we will give you information. This information makes any criteria unnecessary". However, the information is given to us in terms of what the Americans are doing on a unilateral basis. This approach is at least not too respectful of the intellectual capabilities of the Russian military experts and those engaged in the national defence.

Question: So what is the next move? It turns out that the entire Russian-American cooperation and in many ways the Russian-NATO relations are trapped by one single issue, isn't it?

Sergey Lavrov: I will put forward another argument. We know that one of the nations to sign a treaty on cooperation in creating the U.S. anti-missile defence system in Europe is Turkey. There are plans (which may have already been implemented) to install on its territory a r0adar which is required for the new system to monitor what the Americans need. If this refers to Iran, then this radar is not necessary, since one of the countries in the Middle East has for a long time housed a U.S. radar which covers the entire Iranian territory. If we take a look at the characteristics of the radar installed in Turkey, its range is absolutely similar to that of the mentioned radar, i.e. the territory of Iran and the greater part of the European territory of the Russian Federation.

Question: Don't the United States see the same from their satellites?

Sergey Lavrov: From the satellites, too. However, there are target-setting radars as well as tracking ones. Thus, we are dealing with very serious things here.

I would like to note that we are not trying to display the situation in such a way as though the problem of the missile defence system would ruin all our relations. No, we are not closing the door to negotiations. On the contrary, we want to go on with them in a professional and fair manner, without avoiding straightforward questions the answers to which determine our understanding of what our American partners are seeking. The more so as the European segment of the global anti-missile defence system is not the only one. Besides, there is an Asian segment which is to be created with the involvement of Japan and the Republic of Korea, and that segment may not be ignored by the military planners either. By the way, China has certain questions about the East-Asian segment of the U.S. global anti-missile defence system, and those questions are even more serious than ours. Therefore, we want to discuss all these concerns within the framework of our strategic dialogue and we expect an intelligible reaction to the questions we put to our American partners.

I repeat, we do not regard it as a problem that has to freeze all the rest. Russia and the U.S.A. have plenty of concurring interests in the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking and conflict resolution. As is known, Russia is helping handle the situation in Afghanistan where, unfortunately, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) authorized by the UN Security Council is not very efficient in fighting the terrorist and drug trafficking threats. Regrettably, instead of liquidated terrorists are being forced out to the northern areas which just three years ago were rather quiet and posed no problems to their neighbours. At present, from those areas the militants sneak into the Central Asian countries, to our CSTO allies. Further on, these people are trying to find way into the Russian territory. Let alone the drug traffic. Nonetheless, we are interested in a more efficient performance of the ISAF in Afghanistan, so we cooperate and offer an opportunity for transit.

Question: How does Russia estimate B. Obama's resolution to withdraw the U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014? Is it premature? Was it probably unwise to adopt it?

Sergey Lavrov: This issue is related to what you asked about a few minutes ago when you touched upon the subject of influence of foreign policy problems on domestic policy, including in the context of election campaigns. We believe that artificial deadlines are not quite reasonable in this sort of affairs.

The International Security Assistance Force the core of which is made up of U.S. troops has been in Afghanistan under the mandate of the UN Security Council. I think that before leaving it is necessary to report to the UNSC on the completion of the issued mandate the implementation of which was undertaken by the North Atlantic Alliance. For the time being, the terrorist threat has not been reduced, whereas the drug threat has been increasing and intensifying. In response to our numerous appeals, our NATO partners refuse to eliminate the crops of opium poppy, although coca plantations in Colombia are eliminated as a key direction of the anti-drug war. We are also concerned about the still insufficient pace of creating an Afghan security force to undertake the responsibility for ensuring law and order after the withdrawal of the foreign troops. We are trying to be helpful: we are training personnel for the Afghan law-enforcement authorities and counter-drug structures; we are ready to provide equipment. Russia together with Germany has recently donated two Russian helicopters to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Afghanistan. At present, we are selling 21 aircrafts to the U.S. for the Afghan army; they are also supposed to be used for increasing the combat effectiveness of the Afghans' own troops. We have to make sure that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan will be capable of ensuring its security by the time the international forces leave the country.

There is another issue which is not quite clear to us – the U.S. plans to preserve their military presence after 2014 in forms that may be used against third countries.

Question: Does that mean against Iran?

Sergey Lavrov: I did not say that. I don't know. Of course, Iran is currently in the limelight because everyone talks about it every day. However, the creation of several major military bases on the territory of Afghanistan without any deadlines or intelligibly declared objectives arouse concern.

These plans are not limited to the establishment of bases in Afghanistan only. The Americans are aggressively trying to seize extra military facilities in the countries of Central Asia for a long term. In this connection, we want to be aware of the goal of that presence. If it is required for the ongoing fight against the Afghan terroristic and drug threats, then why should the international force leave Afghanistan and what is the point of ‘cementing' the military presence for long years, if not for decades? In case it is a geopolitical project, we want to understand why such persistence is being displayed in a region which is in the immediate vicinity of our borders. Besides, the Chinese, too, want to know why such an aggressive movement is taking place in relations with Afghanistan and Central Asian countries.

Question: Is it necessary to maintain a dialogue with the Taliban or is it necessary to keep pressing the terrorists out and conduct only an uncompromising military struggle against them?

Sergey Lavrov: There is a resolution of the UN Security Council passed subject to an appeal of the Afghan government. It says that we entirely support the tendency towards national reconciliation, provided that there are no terrorists, al-Qaeda or associated groups among the opposition. For the Taliban to participate there are three conditions: the Taliban have to accept the Afghan Constitution, give up any violent methods of attaining their goals and cut all ties to al-Qaeda and any other groups collaborating with the latter. Certainly, no persons who are on the UNSC Terrorist List may be admitted. This is about all.

Undoubtedly, the Government of Afghanistan must be the main participant in the negotiations about national reconciliation. At present, there is information about attempts to launch a dialogue between the Americans and the Taliban throughout the territory of the country without the involvement of the Afghan government at this stage. I think this approach is inefficient and it must be changed.

However, I would like to once again resume the subject of our relations with the United States. Although our dialogue on Afghanistan and Central Asia is difficult, it is still progressing and developing in a rather active and efficient manner. We will go on with it seeking the answers to our legitimate questions.

Question: Have you asked the U.S. partners about the bases?

Sergey Lavrov: Yes, we have. There has been no intelligible answer yet, but the dialogue continues. I would like to get back to the issue of controversies over the anti-missile defence system and some other problems which may affect the general atmosphere of our relations. They certainly do. However, both parties are set to deepen our partnership in the areas where our interests coincide, without watering down the differences, and consider the latter within the framework of a direct dialogue. By the way, on 10 March, the U.S. President and the Russian President-Elect had a telephone conversation. B. Obama called V.V. Putin and they had rather a substantial ‘ventilation' of the key aspects of the Russian-American relations. It was agreed to hold a direct meeting shortly after the inauguration of the Russian President.

Question: What if B. Obama is not re-elected as the U.S. President? You mentioned that there were problems with the Republican vision of Russia in the United States.

Sergey Lavrov: The meeting will be held during B. Obama's term of office, anyway.

Question: What if we address the future?

Sergey Lavrov: As I said, the anti-Russian rhetoric is rather actively exploited by the Republican candidates. I will not make any examples – they are needless because everyone is monitoring those speeches. We will evaluate the policy of the U.S. President to be elected in November 2012 with respect to Russia by his actual acts rather than by the rhetoric we are hearing now.

Question: When we were talking about Afghanistan, we touched upon Iran. What is Moscow's vision of the current developments around Iran? The purely philistine point of view is as follows: Russia stands for diplomatic relations and against sanctions. This situation may last for more than ten years. For the time being, it has only afforded the Iranians an opportunity to avoid the performance of their international obligations and, apparently, develop their nuclear programme. Henceforth it turns out that, objectively speaking, Russia is acting as Iran's international advocate.

Sergey Lavrov: This is the wrong vision, for several reasons. Firstly, sanctions are the informed choice of the world community aimed at making Iran more amenable in its dialogue with the International Atomic Energy Agency. I will recall that, in contrast to the version being disseminated by some of our western partners, none of the reports issued by the Director General of the IAEA up to this moment contains an allegation that the Agency has information about Iran's possession of a military dimension of its nuclear programme. The predecessors of the current Iranian leadership alleged that they had proceeded to the development of the nuclear programme for peaceful purposes. The Agency grew suspicious because Tehran was to have reported on what it had been doing, but for some reason it had not. Since that time we have been seeking to clarify the Agency's questions. The greater if not the main part of those questions was closed a long time ago. There still remain several questions called ‘suggested research'. The ‘suggested' part means suspicions that there may be a military dimension. The IAEA has six or seven questions Iran has to answer, and we are actively motivating Tehran to do so.

In response to a resolution prepared with an active participation of Russia and adopted by consensus in November 2011 at a session of the IAEA Board of Governors, Iran volunteered to more effectively cooperate with the Agency. After that, the IAEA's delegation visited Iran, and it will go there once again. The Agency's representatives are already shaping a coordinated programme of work aimed at closing these six issues. This is a very complex technical aspect, and it is vital that all details should be stipulated. This subject relates, among other things, to the visits to Iran's military enterprises – military and non-nuclear ones. Iran is gradually starting to take off in this direction. Indeed, it is doing it slowly. Indeed, we would like this to have taken place before. However, there have been several factors that are far from facilitating the affair. I have already mentioned the sanctions. It is one thing when the UN Security Council develops combined sanctions of the world community which are binding on everyone. It forwards a clear signal to Iran that each and everyone wants it to take up specific steps aimed at improving cooperation with the IAEA. And it is quite another thing when a year and a half ago such combined sanctions were coordinated and Resolution 1929 of the UNSC resulted from very serious negotiations that had lasted for months during which each participant was contemplating over their potential risks in terms of economic relations and the degree to which the sanctions would be targeted precisely at the scientists engaged in the nuclear programme and at the organizations involved.

After that, the United States, Western Europe, Australia, Japan and the Republic of Korea imposed their supplementary unilateral sanctions without asking anyone a question. Moreover, the U.S. sanctions are of exterritorial nature, punishing Russian companies that comply with the UN resolutions. Thus, our companies meeting in good faith Russia's international obligations are being punished for violating the American legislation which is no law to us. We are trying to make the Americans give up expanding their punitive measures on Russian economic operators that meet in good faith the UNSC resolution. It doesn't make our attitude too positive or let us understand what exactly the Americans want. If what we all want to achieve is removing the white spaces in the nuclear programme, for this purpose there are collective sanctions and a common position. But if unilateral sanctions are imposed including bans on transactions with Iranian oil, pending bans on transactions of any Iranian banks and termination of cooperation with them, then they are targeted at strangulating the economy rather than ensuring the non-proliferation tasks. We are trying to use our relations with Iran in order to persuade it to cooperate with the UN Security Council and the IAEA, reasoning: "When you take all the issues off the table, you will be able to develop your peaceful nuclear energy programme". The Iranians respond: "No, if it were this way, there would be no suffocating unilateral sanctions. Since we are facing them, the goal of your western partners is not to achieve clarity about our nuclear programme, but to change the regime".

Question: However, ten years ago, when there were no strangulating sanctions, the Iranians were saying the same thing and doing nothing to properly collaborate, weren't they?

Sergey Lavrov: Properly – no, and they were not collaborating at the pace we expected from them.

However, I will repeat again, most of the questions the IAEA had are closed now. This is not a very popular topic to discuss, since there is a growing anti-Iranian hysteria. We all perfectly know that there are already undisguised allegations that unless strikes are delivered in the near future, the Iranian nuclear programme will get out of control. These statements are very dangerous. I will repeat once again – there is progress, and it has to be motivated. Our immediate task must be to help the Agency and Iran agree upon the plan of closing the remaining issues. These issues are really the most serious ones because they are based on apprehensions that the Iranian nuclear programme has a military dimension, which is absolutely unacceptable to Russia. We do not need a nuclear Iran. The second thing to do is to hold as soon as possible a meeting between Iran, the European Union Three, the USA, China and the Russian Federation to be chaired by C. Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. I hope the meeting will be held in April.

For a long time now Russia has been promoting the concept of superposition and reciprocity, because Iran has to see the ‘light at the end of the tunnel'. In 2008 Russia on behalf of the entire Six already told our Iranian counterparts that in case of closing these six or seven issues the Agency would report that it was convinced of the absolutely peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear programme. Then Iran would be liberated from all sanctions and enjoy all rights of any other NPT member that had no nuclear weapons. In other words, Iran would be able to enrich uranium in order to produce fuel for nuclear power plants.

This concept needs to be explained because it is certainly impossible to resolve everything in one go. We want to move on step by step. However, it is surely Iran that must make the first step at each stage. Once the Iranian side has satisfied a particular issue (for example stopped increasing the number of centrifuges), we do not step up sanctions. If another constructive move has been made, i.e. Iran has closed one more issue in its dialogue with the IAEA, then, respectively, some of the unilateral sanctions must be lifted. Then, in response to further steps made by Tehran multilateral sanctions must be loosened, too. The alternative is very poor. At present, the IAEA is monitoring everything Tehran has put under the Agency's control and it has no information that Iran has any secret nuclear facilities. Should any such suspicions appear, they must be reported to the IAEA and the Agency will verify them. However, if strikes are delivered at Iran, I am seriously afraid that the IAEA may become unable to perform round-the-clock online monitoring of what is going on at the Iranian nuclear sites. As long as such monitoring is going on, one cannot switch the centrifuges over to the production of weapon-grade uranium.

Question: If the United States and Israel strike a blow at Iranian nuclear sites, what will be Russia's reaction? Is it possible that it will seriously impede the Iranian nuclear programme, whatever its essence? Iran is a nation with ambitions which, as you say, do not fully comply with what Russia wants.

Sergey Lavrov: The scientists of virtually all countries analyzing such a scenario which no one needs are certain that the strikes really can impede the Iranian nuclear programme. However they will never cancel, close or terminate it. Furthermore, whereas even according to the CIA and U.S. officials' acknowledgments there is no information that the Iranian senior leaders have adopted a political resolution to produce nuclear weapons, in case of strikes at the country such resolution will be adopted, I am almost sure. That is because everything being performed for heating up the situation around Iran makes many Third World nations think: if you have a nuclear bomb, they do not molest you too much – instead they only impose some slight sanctions, always dandling, wooing and persuading you. Let us take up North Korea for instance. This country declares point-blank that it has a nuclear device that has been tried several times and also has missile technologies. However, in this situation the world community exercises responsibility and does not suggest bombing North Korea. We all insist on the prompt resumption of negotiations and seek for the ways that would make such negotiations fruitful and result in constructive arrangements. And this is done primarily by the United States.

Many analysts say that if Iran had a nuclear bomb it would not have to face threats and there would be no plans to bomb the country. Moreover, some of Iran's neighbours begin thinking that the story of M. Gaddafi who once gave up on a nuclear bomb might have ended in quite a different manner if he had had such a weapon. This makes some countries think of whether to launch their own nuclear programme.

The trouble is that such aggressive pounces on Iran create risks to the non-proliferation regime rather than reinforce it. All that is being done instead of focusing on attaining the goal by way of negotiations and displaying reasonable flexibility in order to prevent the obtainment of nuclear weapons by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Question: Unlike North Korea, Iran expressly threatens at least one state in the region, that state being Israel, and sets the goal of constitutionally disseminating a certain ideology in the region. The North Korean regime says: "Let us alone and we will not offend anyone". May that be the difference?

Sergey Lavrov: Iran says likewise: "Let us alone and we will not offend anyone". We strongly condemn the absolutely unacceptable statements concerning Israel which once were made by the Iranian President and some other officials. This is uncivilized and unworthy of such an old country as Iran, such an ancient nation with its great culture. I consider this as an example of foreign policy rhetoric aimed at achieving both domestic goals and objectives in the Muslim world. It is an ambition to retain in the anti-Israeli direction those on whom Iran relies in the neighbouring region. We expressly reject all this. I am certain that Iran will never venture upon it – after all, because everything is so tiny in the region. I don't think it is possible to threaten to destroy Israel at the same time trying to avoid affecting Palestine.

Question: Speaking at the State Duma you said that Russia was protecting the ideas of international justice in Syria. It obviously differs very much from what they think in the European capitals and in the United States where they say that Russia actually acts as the international advocate of B. Assad's regime, supplies it with weapons and protects it within the Security Council. What is the reason for the Russian position? Is it any particular interest like a sea base at Tartous or arms contracts or is it a compelling stand for the prevention of a regime change? Is it an ideological position or a position related to purely practical interests?

Sergey Lavrov: These are the fundamentals of the world order which we have to protect and which are stipulated in the UN Charter. It prevents involving the world society in regime change games and interfering in internal conflicts. The world community may only interfere in interstate conflicts where we deal with aggression and one side attacking the other. In interstate conflicts, the UN Security Council has all authorities to decide to engage some tough actions or other. The other event stipulated in the UN Charter for a legitimate use of force is exercising the right to either individual or collective self-defence. That is about it.

There is bloodshed in Syria. By the way, not in Syria only. It is also happening in Libya and in Mali where the militants have sneaked, including from Libya. There is bloodshed in Yemen and a number of neighbouring countries, but the international and western mass media prefer not to talk much about them.

You said that our position on Syria differed from what they think, say, in the West. On the contrary, what they think does not at all differ from what we declare in our position. They think in just the same way. There is a great difference between what they discuss in the calm and quiet of their offices and military headquarters and what they are saying publicly in the capitals. They perfectly know that as far back as last April there were first reports about armed men among demonstrators provoking the authorities into a disproportionate reaction.

I want to be understood extremely clearly: we do not justify the Syrian leadership at all. We believe that it reacted in the wrong way to the very first manifestations of peaceful protests. Despite repeated promises given in response to our appeals, the Syrian authorities are making a lot of mistakes. And the steps in the right direction are being made too late. Unfortunately, this has in many ways contributed to the acute stage the conflict has arrived at.

However, if we care about civilians we also have to condemn those who make provocative acts, and have been doing it for a long time now. They claim that it is only recently that the Syrian people have risen in arms against the repressive regime. That is untrue. Among demonstrators there are not only those who are protecting their homes (sure enough there are such people), and this is absolutely understandable. However, there are more and more mercenaries and militants seeking new activity after involvement in the hostilities in Libya and Iraq. Al-Qaeda is among them, too. It was in fact admitted by the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Congressional hearings. Answering the question why arms could not be supplied to Syria for the opposition, she said: "We are not sure who will eventually obtain the weapons, and we cannot perform deliveries which may fall into the hands of terrorists". Some al Jazeera reporters who have recently quit the TV company are now telling the public that as far back as last April they saw militants shooting at civilians in order to provoke the Syrian authorities. Therefore all these facts may not be concealed. They will eventually be revealed anyway.

Indeed, the Syrian authorities are not too fast to act and they are making a lot of mistakes. However, as soon as there appears a light at the end of the tunnel and a certain progress can be seen, they are immediately hampered by a counter reaction. This was the case with the observers sent by the League of Arab States. Having waited for less then just a month since they started work and before their report was reviewed in New York, the LAS withdrew its observers and closed the mission, although they had begun to take steps approximating the pacification of the situation. Anyhow, they provided some factual information showing that militants were doing unacceptable things as well as the governmental forces.

On 10 March 2012, a meeting of the ministers of foreign affairs of the LAS member states and Russia was held in Cairo. The meeting resulted in the approval of five settlement principles, one of them saying, ‘no external military interference'. A few hours later, my counterpart Sheikh Ahmad Bin Jassim Al Thani, head of the LAS Special Committee for Syria, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar with whom we conducted the negotiations announces that it is necessary to bring either Arab or international troops in Syria. It happens just a few hours after he committed to the ‘no external military interference' principle.

We actively support the mission of Kofi Annan who is a most experienced diplomat. If there is someone who can come up with something acceptable to everybody, it is him. He has visited Damascus and participated in a teleconference with the members of the UN Security Council. Today there is a group of experts in Syria who are promoting the ideas he set forth in his contacts with the government and opposition. At the same time all of a sudden, for no apparent reason the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf withdraw all their ambassadors from Damascus. And exactly at that moment a series of horrifying terroristic attacks strike Damascus, Aleppo and some other cities. All this makes an impression that these events, even if not deliberately designed, add up to the frustration of K. Annan's mission.

Question: Who can benefit from torpedoing K. Annan's mission in this situation? Do you believe that Syria is sort of a foothold where the Sunnite regimes of the Persian Gulf are struggling against, say, Iran?

Sergey Lavrov: Struggle is going on throughout the region. There is no doubt that if the current regime in Syria collapses, there will be a strong temptation and a strong pressure on the part of some countries of the region towards the establishment of a Sunnite regime in the Syrian Arab Republic. In this situation we are concerned about the future of Christians and other religious minorities like the Kurds, Alawis, Druze, etc. What may happen in Lebanon I cannot even foresee. It is also a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional country with a fragile state structure. I suggest Iraq will not remain unaffected by these processes either, since at present all top leadership posts there are dominated by the Shias. A particular problem is Kurdistan. There is quite a great autonomy, at least de facto. There are unresolved problems with the constitution and the position the Sunnites want to have in society. All this is indeed very explosive and requires acting in an extremely careful manner.

As soon as the UN/LAS Special Envoy on Syria proceeded to his mission, the representative of the Syrian National Council declared from Turkey that the mission had already failed, since K. Annan had not demanded B. Assad's departure as an absolutely indispensable precondition for all the rest. We have already been in this situation and perfectly know that this demand is unrealistic. That is not because we are protecting B. Assad (I have already said it several times), but because it is unreal. The only real approach suggests that everyone who has a slightest influence on any party to the conflict in Syria should demand stopping violence and set up a monitoring mechanism. This is the priority K. Annan is working on. After that everyone who influences any Syrian players would bring the parties to the negotiating table. This is the only way to handle the situation.

Question: You talked with B. Assad looking into his eyes. Does he realize the lateness of his decisions? Isn't it better for him to resign and leave for Moscow or Minsk than to end up like M. Gaddafi?

Sergey Lavrov: Nobody is inviting him to Moscow.

Perhaps, but it's up to B. Assad to decide. He won't make the decision because someone from Russia asked him to. Many western capitals are already talking about him as a military criminal, claiming that the right place for him is The Hague and the International Tribunal. In such case it is not us, but those who make such statements have to explain to the Syrian President what opportunities he has. And the most important thing is that decisions must be made by the Syrian people. I am confident that if a comprehensive all-Syrian dialogue is launched to involve each and every representative of the opposition and the government (as everyone describes and which is being called for), it will be the right format for settling all issues including who is to head Syria during the transition period as was the case with Yemen.

In Yemen, none of the international external players ever spoke about any preconditions. All parties including Western Europe, the United States, the countries of the Persian Gulf, Russia, the UNO and the European Union demanded that all the Yemenis sit down to the negotiating table. Despite the continuing warfare, for many months everyone exercised patience which is not the case with Syria. And only after all the Yemenis agreed on the pattern of handover of power including the departure of A. Saleh and guarantees granted to him did the UN Security Council approve the Yemeni resolution. Now they are trying to put the cart before the horse, i.e. to impose an outcome on the Syrians through the Security Council which will not be stable and will only encourage new upsurges in confrontation.

Question: Do I get you right that in case of reaching agreement Russia would probably want B. Assad to quit the scene?

Sergey Lavrov: The only thing we want is the cessation of bloodshed in Syria. How can it be attained? We propose absolutely explicit things. I have just listed them. Everyone has to make their ‘fosterlings' (excuse me for this not really diplomatic expression) stop shooting at one another. We also have to set up an unbiased mechanism for monitoring what is going on which will let us make sure that everyone has ceased fire. Everyone has to bring their ‘political fosterlings' to the conference table. You know, when the Pope is being elected they say, you will not exit until you decide.

Some are saying that after B. Assad's departure everything will get back to normal by itself. Far from it! The question about how it is all going to look and who is going to guide the process, bearing in mind the complete fragmentation of the Syrian opposition, receives no intelligible answer. Inside the NATO, European Union and some western states the Syrian situation is called half-desperate. At the same time, they are reluctant to bring those who obey them to the negotiating table. That is the trouble.

As for the bloodshed in Yemen, that is a very serious problem. One of the most active players in Yemen is al-Qaeda. In the environment where al-Qaeda is trying to trigger inter-ethnic contradictions which in any case exist in the country, a consolidating structure is all the more necessary. We are glad to see that everyone has already agreed upon the powers of the Yemeni authorities and they are not disputed by anybody. This makes the difference and this is what we want to achieve in Syria. How can one demand that the Syrian government ground arms amidst terrorist attacks at Damascus, Aleppo and other Syrian cities?

Question: Does B. Assad realize that?

Sergey Lavrov: I think he does. When M.E. Fradkov and I were in Damascus, B. Assad told us that since that moment he was ready for a political dialogue with all representatives of the opposition, but the war on terror would not stop. I believe it is impossible to ignore such manifestations as the recent acts of terrorism which have the signs of al-Qaeda's hand. Otherwise people will live in permanent terror.

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