By Iran Review
Interview with Michael Baron Von Ungern Sternberg
By Sara Massoumi
On December 15, the governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency has overwhelmingly voted in favor of a draft resolution which brings an end to a 12-year investigation into the past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Also on July 14, Iran and the group of six world powers – comprising China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – reached a comprehensive agreement that drew a happy end to over a decade of exhausting tensions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. The deal would ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of Tehran’s nuclear activities and in return, terminate all the nuclear-related sanctions placed on Iran. Removal of sanctions would pave the way for expansion of mutual trade between EU and Iran. Germany was Iran’s first partner in industrial production since 15 years ago and now time is more ripe to amend relations between the two countries. Etemad Persian daily journalist, Sara Massoumi has interviewed H.E. Mr. Michael Baron Von Ungern-Sternberg, the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to Iran in this regard and other issues such as, crisis in Syria, defeating ISIS, Bashar Assad’s destiny and his role in Syria’s future, Germany’s foreign policy in the region after Paris terrorist attacks, Russia’s involvement in Syria, Saudi’s attack on Yemen, Iran – Saudi relations and… He believes that although “the nuclear agreement has opened doors for more cooperation but it has not solved outstanding issues in other areas. On Syria, there are some serious and well-known disagreements”. The following is the full transcript of the interview:
Q: In one of your interviews you mentioned that Germany looks at Iran as an important country in the region. However, prior to Iran’s Nuclear Deal with the P5+1, Germany – like other countries – was not willing to cooperate with Iran on regional issues, especially on the crisis in Syria or Iraq. Don’t you think that if the European countries separated Iran’s nuclear issue from the political issue in the region we wouldn’t have witnessed such crisis in the Middle East, Especially what we are seeing in Syria now?
A: From the very beginning of this gruesome conflict, the German position has been that Iran should be in some way involved in the discussion on its solution. But obviously the nuclear agreement has made a difference – there is an atmosphere of cooperation which did not exist before. So we do believe, and hope, that the nuclear agreement has opened doors for more cooperation. To put it differently: Of course the nuclear agreement has opened doors but it has not solved outstanding issues in other areas. On Syria, there are some serious and well-known disagreements. The Syrian crisis has been raging for five long years and there are some fundamental differences of opinion, including between Iran and Germany, not just between Iran and the United States or other countries. However, at this stage all major international and regional parties have agreed to convene in Vienna, and we all have to acknowledge that this is a very useful development. Moreover, something very substantial has been achieved during the last meeting: For the first time since the beginning of the crisis, a common document, outlining objectives such as a ceasefire, the fight against terrorism, and humanitarian issues has been agreed on.
So I think it’s true to say that we had serious disagreements, which had nothing to do with the Nuclear Deal. However, things have evolved and right now we should focus on the future.
Q: EU countries see two issues in Syria. One is removing Assad, either in the near future or in the long term and the second one, which seems more crucial today, is defeating ISIS. Which one is Germany’s priority?
A: Firstly, Germany’s priority is to have conditions under which Syria has a legitimate government, representing all Syrians, without human rights violations, with access to humanitarian aid. We are looking for a political process, which will produce such a result. Secondly, this legitimate government should control the entirety of Syrian territory, a disintegration of the country must therefore be prevented. This is our common aim, and it is now enshrined in the Vienna document. Except for the conflicting sides of Syria, all countries involved were present around the table: Regional powers, European countries, Russia and the United States. Consequently, they are all bound by this document now, which is a huge step forward.
Q: As you mentioned, it’s been five years since the crisis started in Syria. Don’t you think that if Europe dealt with Bashar al-Assad in a different way, like asking him for a re-election and reform, there wouldn’t be such terrorist groups and attacks in the region or even in the Europe?
A: First of all, this war started as a purely internal conflict. There were no European soldiers attacking the regime of President Assad nor any American soldiers doing so. It was an internal fight. Since then, many people have been killed, many more people have been displaced, millions have been forced to leave the country and it this has no connection to any European or American presence whatsoever. If Assad had been willing to heed the call of his own people five years ago, I think we might have avoided this.
One of our main aims in the beginning was to try and provide humanitarian aid, but this was impossible because there was no access. The government of President Assad simply did not accept any foreigners coming in. Even today it is actually very difficult to obtain sufficient access for UN institutions in charge of humanitarian aid. That’s a very big problem. Moreover, an independent Commission of Inquiry was set up on the situation of Human Rights in Syria, which was headed by Mr. Sergio Pinheiro. The report produced by this commission speaks a clear language. The crisis in Syria is a huge humanitarian problem but it is fundamentally a civil war between Syrians and the government, even though foreign extremist groups became involved at a much later stage.
Q: Does Germany see a place for Assad in the next election? For instance, Iran said that Assad can run for presidency and if Syrians vote for him, then he will take office again.
A: The process leading to free elections will certainly be complicated. But what we will see as one of the next steps is the opposition, engaging in a direct dialogue with the government. And eventually it is up to these parties to decide what will happen.
Q: Do you think they can decide? If they could, we wouldn’t have witnessed such a crisis for five years.
A: We certainly hope that there will be mediation from outside under the auspices of the United Nations. I don’t think that there are alternatives to the Syrian parties deciding themselves on their fate. The Security Council hasn’t been able to do so. As a result of the last session in Vienna, all parties agreed on a number of points: The Syrian Opposition has to engage into a dialogue with Assad, a transitional body must be agreed on. Finally, within eighteen months elections are to be held and a new constitution is to be drafted. And that, I think, is a very demanding roadmap but at least we have a plan now, and this plan has the blessing of the international community.
Q: The U.N has recently adopted a Human Rights resolution against Syria, which was supported by your country. In that resolution the UN demands foreign militias, which include Iranian groups, to leave Syrian territory immediately. Don’t you think Iran fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq helps the security of EU countries as well?
A: We never thought that the presence of foreign armed forces in Syria was helpful. There are many points in this resolution, and this is not the first resolution dealing with the issue of Syria from the Third committee of the UN General Assembly or the Human Rights Council in Geneva. We have always voted in favor of these resolutions, because it is important to closely monitor the human rights situation in Syria. In addition, these resolutions are strongly based on the reports by the commission of enquiry that I mentioned before.
In our statement, which was made after the resolution was adopted in New York, we made it clear that we should be looking forward. Of course that does not mean we were the ones who were pushing for specifically naming the Iranian presence in Syria. But what we did do, we supported the resolution as a whole.
Q: What impact did the Paris terrorist attacks have on Germany’s foreign policy in the region?
A: I think the impact of recent events in Paris is not limited to French, German or European foreign policy, it will have consequences on a global scale. In recent weeks we had to observe, once again, that terrorists are present in many places, not just in Europe. The Russians have been suffering as well and of course this has raised awareness of the risks caused by the existence of these groups.
Q: Then do you think Europe is going towards a stronger military presence in the Middle East?
A: We will see more military involvement. We hope that things can be solved in a political way. No option can be excluded a priori and there is already some military presence from European countries in different forms. Moreover, the German government has expressed its willingness to support the fight against IS with 1200 of our own troops. But we certainly do have a preference to sort things out diplomatically.
Q: And do you think ISIS is defeatable by diplomatic measures?
A: Well I think there is a certain common understanding in the international community on the way to proceed. You asked me about the increase of the military presence. If there is a common approach in the international community, then I think it will be very difficult for ISIS to go on with their operations as they have in the past. Clearly, to deal with ISIS a combination of different instruments is needed, among them diplomatic and military.
Q: Have the European countries reached a common understanding about the refugees? Because after the Paris Attacks we heard that you may close your borders. If so, what is going to happen to the refugees and if not, which countries will take in the most refugees?
A: There is an ongoing discussion about the refugees in Europe and there is no solution yet. When the crisis started there was extreme urgency because the refugees were there and somebody had to take care of them. So you couldn’t tell these refugees to wait for another three months until we find the perfect solution. As a consequence, they came in and the numbers have been increasing since. However, it was and it still is very difficult to absorb this amount of people very quickly. So absorption capacity is an issue. The signal is that the Europeans want to assist refugees fleeing from war-torn countries, but obviously we can’t do everything.
Therefore, first of all, a fair burden-sharing agreement has to be reached between European countries. Secondly, we also understand that host countries in the region need some help. Therefore, Germany has been supporting the refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Finally, the humanitarian aid inside Syria is a major issue. We need to fix the problem of humanitarian access, we need to do something with the outside border of the European Union, making it more secure, and those who come in, have to be handled in a more controlled way.
To sum it up, as a principle we are not going to shut down our borders for refugees fleeing from civil war. That’s not the signal, we just believe that the whole international community needs to participate more actively, and that in practice absorption capacity is an issue.
Q: How do you evaluate Russia’s bombardment of ISIS territory in Syria? Do find it effective in the long term?
A: I don’t want to comment Russian policy. It’s not for me to do that.
Q: Does Germany openly support or disapprove these operations?
A: We are happy that the Vienna process is moving forward. And that is a huge step. We will see what can be done to make sure that the Vienna document gets fully implemented.
Q: But in the Vienna documents nobody asks Russia to stop the attacks.
A: As far as ISIS is concerned, there is an agreement that this group needs to be fought, that’s true.
Q: By force?
A: By all appropriate means
Q: Germany used to be Iran’s biggest economic partner before the nuclear issues in Iran. What is Germany’s plan today to return to those days?
A: Of course we would like to see exchange between Germany and Iran increase both in terms of trade and of investments. We think that this would be mutually beneficial and we are glad to see that, traditionally, there is a lot of good will vis-à-vis Germany in Iran.
However, there is competition both on the German and Iranian side and whether Germany will return to be partner number one in the future will also depend on the conditions offered to each individual company. We do believe that there is great potential, though. The intensification of investment would lead to the creation of new jobs in Iran, it would facilitate access to modern technology and generate income for German companies.
That said, closer ties between our businesses would also have positive repercussions on our political, cultural and scientific cooperation. Therefore I am hopeful and optimistic that we will be able to achieve good progress.
Q: We have always heard that EU countries criticize Human Rights violations in Iran or in Syria -as you mentioned- but we never heard about Human Rights violations in Saudi Arabia. Why do EU countries refuse to talk about Human Rights violations in Saudi?
A: No, that is incorrect. If there are human rights violations in Saudi Arabia we frankly tell the government of that country that we don’t think it’s good and these issues are important parts of our dialogue.
Q: And don’t you think that we need a Human Rights resolution for Saudi Arabia as well? Just a week ago the UN passed a Human Rights resolution on Iran, but we never see such a resolution for Saudi Arabia. Is it because Saudi is Europe’s trading partner?
A: Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are important trade partners, and I think we should not confuse these topics. Of course, we cannot have a specific human rights resolution for every country where we have difficulties with the human rights situation. As you probably know, also Germany is sometimes subject to criticism in the field of human rights. We do have special rapporteurs from the UN coming to Germany who express their objections to certain developments and we accept that.
But to have a resolution of the United Nations on a specific country is an exception; not the general rule. We have different mechanisms in the human rights area in the UN, among these the UPR (Universal Periodic Review) process, resolutions dealing with specific countries or special rapporteurs on certain Human Rights. All of these instruments are equally important. So, for the time being we have a resolution on Iran but if the situation significantly improves, this certainly will be reviewed. At this juncture we believe the situation here warrants a resolution. However, it is obvious that any resolution should be balanced and if there is progress in certain areas this should be acknowledged and reflected in the document.
Q: In his recent visit to Iran, Germany’s foreign minister talked about Germany’s plan to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Did Germany take any steps in that regard or has Saudi Arabia accepted Germany’s mediation?
A: You can’t force two sides who are not talking to one another to start a dialogue. You just can’t. You sure can offer your assistance, but it is impossible to impose it. And of course we are aware that sometimes, the prevailing conditions make it very difficult for both partners to start this process.
But I think we should not give up on this aim. To bring responsible people from Saudi Arabia and Iran to a table, to find areas of cooperation while at the same time reducing persisting frictions – all of these efforts will prove beneficial to the entire Middle East. Therefore I can only repeat my message, the offer is there, but as long as both sides are not willing to accept it, there is nothing we can change.
Q: It’s been more than eight months that we are witnessing Saudi attacking Yemen territory. Why don’t the Europeans take action in order to stop Saudi’s attack on Yemen? Is there a difference between Yemenis and Syrians?
A: Firstly, let me point out that there is great concern in Europe and in Germany about the situation in Yemen. In fact, the aim of our persistent work is to convince all parties involved to sit around the table and to support UN efforts in this regard. Similar steps are undertaken by UN representatives. We can expect to see direct talks in the near future and we hope for substantial results, because we believe the people of Yemen must be saved from the terrible situation they’re confronted with.
Q: In his recent visit to Iran, President Putin announced an official alliance between Iran and his country. Does the Iran and Russia alliance worry the Europeans?
A: The answer to your question depends on the nature of the alliance mentioned. We have no problem whatsoever if two countries like Iran and Russia, which are geographically close, enjoy a good cooperation. It’s perfectly normal that there should be economic exchange. If the cooperation ends up in greater stability, that is also a positive development. So it really depends where this cooperation is going and what it is aimed at.
Q: Some Analysts believe that Russia is trying to use the Syria Card to win the Ukraine issue. How is the situation in Ukraine now and do you think that EU countries will cooperate more with Russia to solve the Ukraine problem?
A: Germany has made huge efforts on all levels to defuse and ultimately solve the Ukraine crisis, again by negotiations. There have been numerous meetings in Minsk both at ministerial and head-of-state level. Fortunately, we can also claim that there has been some progress. Heavy arms are being removed, the agreed ceasefire is widely, albeit not universally respected. Let’s be clear on this: The UKR conflict directly affects our neighborhood and it has the potential to spark far greater disaster, we’re therefore moderately optimistic about recent developments. That said, I don’t see any merit in it linking it to the ongoing crisis Syria.
Q: Does the Paris attack lead Europe and Russia to shape an alliance in Syria?
A: I suppose no one can currently claim to know, what the repercussions of the Paris attacks ultimately will be. I do think, however, that we should make use of the current momentum to solve the crisis. There have been many efforts to try and move things forward in the framework of the United Nations. Unfortunately, the Security Council was unable to take decisive action, so let’s just work as hard as we can in Vienna. The rhythm of meetings is extraordinarily fast and the documents and the decisions that have been taken are very demanding. I think we should proceed on that path. The last couple of weeks have been quite productive.