Russia warns against use of Qatar crisis to change Mideast balance

IFP – Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov says any use of the ongoing tension in relations between Persian Gulf littoral states to change the regional balance would deteriorate the already fragile situation in the Middle East.

In an exclusive interview with the Etemad daily newspaper, Ryabkov has weighed in on a range of issues, from the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers to the ‘promising’ relations between Tehran and Moscow, the Qatar crisis, and Russia’s presence in Syria.

During the interview, the Russian deputy foreign minister stressed that Moscow will stay in Syria as long as its goals are achieved in the Arab country.

Ryabkov also pointed to the bilateral ties between Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, and said the two sides have ‘one of the most promising relations on earth’ despite all the ups and downs.

He further warned the United States against playing games with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), saying there is no alternative to the historic nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers.

Ryabkov gave the interview to Etemad’s Sara Massoumi during his recent visit to Tehran on July 11, a few days before the second anniversary of signing the nuclear deal.

Here is the full text of the interview:

What are the main subjects of your discussions here in Tehran?

We have finished our round of exchanges with deputy ministers Araqchi and Takht-Ravanchi. We have focused, very much focused on the JCPOA and the implementation of JCPOA and future of this arrangement because as we all see the road is not necessarily without bumps, and there are in some ways predictable bothers so the ones which need to be looked into we have addressed. Besides, we have discussed some issues in relation to our joint and common work at the United Nations on issues of security. We didn’t touch any bilateral things since that was not the point and I’m not doing bilateral relationship with Iran formally in the Russian system although I follow it and I’m glad that the relationship is in an upswing and moving to new heights if you wish, both politically and economically. But centre, the focal point of our discussions today was JCPOA.

In the light of Donald Trump’s threatening remarks about the nuclear deal, has Russia pressed Washington or sent any direct messages to the Trump administration, calling for US commitment to the JCPOA?

You may rest assured that we have done so already many times at different levels, including at the very high political level. We have said that there is no alternative for the JCPOA, as a long-term sustainable solution to the problems that existed around the Iranian nuclear program for some time and frankly poisoned the atmosphere and made so many things difficult to achieve. Now, the JCPOA is there, and it has already made a difference in terms of releasing pressures in many forms, releasing sanctions, most of them but not all of them. This is one of the problems. We see continuous attempts by some circles in the US to put the JCPOA in question and even in jeopardy. We’ll warn the US administration against it, in strongest possible terms. We think it would be to the detriment of the interests of the US itself, if JCPOA is removed or if the JCPOA is subject to some modifications. I don’t see any reason why and how it should be modified. We stay very firm and strong on this point as well. And we warn the US altogether about this kind of easy-going frivolous, if you wish, approach to very serious things in international affairs. Serious things should be treated seriously. There is no place for just trying to scrape something on surface, and then to conclude that this is wrong or this is bad. All things deserve deep analysis and upon our own deep analysis we conclude that there is no alternative to JCPOA, and we warn the US against playing games with this agreement.

Russia will warn the US administration against putting the JCPOA in jeopardy, in strongest possible terms. We think it would be to the detriment of the interests of the US itself, if JCPOA is removed or if the JCPOA is subject to some modifications. I don’t see any reason why and how it should be modified. […] We warn the US against playing games with this agreement.

Did Russia receive any green light from the American side which shows that they are going to continue the implementation of JCPOA?

We know that the US is currently in the process of reviewing its policy towards Iran, including the JCPOA, as well as on many other aspects of their foreign and external policy altogether. We don’t know when this process will end. We thought initially that it may end somewhere mid-summer. That is in a very few days, and it didn’t happen and it will not happen, I believe before the end of summer. It may well take even longer than that but that continuous sense of uncertainty about the JCPOA is unhelpful. We think it would be much better if the US decides to observe and preserve the JCPOA and announces this sooner other than later. And of course we will once again warn against a very destructive scenario of reconsidering “the situation around the JCPOA”. And we use the time of this US policy review to make all these points known to them, at the political level and at lower levels including at the expert level. Next week, the next regular joint commission meeting is due in Vienna. We will use this venue and this platform once again to send this message as I have tried to describe it for you, to the US side in the course of the meeting and also on the margins of the meeting when we take bilateral contexts with the US side.

Was the nuclear deal or Iran regional activities brought up during the recent president Trump and president Putin meeting?

Let me tell you first that it was one of the most engaged and intense meetings that I know. I wasn’t present there myself and the only official present from each side was the foreign minister. Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary of State Tillerson. But the meeting was very intense and it was a long meeting. And it was focused so to say on three major clusters of issues. One is bilateral relationship between the US and Russia, which is in a very bad stance. The previous US administration, the Obama administration, deliberately created a situation when it is very hard for any new administration to move things into a more positive direction. Beside you saw all the speculations and ugly stories deliberately developed in the US media against Russian ambassador and Russia, as a state, so-called Russian meddling which never took place, I stress this and I can say as many times as you want that there was no Russian interference in the US domestic affairs. So this debate, this discussion, continued at the level of presidents for a while at their meeting in Hamburg. And they have agreed to more practically deal with the issues of information security and cybersecurity and also to try to develop if possible a framework for the US-Russian relationship of a more political nature, where mutual respect and mutual non-interference in domestic affairs and internal affairs could be set forth on a documentary basis.

During the meeting between the Russian President and Trump, the issue of Iran as a positive force regionally, an important player that manages to add reason and stability to this area of endless strategies for Syrian people was raised and ditched upon and highlighted by president Putin.

The second cluster was Syria and everything that relates to Syria, to the current moment, the political process, and also the process of establishing the zones of the de-escalation and one of the zones was announced practically in parallel with the presidential meeting there and they kind of gave a blueprint for that zone and the issue of Iran as a positive force regionally, an important player that manages to add reason and stability to this area of endless strategies for Syrian people was raised and ditched upon and highlighted by president Putin. I wouldn’t deny that it was questioned mildly by president Trump. But that was how we expected things to transpire and that was the only turn of the discussion when I think Iran was touched in a specific manner by the president. And the third question was Ukraine where we have a very difficult situation of president Poroshenko of Ukraine moving away and departing from the so-called Minsk package which we believe is the indispensable and the only actually basis for any viable solution. So president Putin explained our logic and said how we believe things should be moved forward in different formats including at the Normandy format and president Trump announced on that occasion that he has appointed or rather I may misinterpret what was said, that the US has appointed its envoy on Ukraine and that is ambassador Kurt Volker, former US permanent representative to NATO. He will serve as a successor to Victoria Nuland, former assistant secretary for Europe and Eurasia. She played a role as a appointed person on the US side in dialogue with Russia and with Ukraine for that case on these issues. Kurt Volker will step in her foots. So we look forward to continued dialogue with the US. So that was more or less how this meeting took place with some specific agreements in the end in terms of instructions to the leaders to work and in terms of de-escalation zone announced, but also a good deal of disagreement that is further substance for discussion. So the JCPOA was not mentioned there, to finish my long answer with a short sentence.

The US has repeatedly mooted Iran’s missiles program in the UN Security Council. However, the missiles program violates neither the JCPOA, nor the Resolution 2231. How does Russia view the issue?

We have here a very clear case of political misinterpretation of the earlier achieved agreements by the US. Nothing in 2231 allows the US to play these dirty games on the issue of Iranian missile testing and Iranian missile program altogether. The only thing, which 2231, you know, requests or even invites Iran to is to refrain from testing of missiles specifically designed for delivery of nuclear weapons. Well, invitation is not equal to prohibition. That’s obvious for any sensible person. Secondly, nothing in Iran has been done or will be done in terms of developing a nuclear-weapon device. We are very confident in this and I think JCPOA is a big achievement also in terms of restoring complete and full confidence in exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program. This is the backbone of JCPOA altogether. So it would be ridiculous if it would not be that serious that the US deliberately distorts the concept of 2231 to its own advantage. So we reject any attempts to use this as a pretext for further sanctions. There will be no place for UN-approved sanctions, additional sanctions on Iran. That I promise. But for the US unilateral sanctions on Iran, I think, is contrary to the spirit and letter of JCPOA and we thus question the US compliance with the JCPOA because of this type of behaviour. Not just because of this but also because of this. And how a discussion on the Iranian missiles program develops is a litmus test of good intentions of the US and their faithful implementation of the document.

Nothing in UNSC Resolution 2231 allows the US to play its dirty games on the issue of Iranian missile testing and Iranian missile program altogether. […] Moscow rejects any attempts to use this as a pretext for further sanctions.

How do you describe Iran-Russia relations? Some observers call them strategic partners, some see them as allies, and some call the ties as only temporarily strategic.

I think it’s not an easy relationship because it’s there for several centuries. And naturally, over centuries with the neighbours we have some ups and downs but I am a true and firm believer not just in the bright future of our relationship, it goes without saying, but also on our ability in our current positions to get more action more momentum more trekking in a positive sense because we are here united about some very clear and obvious goals; stability and prosperity in the region, be it west Asian region, Gulf region, Syria, broader Middle East, and also further north for Iran, in the vast area of Eurasia. We are good neighbours and we should explore opportunities and use these opportunities how to benefit from closeness in terms of developing trade, investment, exploration of natural resources, preservation of environment, sea environment, everything, transport corridors, you mentioned it. So I’m hopeful but I’m also keen to say that this is one of the most promising relations on earth.

The relations between Tehran and Moscow are one of the most promising relations on earth. The two sides are good neighbours and should explore opportunities to benefit from this closeness in developing trade, investment, exploration of natural resources, etc.

Does Russia have a long-term plan for military involvement in the Middle East? It is the most active military actor in Syria now.

Well, we don’t have those plans and I don’t believe we’ll develop some. We will be in Syria as long as we can say we have achieved our goals and that is to defeat the terrorists and ensure that the environment for the political process is the right one. Still there are forces that work to the detriment of it. I am encouraged by the fact that Iran together with Russia and Turkey plays that important role in terms of guaranteeing the arrangements arrived at during the Astana process, we’re also party to the Geneva process. But now with the US working on the zones of de-escalation in different areas, we’re stressing that it’s not an alternative to the unified territorial integral and sovereign Syria. It’s rather a tool to ensure that the integral and sovereign and territorially inviable Syria is in place and then let’s the Syrian themselves decide on how they will govern themselves. We will be there to defeat terrorists and ensure that destructive forces do not take over the more reasonable forces. That’s the point I will make. How long it would take is an open question, so we have no firm time-frame.

Russia has no firm time-frame for its presence in Syria, but it will be in the Arab country as long as we can say we have achieved our goals and that is to defeat the terrorists and ensure that the environment for the political process is the right one.

Why was ceasefire in southern Syria put off the table in Astana talks to be negotiated in direct bilateral talks between Russia and the US? Was it because of Israeli concerns about Iran’s role in the region?

No, I would not overplay the Israeli influence altogether. One could say equally that the Jordanian influence was there. My point would be that it’s a proper test ground where all the parties involved with a degree of confidence well below zero may try something alternative and more positive and constructive. And then try to spread this practice and use this experience elsewhere where the situation probably is even worse and more complicated than exactly in this area. I would not overplay the Israeli factor.

There is a new crisis in the Persian Gulf region which affected Qatar and some of its Arab neighbours especially Saudi Arabia. How concerned is Russia about this and did you try any kind of mediation in this crisis?

Of course we are concerned. I think although the immediate danger of some military conflict is no more there, nonetheless it is not gone and fundamental problems which turned into these open crises are not addressed in the way they should be. We have proposed in our contacts with all players involved including with the Qataris, the Emirates and the Saudis of course and others to offer our good offices. We’re not imposing anything. We follow how others behave. We follow with interest the US initiatives and action on this. But one thing we want to warn against is to use this dangerous situation in an attempt to “change the regional balance”. That would be yet another blow to the already very fragile situation and the least thing all of us will need is you know a major crisis in the Persian Gulf. And I welcome and approve the very responsible policy, position, stance which the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran takes on all these issues and the messages that are being sent from Tehran to the major actors in the Gulf. We follow these with interest and we’re trying to, as much as we can, to be there in a positive way, not to meddle but again to offer good services when and if required.

On Qatar crisis, Russia is following the US initiatives and action, but one thing we want to warn against is to use this dangerous situation in an attempt to “change the regional balance”. That would be yet another blow to the already very fragile situation and the least thing all of us will need is a major crisis in the Persian Gulf.

Russia is fighting ISIS (Daesh) in Syria. However there are so many critics about the military presence of your country in Syria. Do you have any time table for withdrawing from Syria?

Well, we came into Syria for that purpose, to fight ISIS, Nusra, affiliates there. We didn’t have any particular success unfortunately in agreeing with the US under the previous administration on how to “separate” the terrorists from the opposition to the government which took weapons into their hands. I know it is a very fragile border, a very fragile limitation line between the two and the US was not able to draw that line in a manner that was clear and persuasive for us. And I suspect they didn’t do so on purpose frankly. They wanted to keep this grey zone to play their geopolitical games, dividing terrorists on “bad terrorists” and “not so bad terrorists”. That’s the worst thing possible and it prompted us in the end to get more involved in practical terms there. Some say that Russia is there to just support Assad militarily. We are not doing what we’re doing there to support Assad militarily but we support him militarily when he fights terrorists and some US action points to the contrary and we went public earlier this year by saying that for example while attacking the Shayrat airbase on April 7, which was an act of aggression on the part of the US in grave violation of UN Security Charter, the US played the game of terrorists. They played this into the hands of terrorists. We went public saying that they helped terrorists. That’s not the behaviour of a responsible superpower by no measure. And we will stay firm saying why we’re there and what we’re doing there and that this is right. And what they’re doing, that was wrong. Hopefully, the zone of de-escalation in southwestern Syria will help us build confidence and avoid mistakes, tragic mistakes, and miscalculations and misinterpretations of each other’s intentions.