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Transcript of FT interview with Kofi Annan

Transcript of FT interview with Kofi Annan

FT interview with Kofi Annan, at the end of his tour of the Middle East.

Quentin Peel: Why did you launch this diplomatic initiative? Wasn't it very high risk, because it would raise high expectations?

Kofi Annan: I felt that we had a very short window and that we had an opportunity to consolidate the ceasefire and stabilise the situation in Lebanon by rallying the regional and international community around it. When the cessation of hostilities was finally adopted, many people didn't think it would work, including some in my organisation… but I had a strong feeling that it would hold, and that we should and could make it hold. That if we could make it hold, we would really be able to turn the situation around. I think by the time the cessation of hostilities came around, which I believed could have come earlier, the parties had realised that they were not going to achieve their objectives.

QP: There was a turning point, wasn't there, when they probably both – Israel and Hizbollah – realised it wasn't going anywhere?

KA: In fact, in a way (UN Security Council resolution) 1701 was a ladder for both of them to climb back from the precipice.

QP: What have you really achieved, apart from rallying everyone around?

KA: First of all I have been able to work effectively with the countries – don't forget my first stop was Brussels – to generate a force for south Lebanon. I have been able to underpin strong support for (resolution) 1701 both in Europe, and in the region, and round Asia as well. I have also been able to get people to accept that the war in Lebanon was a wake-up call. I was extremely concerned that not only could it spread, others could get involved. It was a wake-up call in the sense that everywhere we have been they all said: ‘Let us work on the real problem of bringing peace to the region, the Palestinian problem, the Syrian problem and the Lebanese problem.' It interests me to stabilise peace in Lebanon, and build on it to achieve a comprehensive peace in the region. This was even the feeling when we went to Ramallah. They said: ‘We hope that we will get the same attention.' I did not get the feeling they were saying they had been forgotten. They felt what was happening in Lebanon would be extended to their problems.

I also believe that I was able to talk to countries that nobody, or not many people, are talking to: Syria and Iran. It is important for them to work with the international community, to settle the crisis in Lebanon and the wider Middle East. I got the sense that they themselves would want this, to be seen to be accepted as full members of the family of nations. But for that to happen they will have to take some responsibilities.

QP: What worries me is that Syria and Iran seem to revel in their pariah status.

KA: I am not sure they revel in it. It is a question of having no choice. Syria's behaviour has isolated itself. But I think it is bravado. I think they are very keen to be accepted. I think Iran is [also] very keen to be accepted and have normal relations with Europe and the rest of the world.

QP: What about President Ahmadi-Nejad?

KA: Maybe not him, but he is not representative of the entire body politic. They are living with this fear that they may be attacked. Their economy is not so strong. They are not making as much progress as other countries. They travel, too… When they travel in the region, going to Qatar, going to Abu Dhabi, they see how even smaller countries around the Gulf are moving on. But they have sanctions, they are isolated, they are having plane crashes because they can't get spare parts. Who will say: this is the way we want to be? A country that is a major oil producer doesn't have a single oil refinery. It doesn't make sense.

QP: But how worried are you that the nuclear confrontation will get worse?

KA: I am worried about it because I think we are headed for a confrontation, unless we find a way to get all the people to step back a bit and reflect. Because the position in a nutshell is that the 5 + 1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany) are saying suspend (uranium enrichment) and we will negotiate; Iran is saying negotiate, and then maybe we will suspend. On the surface it seems they are not too far apart. But I am not sure how much room for flexibility either side is going to give.

All the leaders we met are scared stiff of another crisis. This region cannot take another crisis.

QP: Yet Iran does have support, from countries like South Africa and Brazil, who say they are absolutely within their rights.

KA: Iran is very confident, rightly or wrongly; they will not bend, and are prepared for the worst. They tell you they have not broken any rules; they are within their rights. They suspended (enrichment) for a long period. And this idea that ‘we don't trust you, and we decide which country we trust, and even facilitate and help, like India, and which country is a naughty boy, and will have to be disciplined', is something that they find very offensive. So I am worried.

QP: Let us go back to America and the Middle East and America and the UN, the relationship that is so much at the heart of everything you have to deal with. Has America opened up a Pandora's box in the Middle East with the invasion of Iraq? Is that how you see it?

KA: That is correct, and it is the feeling of the leaders in the region that we spoke to. Iraq has really caused a problem. It has radicalised the region. We have two sets of reactions. On the question of whether the Americans should withdraw, are they doing any good, you have two schools. Most leaders say America has a responsibility to get Iraq right before it leaves. President Ahmadi-Nejad said: ‘Their presence is the source of the problem, and they should leave, and if they decide to leave we will help them leave. And I mean it seriously, we will help.'

America is in a situation now where it cannot stay and it cannot leave. Because some argue that its presence is a problem, the other side, that if it leaves, the situation will get much worse, particularly if Iraqi security forces are not properly structured, trained, and an effective force. So whatever the US has to do, the timing of any withdrawal must be optimal, in the sense that it will do least harm, and will not trigger disintegration of Iraq, when the region and the world will blame the US.

QP: I have a feeling that the departure of the US will be dictated by internal American reasons, and have nothing to do with Iraq.

KA: I tend to agree with you.

QP: You have served 10 years as secretary-general in this extraordinary post-Cold War era. America seems in this time to be blowing its role as the global sheriff. Or has blown it. Do you agree?

KA: The leaders we spoke to in the region, who by and large see themselves as friends of the US, are worried about the strong feelings in this region towards the US, and this democratisation in general. This is all because of the developments in Iraq.

QP: I met a young Turkish journalist in Ankara who said that if Condi Rice had been the person asking Turkey to send troops to Lebanon, and not Kofi Annan, the Turkish parliament would have rejected it.

KA: When we started (talking about the UN force for Lebanon), some said: ‘We don't want a UN force. We want a multinational force.' I said be careful. (If we have) a multi-national force in Lebanon, close to Iraq, we are going to start another Iraq and the crazies will come in. The Lebanese didn't want it. The governments who were contemplating (sending) troops didn't want it. They would only go provided it was a UN force. So in a way I could rally the governments, and generate a force for Lebanon, in a way the US could not.

QP: Do you fear that if Syria doesn't do what it has promised, and allows arms into Lebanon to rearm Hizbollah, Israel will choose to fight a war it can win, and attack Syria?

KA: I have heard that debate going on, but I am not sure Israel would want to now. Would it be in Israel's interest to engage in another war, whether conventional or otherwise? I don't think, at a time when we are trying to mop up the aftermath of the Lebanese war, they would want to get into another war, to gain a reputation of a super-warmonger, which would do such harm to its reputation, and destabilise a whole region. And to be quite frank I don't think Syria would want to do anything of the kind that would provoke that kind of reaction.

I think with the measures we are going to take on the border, with technical assistance from the Germans, and monitoring mechanisms, we may be able to contain (the arms flow). And quite frankly I think that Hizbollah itself would have to consider … its future. I think using armed means as a means of power and strength within Lebanon is a spent policy, after what happened in Lebanon with the destruction. The people are not stupid, they may say: ‘What was this war for? Why did we get our homes destroyed?' Nasrallah, who is not a fool, has apologised in a way by saying: ‘If we had known that the abduction of the two soldiers would lead to this, we would not have done it.' He is going to find it much more difficult to have the Lebanese communities, and the villages, accepting men with weapons with open arms, particularly if we proceed and eventually manage to solve the Shebaa farm problems, what basis do they have to carry weapons? My advice to them is to join other Lebanese and pursue this national dialogue on disarmament, and transform themselves into a full-fledged political party. Not a party with an armed wing. They have a grass-roots organisation, they seem to have organisational ability, and with those grass roots they should do well, and work with the other Lebanese to give up their arms.

QP: You are coming to the end of your term as secretary-general. There doesn't seem time to get the peace process really going again. What would you most like to be remembered for in your 10 years as secretary-general?

KA: I have four more months to go, and I am going to work until midnight on December 31. On July 11 I did not know this crisis would erupt, and I would be doing what I am doing. I don't know what will happen in the next four months. But let me say that I hope at the end of my term it will be said that the UN works a little better than it did when I took over, that we made a genuine effort to make multilateralism work, to get governments to work across national lines, that we opened the UN up to other major constituencies, to civil society, the private sector, universities and foundations, using this partnership to expand the capacity of the organisation. That we also brought, in addition to developing the peace and security issues, we brought developmental questions, and the fight against poverty, and infectious diseases like HIV/Aids, to the centre of international policy. And we pushed for human rights and the rule of law, arguing that the three pillars of the United Nations should be peace and security, economic and social liberalism, human rights and respect for the rule of law.

Don't forget the Millennium Development Goals. I will leave in December fully satisfied that the member states have embraced these three pillars as the basis of our work.