Minister urges "de-escalation" after attacks in Saudi Arabia
Foreign policy – Saudi Arabia/Iran/Russia/Israel/Edward Snowden – Interview given by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to CNews (excerpts)
Paris, 19 September 2019
Q. – There’s been a growing risk of a military clash in the Gulf since the summer. (…) With your experience and what you’ve seen, are you worried – I want to say extremely worried – this morning?
THE MINISTER – In crisis situations, you know, diplomats usually say, “we’re in a worrying situation”. Today, I’m not saying that any more. We’re in a grave situation following the attacks targeting major oil installations in Saudi Arabia.
It’s a grave situation, firstly because of the scale of what’s happened: daily oil production has been halved, with all its consequences on petrol-pump prices, including in France. Secondly, because a country has been attacked, a country’s sovereignty and integrity is being attacked. Finally, because it’s in a region where there are huge risks of conflict: there’s the Syria crisis, the Yemen crisis. The smallest spark could cause a conflagration. And then also because it’s a very worrying time: this intervention comes just before the United Nations General Assembly, and at a time when France in particular has taken initiatives to try and restore some kind of calm to the region.
Q. – Do the European leaders, does Emmanuel Macron share your concern?
THE MINISTER – Yes, concern is widely shared. The seriousness of the situation is widely shared. President Macron had the opportunity of expressing his solidarity to the Crown Prince, because when a country is attacked in that way, it must be defended and supported.
And, today, Saudi Arabia has initiated an international investigation to verify where the attack came from and act accordingly.
Q. – And in your opinion, who was it? Is Iran implicated in this aggression?
THE MINISTER – The Houthis, who are Yemeni rebels, announced that they were behind the intervention. It isn’t particularly credible, but since there’s an international investigation, let’s wait for the outcome.
We ourselves have dispatched experts so we have our own view of the matter, to identify…
Q. – But what’s your personal opinion?
THE MINISTER – I haven’t got any particular opinion, prior to the outcome.
Q. – How can oil installations in a country like Saudi Arabia, which is over-equipped, armed etc., be destroyed? Firstly, are we talking about one drone, two drones, drones, missiles?
THE MINISTER – Clearly, several military tools were used – drones, perhaps even missiles. And on the question of how they were able to hit their target, that’s for the investigation to say.
The investigation is going to be swift and we immediately dispatched our own experts to inform us of the situation in real time. But the situation is grave, because in that region, any intervention such as this can lead to an explosion and thus war.
Q. – Precisely. The Americans and your colleague [Mike] Pompeo are saying, “it’s an act of war”.
THE MINISTER – It is an act of war. Yes, it’s an act of war. From the moment missiles hit a foreign country’s territory, it’s an act of war.
We must now go back to the principle of de-escalation.
Q. – Let’s continue trying to explain, to see what’s happening. We’ve got partnership agreements with Saudi Arabia, and the Americans have a defence agreement with Saudi Arabia. Does that mean they’ve got to react? Because if they don’t, they’ll be seen as comical?
THE MINISTER – What we’ve got to do – as far as France is concerned, at any rate; I can’t personally speak for the US – is show solidarity with Saudi Arabia. You can’t intervene in a third country in that way, undermine its integrity and get away with it. And then we’ve also got to send a message of solidarity to the Gulf countries, the countries of the region, to ensure that there’s genuine security tailored to the situation and that it’s shared.
Q. – Prince Mohammed bin Salman came across as invincible; now he’s been severely weakened. If Saudi Arabia attacks Iran, what do we do?
THE MINISTER – I’m not thinking along those lines; we need to go back to de-escalation. (…)
What are the fundamentals for restoring peace in that region? We need to return to the principles of the so-called Vienna agreement in 2015, i.e. an agreement which was signed at the time by a number of major countries, including France, the US, Britain, China and Russia, which are guarantors. Guarantors of what? Guarantors of the fact that Iran has said that it won’t acquire nuclear weapons and that the measures to verify this non-acquisition of nuclear weapons are guaranteed and permanently monitored by the IAEA.
As soon as we come back to this plan of action we’re in a better situation, provided Iran can reap the benefits of its action and sits at the negotiating table to talk about remaining issues. Because we’ll also have to talk to Iran about remaining issues, we’ll have to talk about what happens after 2025 – the end date of the agreement I mentioned just now –, and then we’ve also got to talk to Iran about the whole regional situation.
Q. – (…) In the current climate, might you have any reports that the Iranians are starting to enrich uranium for a bomb and, at the same time, their ballistic missiles?
THE MINISTER – When I say that Iran must return to the Vienna agreement, it’s a demand, because otherwise we’re on a downward slope, with all the risks this could entail. Just think if Iran possessed nuclear weapons today. What would happen in the situation we’re familiar with today in the Gulf, with the seriousness of what’s happened, as we were talking about earlier?
So Iran must return to the agreement, have the financial benefit of the agreement and we must also be in a situation to talk about the remaining issues. We’ve got to talk to Iran about the remaining issues as well. (…)
Q. – Russia. After the spectacular Brégançon meeting with Vladimir Putin – you were there, you went with Florence Parly, you saw your colleagues [Sergei] Lavrov and [Sergei] Shoigu – what came out of it? Because you haven’t said anything about it. Were you disappointed?
THE MINISTER – The relationship with Russia situation isn’t favourable today, since we’re in a sort of situation of mutual distrust – justifiably. With regard to Russia, we’ve got a lot of issues concerning conflicts, disagreements – be it on Ukraine, be it on Syria, be it as regards interference.
Q. – So how do we dispel the distrust?
THE MINISTER – It has built up. And also Russia distrusts the European Union, the West – it all builds up. And it doesn’t help anyone. So we thought, President Macron has initiated an approach towards Russia so that we can recover trust, without being naïve, without renouncing all the points of disagreement, but with this desire to ensure that Russia is anchored to Europe. Otherwise, Russia will gradually turn towards the East, towards China, and ties will be broken off, even though Russia is profoundly European…
Q. – So you went; did anything…
THE MINISTER – Something happened, something happened at Brégançon, in the quality of the relations between President Putin and President Macron, and we decided to go back to what we used to have, namely a sustained relationship between the two countries’ foreign and defence ministers, and we planned a schedule.
Q. – Does that mean a new page is being turned, starting with new initiatives?
THE MINISTER – It may be a new page. For the time being, I’m cautious, but the meetings Florence Parly and I had in Moscow were useful. We began by deciding to strengthen our civilian ties, so to speak – i.e. strengthening the ties between civil societies. (…)
Q. – Does that mean things are going to change?
THE MINISTER – I’m in the process of telling you they’re changing. I’m in the process of telling you they’re changing!
Q. – Evidence.
THE MINISTER – Evidence: before the end of the year, there’s going to be a major economic meeting between the two countries. But the most important point is that we’ve decided two extra things as regards our security and as regards crises; for example, the crisis we’re experiencing today in the Middle East. Together we decided to identify transparently our problems in the nuclear sphere, conventional sphere, chemicals sphere, cyber…
Q. – And is this gradually reducing distrust?
THE MINISTER – Gradually. Tell us what you’re doing, I’ll tell you what we’re doing, and we try to move forward. Don’t tell us everything, we won’t tell you everything but let’s start making progress in this area.
And then we’ve also agreed to have regular discussions on the crisis situations; OK, there are minor issues on which we have points of disagreement, let’s recognize them, try and say where they are so we can clearly identify them – I’m thinking of Syria – and then there are points we agree on – I’m thinking of the Libya crisis, I’m thinking possibly of the Iran crisis…
Q. – Syria…
THE MINISTER – No, not Syria, we’re in disagreement. But on these different points, the paths to a dialogue are opening up again. It will take time, but it’s essential for reversing a state of affairs…
Q. – That means Russia is part of Europe, Putin very gradually becomes, once again becomes an interlocutor, and trust is sought…
THE MINISTER – We haven’t reached that point yet, but… (…)
Q. – What do you think about the Israeli election results?
THE MINISTER – They haven’t been definitively declared yet. I note there are two blocs: a right-wing bloc led by Mr Netanyahou, and a centre, centre-left bloc led by Mr Gantz. These two blocs appear to be evenly balanced, so when there are definitive results it will be up to President Rivlin to take the political initiatives necessary for forming a government. Hopefully, the government will last a bit longer than the previous one, because the last election is still very recent in that it was held in April. So we’ve got to wait for the choices which will be made. At the same time, we’re very worried about the general situation…
Q. – Does that mean that whoever becomes Prime Minister, Gantz or Netanyahu, France will continue to try and have good relations with Israel…
THE MINISTER – We have good relations with Israel. But we’re worried about the Occupied Territories situation, particularly the situation in the West Bank and the peace process, which today isn’t advancing at all – we’ve been waiting for the American plan now for many months, even years… (…)
Q. – In the media, Edward Snowden is asking France for political asylum. Through you, what is France’s official response?
THE MINISTER – Look, I believe Mr Snowden is bringing a book out, he’s doing a lot of programmes, he’s living in Moscow, I believe, he’d asked for political asylum in France but also elsewhere in 2013. Back then France didn’t deem it appropriate. I don’t see what’s changed today – either from a legal or a political point of view.
Q. – So, no.
THE MINISTER – For the time being, it’s a request via the media, but on the face of it I see no reason for changing the point of view.
Q. – So, it’s no.
THE MINISTER – I see no reason for changing the point of view. Either from a political or a legal point of view. (…)
Q. – Last question. It appears that the lawyers defending jihadists’ wives today in the refugee camps are due or are going to initiate legal proceedings against you, the Foreign Minister, at the French Court of Justice. Firstly, have they done this?
THE MINISTER – I haven’t been informed.
Q. – And if proceedings are brought against you, what’s your response, because you don’t handle…
THE MINISTER – I’ll see if the Court of Justice refers the matter to me. But we’ve got to get back to the facts about this as well: male and female French fighters went to fight France by joining Daesh [so-called ISIL] in Syria; they must stand trial. There will be zero tolerance on this; France’s position is very firm. They need to stand trial where they have committed their crimes.
Q. – No trial in France?
THE MINISTER – It must take place elsewhere, wherever they’ve committed their crimes. And there are, moreover, as I say, male and female fighters who are enemies of France because they’ve attacked France, they killed French people in France, from their base, so we can’t not remember that.
And then there are children, children living in camps, and France is obviously paying very close attention to the situation even though it has no actual control over those camps since there’s still war going on in that territory. And we’ve taken initiatives so that orphans, unaccompanied children, the most destitute, can be repatriated – we’ve already repatriated a number of them… (…)./.