North Korea: "it’s about our security" - Minister
Foreign policy – Syria/Russia/Iran/North Korea/United States/European Union – Excerpts from the interview given by M. Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, to CNEWS
Paris, 8 March 2018
Q. – If Bashar al-Assad continues bombing, attacking the humanitarian convoy, if he refuses [to comply with the UN resolution], what happens?
THE MINISTER – We worked, France worked to ensure there was a United Nations resolution allowing a truce. We’re demanding a truce, a humanitarian truce, to prevent what’s going to happen…
Q. – Otherwise? If he refuses, if he doesn’t comply with it?
THE MINISTER – If he doesn’t comply with it, we’ll take public measures to say who those responsible are, because in this matter, in the western region of Syria, there’s Russia, there’s Iran and there are Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Russia and Iran have responsibilities for enforcing the humanitarian truce, they have the means to do so; those 400,000 people currently trapped can have access to treatment and food; the convoys are ready to leave; let them leave, because that’s now the international rule.
Q. – International law obliges him to stop. He’s currently an outlaw. What do we inflict on him, what do we do to him, if he refuses?
THE MINISTER – International public opinion will observe that neither Russia nor Iran, which have the ability to take action with Bashar al-Assad, are shouldering their responsibilities. Those countries, which signed the resolution, which voted for the resolution, must implement it so that there’s a bit of calm in Syria.
Q. – That’s why you went to Russia and Iran. (…) Bashar al-Assad is accused – and it’s being said once again – of using chemical weapons. If it’s proven – because it was said to be the red line for Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron –, if we have proof that he’s using chemical weapons, what do we do to him? Obviously we can’t wage war on him, but what do we do to him? Because otherwise we send out an image of powerlessness to the world.
THE MINISTER – Chemical weapons are a major issue in this conflict, because chemical weapons are a major taboo of the 20th century. Since the end of the 1914-1918 war there’s been a realization at international level [that] chemical weapons must never be used again…
Q. – And so, if he’s using them?
THE MINISTER – And today there’s a stack of corroborating information, a stack of indications suggesting that chemical weapons may be being used or may have already been used. We don’t have proof. But for France, President Macron has been very firm on this issue: it’s the red line – in other words we won’t accept any undermining of the cause of non-proliferation of chemical weapons, and if by any chance the use of chemical weapons is observed, verified and attributed and the use of chemical weapons was lethal and caused deaths, then a French response would be on the cards.
Q. – A French unilateral response?
THE MINISTER – A French response would be on the cards, a French and also an American response, because if by any chance we observed it – we’d have to observe it – we’d take tough steps, intervention measures to prevent the proliferation of chemical weapons, which would be a humanitarian disaster, a global disaster.
Q. – Barely three days ago you were in Tehran, you met three of the most important figures in the regime of the ayatollahs, people who were a bit different from each other, and you [said], I listened to you saying there: “the meetings were encouraging but tough, with no concessions”; the impression was that you had a bust-up.
THE MINISTER – You have to talk to everyone, and you also have to talk to the people involved in weighty decisions in that part of the world, which is extremely dangerous. The French President regularly talks to President Putin and President Rouhani, but he wanted…
Q. – Even if it’s tough?
THE MINISTER – Yes, but you have to talk, you have to say things, you have to be clear.
Q. – But we’re told that when the ayatollahs were with you they were intransigent; and you, the seemingly inflexible Le Drian, what does he do? Did he feel…?
THE MINISTER – President Macron had entrusted me with several missions in Iran. First of all, a very weighty issue, namely the Vienna agreement. What is the Vienna agreement? It’s the fact that there’s an international agreement that makes it possible to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, because if Iran possessed nuclear weapons there would be proliferation which would be extremely dangerous for the future of the world in general and for the region in particular, because then other countries would want to acquire them and quite rapidly we’d have a risk of nuclear war. So we must stop that, and negotiations were conducted in 2015 to prevent that proliferation.
Q. – But did the Iranians tell you they were keen, like you, to maintain that Vienna agreement?
THE MINISTER – Today President Trump seems to be questioning his signature of the agreement, and I went to see President Rouhani to ask him about the long-term future of the agreement, which enables sanctions on Iran to be lifted and which therefore, indirectly, enables Iran to develop. And on this point there was a firm approach, which I welcome.
Q. – They say they’re complying with it.
THE MINISTER – Today they’re complying with it; they must carry on complying with it. I think I heard commitments from President Rouhani in this respect. He’s very committed to the agreement, which he regarded as a historic agreement. It’s important for the sake of the world’s security for it to be maintained.
Q. – So it mustn’t be touched?
THE MINISTER – It mustn’t be touched, it must be enforced, and that’s what we’ll be saying elsewhere too, it’s what President Macron will tell President Trump, it’s a dividing line between us…
Q. – He’s going to see him at the end of April.
THE MINISTER – He’ll see him in April.
Q. – Because Trump will speak around 12 May. Does this mean France may be something of a mediator on that occasion?
THE MINISTER – France will say what it thinks, and it will say in particular that complying with the treaty prevents Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and therefore contributes to the region’s security and the world’s security.
Q. – Did Mr Rouhani tell you that if there were a breakdown it would mean a resumption of the arsenal and of the building of Iran’s road to a military nuclear programme?
THE MINISTER – That’s what will happen if there’s a breakdown; everyone must be aware of that. If by any chance the Vienna agreement is broken, tomorrow Iran will acquire nuclear weapons, and then the neighbouring countries will do so too. And then there will be a risk of nuclear proliferation, and North Korea will say, “and why don’t I acquire them too?”
Q. – According to the Vienna agreement, the Iranians can’t use missiles with a range of more than 2,000 kilometres – i.e. the distance to Israel. Do you get the feeling, and are you worried, because they may have gone beyond those 2,000 kilometres?
THE MINISTER – In the meetings I had in Iran there were points of disagreement, points of friction, where I set out France’s position very clearly and where I questioned the Iranian authorities about their intentions, particularly in the ballistics field. The ballistics field means missiles, and there’s a kind of capability-building frenzy on Iran’s part to acquire more and more missiles…
Q. – That affects us; it’s our sovereignty.
THE MINISTER – …short-range missiles but also medium- and long-range missiles, which are then no longer defensive missiles but offensive missiles which can attack and are worrying. On the one hand there’s that, and on the other there’s the fact that Iran supplies missiles to non-state entities like Hezbollah and the Houthis. And so there are risks there of destabilization of the whole region. I let the Iranian authorities know that we’re worried about the risk and that they must contribute to the region’s stability in their own interests, and therefore that they must take a much more moderate position on their ballistic capabilities.
Q. – But they’ve remained quite inflexible on that point.
THE MINISTER – I said when I came back that there’s still a lot of work. We’re going to carry on talking, we must carry on talking, and we’ll carry on talking about this point, just as we’ll also carry on talking about Iran’s responsibility for a Syria settlement – it’s also a Russian responsibility – so that tomorrow those massacres and this humanitarian disaster we’re facing are stopped.
Q. – (…) [Saudi] Crown Prince bin Salman is in London today; is he angry with us, because he hasn’t come to Paris?
THE MINISTER – He’ll come to Paris soon. (…)
We have a very calm and very clear relationship with Saudi Arabia, which I’ve visited several times, as has the President, and we also have very fruitful dialogue with that country, which, like Iran, has to resolve a major crisis, namely the crisis in Yemen, where a political solution must be presented as soon as possible in order to avoid a new humanitarian disaster.
Q. – You see, there are only risks. Before Tehran you were in Moscow; you spoke to your colleague, Lavrov, whom you know well, who is still impassive…
THE MINISTER – Oh, Lavrov isn’t always impassive; there are moments when he’s very pleasant, moments when he’s very tough…
Q. –Apparently there was a bust-up last time.
THE MINISTER – When we meet we say things to each other. I think that in diplomacy you have to say things clearly; besides, that’s what President Macron has initiated; we have to state our positions clearly, we have to avoid misunderstandings, and when we know the positions of the various parties, we try and find ways of calming things down.
Q. – That’s fortunate, because we want the truth here too, we talk straight. For example, since Vladimir Putin was in Versailles, we’ve had a clear sense that relations with Moscow have cooled again. How are things today with Macron/Putin? I want to say “bad”.
THE MINISTER – They talk to each other, discuss things, they talk to each other regularly – that’s important, after all – and President Macron will be going to Russia in May to pay a visit. It will be a state visit; he’ll be going to St Petersburg, to the economic talks initiated by Russia. Russia is a great power, one which must be respected and which has great strength, but at the same time President Putin and Russia’s foreign policy worry us, give us concerns, whether it’s Ukraine or the fact that we believe they aren’t shouldering their responsibilities on Syria. So we’re waiting for Russia to fulfil its responsibilities for a peaceful resolution of the Syria issue, not just today on the humanitarian side of things but tomorrow on the political side of things, and allow Syria to recover its integrity. (…)
Q. – North Korea’s Kim Jong-un today is all smiles and has never been more flexible; he’s proposing an inter-Korean summit. Do you think he’s sincere or is this the effect of sanctions on North Korea?
THE MINISTER – I think it’s a bit of all that. We mustn’t be difficult when, at a given moment, windows of optimism exist in this uncertain, dangerous world. The fact that there were those meetings after the Olympic Games, that Kim Jong-un is making overtures, that the South Korean authorities, President Moon, are also making overtures, that the North Korean President is saying: “I want to talk, including to the Americans, without any preconditions” – let’s take it [the opportunity].
Q. – So we’ve got to trust this puffed-up dictator and believe that he’s changed?
THE MINISTER – Here too, the major risk is nuclear proliferation, and if by any chance North Korea definitely acquires – because it’s already got the means to do so – nuclear weapons, the whole region is going to be in danger, but so are we: it’s about our security. If North Korea acquires nuclear weapons tomorrow, Japan is going to demand nuclear weapons as well, and then we’re in a vicious circle which will undermine our own security. In other words, if by any chance they start talking to each other, so much the better, but that’s no reason to be naïve; the sanctions against North Korea which were decided at international and European levels remain in place, but dialogue is resuming – that’s still an event to be welcomed in this somewhat dark world.
Q. – Kim Jong-un said he was prepared to stop producing and launching long-range missiles…
THE MINISTER – Yes.
Q. – That he was prepared to enter into dialogue. Why aren’t you going to North Korea yourself?
THE MINISTER – I went to the opening of the Olympic Games at the French President’s request; I was able to meet the South Korean authorities…
Q. – Might you go?
THE MINISTER – France is ready to act…
Q. – Since we talk to everyone…
THE MINISTER – We’re also talking to everyone involved in that area, including China. (…)
US/steel and aluminium tariffs
Q. – Let me put this question to you, because today Donald Trump is going to sign tariffs – excluding Canada and Mexico – on imported steel and aluminium. Should we – precisely since you talk about a strong Europe – retaliate? An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?
THE MINISTER – Yes, Europe must publicly display its sovereignty and power, and this is why the European Commission is going to propose counter-measures in response to President Trump’s wholly inappropriate initiative, which is probably in America’s immediate interest, but over the long term is extremely harmful to US influence in the world...
Q. – So our response to him has got to be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?
THE MINISTER – Our response to him must be firm. (…)./.