“We cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated”

28.06.2015 - Interview

Interview with Federal Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier. Topics: Greece, Iran’s nuclear programme, relations with Russia and the recent terrorist attacks. Published in Welt am Sonntag on 28 June 2015.

Interview with Federal Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier. Topics: Greece, Iran’s nuclear programme, relations with Russia and the recent terrorist attacks. Published in Welt am Sonntag on 28 June 2015.


Minister Steinmeier, is Greece actually a failed state?

Greece is a fully fledged member of the European Union. Nobody underestimates the sacrifices that the Greek people have made in the last few years to reform their country and find their own feet again. Yet it is also true to say that for too long the political elites in Greece did not embrace their responsibility for the country. Even today some people in Greece imply that the tide could turn without the need for sustainable reforms.

What do you say to Greece’s claim that the EU is showing a lack of solidarity?

The EU as a whole and the countries of the euro area in particular have shown solidarity with Greece during many years of crisis by providing large loans, advice, assistance on the ground and much more. The accusations of a lack of solidarity are therefore completely inappropriate. We are stunned by the zigzagging of the Greek Government in the past few hours and days. The Eurogroup and the institutions have invested considerable goodwill, effort and commitment in finding a compromise which could allow Greece to look to the future once again. I don’t understand how an elected Greek Government can advise its people to reject the European proposal and thus hijack the Greeks to force Europe to make further concessions. We can’t do the work for the Greek Government. It has to assume responsibility for its people’s fate and not keep fuelling illusions.

Do you think it’s possible that one day Athens could turn its back on NATO?

Some Syriza politicians are calling for the country to leave the euro. Others are calling for it to leave NATO. Responsible leadership involves taking a stand against these voices in one’s own party and in parliament and speaking out courageously for a policy of reason. We cannot fight this fight for the Greek Government in Brussels, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Berlin or anywhere else. But we can continue to help – if Greece allows itself to be helped.

Today, when crises have to be resolved, the Federal Government is usually sitting around the negotiating table. That was not the case 20 years ago. Is Germany a global player, politically speaking?

We shouldn’t overestimate our influence or try to muscle in on the action. The international community has confidence in us and expects us to play a diplomatic and political role even in difficult conflicts. We should not shirk this responsibility.

What can German foreign policy achieve – and what is it not capable of doing?

We are not a superpower, neither from a historical and military perspective, nor as a result of our size. But we are a globally minded country and we know that we cannot remain indifferent when crises out there are coming thick and fast. And that is why we get involved where we can make a difference, but we don’t get in out of our depth.

For some time now an international contact group has been negotiating with Tehran with regard to Iran’s nuclear programme. You are travelling to Vienna this weekend to this end. The negotiations are supposed to be concluded by 30 June, that’s on Tuesday. Can this deadline be met?

We have been conducting intensive negotiations for weeks. We now have the chance to finally resolve this conflict, which has lasted for more than ten years. The last round of talks I had with my counterparts Kerry and Zarif showed that nobody wants to extend the negotiations. It’s now or never. Our aim is to reach agreement by the end of June. Although it might transpire that 30 June has more than 24 hours.

Is failure still possible? Or would that mean a loss of face for all players?

We should never let fear of losing face make us hesitate to attempt what is possible, but neither should we let fear of losing face drive us to sign irresponsible agreements. I am convinced that if we do not reach a consensus, everyone will lose out. Iran would remain in isolation. A dramatic consequence could be a new arms race in a region already stricken by crises. Iran’s neighbours would suffer because Tehran’s ambition to possess nuclear weapons would increase. The international community would have failed to resolve a conflict by political means at the negotiating table.

One point of contention with Tehran is the international control of military facilities. Revolution leader Khamenei rejects the central demand of the international community to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency access to them. Does that mean the negotiations have failed?

That is undoubtedly one of the key questions. If that remains unclarified, an agreement cannot be reached. To date, however, Iran has not called into question the main points agreed upon in Lausanne. Each of these key parameters is necessary for a final agreement. In Lausanne Iran went along with the goal of using controls and transparency to compensate for a lack of trust. There can be no question of if and where there will be inspections – at most, we can talk about how they will be conducted.

The scope of Iran’s nuclear programme is to be restricted to approximately ten years. Will the Iranian bomb then just come ten years later?

Two years ago Iran’s Arab neighbours and Israel suspected that Iran was only a few months away from being able to deploy a nuclear weapon. It was the Geneva agreement of November 2013 that put a stop to this development. Iran has complied with the obligations arising from this agreement. If the main points agreed upon in Lausanne are implemented, stockpiles of enriched uranium will be reduced by 95%, two-thirds of centrifuges will be decommissioned and research and development will be severely restricted. And in the coming years the situation in Iran will become transparent. At the same time, we will try and help Tehran shake off its reputation as the bad guy of the Middle East.

What will happen in Iran internally?

Looking at the dynamics in its society, I am sure that in 10 or 15 years Iran will not be the same country. After the agreement reached in Lausanne, the younger generation was out in the streets celebrating. They are evidently hoping for very mundane things: contact with the rest of the world, travel, more freedom. If Iran emerges from isolation in the area of foreign policy, it will also change internally.

Is that the message you are receiving from the leadership?

Historical progress is not linear, but involves contradictions, twists and turns. Political and religious power groups are in conflict in Iran. We have to hope that those who want to put an end to the decades of conflict with the West ultimately find the support they need. But I don’t want to dismiss the possibility that a nuclear agreement could prompt a counter‑reaction from the conservatives.

How much do we owe to Moscow if an agreement is reached?

Russia has its own interest in ending this conflict. So far the Ukraine conflict has not adversely affected Russia’s position at the negotiating table with Iran. This conflict is one of many in the region that cannot be resolved without Russia.

Russia’s President Putin has just announced plans to put new nuclear missiles into service. The United States has announced counter‑measures. Are we descending into a new arms race?

The old reflexes from the period of the Cold War are evidently still ingrained. But the world has changed. It no longer consists of two superpowers, it is no longer divided into East and West. The threats that have emerged since 1989/90 are more ominous, less predictable and even more difficult to resolve. We have to take great care to ensure that all that we so laboriously built up within our European peaceful order over many decades is not now torn down. However, we cannot ignore the fact that Russia is calling into question the European peaceful post‑war order it helped to create. And I can understand if its neighbours, such as the Baltic states, feel threatened. That is why Germany participated in reassurance measures for these states within the framework of NATO from the outset.

Can you envisage normal, even friendly relations with Moscow in the foreseeable future?

That would be desirable. But it depends on whether Russia is prepared to help overcome the Ukraine conflict. One thing is clear: Germany cannot afford either to give up on Russia or to isolate it. Russia remains a major neighbour of the EU and our country, and will be instrumental in determining the future of Europe – for good or for ill.

Jimmy Carter’s former security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski proposes a sort of Finlandisation of Ukraine ...

My wish and my expectation is for us to be able to reach an agreement with Russia on preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity. However, neither Russia nor the EU has the right to dictate to other states how they should develop. Since 1989/90 it has no longer been possible to win loyalties by imposing political or military pressure. Leading nations have to learn to promote their policy model. Russia, too, will not be able to avoid learning this lesson.

How seriously do you take Greece’s flirt with Putin?

Russia is not suited to the role of white knight for a country working with and in the EU to find a solution for its problems. The agreements signed in St Petersburg on energy infrastructure that could be channelled through Greece are vague scenarios. It is uncertain to what extent they could be implemented, also in view of unclarified issues with other countries in the region.

Islamic State (IS) is now gaining ground in Libya, 200 sea miles away from Crete. The Islamists also seem to be making successful progress in Syria and Iraq. Only the Kurds are courageously standing in their way. Is the West doing enough to put an end to the IS crusade?

Anyone who looks into the eyes of those who have managed to flee to the refugee camps is aware that we have a great responsibility. That is why Germany is working intensively to halt the collapse of state structures in Libya. We have to stop the advance of ISIS. We are therefore also striving to find a political solution in Syria. Five years of civil war and 270,000 lives lost, millions of refugees, all this sends a message strong enough to compel us to try absolutely everything.

Is Tehran an ally in the fight against IS?

It is in Tehran’s own interests not to allow ISIS to advance any further. If Iran is wise, it will not abuse the resolution of the nuclear conflict but will work to help establish a new security order for the Middle East. The idea of a CSCE in Europe was born during the coldest days of the Cold War. I wish the players in the Arab world would show today similar courage.

Has new travel and security advice been issued for Tunisia, and what would be your advice to tourists in North African countries?

The attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait on innocent people who were at work, in prayer or simply on holiday sadly reinforce the bitter realisation that we are all equally under threat from the cancer of terrorism. Insecurity is widespread. Many people are checking out our website or contacting the Federal Foreign Office directly to find out about the current threat. Our travel and security advice is always up to date. It is constantly checked by my staff and adapted to the current situation. The safety of German people is our absolute priority. The advice was updated after the attack in Tunisia. However, in the past we have had to learn that even in Europe, we cannot provide a 100 percent guarantee of security. The attacks therefore only serve to remind us that we must never allow ourselves to be intimidated or divided.

Interview conducted by Claus Christian Malzahn and Daniel Friedrich Sturm. Reproduced by kind permission of Welt am Sonntag.

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