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Exclusive: William Hague on Egypt, Iran and Syria

In an exclusive interview, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague talks to Ahram Online about British policy towards Egypt's new democracy, ending the violence in Syria, and Iran's nuclear programme

Amer Sultan in London , Thursday 10 May 2012
William Hague
British Foreign Secretary William Hague (Photo: AP)
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Ahram Online: It is known that UK government has contacts with all parties in Egypt. From the UK's perspective, what are the main difficulties Egypt faces at political, social and economic levels?

William Hague: Egypt has been through a historic change over the past year. It is not for us to tell the people of Egypt how to build the future of their country. But as friends of Egypt, we are providing support and assistance in a number of areas to help the political transition. This includes sharing our own experiences of building democracy and an open economy and supporting projects in these areas. We also are encouraging British business to work even more closely with their Egyptian counterparts, building on the fact that we are the largest foreign investor in your economy already.

Egypt clearly faces three big challenges. First, to complete the transition to democratic rule by holding free and fair presidential elections in accordance with the agreed timetable. Second, to agree on a new constitution for all Egyptians forged in a spirit of national unity. Third, to develop the economic in a way that will support jobs and prosperity for all Egyptian citizens over the long term. We will be strong supporters of the people of Egypt in all these areas.

AO: In working with the government, the UK always says that it will accept any choice of Egyptian people and will deal with it even if the Egyptians choose Islamists (in government, presidency and parliament). According to your policy towards Hamas in Palestine, are there doubts about your policy towards Islamists in Egypt? Would you change your approach towards Islamists in Egypt if they decided to review relations with Israel?

WH: New political parties are emerging in Egypt just as they are in Tunisia and Libya after their revolutions. Our approach is that we will engage with new parties in the region – including those that draw their inspiration from Islam – while standing firm on the principles of non-violence and human rights. The true test of any new government in these countries is how they act in office; whether they uphold human rights and govern on behalf of all their citizens, and ultimately whether they are prepared to surrender power through the ballot box in elections of the future. In Egypt’s case we also strongly hope that any future government will want to act as force for regional peace and stability, including by maintaining a productive relationship with Israel. In the short term, it is also vitally important that the electoral process is fair and transparent and fully reflects the will of the Egyptian people and that is what we are focusing on now in our discussions with the Egyptian authorities.

AO: After more than year of freezing some Egyptian assets, nothing has been repatriated. The UK government says it is legal issue. But there is an impression in Egypt that talking about legality is just an excuse for not cooperating enough to help Egyptians get the money back. Can you explain how are you cooperating with Egypt to settle this issue? Any examples of cooperation?

WH: The UK was at the forefront of EU action to freeze Egyptian assets held in Europe and we think it is vitally important that stolen assets are recovered. We are working closely with the Egyptian authorities on freezing and returning Egyptian assets which their courts have identified as stolen. This is critical to ensure justice, but also to support Egypt’s economic recovery. Any repatriation of assets would be subject to independent, domestic legal processes and it is our policy not to discuss the details of any individual asset cases in public.

AO:  The UK and its allies claim that dealing with the Syria crisis needs a very careful, wise and cautious approach. This is obviously very different from your aggressive actions in Libya. What is the difference? Some say the differences are: Syria has no oil and Israel has a strong say.

WH: NATO action in Libya was undertaken to protect civilians against the threat of massacre and was legally mandated by two separate UN Security Council Resolutions. We worked very closely with Arab nations and went to enormous lengths to protect civilian life. So it is simply inaccurate to describe our actions as aggressive.

Despite the appalling loss of civilian life in Syria, it has been far harder to build international consensus about how to respond to the crisis, and until very recently the UN Security Council was divided on the subject. However, the UN Security Council has now endorsed a joint UN-Arab League effort to stem the violence, led by Special Envoy Kofi Annan and backed by a monitoring mission on the ground. It is vital that we succeed in achieving a ceasefire in Syria and the start of a peaceful political process that can meet the aspirations of all Syrians. We are giving Kofi Annan’s mission our full support. At the same time we are also working with our other countries to increase the pressure on the regime to implement the Annan Plan. We are also providing support to Syrian civil society and non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, and we are working with the UN and others to increase the chances that those responsible for human rights abuses can be held to account for their actions in the future.

AO: When will the UK be more ready to take more effective action to stop the bloodshed and protect civilians in Syria?

WH: We continue to do all we can to bring an end to the violence in Syria. We are committed to supporting Kofi Annan and are pressing for the full deployment of the UN monitoring mission. The Annan plan is not open-ended and we expect the Assad regime to end immediately its brutality against civilians and implement fully its commitments under the plan. It is very clear already that the Assad regime has not yet fulfilled its undertakings to the Joint Special Envoy. This cannot go on indefinitely and there is a limit to the patience of the international community. Recent reports of the continuing use of military force are unacceptable and the UK and its international partners will keep up the pressure on Syria until we see a visible and sustained change. If the Syrian regime fails to take these steps and to comply with Annan’s plan in full we will push for further international action, including in the UN Security Council and will take steps to ensure that they are held to account. It is also important for the opposition to adhere to the ceasefire.

AO: What are your main problems with the Syrian opposition?

WH: It is critical that opposition groups and individuals work to develop a unified vision for a transition process to a new Syria that meets the legitimate aspirations of all the Syrian people. The challenges are great after decades of repression and a constitution that effectively outlawed parties other than the Baath party, but despite their diversity, the opposition in Syria is already working closely together. A peaceful transition doesn’t depend on the emergence of a single personality. What is needed is consistent effort by Syrians from all backgrounds to come together to provide a clear alternative to the Assad regime, and the prospect of a political future that will be inclusive, uphold human rights and protect all Syria’s minorities.

AO: Can you see any soon light at the end of Syrian crisis tunnel?

WH: The regime’s killing needs to end and it needs to comply with all aspects of Kofi Annan’s plan. We hope that the deployment of UN monitors will create space for progress on a political transition. But the violence cannot go on indefinitely and there is a limit to the patience of the international community. The Assad regime is deeply mistaken if it thinks it can continue to ignore the international community and brutalise its people. The support for the regime will continue to erode within Syria if they continue down this path and as the economic situation deteriorates.

AO: Why do not you try to accommodate a “Nuclear Iran” as you do with Israel, India and Pakistan?

WH: A nuclear armed Iran would present a clear threat to the region. It would risk provoking a regional nuclear arms race and would further destabilise the Middle East. The international community’s concerns that Iran’s nuclear programme is not for purely peaceful purposes is based on Iran’s repeated failure to comply with its obligations towards the IAEA and failure to answer serious questions about possible military dimensions to its nuclear programme. The regime’s secrecy about its activities in the past, such as the existence of its facility at Qom, has only deepened the international community’s suspicion that Iran’s intention is to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

AO: Will you change your approach towards Iran if it recognises Israel?

WH: Our concerns about Iran are based on its failure to comply with its international obligations. Iran is a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and as such has undertaken not to develop nuclear weapons. Yet the signs are that it is trying to develop the capability to do so. We want to see a negotiated solution by which Iran addresses the concerns about its nuclear programme in full. Our approach to Iran will only change once Iran begins to do so.

AO: The UK says that all options, including using military force, are on the table. At what stage you would be able to support and participate in military action to stop an Iranian nuclear programme?

WH: We are not advocating military action against Iran. Our priority is to find a diplomatic, negotiated solution to the nuclear issue, but all options should remain on the table.

AO: Would you be able to accept an active role for Iran in Gulf area security arrangements as part of a wider settlement of the nuclear issue?

WH: We recognise that Iran has a role to play in the Gulf region. It helps none of us that Iran is excluded by its own actions from playing a full part in the international community. It would earn the greater confidence of its neighbours if it addressed the world’s concerns about its nuclear programme.

AO: Some say that UK has fallen into the Iranian regime's trap when it was the first European country to declare sanctions against Iran's financial sector. Now you do not have political relations with Iran. What benefits are you getting from withdrawing your ambassador and the expulsion of the Iranian diplomatic mission from London?

WH: UK sanctions on Iran reflect our desire to see a negotiated solution to the dispute over its nuclear programme. We play an active part in international diplomacy with Iran, including through maintaining diplomatic relations. Unfortunately we had no choice but to withdraw our staff from Iran after the coordinated attacks on our embassy compounds in Tehran. This was a grave violation by Iran of its obligations under the Vienna Convention, which requires the protection of diplomats and diplomatic premises under all circumstances. Although we have reduced our bilateral relationship to its lowest level, we still have diplomatic relations with Iran.

AO: It is very clear that the UK and other big powers are very soft when it comes to criticising the Bahraini regime. It is argued that you would have taken a more aggressive approach if it was a Sunni uprising.

WH: We have consistently expressed our concern at the human rights situation in Bahrain and will continue to do so until the necessary reforms have been effectively implemented. While progress has been made in implementing the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry recommendations, there is much more to be done. We urge the Bahraini government to take steps quickly to implement these reforms in full. It is important for all sides to enter into an inclusive, constructive and realistic dialogue to achieve long-term stability and prosperity for Bahrain.

AO: Why did you let Saudi Arabia deal with the Bahrain uprising by sending its forces to oppress it? Do you think that would give Bahraini Shias the same right to seek Iranian support?

WH: The intervention by Gulf Co-operation Council forces was at the invitation of the Bahraini Government with the stated intention of safeguarding installations in Bahrain. We made it clear at the time to our counterparts in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that the intervention had to be consistent with our calls on the Government of Bahrain to respect the right to peaceful protest and respond to the legitimate concerns of the Bahraini people and help create the right conditions for a successful political dialogue.

AO: It seems that you prefer to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to violence against peaceful protesters, and to human rights violations, in Saudi Arabia, could you explain why? Why do not you publicly condemn the Saudi regime and call for real democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia?

WH: We raise our concerns about human rights violations wherever they occur in the world. No country is exempt from this. It is well known that we have particular concerns about some aspects of human rights protection in Saudi Arabia, most notably women’s rights, the death penalty, judicial reform and the treatment of foreign workers. We made this clear in the UK’s Annual Human Rights Report, which we published last week. But we also recognise that there are important developments underway in Saudi Arabia, for example the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme which is sending thousands of young Saudi women abroad to study.

We have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and we have made our views well known, including in our recent Human Rights report which is published on the Foreign Office website. We make these concerns clear to the Saudis at the highest levels, just as they are frank with us on issues that concern them. Our strategy remains to work with those in Saudi society who are advocating reform, in order to build support for full application of human rights standards.

Working both bilaterally and with the EU, we have encouraged progress in four areas: women’s rights; the death penalty; rights of foreign workers; and judicial reform. We funded a number of projects in 2010 including training to Saudi security forces in forensic analysis and investigative methods, including DNA analysis, which has helped to improve the treatment of suspects. The British Council trained female entrepreneurs through its Springboard training programme.

 

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