The Cable

Swedish FM Carl Bildt: Iran sanctions won't work, negotiations could take years

MANAMA, Bahrain — International sanctions are not likely to convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear program and Monday’s talks in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 countries are only the first step in a process that could take years to succeed, according to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.

Bildt, who is considered one of Europe’s leading voices on foreign policy, is no friend of Iran. He’s a vocal critic of Iran’s human rights record and has worked hard to free Europeans held in Iranian prisons. But he gave a speech on Sunday at the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue that included criticism of the sanctions regime the United States and Europe have worked to put in place. He also happened to sit next to Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki at the Dec. 3 gala dinner at which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke.

The Cable sat down with Bildt on Sunday for an exclusive interview about Iran, the nuclear negotiations, and his dinner date with the Iranian leader.

Bildt disagreed with Clinton’s view, expressed in our exclusive interview with her two days before, that the international sanctions regime had brought Iran back to the table and was thus having an effect on the Iranian leadership’s decision making.

“They were at the table one year ago, they were at the table six months ago, and they are at the table again. And I think it’s at the table where the solution can be found. I fail to see any solution that is not at the table,” Bildt said.

“The sanctions are part of the scene but they are not the solution,” he told The Cable. “There are some people that seem to believe sanctions are going to sort out the problem itself, as if you have sufficiently hard sanctions, the Iranians are suddenly going to fold and say, ‘We agree with everything that you’ve said.’ That’s a pipe dream.”

Sanctions might have some effect over the long term, but that could take a very long time, he said.

“You’re talking about a 10, 15, 20 year process,” Bildt said. “The thing that can change things in the near term is the talks.”

But even the nuclear negotiations that begin on Monday in Geneva will need several follow-up sessions before progress is can be made, said Bildt.

“I think we’re talking about a fairly lengthy process. We have a gulf of mistrust between the Iranians and the Americans that is profound. One side is locked into 1979 and one side is locked into 1953,” Bildt said, referring to the dates of Islamic Revolution and the U.S. sponsored coup that overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh. “It will have to be a step by step approach, where you start by some smaller steps before you’re ready to take some bigger steps.”

Luckily, the West has some more time to negotiate with Iran, Bildt added, because he believes that their nuclear progress is going much slower than anyone anticipated.

And what about his dinner with Mottaki? Bildt said he told Mottaki that Clinton’s speech, which focused on Iran’s right to civilian nuclear development and avoided harsh criticisms, was a huge change in tone from the American side made in the hope of improving relations.

Bildt said that Mottaki agreed, but that the Iranian diplomat doubted it would make much of a difference in the end.

“I said to Mottaki, ‘this is significant,’” Bildt related, referring to Clinton’s direct outreach to the Iranian delegation.

“'Yes, yes,’ he said, ‘it is,’” Bildt quoted Mottaki as telling him. “But there many people in Tehran who don’t believe it,” Mottaki added.

Josh Rogin

The Cable

The Cable interviews Hillary Clinton: the complete transcript

The U.S. State Department has just released the full transcript of your humble Cable guy's interview with Secretary Hillary Clinton:

SECRETARY CLINTON: How are you doing?

QUESTION: Excellent, excellent. I was in Doha yesterday and there was a big celebration there, unfortunately at our expense, but --

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, but (inaudible). I think clearly, the FIFA organization has a plan to expand the sort of global reach of the World Cup. I mean, South Africa never had it, Russia never had it, and obviously Qatar and this region has never had it. It makes sense. I mean, Brazil will have it next. I mean, obviously, we were disappointed because, look, we could do it tomorrow. I mean, we've got the facilities already filled, we don't have to air condition stadiums, and we can do it tomorrow. But it does make a certain logic to kind of expand the global region and give people who love football more than we do - soccer football, not football football --

QUESTION: Right.

SECRETARY CLINTON: -- a chance to have their moment.

QUESTION: Excellent, excellent. Well, I know your time is short, so let me --

SECRETARY CLINTON: Sure.

QUESTION: -- start right in. As you can see, I'm wearing my U.S.-Iran flag pin today, which I --

SECRETARY CLINTON: (Laughter.) I've never seen one before.

QUESTION: I purchased this at the State Department gift shop. It's made in China. It's okay.

SECRETARY CLINTON: (Laughter.) Love that, Josh.

QUESTION: So we're here and all of the Arab leaders are here and we're two days before the first big engagement with Iran in a long time. So first of all, I'd like to ask you, what is your message at Manama to all of these leaders about Iran? What do you want to say to them about what's about to happen?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I'll be speaking there. Are you coming tonight?

QUESTION: Yes.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Okay. I'll be speaking tonight and I want, very directly, to let Iran understand that we are serious about this engagement. We were serious from the beginning of the Obama Administration. The door remains open. And we hope that the negotiations in Geneva bear some results.

But at the same time, we're realists, and we know that they're probably coming back to the table because sanctions are working. And I don't think they believed that we could ever put together the international coalition we did for sanctions. And from all that we hear from people in this region and beyond, they're worried about the impact. And so they're returning to Geneva and we hope that they're returning, willing to negotiate.

QUESTION: Excellent. So we had a dual track, engagement and pressure. We focused on engagement for about a year, then we were focused on pressure, now we're going back to engagement. How long are we going to focus on engagement again before we start focusing again on pressure? Is it another year? Is that the thinking or what?

SECRETARY CLINTON: I don't think we can - I don't think we would put timetables on it. I think this is more of a day-by-day assessment. We know where we're headed, and that is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. We know we have the vast majority of the world with us on that.

QUESTION: Sure.

SECRETARY CLINTON: But I think we'll have to take stock of where we are after Geneva. We'll have to see how the Iranians respond on other things we've engaged with them on, like the two hikers that are still in prison and Mr. Levinson, who --

QUESTION: Sure.

SECRETARY CLINTON: -- also is in Iran, in our opinion. So let's see where it goes.

QUESTION: Okay. So how do we know if it's progressing or not? What is the metric? What - how do --

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, for example, the IAEA has concluded that Iran's nuclear program has had some difficulties. So I think that's given us a little bit of a breathing space. I mean, if they're having difficulties, maybe they'll be more responsible. We won't know until we test it. So it's - in negotiation, we know where our goal is, and we had a very clear set of milestones which we reached. Now, we've always wanted to get them back to see whether there was any potential there. And as we go along, we're going to keep the goal in sight, keep the international coalition together, keep the pressure on Iran. The pressure is not lifting because they're coming to the table in Geneva. And then we'll take it step by step.

QUESTION: Understood. And you're not going to see Foreign Minister Mottaki. He's going to be here two days later, so --

SECRETARY CLINTON: I think he's here tonight.

QUESTION: He's here tonight. So you're going to see him or you're not going to see him?

SECRETARY CLINTON: If he comes to dinner, I'll probably see him.

QUESTION: So what do you - what's your message to him?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, he doesn't talk to me.

QUESTION: I see.

SECRETARY CLINTON: I mean --

QUESTION: So, he - you can talk to him through me; so what would you like to say?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Hear my speech tonight.

QUESTION: Okay. Are you optimistic that this round of negotiations --

SECRETARY CLINTON: I'm neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I think that it's like - I know, we got to (inaudible).

QUESTION: Okay. Look for --

SECRETARY CLINTON: I can talk with you, Josh.

QUESTION: Sure, sure.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Sorry.

QUESTION: No problem.

SECRETARY CLINTON: We have to see what attitude they bring. I mean, part of the problem was that they had their own internal debate --

QUESTION: Right.

SECRETARY CLINTON: -- how to handle all of this.

QUESTION: Right.

SECRETARY CLINTON: And it wasn't until recently that they were willing to come back and talk. So you're dealing with a regime that has been badly shaken by the events of June '09, the election, and the decision-making apparatus was kind of knocked off kilter, which meant that trying to get any action step out of them was more difficult than it would have been prior to '09.

QUESTION: That's right, true.

SECRETARY CLINTON: So it's not that - nothing - none of this is a static situation. There are so many moving parts. And we have to watch it all, and we do, trying to evaluate what they're doing, what their decision making is, what the economic pressures are --

QUESTION: Sure.

SECRETARY CLINTON: -- what the international community's opinions are. So all of that moves kind of in a bunch.

QUESTION: I understand. That's so interesting. I'm going to lose you right now, so let me ask you one final question.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: I'm told that there is a deal on New START with the Republicans. I'm told that they will bring it up December 13th. I'm wondering, could I have your comment? Is this a success of your promise to bring it up during the lame duck session? It seems like it's really going to happen.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Josh, it's like a no-hit game, and I can't talk about it because we have made a lot of progress, but it's not done till it's done.

QUESTION: Okay.

SECRETARY CLINTON: And we have been encouraged by the positive response we've received from a number of Republicans. But they're also telling us it depends on what else happens in the session. And I believe that we have enough votes to recognize the national security importance of doing this. But I'm not counting any chickens until they vote. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I understand. Thank you so much.