In the lead up to a likely resumption of Western “diplomacy” with Iran, conducting an interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, with questions designed to elicit substantive and revealing responses, could potentially yield real benefits for the international community. The prominent German newsmagazine Der Spiegel had an opportunity to conduct such an interview today. But Der Spiegel opted, instead, to engage in an egregious exercise of agenda-driven, ideologically-loaded journalism, see the full interview in Der Spiegel here or here for the reprint in the Tehran Times.
The questions that Der Spiegel posed to Foreign Minister Mottaki were, with few exceptions, not formulated to elicit meaningful, substantive responses. We reproduce below the first fifteen of these “questions” (we put the word “questions” in quotation marks because, as you will see, Der Spiegel did not punctuate most of their interviewer’s statements to Mottaki with question marks):
1) Mr. Foreign Minister, you are the senior diplomat of the Islamic Republic of Iran. You represent a nation that prides itself on a cultural history stretching back more than 2,500 years. Don’t you find it shameful that people are stoned to death in your country?
2) It isn’t a matter of legal subtleties. Stoning is a glaring violation of universal human rights. It’s barbaric.
3) We are not talking about murder, for which the death penalty by hanging is imposed in Iran, but about the stoning of adulterers. International human rights organizations report that there have been seven cases in the last five years alone.
4) The names of 14 other potential stoning victims are also known. This places Iran on the same level as countries like Somalia and Afghanistan when it was under Taliban rule.
5) (interrupting Mottaki)…the impending stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani …
6) Will you lobby for Ashtiani not to be stoned?
7) This case is only one example of Iran’s contempt for human rights. Iran, which executed 400 people last year, is second from the top of the list of countries that still impose the death penalty—behind China, with a population 20 times as large.
8) But it isn’t just criminals who are executed. Death sentences are also passed against political prisoners.
9) The large wave of arrests after the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last June shows that your legal system is political. Thousands have been arrested since then. The revolutionary courts have imposed long prison sentences on people whose only offence was to oppose the president.
10) For the West, but also for millions of people in Iran, the most recent election was a huge fraud.
11) The victims of your legal system included highly respected people like Mohammad Ali Abtahi, vice president under the former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, Mohammed Atrianfar, an adviser to Khatami’s predecessor, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the well-known journalist Issa Saharkhiz, who was arrested after an interview with SPIEGEL.
12) But those were extorted confessions.
13) The charges included contact with the West. What’s wrong with that?
14) Isn’t the crackdown by the security apparatus a sign that the Ahmadinejad government is finished, and that the only way it knows to stay in power is to use repression?
15) Ahmadinejad came into office five years ago promising to fight mismanagement and corruption. But the situation has only worsened under his leadership. The inflation rate is estimated to be at least 25 percent, and half of Iranians live at or below the poverty level.
Mottaki manages to make some interesting points in the course the journalist’s “questions”. But it is only with the sixteenth “question” that the journalist actually raises a substantive issue regarding the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy: “The United States and the EU, in particular, have implemented sanctions that go beyond the United Nations Security Council resolutions. They are now affecting the important oil industry and gasoline imports. Were you surprised by the Europeans’ tough approach?”
In response to this question—and several (highly charged) follow ups—Mottaki offers interesting observations about the Iranian view of sanctions and the Islamic Republic’s approach to upcoming discussions about its nuclear program:
“Europe will undoubtedly suffer more under the new sanctions than we will. Europe will be the big loser in relation to this policy. We already reduced our trade relations with Europe considerably in recent years. We now produce some of the goods ourselves, and we have found new suppliers for the rest. We’re not concerned about our supply of gasoline and other energy sources…If [the German] government is not interested in expanding and deepening our relations, Iran doesn’t have to run after it. We think it’s beneath the dignity of the German people to support a certain US policy. My recommendation is for Germany (to pursue) an independent policy…I would like to direct a comment at your foreign minister, Mr. (Guido) Westerwelle, and his European counterparts: We don’t want more than what is our right. We have created this right without outside assistance. And I think the best thing now would be to recognize this right, within the framework of the appropriate provisions and regulations…
We want to talk to the so-called Vienna Group about the exchange of fuel: We deliver low enriched uranium in return for 20 percent enriched fuel for our research reactor in Tehran. The negotiating partners are France, Russia, the United States, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. There are also proposals to include Turkey and Brazil in these talks…[On uranium enrichment,] we want to talk, but first the structure of the group, which consists of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, must be changed. Other countries must be added to the group. The talks can then be resumed with this new structure.”
Der Spiegel’s interviewer, however, seems reluctant to be drawn into a potentially serious discussion about Iranian foreign policy. Again, he tries to go on the attack:
“SPIEGEL: In other words, Iran is continuing to try to stall for time. You are aware that there is a substantial risk of a military strike against your nuclear plants?
Mottaki: You cannot disregard a country’s rights and force it to make compromises. We are determined to defend our right. Anyone who attacks Iran will regret it.
SPIEGEL: There are growing calls in Israel for a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities—with or without Washington’s approval.
Mottaki: Israel has been talking about this for years. The Zionist regime knows exactly what fate awaits it here. The regime would be putting its own existence at stake with an attack.
SPIEGEL: You would attack Israel?
Mottaki: I have just told you what would happen.
SPIEGEL: Your first reactor, in Bushehr, is scheduled to go online on Sept. 26 after more than 30 years of construction. Do you really want to see the Israelis reduce it to rubble?
Mottaki: Do you have evidence that Bushehr will be attacked? How probable do you think such an attack is?
SPIEGEL: The likelihood is considered high.
Mottaki: We don’t see this likelihood.
SPIEGEL: Do you want to ignore reality? Don’t you recognize the military threat? Don’t you see the worldwide protest against the impending stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani?”
We will refrain from speculating about what Mottaki thought about the abrupt segue from the risks of a military confrontation over Iran’s nuclear activities to the Ashtiani case. We simply note his response:
“What is the point of these questions? You would be better advised to listen to us. It was our interpretations of the situation in this region that have proved to be right. We predicted that the United States would capitulate in Iraq, and that’s what has happened. Instead, you are playing the human rights game. You ask me about the possible killing of a human being. But you show no sensitivity for the many, many people that are being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. How long does the West intend to live with this contradiction?”
Der Spiegel’s interviewer tries one final time to put Mottaki on the defensive. We will let you judge how well he did:
“Spiegel: [N]ow the Ashtiani case has caused an international reaction. And the international community is extremely alarmed in light of Iran’s nuclear activities. It seems to be one minute before midnight.
Mottaki: No. On my watch it’s one o’clock, and precisely at that moment the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which was originally supposed to be built by the Germans, will be loaded with Russian fuel rods.”
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett