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Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov

September 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: And joining me is Russian defense minister Sergei Ivanov.

He and Russia’s foreign minister have been meeting the President and other administration officials. A key item in their talks: A new United Nations resolution on Iraq.

Mr. Minister, welcome to the program.

SERGEI IVANOV: Good afternoon, Mr. Suarez. Pleased to meet you.

RAY SUAREZ: Has the United States and Russia, have they moved any closer in the last few days in their view of how next to proceed on Iraq?

SERGEI IVANOV: To an extent, yes, I believe so. We met your President this morning, and he was very frank and open in defending his position, or an American position, I would like to say, concerning Iraq.

We have also our own views on the possible developments in Iraq — for sometime, many countries, including Russia and including Russian leadership, try to convince Saddam Hussein that he should return the inspectors unconditionally, and I think we managed to do that. It’s over; it’s decided.

As for the future developments, it remains to be seen, because the leader of the inspection team, Mr. Blix, is going to meet on the 30th of September the Iraqi officials in Vienna to discuss when and how the first team of inspectors, including possibly the Russians, will move into Iraq to see, for example, all the technical possibilities like landing places, the state of special technical devices, which have been left there for some years, and things like that.

In my personal view, we can move in a parallel way. Inspectors might start their work, and at the same time, we can discuss in the New York City the new resolution, which might be stricter than the previous ones.

RAY SUAREZ: The United States’ position very clearly spelled out in the last day or so by the President, is that the United States doesn’t believe Iraq when it says inspectors can come in with no conditions; and doesn’t believe that without a new resolution, there will be enough teeth, enough force, behind the world community urging Iraq to disclose what it has.

SERGEI IVANOV: Well, I am not in a position to comment on the new resolution because it doesn’t exist, simply. It’s a matter of maybe a week or two before the security members… the members of the Security Council can look into the text, or proposed text, and after that maybe Russia might comment something more in detail or elaborate.

RAY SUAREZ: But is it fair to say that the United States wants to see, in whatever resolution is eventually offered, a threat of action if the inspections don’t work, while the Russians are generally prepared to see if the inspections work first?

SERGEI IVANOV: Well, I believe that if the inspection, any sort of inspection, is carried out correctly and professionally, it might give clear definite answer whether Iraq has some weapons of mass destruction or programs or technology or not. At least it’s worth trying to use the inspectors, in my personal view. It remains to be seen.

RAY SUAREZ: Over the last several years, as you mentioned, Russia has been urging Iraq to follow this course. You’ve also had a lot of business dealings with Iraq. Does Russia, does the Russian government, trust the government of Iraq to follow through on its promises?

SERGEI IVANOV: It’s not a question of trust or mistrust. I would like to mention that in the last years since the U.N. sanctions have been imposed on Iraq, all our business ties with Iraq have only been carried out within those sanctions.

We never, well, wavered or tried to do something, which is against the sanctions. The only thing we are actually active in Iraq is energy and oil projects. But that specific allowed business has been allowed by the sanctions in accordance for the program… it’s called oil…

RAY SUAREZ: For food.

SERGEI IVANOV: …for food. Yes, oil for food. That’s the only business ties we had with Iraq for the last, well, five years, I believe.

RAY SUAREZ: But there is a belief on the part of your government that sanctions do have a possibility of working, is that correct?

SERGEI IVANOV: Our stand is that sanctions, first of all, shouldn’t be indefinite. We should impose a time limit, a reasonable time limit, for the inspectors to have every possibility to check and have a final verdict, yes or no. But if theoretically the answer is no, then in our view the sanctions should be lifted.

Well, as a defense minister of the Russian Federation, I am much more concerned right now — I have to admit that — not with Iraq, but with Georgia. We are under a direct threat and sometimes military attack from the territory of Georgia.

I brought with me and passed this confidential information to the CIA, to the National Security Agency, and to the defense minister…obviously the secretary of state for defense, and irrevocable evidence that some of the Georgian officials are directly implicated in ties with terrorists based on the territory of Georgia.

RAY SUAREZ: The United States has been giving technical support to Georgian government ministries dealing with internal security. What is it that you want done inside the territory of Georgia? Does Russia want the opportunity, the possibility, to take its own action if it feels threatened by Georgia?

SERGEI IVANOV: If we are attacked, as we have been a month before, of course we’ll fight back. No doubt about that. What we want? We want only one basic thing, and we demand Georgia to comply with this request.

Everybody recognizes there are terrorist cells and groups based in Georgia. Everybody understands that the Georgian government doesn’t control much of its own territory. We offered to act together with the Georgian authorities.

They rejected the idea. We are still under attack. So either we make a bilateral or multilateral effort to seize or destroy terrorists which are based there — both Chechens and international and associated with al-Qaida as well — or the situation will continue, and it will lead to no good.

RAY SUAREZ: Would Russia be willing to compromise on some of its strong stands on Iraq in return for some assistance in Georgia?

SERGEI IVANOV: I wouldn’t put parallels into this — two different situations. In case with Georgia, we have irrevocable evidence, as I mentioned already. We don’t need a case, because the fact of aggression has already happened.

We need action. We can’t wait for years and see the terrorist groups trying to infiltrate our territory on the border, which is 900 kilometers long, and mainly it’s mountainous area. It’s very difficult to put a border guard on every single meter of the border.

And from the territory of Georgia there are commands, communication centers, which transpond orders to those who are also fighting in Chechnya to commit this or that terrorist act. So we don’t need to confirm anything else. In case with Iraq, I believe we should, in a reasonably short time, get a very clear answer, yes or no.

And as far as I know, United States and Russia, to that end, experts are very good in trying to locate nuclear, chemical or biological warfare programs, technology or installations.

Personally, I don’t think it will take a long time if we’re there and if we have all the conditions: That the inspectors go anywhere they want, on-site inspections with no right to disagree by the Iraqis. In my view, it won’t take more than one or two months to have the final answer.

RAY SUAREZ: We’re many thousands of miles away from Baghdad, but Moscow, and indeed the Russian border, is much closer.

From everything you’ve said, should I understand that you don’t think Iraq is a danger to its region or a danger to the security of, for instance, the Russian Federation?

SERGEI IVANOV: I wouldn’t put this question only as Iraq. The problem of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is very serious to Russia, because countries, which are thinking or running the programs of such sort are all near our border.

We’re really very much concerned. And we have very good relationship right now with our American counterparts involved: The ministry of defense, in intelligence community, where we share very openly; we share information of that sort. But it’s confidential. I can’t comment on that.

RAY SUAREZ: But you don’t sound convinced that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.

SERGEI IVANOV: I don’t know. I don’t know. We need to prove that.

RAY SUAREZ: Minister Sergei Ivanov, thank you for joining us.

SERGEI IVANOV: Thank you.