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Transcript of Tehran press conference: 25 May 2003



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E and OE

25 May 2003

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Alexander Downer

Tehran Press Conference

Mr Downer: I just want to run through three issues that we discussed today with the Iranian leadership. Obviously, we spent a good deal of time with the Foreign Minister Dr Kharrazi and also met with the President and with Mr Rafsanjani, the Head of the Expediency Council, late this afternoon. So we had very formal discussions about a range of issues. First of all, about Iraq, where we made it clear that the coalition in Iraq does not want any foreign intervention which would make the process of stabilising Iraq more difficult. The longer Iraq remains unstable, the longer coalition forces and international forces will need to remain in Iraq. Clearly, the coalition wants to leave Iraq as quickly as possible. Iran has a range of contacts, particularly with the Shia leaders in Iraq. The Iranians have made it very clear to me that they are strongly committed to a stable democratic political environment in Iraq. Secondly we discussed the issue of terrorism. Australians have been killed in the 9/11 attacks. Australians were killed in Bali, Australians were killed in Riyadh. The War against Terrorism is a very major issue for us. We appreciate the role that Iran has played in Afghanistan. It is though, fair to say that I've expressed concern about Al-Qaeda people being present in Iran and said it was very important and Iran shouldn't underestimate the importance. I couldn't put it more strongly. Iran must take every step possible to apprehend any Al-Qaeda people in Iran and make sure that those people were appropriately dealt with. The Iranians made it clear they were opposed to Al-Qaeda and that they had detained a number of Al-Qaeda people and continue with that policy.

Thirdly, we talked about WMD. I made it clear that particularly since September 11, the international threshold for proliferation of WMD had declined very much. The threshold is much lower than it used to be. As was witnessed by what happened in Iraq. We are aware that Iran has a nuclear program. It would be unacceptable if Iran were to move towards the establishment of a nuclear weapons capability. We wanted Iran to operate under the international norms, particularly its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allow IAEA inspections into Iran. The Iranians all said that they had no interest in developing WMD capabilities. But they had the right to develop a nuclear fuel cycle for the purposes of generating nuclear power.

We had some discussion about the Middle-East peace process. I emphasised the strong commitment of Australia to the road map. I emphasised that the Arab governments that I have been with in the last few days - Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait - will be committed to the road map. That the Iranians shouldn't underestimate the strength that President Bush has resolved in the road map being implemented. Though the Iranians did express some scepticism that the Americans will get the Israelis to implement the road map. So that is a potted

summary of many hours of discussion. Now I'm happy to answer two or three questions.

Journalist: You pressed the point that you're concerned about the presence of some Al-Qaeda operatives inside Iran. Was that concern backed up in any way by tangible evidence? Did you present them with specific examples, specific intelligence and ask them to act on it and in general terms, what was their response to the concerns that you raised?

Mr Downer: I didn't present them with specific intelligence, but I did tell them that the Americans were concerned that Al-Qaeda people in Iran had been aware of the attack on Riyadh before the attack on Riyadh happened and a warning could have been given. If those people had been apprehended before the attack on Riyadh, it would have been possible to talk to those people. But the Iranians made it clear that they were opposed to Al-Qaeda, Al-Qaeda was an enemy of the Iranian Administration. So there was quite a lot of discussion about Al-Qaeda and how it operates. They explained that they have a very long border, that Al-Qaeda people could come into Iran, that they didn't want that to happen, that when they had found Al-Qaeda people in Iran, that they had apprehended those people.

Journalist: There are reports about the Americans using all sorts of pressure to bring down the Iranian regime, did you pass on any message about the strength of those concerns in the west and in the US about this?

Mr Downer: The prelude to your question is based on a Washington Post report, I've seen that report. I did tell them, and I put it this way, since September 11, it's not just us and the Americans - Japan, and some of the countries in the EU, in fact, most of the EU countries have a heightened sensitivity about the issue of Terrorism, particularly Al-Qaeda, but terrorism more generally. We are determined to stop terrorism. I couldn't state that too strongly. The Iranians understood that. I said the same thing in relation to proliferation of WMD. It is very important to understand the degree of determination to stop proliferation of WMD has increased very very substantially since September 11.

Journalist: How do you think the international community should deal with the case of Iran? We seem to be going around in circles in terms of accusation and response. The Iranians are very clear in their response - they are not harbouring Al Qaeda. What more can the international community do to set themselves at ease that Iran is telling the truth?

Mr Downer: Well, I'll be discussing my visit with a range of ministerial colleagues. I think the answer to that is that through the process of discussing those issues with Iran, I've learned a lot about their attitude to their issues. I'll be discussing some of their responses to these issues when I get back.

Journalist: So do you think it's important to discuss these things with them rather than freezing them out? There seems to be a difference in policy, the EU have a policy of critical engagement (inaudible).

Mr Downer: Well I can't speak for the EU or the United States, but obviously we

are very close to the US administration and to the British and to some of the EU governments. I would just make the point that I am here and that is a statement of Australian policy. Another aspect of Australian policy is that I have delivered some very strong messages to the Iranian leadership. I think that they appreciate that we sit down and talk to them but on the other hand, in the process of discussing these issues with us, they have to understand they are going to hear tough messages. And they have been tough.

Journalist: What did they have to say about their nuclear program and signing up to the IAEA additional protocol and allowing inspectors unfettered access?

Mr Downer: They want any nuclear sanctions against Iran lifted before they sign up to the additional protocol. But we've made it quite clear that the additional protocol and random inspections is a very important component of building international confidence that their nuclear program is not going to lead to a nuclear weapons capability.

Journalist: The Iranian government is facing accusations from the United States, how do you see the Iranian authorities (inaudible).

Mr Downer: Well I’m not the US; my job is to deliver the Australian message. I've been here twice in the last three years, I find them polite and willing to talk. I spent about one hour with the President, about 50 minutes with Rafsanjani, so they haven't been brief meetings, they have been extensive meetings and they have been willing to speak very frankly. There have been some points we have not agreed on but they are willing to talk about these issues. As I say, it's an opportunity to tell them what Australia thinks, but also an opportunity to tell them what international colleagues think in this heightened level of sensitivity. In my dealings with the Iranians I haven't always found that I’ve agreed with them but I’ve always found that they are prepared to talk. They talk very openly about these issues. You can accept or not accept what they say. Many don't accept what they say. This time in Iran, compared to the last time I was here, before 9/11, over a year before 9/11, I think they understand that the world has changed since 9/11. I've absolutely used this as an opportunity to explain to them that the world has changed since 9/11, and these types of issues, the issues of terrorism, WMD proliferation, have become the major issues for most of the world today. We want these problems solved. I think they set aside a lot of time for me while I've been here, other than the Supreme Leader, they've set aside their most senior leaders for me to talk to, that does reflect the fact that they take the changed international mood very seriously. We had a long discussion about Iraq. It’s an important issue to Iran and to us. They want a stable Iraq, having had an eight year war with Iraq and having lost half a million people, they want a stable Iraq and a stable relationship with Iraq. What has happened in Iraq is an illustration of how the world has changed.

Journalist: When you return at the end of your visit, will you go back reassured about these issues you have raised? Is there anything there to give you hope, say on Al-Qaeda?

Mr Downer: In relation to Al-Qaeda, they made it clear that Al-Qaeda is not sympathetic to their regime, it doesn't share the objectives of the Iranian

administration, they made a point that they regard Al-Qaeda as an enemy, there's no question about that. They have said that on many occasions before. That has been the basis of their constructive involvement in Afghanistan against the Taliban. I go away better informed.

Journalist: On Al-Qaeda, there have been very specific allegations made about specific Al-Qaeda members being in Iran, did you raise this with Iran? And the Iranian authorities have recently said they have Al-Qaeda suspects in custody under interrogation. Do they think that these people could be the ones that the US intelligence has been pointing to?

Mr Downer: I didn't raise particular names because this is not intelligence that Australia has collected. But I did raise the fact that there are particular people who were in Iran in the lead up to the Riyadh bombings and that the Americans have said that these people may have had foreknowledge of that bombing, that this was a matter of very deep concern to us. And they did tell me that they had detained some people recently, they have been detaining people for quite some time.

Journalist: What about the position of Iran and Shia groups in Iraq? Ayatollah Hakim was living in Iran.

Mr Downer: Well, obviously they don't deny that, they make no secret of the fact that they have close relations with Shia groups. They make no secret of their close relationship with Mr Hakim. And we're not complaining that they have relations with people in a neighbouring country. Of course they do, and by definition they have close links into the Shia community. What we are saying is that Iraq needs to have a balanced government which is inclusive of all the major strands of people in Iraq. We would never say that Iraq has to be as it was under Saddam Hussein - that the Shia have to be a persecuted majority and be dealt out of the government of Iraq. On the contrary, the Shia have to play a very important part of the government of Iraq. But so do the Sunnis and Kurds and there has to be an appropriate balance. They understand that. They didn't argue with that proposition at all. They have made it clear that they want the Iraqis to run their own country in a stable way. They don't want Iraq to be unstable, they don't want one group of people in Iraq to exploit and humiliate another group. I thought on the issue of Iraq they had some constructive messages.

ENDS

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