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Interview with Tony Blair; Iraqi Foreign Minister Talks about Syria

Aired September 26, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

As the world watches the endless bloodshed in Syria -- and these pictures behind me are of a bombing outside a military headquarters in Damascus just today -- world leaders here in New York are joining in the condemnation of Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime.

And yet he hangs on, thanks to strong support from a handful of nations, amongst them, Russia, China and Iran. But Syria is also getting a helping hand from an unlikely source. That country is Iraq.

The U.S. has angrily accused the Iraqis of allowing Syria's main friend, Iran, to fly over their territory with planes full of weapons destined for Assad's forces. It's a bitter irony for America, which badly wants Assad out, even as it considers itself Iraq's patron and best friend. Listen to what U.S. Senator John Kerry said last week.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASS.: It just seems completely inappropriate that we're trying to help build their democracy, support them, put American lives on the line, money into the country and they're working against our interests so overtly, against their interests, too, I might add.


AMANPOUR: Now Kerry is the powerful chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he even threatened to cut off the flow of American aid into Iraq. Nine months after the last American troops left, today's Iraq doesn't look much like the shining example of democracy in the Middle East that President George W. Bush had once envisioned.

Hundreds of people have been killed in bombing attacks this month alone, violence that is blamed on the festering sectarian divide. And in a moment, I'll talk to one of the most powerful and influential men in Iraq. But first, here's a look at the other stories that we're covering in today's program.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): As prime minister, he answered questions in Parliament.

TONY BLAIR, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF GREAT BRITAIN: Well, how about this? You are the weakest link. Goodbye.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Today as peace envoy, Tony Blair must have questions of his own. Will the Arab Spring anger ignite in the Palestinian territory?

And as secretary of state, she spoke for the United States. Today, Madeleine Albright beats a different drum.


AMANPOUR: That's a great picture. But first, Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari is here in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, that annual meeting. And when we sat down to talk, I began our conversation with those accusations by the United States about Iraq, inadvertently, indirectly aiding and abetting the Assad regime.


AMANPOUR: Foreign Minister Zebari, thank you for being here in the studio with me.


AMANPOUR: Good to see you.

However, I need to tell you this: the United Nations seems to be at a complete deadlock over Syria. There is an embargo on transferring weapons, at least in the case of Iran. And yet Iran, according to itself and the United States, is busy transporting tons of weapons to Syria over Iraq and through Iraq.

Why on Earth are you allowing this to happen?

ZEBARI: Well, this is not taking place with the full support and consent of the government.

AMANPOUR: They're flying through your airspace.

ZEBARI: I'll just explain to you, in fact, the Iraqi government has refrained from taking part in this conflict or in arming any part of the conflict. We have passed messages, clear messages to the Iranian government also not to use our land, our airspace to transport whatever cargo to Syria.

And, in fact, we will take measures, you see, to inspect these cargos. We don't know what is in them, to be honest with you. Our defense systems are not that strong enough to be able, you see, to stop or to prevent or to deter that after the Americans had left and we're building that.

But we have requested from the United States any intelligence and information about the nature of these cargos. If there are weapons or banned items, definitely this is prohibited in the Security Council resolutions. And the governments will take actions to --


AMANPOUR: What will you do?

ZEBARI: -- to land and to inspect in order to verify what is in those planes.

AMANPOUR: Foreign Minister, U.S. officials say they have repeatedly showed your government their intelligence and their evidence for what Iran is shipping to Syria, even a senior commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard cohort has admitted they're helping Syria.

Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said that, frankly, it may come to the point that aid, U.S. aid to your country is cut off, if you really don't take a serious step in this direction.

So you say "check," but what kind of check? Will you make them all land in Baghdad?

ZEBARI: Yes, it would be a random check on those flights. As you know, Christiane, the relations between Iran and Syria is very extensive, certainly on air flights, and Iran is now maybe the lifeline of Assad regime.

We have received a number of U.S. delegations in Baghdad recently. They all have raised this issue. We have requested information, intelligence -- believe me the Iraqi government hasn't had any such hard evidence so far.

AMANPOUR: You say that you're not taking sides in Syria. But why not?

ZEBARI: No, we are on the side of the people, of the Syrian people, definitely, and with their legitimate aspiration for freedom, for democracy, for dignity, as we have done, in fact, in the past under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and repression.

So morally we are definitely on the side of the Syrian people.

AMANPOUR: Because isn't the government's official stance neutrality?

ZEBARI: Well, we don't want to provide arms to either side. We don't want to provide the financial assistance, let's say, to either side. We want this issue to be resolved through a manageable, organized political process. What we fear is that they, after the regime fall, I mean, what will come.

We've seen recently what happens in Benghazi, in Cairo, in other places. So there is some concerns, really, in Iraq about the spillover of the Syrian conflict and its sectarian dimension, in its terrorist dimension and in its instability.

AMANPOUR: Well, to that very point, I've been told by very senior U.S. defense security officials that, obviously, there is a spillover and there is a concern. And the concern is that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is rearing its head again, Al Qaeda in Iraq.

How are you going to deal with that? There's been so many killings this year; just since July there have been some spectacular killings which have killed 100 or more people.

How are you dealing with that? And do you feel that Baghdad is in a sense of siege again?

ZEBARI: No, definitely, but we are doing our best, in fact, to defeat these terrorist networks. In fact, we've told the Syrians recently, and Tehran, that those people -- they were complaining of the movement of some jihadist or terrorist -- we told them, these are the same people you used to send into Iraq, sent back to you.

AMANPOUR: What kind of influence does the United States have in Iraq these days?

ZEBARI: Well, the United States has a great deal of influence. Nobody should underestimate the United States' influence politically, morally.

Remember, thanks to the Iraqi people's sacrifices and to the United States, to the coalition forces who have helped Iraq, you see, to be liberated from Saddam's dictatorship and to enjoy their new freedoms or their democratic system that we have, while we are not tidy or messy, but really we are better off than in many other Arab countries that have gone through the Arab revolution, so the revolutionary changes.

AMANPOUR: You sound obviously thankful that the United States was instrumental, along with the Iraqis, in getting rid of Saddam Hussein.


AMANPOUR: On the other hand, many in the United States are concerned. They see the government of Mr. Al-Maliki going very much closer to the government of Iran, warming up towards the Iranians and cooling down towards the United States.

Is that true?

ZEBARI: This is not true, in fact. Iraq is the master of its own decision and destiny, and it has its own national interests at heart. We are good friends of the United States. We have good, friendly relations with Iran.

AMANPOUR: And yet Iran is still very influential in Iraq. It has the Shiite connection, so to speak. And one of the things that we're all looking at is the fact that there is no political reconciliation between the Shiites and the Sunnis. That's what laid the groundwork for the civil war in the first place. And there are many who are concerned that it could erupt again.

Why doesn't the government implement this 2010 power-sharing agreement?

ZEBARI: Christiane, Iran is -- has influence in Iraq, definitely. Nobody can deny that. But we are almost in a struggle, let's say, to preserve Iraq's sovereignty (inaudible) territorial (inaudible) against any intrusion, an intrusion from Iraq. But at the same time, Iran is a regional power. It's there. You have to deal with them, not to deny that it doesn't exist.

AMANPOUR: My point as well as that was that domestically, inside Iraq, your government has not implemented the very kind of power-sharing that could save you from more violent --


ZEBARI: (Inaudible) defects of our political system, you see, of the Iraqi national unity. If the government, if the performance of the government, the services to the public has been strong enough, definitely it will deter any regional intervention and so on (inaudible) --


AMANPOUR: Again, why doesn't the government implement the power sharing with the Sunnis, for instance?

ZEBARI: It is trying. Now the Sunnis are participants in the government in fact. The Sunnis are represented in the parliament. Those days when the Sunnis are marginalized or boycotted of political process are no longer there. They are part of this new all-national unity government.

AMANPOUR: So you think it's all there? It's OK?

ZEBARI: No, there are political differences. But there are ways to resolve them.

AMANPOUR: But also, you know, people are continuing to look at Mr. al-Maliki's government and basically getting a little frightened that he's becoming a little dictatorial, gathering power, still, as I say, not the power sharing fully implemented.

He is acting defense minister, intelligence minister, national security minister. I mean, I'm wondering are you afraid he's going to take foreign ministry as well?

ZEBARI: He's trying, but he's --


ZEBARI: No, actually, we can deal with this issue. But --

AMANPOUR: But seriously, this is a problem.

ZEBARI: Seriously, nobody in the new Iraq can be a dictator because there are check and balances. There is a parliament, there is accountability and therefore, as the other political forces can get their act together, either al-Maliki or anybody else that will come out as a result of the election, can be another dictator.

AMANPOUR: Can the others get their act together? Can they be --


AMANPOUR: -- their act together?

ZEBARI: (Inaudible) problems. See, we have to -- you have to ask them.

AMANPOUR: And finally, if you look a few months, a few years down the road, what do you see for Iraq? Any real political reconciliations meaningful?

ZEBARI: I think it is taking shape at the public level, at the regional levels. No group so far has decided really to break away or to take up arms to bring down this new regime by force. Everybody is looking for the ballot boxes to change government.

And those ballot boxes will be held in many Iraqi cities in 2014. And from now, all these complications are a reflection, actually, of the struggle for power, but through a democratic election.

AMANPOUR: We hope so.

ZEBARI: Hope so.

AMANPOUR: Foreign Minister Zebari, thank you for joining me.

ZEBARI: Thank you, thank you.


AMANPOUR: Iraq's still a work in process. And when we come back, I'll be joined by Britain's former prime minister, Tony Blair, one of the architects of the Iraq War and its aftermath. But first, listen to this piece of music from Iraq.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): That's Iraq's national anthem. But it wasn't chosen by Iraqis. It was chosen by an American. He was Paul Bremer, and it was back in 2004, when he was President Bush's envoy in charge of running the country. As I say, Iraq is a work in process. And today, it's searching for a new anthem, a competition amongst hundreds of Iraqi poets has been narrowed down to three finalists.


AMANPOUR: That's not all. Iraq is also designing a new flag to unify a nation that's been torn apart by years of dictatorship and sectarian strife. It won't be easy; there are seven designs on the table. We'll be right back.


AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. And after my conversation with Iraq's foreign minister, Tony Blair seemed exactly the right person to speak to.

The former British prime minister was, of course, President George W. Bush's helpmate and fellow architect of the long war in Iraq, and these days Mr. Blair spends his time on one of the world's most intractable problems, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tony Blair, thank you for joining us again.

BLAIR: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Great to have you here.

BLAIR: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: You just heard the foreign minister of Iraq, Zebari. Number one, do you think that Iraq's help is prolonging the war in Syria?

BLAIR: That it -- Iraq's?

AMANPOUR: Helped by allowing Iranian planes to have weapons.

BLAIR: No, I think that thing that's prolonging the war in Syria is Assad and what he is doing in, frankly, a murderous set of steps against his own people. Now the Iranians maybe helping that and Iraq should obviously do what it can to prevent it.


AMANPOUR: Do you think it can?

BLAIR: Well, I -- I mean, I truthfully don't know at this point. But I think that what Senator Kerry and others have been saying is something they should take account of and act upon. But let's not, you know, blind ourselves to where the actual problem is.

The problem is in Syria, with what the Syrian government is doing and we urgently need the international community and, indeed, the Syrian government itself to understand this cannot go on, the people are suffering there in the most appalling way. And if it carries on, deepening, it will be a civil war that will go on for many, many years and in which many, many people will die.

AMANPOUR: Do you have an idea -- I mean, if you were still in power? Because look, no plan Bs. I've had several interviews, including with the current British foreign secretary; the world is here talking about Syria, but with no plan to change its trajectory.

BLAIR: No, this is really difficult, because people worry how would we help in Syria, if we were to intervene, for example, if we were to take some steps that would give greater protection to the Syrian opposition, how would we do that, what would the impact be? People worry, frankly, what happens when Assad goes. Look, it would be better --

AMANPOUR: Are you worried?

BLAIR: Yes, I mean, I think you'd have to. If you look at what's happening in the Middle East as a whole, once you take the lid off these deeply repressive dictatorships, then you know, there are -- out come a whole set of different forces and you know, they can pull in different directions. We've seen that.

Now that's not a reason for keeping the dictatorships. But it's a reason for a course, being anxious about what comes next. So personally, I think there are two things that are very important.

One is to do everything we can to unify the opposition around a clear set of principles and part of those principles, by the way, has got to be the strong protection of minorities and minority religious groups and faiths.

And the second thing, I think it is worth exploring what the Turks and others have put forward, which is the concept of some sort of secure zone. Now this is difficult militarily as the people will tell you.

On the other hand, as we go on day by day, even if it's not leading the news every day in Syria, there are many, many people dying and many of them women, children and totally innocent civilians.

AMANPOUR: But let me ask you about what you've just raised yourself, this idea of the aftermath. And you've brought up these last few weeks of protests in the Muslim world.

But do you sort of lump all those protesters? I mean, are they the people who are shaping the agenda? Or is it the vast majority who are not protesting and want nothing to do with this kind of violence and have rejected (inaudible) -- ?


BLAIR: That's a really good question. I mean, I think, in the end, the people who are going to shape this region are the sensible people, who are in the majority.

But the fact is, all over the region, you have these influences, some based on a warped view of religion, an extremist view of faith, some that are engaged in sort of terrorism and corruption and all sorts of different types of activity that go against the majority. And the majority's often not well organized enough across the region.

So I think you've got a long process of transition. But in the end, it's like with Iraq. I mean, it's really tough and it's difficult and so on. But in the end, those people who want proper democracy, proper liberty, I think, will win.

It'll just -- it'll take us time, and I think for us in the West, what is important, rather as President Obama was saying yesterday, is to stand on the basis of principle alongside those people who want a modern, open- minded view of the region.

AMANPOUR: Just to go back to Iraq, I mean, one of your visions was power sharing in a proper democracy that represented all the populations in Iraq, not suddenly a new majority oppressing the old.

BLAIR: (Inaudible), yes.

AMANPOUR: It hasn't happened. Why not and what can be done to make it happen?

BLAIR: Well, I think, again, I think they will, in the end, find their way to it, because nothing else will work. And so ultimately just as it was wrong that the majority of the population that were Shia were excluded from power under Saddam, now you've got to, you know, part of the test of a democracy is not how the majority comes to power but how the majority treats the minority.

So this is essential. They'll have to do it. But one thing I would say about Iraq -- and it's important that people realize this, because we - - there's still a lot of what is negative and there is a lot there that is negative.

But remember, the economy's three or four times the size. Next month, Iraq will, for the first time, actually exceed Iran in oil production. Actually there is a pushback against some of that Iranian influence in Iraq.

Down in Basra, where the British troops were, hundreds of millions of dollars of investment coming in and you know, the child mortality rate's about a quarter of what they were 10-15 years ago.

So you know, these societies, all of them -- and I, you know, when I - - because I'm there the whole time, in the Middle East. I see this very clearly now. There is basically, I think, a long struggle between what I would rather -- perhaps rather crudely call the forces of modernization and those of reaction.

AMANPOUR: But who do you think are the most powerful right now?

BLAIR: Well, I think the forces of modernization still are latently there. But the forces of reaction --

AMANPOUR: But not even latently. They just went out on the streets and they pushed back, for instance, in Libya, huge counterdemonstrations against the forces of --


BLAIR: (Inaudible) absolutely, and that, in a sense, makes my point, which is -- which is that, yes, there are people out there burning the flag and all the rest of it, but there are also people out there who are, you know, holding up pictures of Chris Stevens and celebrating what he'd done for the people of Libya.

So I think, you know, look, it's not going to be easy, this. But I -- and the challenges are very obvious. But I think, in the end, what is the future for the Middle East region? It is an economy that offers economic opportunity to its people, and that only comes from a society that educates people to be open-minded. That's the way the world works.

AMANPOUR: So let's move -- pivot -- because this is a perfect moment -- to what your main job, and that is to try to fashion some of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

You have spent a lot of time with the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, trying to build the institutions of a state from the bottom up.

Look at these pictures that he's just had to endure, demonstrations on the street, people throwing that shoe at his portrait in this terrible sort of, you know, sort of way that they insult their leaders there.

And he told me about a month ago that, listen, we are having a really hard time. We don't have the money; we can't pay wages. There is no peace process, a whole year and no peace process has happened. The Israeli settlements keep going. They're very concerned that they're just making prolonged occupation palatable, and not even. Look at the demonstrations.

BLAIR: Yes, look, it is a really difficult time for them, because of this fiscal crisis, which is as a result, frankly, of people not making the commitments they should make to the Palestinians Authority. But you know, one thing, by the way, this isn't confined to the Middle East. If you're a political leader in the world today, you're going to have people out in the street protesting, throwing things --

AMANPOUR: True, but there's been no talks between the two sides of any meaning.

BLAIR: However, having said that -- but so in any event, you've got to be prepared for a certain amount of criticism. Now what is urgently required is you've got to relaunch a credible political negotiation.

If we don't do that and set a framework for a proper political negotiation, that all the good work that's been done, there's a lot, by the way, by Salam Fayyad and Abu Mazen, to create security on the West Bank with taking the militia off the streets. Their economy is actually -- was growing very strongly until just recently, when this crisis came about.

And there's lots of good things happening. So but it's very obvious what works. What works is a proper political negotiation, allied to the ground --


AMANPOUR: You know, there's a bit of a groundswell to have Abu Mazen just say goodbye to the Oslo process, even the main Israeli negotiator, Yossi Beilin, told him, stop this farce.

BLAIR: Yes, (inaudible) is it's very easy when you're -- you know, to say this, this sort of (inaudible) and sometimes people say, well, let's get rid of the Palestinian Authority. No. What then, is my question.

So this is an expression of frustration. I understand it. What we should do in the international community is give Abu Mazen and give the Palestinians a proper, credible process so that they can engage. And that is a fair demand that they make, and we should respond to it.

AMANPOUR: Tony Blair, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

BLAIR: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And after a break, another diplomat who finds herself in a brand new role, dancing to a different drummer, after a break.


AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, as world diplomats gather here in New York, the woman who was once the voice of American foreign policy was starring on another stage.

Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. secretary of state and ambassador to the U.N. was honored this past weekend at Washington's Kennedy Center at a jazz gala featuring luminaries such as the Oscar-winning actress, Helen Mirren; Tipper Gore and music legends, Herbie Hancock and Aretha Franklin.

But the highlight of the evening came when Ms. Albright surprised and delighted the crowd by joining trumpeter Chris Botti in a jazz rendition of Puccini.


AMANPOUR: Always a great sport, Madeleine Albright was honored for her support of jazz as a diplomatic language in Czechoslovakia, the land of her birth. Jazz was outlawed by the Communist regime after World War II, but it became a symbol of freedom, part of the movement that brought democracy there in the '90s.

And it's that spirit that she bore to her work as a diplomat, too, the same spirit that raised the Kennedy Center roof and brought the audience to its feet.

That's it for tonight's program. Good night. Thank you for watching.