Outlook to the 49th Munich Security Conference

Outlook to the 49th Munich Security Conference in Berlin: MSC chairman Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger with highranking guests in the Bavarian Mission. Photo: Schacht.

By Tobias Bunde

 

Wolfgang Ischinger discussed the key topics of the forthcoming Munich Security Conference with high-ranking German and international guests on 21 January 2013 at the Bavarian Representation in Berlin. The focus was on the conflicts in countries from Mali to Iran.

 

It has been a tradition for a number of years now for Minister of State Emilia Müller to invite guests to the Bavarian Representation in mid-January to take a first look at the topics of the forthcoming Munich Security Conference. A different kind of tradition is less delightful. As in recent years, the conference will once again centre around the regional conflicts in countries from North Africa to Iran. A death toll of over 60,000 in the civil war in Syria, the advance of Islamist groups in the Sahel Zone, a hardening of the positions in the Palestine Question and the nuclear programme in Iran automatically put Europe’s neighbours in the south and south-east on the agenda.

 

In the first of two panel discussions, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger, talked to the Deputy Secretary General of NATO, the US diplomat Alexander Vershbow, the designated Deputy Secretary General of the Arab League, Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, and Member of the Bundestag Rainer Stinner from the FDP about the crises in the countries from Mali to Syria. Vershbow, who had travelled from Brussels by train because of the weather, explained the change in America’s concept of its role, according to which the United States did not demand to take the lead in Western military operations as a matter of principle: “The US and NATO cannot be everywhere.” He emphasized that the United States did not have to be a front-line actor everywhere and welcomed the efforts being made by the European partners in Mali. However, Vershbow again made it clear that the USA would like to see burdens being shared to an even greater extent in the future – especially in the European neighbourhood, though also in the light of new challenges in Asia and the Pacific region.

 

With respect to the situation in Syria, the NATO Deputy Secretary General called for more thought to be devoted to the future of the country after Assad, whose days he said were numbered. Vershbow said that the NATO partners had to think about the contribution they could make towards stabilizing the country. Ramzy likewise warned that the consequences of Syria falling apart could be far-reaching: “Syria is a country that will not implode. It will explode.” Egypt’s former ambassador in Berlin pointed out that no-one was in favour of Syria falling apart and power being seized by a radical regime. He said that he especially hoped to see the USA and Russia reaching agreement on a joint position, a development that could be a signal to the Syrian opposition, which had so far been extremely fragmented.

 

Ramzy went on to underline that the people in the region were hoping President Obama would seize the initiative to take the negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians on a two-state solution forward: “The president has to take the initiative very quickly. Otherwise, the two-state solution will fade away.” Referring to this topic, Stinner stressed that it was also necessary to talk to actors with whom one had little in common. Such actors even included the Hamas or the regime in Iran.

 

This was also the motto of the second panel discussion, in which Ruprecht Polenz (CDU), the chairman of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee, debated with the Iranian representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Ali Asghar Soltanieh, on Iran’s nuclear programme. Soltanieh replied to Ischinger’s question as to whether 2013 could bring about a negotiated solution by describing the problem from Iran’s perspective. He said that Iran had the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and had always cooperated fully with the IAEA. He called upon the West to treat Iran with respect, adding that nothing could be achieved with orders or sanctions. In response to this, Polenz confronted Soltanieh with a number of inconsistencies that naturally aroused distrust.

 

He said that he asked himself how the developments in Iran’s nuclear programme matched the declared peacefulness. Polenz said that he wondered what need Iran had for such quantities of highly enriched uranium or what need it had for the heavy water reactor. He went on to say that of all things, the transparency imperative was of the highest importance in the sensitive issue of nuclear technology and that Iran had so far refused to answer the unanswered questions to the satisfaction of all the parties concerned. Polenz emphasized that he was unable to comprehend the accusations that Iran was being condemned unilaterally. He said that it was the Iranian regime that was failing to comply with the IAEA’s demands. “In the nuclear issue, Iran is behaving like someone who is driving on the wrong side of the road,” said Polenz. “How can we be sure that what you tell us is actually true?”

 

Soltanieh refused to accept Polenz’s claim that the IAEA believed Iran was not honouring its obligations and also denied that the UN Security Council resolutions on the subject were legal. The Iranian ambassador also pointed out that Iran had repeatedly granted inspectors the right to inspect the installations and invited the people in the audience to inspect them for themselves. In the question and answer session that followed, Werner Sonne, who worked for many years as a correspondent for the morning TV programme Morgenmagazin, tried to take Soltanieh up on his invitation. Sonne said that he would be pleased to travel to Iran and report on the situation there for the German public. He asked Soltanieh outright: “Are you intending to build a nuclear bomb – yes or no?” In reply, Soltanieh referred to the position of the revolutionary leader and his fatwa, which branded a nuclear bomb as an “unforgivable sin”. He added that Iran had no interest at all in gaining possession of a nuclear bomb either: “We are stronger without a nuclear bomb than with one.”

 

Concluding, Polenz again stressed that it was in the interest of the Iranian government to get the IAEA on its side. He urged Soltanieh to stop being underhanded and to create full transparency. In his closing address, Ambassador Ischinger expressed the hope that a negotiated solution could be achieved. He said that Iran had to be interested in shaking off the painful sanctions and ending its isolation. At the same time, he remarked that he sensed a strong willingness on the part of the West to relax these sanctions if Iran were to show a serious interest in cooperating. Ischinger said that he hoped to see such signals at the Munich Security Conference in early February.

 

The 49th Munich Security Conference takes place in Munich from 1-3 February 2013. It is expected to be attended by some 90 international delegations, 5 EU commissioners and around 60 members of the Bundestag. The speeches and discussions will be held in the Hotel Bayerischer Hof – the topics including Iran’s nuclear programme, the civil war in Syria and the situation in North Africa  – and can be followed online on www.securityconference.de.