"Frank words on Iran and Syria" - Impressions from an MSC Junior Ambassador

Lackeys and wrong-way drivers: The debate on Iran was a highlight of the MSC, our Junior Ambassador Hanns Koenig writes - and not always diplomatic.

Iran is no one's "lackey," Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said during Sunday's debate (Photo: Wuest).

Out of the many absorbing debates during this year’s Munich Security Conference, my personal highlight was the one held on Sunday morning. Featuring Ali Akbar Salehi, the Foreign Minister of Iran, Ruprecht Polenz, the outspoken chairman of the Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Professor Vali Nasr, Dean of my own graduate school, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, this panel promised to combine deep knowledge of the issues at hand with some rather refreshing polarization.

And we were not disappointed: Mr. Salehi, notably and commendably speaking in English, presented his country as an ancient civilization and the “golden key” to the Middle East. He insisted on the Iranian government’s readiness to negotiate with the US, and blamed the E3+3 countries for the continued negotiation breakdowns. While Iran is happy to negotiate, the Minister stressed, it is “certainly not the lackey of any superpower any more”. Claims that the Iranian nuclear program was a weapons program were readily dismissed; the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has, Mr. Salehi argued, never accused the country of making nuclear warheads.

It was unsurprising that Mr. Polenz had a number of responses to that, and the fact that he represented the parliament, rather than the government, enabled him to phrase them rather more clearly (and less diplomatically) than he might otherwise have had to. Under international law, he contended, the burden of proof clearly lies on Iran to prove that its nuclear program is peaceful, rather than vice versa. Mr. Polenz called upon the Iranian government to refrain from acting like a “nuclear-policy wrong-way driver” and to take up the offer to start bilateral negotiations with the US that Vice President Biden had announced the day before.

Professor Nasr noted in his remarks that the West’s two-track policy of sanctions and talks had failed thus far, and that the strategy of containment of Iran has been conceived with a pre-2011 picture of the Middle East in mind. However, sanctions have created something concrete for Iran to negotiate over, which may get it back to the bargaining table in due course. Should negotiations recommence, Mr. Nasr urged the international community to be clear which sanctions it would loosen under which circumstances, in order to create tangible incentives for the Iranian government.

The second part of the debate focused on Syria, which did not decrease polarization. Mr. Salehi argued that the Iranian government was not taking sides in this conflict and talking to both sides; a point that was severely contested by both Mr. Polenz and several speakers from the floor, who pointed out that Iran was, in fact, providing direct support to the government of Bashar Al-Assad, which prolongs the conflict in Syria and costs civilian lives every day. It was unfortunate that the constraints of time ended the discussion at this point, since all participants gave the impression they had plenty more to dispute. In the hope of doing so, Georg Mascolo, the moderator of the discussion and editor-in-chief of German weekly Der Spiegel, secured an invitation from Mr. Salehi to hold an interview with him in Tehran.

This panel therefore exemplified in many ways what makes the Munich Security Conference extraordinary and what made attending it such a privilege: top-level speakers, who could not be found talking to each other publicly anywhere else, a salient and controversial topic, joined together by an engaged and critical audience. I urge you to watch the debate in full in the media library!


Hanns Koenig (23) is a graduate student of international economics and international relations at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where is a Haniel Fellow of the German National Academic Foundation. He was one of three Junior Ambassadors at the 2013 Munich Security Conference.

06 February 2013, by Hanns Koenig