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Swedish FM Carl Bildt: Iran sanctions won’t work, negotiations could take years

MANAMA, Bahrain — International sanctions are not likely to convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear program and Monday’s talks in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 countries are only the first step in a process that could take years to succeed, according to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. Bildt, who is considered one of Europe’s ...

Josh Rogin
Josh Rogin

MANAMA, Bahrain — International sanctions are not likely to convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear program and Monday’s talks in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 countries are only the first step in a process that could take years to succeed, according to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.

Bildt, who is considered one of Europe’s leading voices on foreign policy, is no friend of Iran. He’s a vocal critic of Iran’s human rights record and has worked hard to free Europeans held in Iranian prisons. But he gave a speech on Sunday at the 2010 IISS Manama Security Dialogue that included criticism of the sanctions regime the United States and Europe have worked to put in place. He also happened to sit next to Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki at the Dec. 3 gala dinner at which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke.

The Cable sat down with Bildt on Sunday for an exclusive interview about Iran, the nuclear negotiations, and his dinner date with the Iranian leader.

Bildt disagreed with Clinton’s view, expressed in our exclusive interview with her two days before, that the international sanctions regime had brought Iran back to the table and was thus having an effect on the Iranian leadership’s decision making.

“They were at the table one year ago, they were at the table six months ago, and they are at the table again. And I think it’s at the table where the solution can be found. I fail to see any solution that is not at the table,” Bildt said.

“The sanctions are part of the scene but they are not the solution,” he told The Cable. “There are some people that seem to believe sanctions are going to sort out the problem itself, as if you have sufficiently hard sanctions, the Iranians are suddenly going to fold and say, ‘We agree with everything that you’ve said.’ That’s a pipe dream.”

Sanctions might have some effect over the long term, but that could take a very long time, he said.

“You’re talking about a 10, 15, 20 year process,” Bildt said. “The thing that can change things in the near term is the talks.”

But even the nuclear negotiations that begin on Monday in Geneva will need several follow-up sessions before progress is can be made, said Bildt.

“I think we’re talking about a fairly lengthy process. We have a gulf of mistrust between the Iranians and the Americans that is profound. One side is locked into 1979 and one side is locked into 1953,” Bildt said, referring to the dates of Islamic Revolution and the U.S. sponsored coup that overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh. “It will have to be a step by step approach, where you start by some smaller steps before you’re ready to take some bigger steps.”

Luckily, the West has some more time to negotiate with Iran, Bildt added, because he believes that their nuclear progress is going much slower than anyone anticipated.

And what about his dinner with Mottaki? Bildt said he told Mottaki that Clinton’s speech, which focused on Iran’s right to civilian nuclear development and avoided harsh criticisms, was a huge change in tone from the American side made in the hope of improving relations.

Bildt said that Mottaki agreed, but that the Iranian diplomat doubted it would make much of a difference in the end.

“I said to Mottaki, ‘this is significant,’” Bildt related, referring to Clinton’s direct outreach to the Iranian delegation.

“’Yes, yes,’ he said, ‘it is,’” Bildt quoted Mottaki as telling him. “But there many people in Tehran who don’t believe it,” Mottaki added.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin