Blair on Aljazeera
Frost Over the World

Transcript: Tony Blair interview

The British prime minister talks exclusively to Sir David Frost

Blair covered a wide range of issues

David Frost: [Starting with the new European Peace Initiative] … they hope that we would back it and join it, will we join it?


Tony Blair: I am in favour of anything that moves the process forward, between Israel and Palestine. I think it’s the single most important objective for us in terms of changing the whole atmosphere and climate in the, in the Middle East and obviously I’ve been working very hard with our American Allies but also with other Europeans to try and make sure we keep it at the top of the agenda.

I think there are possibilities of progress but we’ve got to make sure that we do everything that is within our possibility to change the situation there.


But will we join this bid or carry on separately?


I mean I haven’t looked at the details of it but I think that, that the key elements are those that we’ve been working on and others have been working on all the way through and so of course it’s good to have everyone on the same page.

But it’s really about making sure that we make progress towards the two-state solution, that we get in place the right elements that allow us, for example, to get Corporal Shalit released then get Palestinian prisoners released, that we get a National Unity Government in Palestine, that we manage to get into a situation where we’re negotiating about the details of peace rather than looking at the appalling consequences of conflict.


But whatever the EU can do with the Palestinians and so on, and they obviously can do something, is it in fact progress and this target you have for Middle East peace, while you’re in office if possible it all depends on the United States putting wholehearted pressure on Israel?


Well you’re absolutely right in saying the role of the US is crucial but you see I think that both the United States and Israel will want to make progress provided we can get a national unity government on the Palestinian side.

That is in line with the principles laid out by the United Nations so that there’s mutual recognition of an Israeli state and a Palestinian state, and then we’ve got to clear all the obstacles out of the way and get on with it.

I think the Europeans can play a great part as you rightly imply in helping the Palestinian Authority and then it’s for the Americans and ourselves and others obviously to work with Israel in trying to make progress.


And so you’ve got to get more pressure from America for a solution?


You have got to get a sense or urgency across the peace, because at the moment what’s happening is there’s a terrible set of conditions for ordinary Palestinians on the Palestinian side.

Israel is still suffering rocket attacks, but you’ve got a situation where innocent people are losing their lives, there is no progress at the present time, and yet we have an agreement about the solution people want to see, which is a two State solution.

So the thing that I have, have been urging for many months and urge again is to recognise that creating a new Middle East doesn’t end with the Israel Palestine situation, it begins with it.


Do you find that your, sort of, perceived procrastination in the war between Israel and Hezbollah has affected your standing in the Middle East because people say “was it right not to condemn Israel’s incursions at the beginning, was it right not to call for a ceasefire straight away?” Has that damaged your status in the Arab world?


I think for a lot of people they couldn’t understand why we didn’t just say “well the whole thing had to stop”, and, and I understand that incidentally, but the reason for that is very simple, you were never going to get a ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon unless it was one on both sides, and unless you had then the possibility of an International Force coming in to the South of Lebanon.

But I think what is important is not just for Israel and Palestine but also in respect of relationships between Israel and Lebanon, is to resolve the outstanding issues so that the Lebanese government, the proper democratically elected government in Lebanon, is in full charge of the Lebanon. 

Because otherwise what we face in the region is a situation where the extremists always have the upper hand, so the most militant elements of Hamas have the upper hand in Palestine, the most militant elements of Hezbollah have a upper hand in Lebanon and these al-Qaeda-backed extremists or Iranian backed Shia militia in Iraq have the upper hand.

You have got to make sure all the way through that we are … as I put it … driving forward with a strategy for the whole of the Middle East that is about helping and empowering and supporting the moderate elements against the extreme elements.


In terms of Iraq, prime minister, in the light of the latest figures from the Iraqi health ministry, that the number of Iraqis who have died is between 100,000 and 150,000 and so on, with those scale of figures, if you had known that that was the scale of bloodshed, would you have still gone to war? 


Well the alternative was leaving Saddam in charge of Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of people died, there were a million casualties in the Iran/Iraq war, Kuwait was invaded and four million people went into exile.

So the idea that Iraqis should be faced with the situation where they either have a brutal dictator in Saddam or alternatively a sectarian religious conflict, why can’t they have in Iraq what their people want? Which is a non-sectarian government, a government that is elected by the people and the same opportunities and the same rights that we enjoy in countries such as this.


But, but so far it’s been … you know, pretty much of a disaster …


It has, but you see what I say to people is “why is it difficult in Iraq?” It’s not difficult because of some accident in planning, it’s difficult because there is a deliberate strategy, al-Qaeda with Sunni insurgents on the one hand, Iranian-backed elements with Shia militia on the other to create a situation in which the will of the majority of Iraqis, which is for peace, is displaced by the will of the minority for war.


But you said you would still, still have gone to war but I mean what would you have done, knowing what you know now, what would you, and should you, both have done differently?


Well I think you can debate that forever but, you know, and there are issues that I have already raised to do with, you know, was the de-Bathification process too fast? Should we have disbanded the army in the way that we did and so on, but in the end what we have got to understand, and this is why it’s so important for us to send a message to the region, we are not walking away from Iraq.

We will stay for as long as the government needs us to stay.


So there will …


And the reason for that is that what is happening in Iraq as in Afghanistan, as in elsewhere in parts of the Middle East, is a struggle between the decent majority of people who want to live in peace together, and those who have an extreme and perverted and warped view of Islam who want to create war.

And in those circumstances, our task has got to be to stand up for the moderates and the democrats against the extremists and the sectarians, and they are testing our will at the moment, and our will has not to be found wanting.

I mean of course it’s difficult, it’s very difficult but it’s difficult, not because people in Iraq want, you know, this, this, this bloodshed and this attempt to provoke civil war, but because this is being driven by outside elements that are the very outside elements fuelling extremism everywhere.

Now the reason why Israel-Palestine is important and the situation in Lebanon is important, is that I don’t think we will succeed in Iraq unless we succeed across the region, unless we have a strategy that embraces the whole of the Middle East.


That’s going to take a hell of a long time.


It will take time, but the reasons we are there, the reason this whole struggle came about was because there were a combination of elements that came out of the Middle East that ended up with the, the al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan that ended up finally with 9/11, that ended up with Madrid and London, as well as all the, the disruption of terrorism all over the Middle East.

And in the end the answer to it is to recognise the roots of this are deep, it’s a generational struggle, but if we walk away from it now we will only have to confront it again later.


What about your latest thoughts on Syria and Iran which you talked about on Monday and previously in Los Angeles. The Daily Telegraph, which I am aware is not a New Labour house organ, but nevertheless had an editorial, a rousing editorial, which said “this approach in which two countries once branded by the Bush White House as ununambiguously evil, miraculously become part of the solution, defies any credible logic except that of ignominious desperation”.  Can it possibly work … to get them involved?


Yeah, but you see this is where, if people will pay attention to what is actually being said rather than what they think might have been said or what they want to have been said we’d be better off.

First of all I don’t think Syria and Iran incidentally are in precisely the same position. Their interests are not the same in the region and I think there are very different considerations that apply in respect of each country.

However, what is absolutely clear, and this is what we have said all the way through, is that if, for example, Iran wants a different relationship with the United States of America or with the European Union, with the West, then it has got to make sure that it is abiding by its international obligations in respect of this nuclear weapons issue.

It has got to stop supporting terrorism in the region, and it’s got to reach out and help solve the problems of the region rather than be part of the problem of the region, and I, let me make one thing absolutely clear, I do not intend any message other than one of absolute strength in relation to Iran, which is to say.


Not appeasement as they all say so?


It is completely absurd to say that. On the contrary what I am saying is very, very clear indeed.

If you reject … the way forward that we are setting out, if instead of playing a part in helping the region in supporting peace, you support terrorism, you act in breach of your International obligations, then it is our task to stand up to you.

On the other hand if it is the case that you want to be part of a constructive solution in the Middle East, the door is open to you.

It’s your choice. And the whole point about what I was saying both in respect of Syria and Iran is to say because part of this is actually explaining ourselves properly to the region.

We have to go out there ourselves, and the Americans, and say “we are not against you because we believe that we should decide who governs Iran or we should decide who governs Syria”.

What we are saying to you is very, very clear, if you are prepared to be part of the solution there is a partnership available to you, but at the moment, and this is particularly so in respect of what Iran is doing in supporting terrorism throughout the Middle East in acting in breach of its nuclear-weapons obligations, you are behaving in such a way that makes such a partnership impossible.

And so really what we are doing is saying: “this is the strategic choice, but don’t go out and try and persuade people in the region that we are somehow hostile to you, because we are against the Iranian people or against the Syrian people, we’re not.”

What we’re doing is laying out the terms upon which we can be either people who work constructively together or alternatively face isolation.


Prime Minister, back in November 2001 you said that the Taliban was in a state of total collapse. What’s happened?  It seems to have had a comeback, a revival to be a serious enemy again.  What’s happened, did we underestimate them or …?


No but I think really what’s happened is that although in many parts of Afghanistan they’ve been beaten back, in the south in a sense they have never really left. 

Up in Kabul it’s been a different picture, but again what it indicates is that they are very serious about trying to take us on, trying to take on the Afghan people who obviously want to elect their government as they’ve been able to do for the first time, and again the answer is to stick with it and make sure that we, we help those people who want to, to get a better future where they’re not prey to the Taliban and al-Qaeda and their country is turned into a training camp or a narcotics economy or girls aren’t allowed to go to school or any of the rest of the extremism that comes with them.


And of course originally one of our reasons for being in Afghanistan was, hopefully, to hunt and find Osama Bin Laden. Have we made any progress on that?


I think we’re still in the same position, but you know this is, this is now a worldwide movement, an ideology, and the real issue for us as western nations because we can’t, in the end, solve this.

This is about empowering as I say the moderate elements within what is the peaceful and dignified religion of Islam to take on and defeat these extremists who walk and pervert its name, and if you look back over the past few years the majority of the victims of terrorism have been Muslim.

Many of the people who have perished in some of the worst terrorist atrocities have been Muslim people, ordinary innocent Muslim people, and this extremism that has taken root has grown over a long period of time, and it won’t be defeated in a quick period of time and I think if there’s anything that we underestimated at the time of September the 11th is that because September the 11th was the first time it … shattered our own consciousness and broke in upon it.

I think we tended to think “well maybe this just began” a short time before. This has been growing a long time, and what we’ve got to do as I say in every single area, but particularly in the Middle East, is get behind the change-makers in the region, the people who want to, to create a different type of future for people, who want prosperity and economic development and a move towards democracy.


And in fact just mentioning Osama Bin Laden there, also reminds one of the other giant villain who’s been found guilty, who was captured and found guilty, Saddam Hussein. Would you in fact prefer a living Saddam Hussein who might be a rallying cry for future supporters, or a dead Saddam who might become a martyr?


Look, we’ve got a position as the government and I as an individual against the death penalty and, and that applies in no matter what circumstances. But this is a decision the Iraqis have got to take, and I think this has moved beyond Saddam as a figurehead or not.

The truth is in the end there’s something far more fundamental at stake here, which is can Iraq become a democracy in which people of different parts of the Muslim faith live together, freely, and that is the only way people are going to make progress in Iraq, that is what the majority of people want, the question is how do we help them get there?

And you know I think we’ve got to send a very clear message across the whole of the Middle East, that one: there is a strategy that we have for the whole of the region in which we want to work in partnership with moderate elements. And, secondly, that we are going to stick with it, and make sure that for the foreseeable future in so far as we can help this situation, we should be there and help it. 

Prime Minister, there’s been some action this week on Darfur, people have been saying that really China was the most important power around Darfur. But do you think there’s any hope of real progress now?


I think there’s hope of progress and Koffi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, has done a good job. But I mean I, the basic thing is to get this Africa Union, United Nations Force into Darfur to keep aside those who are engaged in violence there and then to get a proper peace process underway, otherwise we end up with a situation where again.

You know, hundreds and thousands of people die or are displaced, extremism grows, and yet another conflict can become something upon which these extreme elements gain traction, and that’s what we’ve got to stop.

And what is interesting now is right across Africa, the more extreme elements are trying to gain a foothold in order to create conflict and division and sectarianism.


And the War on Terror, I mean, will last a generation. Do you think we’ll still have troops in this part of the world in a generation?

It’s not gonna be the same as it is now at all, and no I think there will be a situation in Iraq particularly where the Iraqi government wants as quickly as possible to take responsibility for its own security.

But on the other hand I think in terms of our partnership with economic development, our support for diplomatic efforts, for example to bring peace in Israel-Palestine, to make sure that Lebanon is properly secured to give a, a different future for the region, I think that is a partnership that needs to last a generation because I think it will take that long.


It’s clear how passionate you, you’ve always been clear how passionate you are about foreign affairs and so on. If the next prime minister was say Gordon Brown, and if he was to ask you if you would continue to serve as foreign secretary because you’re so good at it, what would you say?


No, I think when you step down as prime minister you step down. Part of modern politics is, is foreign affairs is no, no longer almost like foreign affairs.

I mean we are affected in Britain today by an extremism that didn’t begin in this country has come in from outside, and its solution is found outside, and so in a strange way what I’ve seen in my ten years as prime minister is the situation in which you move from a domestic affairs and foreign affairs being kind of two different compartments to one in which, really the domestic and the foreign intermingle.


Absolutely. When you step down, what about Cherie, would she be tempted to do a Hilary Clinton do you think?


No!  I mean that’s a question for her, but I think no. It’s been a tremendous privilege and honour to do the job here but I think, you know, when you move on you move on.

I think however there’s and I’ve learnt it’s not very sensible for me to talk about what I may or may not do afterwards but I think the thing that does make a real difference today is when you look round the world and you can see this in countries like ours, but also out in the Middle East region.

The difference today, the fundamental political difference is less to do with the traditional, Left, Right politics, as it is, because most people know what makes an effective economy today and so on.

It is to do with whether countries are open, whether they’re tolerant, whether they embrace people of different views and different faiths, or whether they are closed societies, and I think the future, this is not a Western position, I think the future for our world is in countries opening up to the outside world.


So, summing up, you’ve got anything obviously from one day to eight months to go, that’s the sort of maximum, going back to what you said about the TUC Congress, what would you most like to achieve in that time? A lot of the aims for the Middle East will obviously take many years longer, but, but what would you most like to achieve in the remaining months?


Well, I think apart from Iraq and Afghanistan where it’s important to support the process of democracy, the most important thing for me is progress in Israel and Palestine.

That is the thing I believe would have … not just greater practical significance most of all obviously for people in Israel and Palestine, but greater symbolic importance, nothing would have a greater symbolic importance than that.

It would send a signal to the whole of the world that this was not a battle between Westerners or Christians and Muslims, but it was a battle between all those who believe in tolerance, in living together in harmony in a non-sectarian future against those who want to divide us.


One of the problems there though is, is the perception that you and America are not unbiased in this situation.


Of course,absolutely.


That everyone in the Arab world thinks that you are on the side of Israel and somehow that’s got to be dispelled.

Yeah, but you know what would help dispel it? If people would understand that I am a strong supporter of Israel, I believe that Israel should have the right to exist, right.

But I also believe that we need a Palestinian state, an independent viable democratic Palestinian state living alongside Israel.

Now the only way you’re going to get there is not if we suddenly start distancing ourselves from Israel because Israel’s got to be part of this solution, the only way we’re going to get there, as we tried to do here in respect of Northern Ireland, is to bring people together, to set out a common way forward and then work at it day in, day out until we get there.

The interesting thing about the Middle East at the moment, if you see King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s initiative for example, if you look at what other leaders in the region are talking about in Egypt and Jordan and so on, everybody wants the same thing now.

Everybody wants that two-state solution.  So now that you’ve got that common basis of agreement as to the way forward, the rest of it requires energy and determination and a relentless focus on getting this done, because of its importance, not just to Israel and Palestine and not just to the Middle East but to the world.


Prime Minister, thank you very much indeed.  Thank you.