Foreign Secretary discusses British foreign policy and the Middle East

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Foreign Secretary answers questions on Al Jazeera

Presenter: Foreign Secretary William Hague, welcome to Al Jazeera.

William Hague: Thank you very much indeed.

Presenter: You’ve been in your post, Foreign Secretary, for a number of weeks. As Foreign Secretary you are here on behalf of a coalition of two parties. What’s your vision for a, a British foreign policy?

WH: Well, it’s a very active foreign policy. I want to see a distinctive British foreign policy that involves much closer engagement with many of the nations of the world. You know, in, in Britain, our relations with the rest of Europe and working together with the rest of Europe, it’s very, very important to us, quite rightly. Our relationship with the United States is very important to us. But we have neglected sometimes our links with other nations in the world. And I want to see …

Presenter: Like who, for example?

WH: … well, for instance, we haven’t built up enough of a good commercial relationship with India. We haven’t done enough with some of the states of the Middle East, including the Gulf States are obvious examples, where Britain has historic ties, and we can do more. But not just in business, but in building up links in education, in culture, really bring the peoples of these countries closer together. I think that’s also true with countries of North Africa.

So many of the countries in and around the Middle East, I think Britain could have closer, a closer relationship with. And we will put some real energy in this Government in to bringing that about. It’s something that’s easily agreed in a coalition Government because it’s something Britain needs to do. It’s in our own interests, but it’s also in the interests of, of people around the Middle East that Britain does that. Building better understanding and links, cultural links, educational, diplomatic and business links. And seeing that that whole region as being full of opportunity as well as danger. You know, we all know there is danger. But there’s an enormous amount of opportunity to trade with, to be with, to learn with a region of extraordinarily inventive people. And people who can bring so much to our foreign relations.

Presenter: Foreign Secretary, you, you spoke of the region full of danger as well as full of opportunities. I mean, we go back to the issue of the Israeli flotilla. Just, Israel recently announced a, an investigation in to what happened with this flotilla. Do you have any confidence in, in the outcome of such, such an investigation?

WH: We’ll have to see how this investigation works. It’s a step forward that Israel has announced such an investigation with some international presence. And there is one British person, Lord Trimble, on that, who, who I regard very highly, so that is a good sign, that someone like him is involved. But we will have to see how it comes …

Presenter: They are as consultancy or just observers. They are not going to have any input in to the investigation.

WH: … well, let’s see how it works out. I’m not saying by any means that this is the ideal solution. And of course other solutions were put forward, such as by the UN Secretary General. But let’s see how it works out. If it really is an independent, impartial, credible investigation that is prepared to criticise whoever it wants to criticise, whether that be the Israeli Government or whoever else, well then of course we can respect it more than if it isn’t able to do those things. So we must now see how it turns out, and, and, and keep the pressure on Israel to say that, that this whole fiasco, what happened with the Gaza flotilla, and with the loss of life that we have deeply deplored in this country, does require a credible and impartial and transparent inquiry.

Presenter: This criteria, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations themselves (indistinct) that they are lacking in this investigation.

WH: Well, it’s entirely understandable people criticising the investigation. As I say, I’m not saying that this is the, the right or best way to do it. But I am saying that now that Israel has set it up, we should now be very careful in watching how they proceed and in saying clearly to Israel, as, as I’ve said very clearly that they should have, there should be an inquiry and investigation, now we must keep reminding them that this must be a properly independent and impartial inquiry.

Presenter: What a number of British MPs have said to me, and they have said in our channel actually, is that what Israel did with the freedom flotilla was, to put it bluntly, just a complete and utter breach of international law. It was piracy.

WH: There would be very few defenders of this in Britain. I’ve been very, very critical of it myself on behalf of the British Government, on behalf of the whole United Kingdom. And I have stressed to the Israeli Government several times over the last two weeks that they must change their policy on Gaza. That it is important that, that UN Security Council Resolution eighteen sixty is implemented, that the blockade of Gaza is lifted, that humanitarian aid should be able to go in, that normal commercial goods should be able to come in and out of Gaza. And so Britain has been putting the pressure on Israel absolutely correctly to change their policy on Gaza.

Presenter: And the, the partial lifting, according to Israel, of the siege, or maybe the easing of the siege, is not enough. I mean, a lot of organisations, (indistinct) organisation, we just received a press release today from Save the Children, and from many organisations, that say it’s not enough at all.

WH: Yeah, they’re right. It’s not enough. We need further steps. It is good that there are signs of a change in Israeli policy, but yes, we need a bigger change. And at the same time, of course, there are certain things which would also help this situation. Corporal Shalit should be released. Rocket fire in to Israel should stop. And if those things happen, then of course there would be even more pressure on Israel to make sure that there was a complete change of policy towards Gaza.

So we will keep working on this. We realise that there is a very serious crisis in Gaza. I have stressed to the Israeli Ministers that if they don’t change their policy now, there will only be a bigger crisis in a few weeks or a few months, so they really do need to change their policy quite comprehensively. And I will continue to put that point to them.

Presenter: The Syrian President today stressed out that there is a real danger of conflict and bloodshed in, in the Middle East now as a result of the Israeli action with this freedom flotilla, and he described the current Government as not interested in peace, and not even will, having the will to do peace.

WH: Well, that, we will only see over time whether that is true. The British Government is strongly in favour of the Middle East peace process. We will do everything we can as a new Government to support that process, to stress to all concerned, to Israelis and Palestinians, how important it is to get on with finding the way to a two state solution. Otherwise, the time will, will slip away. It will become harder over time to have a two state solution. But we are very strongly committed to Israel being able to live in security, but alongside a viable and prosperous, we hope in the future, Palestinian state. So Britain will be a strong voice for those things.

Presenter: Some of the British citizens were actually held by the Israelis during their work part of the freedom flotilla. They have been very critical of the British Government. They say that they were left alone, and if it wasn’t for the Turkish intervention and the assistance from (indistinct), he would have still been languishing behind Israeli jail.

WH: No, well, that certainly isn’t the case. The British consular staff in Israel were very quick to go and find them, to see who was there, to make sure that they were being properly treated, and indeed yes, then, the easiest route out was indeed on the plane sent by Turkey. And that was of course the sensible way to get those people out. So they did have the support.

Presenter: Isn’t it surprising as well that Israel was considered as a friend of Britain. A lot of the British politicians would sing praise to Israel. Left, for example, the British Council there waiting outside one of the jails in Israel for a whole day. Another one was just left by himself wandering, knocking on, on, on, on cells, asking who’s British, who is not British. Some of them actually, they said they were, they used very obscene words describing the British citizens. That’s pretty appalling isn’t it?

WH: They certainly weren’t well organised for this in Israel. Maybe that is one of the things that their inquiry can look at. And I pointed out myself in the House of Commons that some of these things were happening. So I certainly agree with the criticism that has been made of Israel over that. It didn’t help that some of the people on the flotilla did not have the papers with them that showed what nationality they were, so that made the confusion sometimes even worse. But I certainly don’t defend Israel over that. And clearly they need to do much better in the future and avoid in any case incidents of this kind.

Presenter: One of the incidents is of, of three British citizens. They still have their passports held by Israelis. We have the names of those three British citizens. I mean, they fear that maybe one day they will just wake up in the morning implicated in any plots by the Mossad or anything. I mean, what are you going to do about this?

WH: Well, as, as you know we have a strong view about that. This happened before I became the Foreign Secretary, but the, Britain, under the previous Government, and, and I agree with them and stress, express a strong view about this. British passports must not be misused. We look to Israel not to misuse British passports, and to assure us that they will not do so in the future. So we take an extremely strong view about that here in London.

Presenter: How about the passports, the British citizens’ passports who are still being held? One of them is a journalist.

WH: They must be returned.

Presenter: Are, are you in contact with Israelis regarding this matter?

WH: Absolutely.

Presenter: How far has the investigation in to the use of British passports in the killing of the Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh has reached? I mean, we, the UK has taken a very strong line by expelling Israeli diplomats.

WH: Yes. Well we have, we had our own investigation, which led to that expulsion and indeed other countries have then had similar investigations and reached a similar conclusion, because as you will know Australia has also expelled an Israeli diplomat, Ireland has recently done so. So we’ve all really come to the same conclusion about this and again, expressed our very strong views about it to Israel. We continue to convey those views, and as I say we, we do not expect British passports to be misused in the future.

Presenter: The Israelis have given this undertaking under the current President of Israel before, they gave it twice and they broke their, I mean I spoke to a number of MPs and they said to me they don’t, they don’t care, they will do it again (indistinct).

WH: It is true that quite some time ago they gave that assurance, so this time we need an assurance that really means something and that they really stick to and that is what we’re looking for.

Presenter: A lot of people actually in Britain would say that there is, the time has come for some strong action against Israel to prevent it from misusing for example British passports or even doing other, other things actually that are harmful to British interests.

WH: Well I don’t think the Israeli Government are in any doubt about where we stand on these things. The Prime Min, the new Prime Minister David Cameron spoke to Mr Netanyahu immediately after the incident with the, with the Gaza flotilla. I’ve spoken already several times to the Israeli Foreign Minister and to the Israeli Defence Minister. So be sure that they are in no doubt how strongly we feel about these things, but also that we are strong advocates of the peace process, of a two state solution and that does require everybody, not just Israel, that requires everybody in the region to support that, Palestinians as well.

Presenter: What sort of action would you take on Israel (indistinct), if they go ahead and use British passports again?

WH: Well as I say I expect them not to misuse British passports again and I’m not going in to what might happen if they do.

Presenter: The, the Dubai authorities have, have said in their, in their, in their investigation that they, there is one of the suspects, suspect number thirteen, is a British citizen. He holds a British passport which is genuine and he is on the run in Europe. It’s a very serious allegation that a British citizen could be an agent of Mossad who implicated in an act of murder in a foreign country.

WH: That’s an ongoing investigation, so I can’t tell you anything more about that at the moment.

Presenter: What’s your policy towards the Hamas Government? Are you open to dialogue with the organisation? How do you see it?

WH: Well we hope Hamas too will support in the end the peace process and this is another of the very important changes that needs to take place. The Quartet have set out a, a clear framework for the future that we look to all involved to recognise previous agreements, to turn away from violence and to recognise in the case of Hamas the existence and the right to exist of, of the state of Israel and to make as I put it concrete movement towards …

Presenter: They have made quite a number of concrete movements …

WH: … recognition.

Presenter: … in terms of closing up and trying to allay the international community’s fears. But the Israelis have, have really, don’t even taken any notice of this, of these (indistinct).

WH: Well that would be a matter of opinion, including the view of the Quartet which is not just the British Government, but the whole European Union, Russia, the United Nations, the United States, that concrete movement has not yet taken place. And so it’s very important this is not, this is not just the West and not just Britain, it’s very important that the world is shown that Hamas is prepared to do those things. And then they, they will find this country and I’m sure all of the other countries that I’ve mentioned very pragmatic in trying to support a Middle East peace process, but the essential foundation of it has to be that people are prepared to deal with each other and that they are prepared to recognise the other, that they are prepared to turn away from violence in the pursuit of their objectives.
And so we do look to some important, we want some important changes in the way that Hamas approaches these things in the future.

Presenter: The previous Government started some indirect steps of talking to certain elements within the Hamas Government. Are you going to continue this line?

WH: Well I’m not aware of what, of such steps that they took, but no we are, we would like to see some movement towards those things that I just described. And as I say we, we have that in common with really almost the whole international community and Britain will continue to work on these things with the whole of the rest of the international community and that is what I think that the, that Hamas people should recognise and think about. This is the position not just of us, but of the Russians, of the United Nations, of so many other countries in the world.

Presenter: Foreign Secretary Iran accused you of very serious accusation of supporting the Khalq Mujahedeen organisation, of supplying them with money and maybe even with logistical support and they say that you, the British Government are engaged in to what they term as terrorist activities. Is that true?

WH: No, of course not. It’s a very strange accusation, the British Government has no connection whatsoever with the organisation mentioned, it will not have any connection with them. We deplore terrorist acts wherever they occur in the world and remember that we have no quarrel with the people of Iran. We do have a quarrel over the Iranian nuclear programme, but we have no quarrel with the people of Iran and would have nothing to do with terrorism anywhere in the world.

Presenter: The, the United Nations Security Council just approved the new, new, new, new sanctions against Iran. What chance of success do they have? I mean we’ve seen I mean batch of sanction after batch failing to achieve its aims of preventing Iran from continuing its nuclear programme.

WH: I think it is important to have these sanctions and the European Union will be coming to agreement on additional measures as well as these sanctions. It is peaceful and legitimate pressure on Iran and I think it is important to have a way of increasing that peaceful pressure so that Iran can see how strongly the world feels about this, how, how great the danger is of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and how much we must prevent that. They should be in no mistake, not mistaken about this. We think this is a very high priority in international affairs and a refusal to negotiate can not be rewarded by not applying any additional sanctions. So the offer to negotiate is there as well. We’re not just saying apply sanctions. We say that we’re also happy to talk and negotiate over Iran’s whole nuclear programme and we’re ready to do that at any time. Cathy Ashton, the European Union High Representative, is ready to do that at any time on behalf of Britain and France and Germany. And so that offer stands. There, there will be more sanctions, but the offer to negotiate is always there.

Presenter: But the Iranians say that they have come to a deal brokered by the Turks and the Brazilians for their nuclear fuel to be shipped abroad and it was ignored and they say that they try and make steps forward and the West completely ignores them and they say that it’s pointless for them to, to try and give concessions. They have given them and they’ve been ignored.

WH: Well look the, the difficulty with that particular deal which could have been a step forward, the Tehran research reactor deal, was that Iran at the same time continued to enrich uranium to twenty per cent for which there is no peaceful purpose in Iran. Iran is not able to use such enriched uranium for peaceful purposes. It is not equipped to do so and they continue to refuse to cooperate through the International Atomic Energy Agency and so this was the opinion again not just of the West, you say it’s the West, but the UN Security Council resolution was put together by, yes by Britain and France and the United States, but also by Russia and China. They sponsored, they, they supported the UN Security Council resolution. African nations supported the UN Security Council resolution.

So this should not be seen as the West, this is the world saying to Iran that it is very important if you have a nuclear programme that it is for peaceful purposes and that you should be able to demonstrate that it’s for peaceful purposes and if that was the case we would all help. You know, generous offers have been made by European nations to cooperate with Iran on civil, peaceful nuclear energy. Every country in the world has the right to develop peaceful nuclear energy, but setting off (indistinct) …

Presenter: That’s what Iran says, you see that their, their programme is for peaceful purposes, it doesn’t have any military. There is no proof that is being militarised. I mean even the International Atomic Agency, they have no proof that it is being militarised. The only thing is that people see Iran with suspicion because it’s Iran.

WH: Well …

Presenter: Because of the regime.

WH: … no there are reasons for the suspicion is for instance is the concealment of the secret enrichment facility at Qom that was revealed by other nations last year and of course when, when a country conceals its facilities and doesn’t cooperate with the international authorities on this then it’s not surprising there’s a lot of suspicion about it.

Presenter: You have Israel which has, which is concealing its nuclear weapons, it’s never been inspected. Why don’t you go and impose sanctions on it?

WH: Well there are several countries that are not in the Non Proliferation Treaty, that applies to Pakistan and India as well. Iran is a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty and therefore has clear international obligations, one of which is to cooperate with the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the refusal to do so is therefore a breach of the Non Proliferation Treaty as well as of UN Security Council resolutions. As I say that’s not just the opinion of Britain, that is the opinion of the world community, including of Russia, including China. So it, it is I think very important to understand that this is a worldwide concern, not just a Western world concern and that none of these countries have a quarrel with the people of Iran. And so it’s, it’s very important to comply with the international requirements on these things.

Presenter: What a lot of experts would say, Foreign Secretary, is that knowing from the experience of Iraq, knowing from the experience of North Korea for example when you impose sanctions it’s only the ordinary people who are going to suffer and the people in power will continue to enjoy all the, the benefits that they have, all the trimmings. The programme will continue, it’s pointless.

WH: Well these sanctions are designed to be different from that. Most of these sanctions apply to some aspect of a nuclear programme or of military equipment so they are concentrated on those areas. And also remember that this is, it goes back to my earlier point, this is a form of peaceful pressure and legitimate pressure because it is approved by the UN Security Council so it has full legal legitimacy and I think it is right for us to find a peaceful and diplomatic way to increase the pressure on the Iranian Government to fulfil its international obligations. Sanctions are really the only way we have of increasing that pressure.

Presenter: What a lot of people would say even here, (indistinct) for as long as there is no threat of military action, Iran will go on continuing, will go on developing its nuclear programme. There is no will, there is no desire to have military action against them either from the US or from the Europeans, or Israel is (indistinct) is no point.

WH: Well there is a point because clearly the, the, the nuclear programme can be …

Presenter: Military action is ruled out (indistinct) …

WH: … the nuclear programme can (indistinct). It hasn’t been ruled out but we’re not advocating military action. I’m not calling for military action. I’ve often said in the past that, that Iran acquiring nuclear weapons would be a calamity for the world, but I’ve also said that military action against Iran could be a calamity as well and that is why we are working so hard to find a peaceful resolution of this dispute. That is why we say that the, the full offer to negotiate is there and the offer to assist Iran with peaceful nuclear energy is always there, but if those things are not taken up then we have to have more and more sanctions.

Presenter: Afghanistan, we move on to the issue of Afghanistan, is the war in Afghanistan a lost cause? A lot, the, some of the former British serving military commanders in there we’ve spoken to them and they said it’s pretty much question of time before we leave. It’s no point wait, it’s, it’s unwinnable.

WH: It’s not a lost cause. I’ve seen for myself, visiting Afghanistan in the last few weeks, the improvements in security taking place. I’ve been able to meet people out in the streets in Helmand in a way that wouldn’t have been possible I think a year ago. But it is not just a military struggle or activity. It has to have a political dimension as well and an economic and development dimension. It has to be possible for the Afghan Government to steadily look after more of its own affairs, to build up its own capacity to improve the lives of Afghans and to have the process of reconciliation and reintegration which the peace jirga that President Karzai called recently approved.

So all of those things have to happen. There is no military solution completely to the situation in Afghanistan and what our Armed Forces are trying to do is to make sure that Afghan people have the economic opportunity that other people in the world have and have the political opportunity to look after their own affairs and so it’s if those things happen as well as the work of our Armed Forces. But I think we can, we can in the future reach the point where Afghans can completely look after their own affairs and then we do not need any, any armies from anywhere in the world to be there.

Presenter: How long do you (indistinct)?

WH: I don’t think we can …

Presenter: How long, are we talking about years or decades?

WH: … well it’s certainly not months is it? It’s more than that. But you can’t really put an exact time on it because it only makes it harder to achieve if you put an exact time on it. We have to continue our work in Afghanistan, to know that we will stand by people, that we will be a steady friend as I put it to President Karzai of Afghanistan, that we will not leave them in the, we will not abandon them to their fate. So we will continue to work closely with them and to support them. We are there at the invitation of the Government of Afghanistan and under a United Nations mandate trying to improve the peace of the world.

Presenter: Well what a lot of, a lot, what a lot of experts, Foreign Secretary, say that, that’s a very optimistic outlook, especially when you see British soldiers being killed almost on a daily basis, when you see an Afghan Government which is lacking in credibility, corrupt Government, doesn’t even secure and control the capital Kabul. And you’ve been there yourself and you’ve seen it with your own eyes.

WH: Well, well I’ve also seen a lot of progress in Afghanistan. So we must always make sure we make that point as well, that there are in many parts of Afghanistan people having better and more prosperous and happier lives because international forces have helped to bring a more stable situation in Afghanistan. So we must remember that point too. Is it difficult? Yes of course it is, the world knows that it’s difficult, but we wouldn’t be there if we didn’t think it was necessary and we wouldn’t be there if we didn’t think we were helping the legitimate Government of Afghanistan and the vast majority of the people of Afghanistan.

Presenter: Foreign Secretary, last couple of questions. I mean in the beginning of your interview today you spoke about the desire to be forward looking, trying to engage with areas like the Middle East.
We receive a lot of complaints from people in various Muslim and Arab countries and that the attitude adopted by the Border Agency staff there is refuse visas first and ask questions second.

They don’t feel as though the UK is welcoming them and this is leading to many, and we know this in, hand in, hand out for a lot of universities and institutions there they are looking at other countries whereas in the past they used to send their people to study or to learn and to train in the UK.

WH: Well we will try to make sure that Britain is a welcoming place. Of course we have had many problems in recent years of illegal immigration, of people coming to Britain and then not leaving when they should leave, of students who turned out not really to be students. So I think people can understand we’ve had a lot of difficulties and that we have to be tough in this country about who enters the country. But we do want people to come and study here and to do business here and so we will look at any complaints about that.

Presenter: Foreign Secretary thank you very much indeed.

WH: Thank you.

Presenter: Thank you very much.

WH: Thank you very much.

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