Q&A with Sweden’s Carl Bildt: Why negotiations are key to resolving the Iran nuclear issue

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Sweden's Twitter-friendly top diplomat, Carl Bildt, 62, has held almost all of the top political and diplomatic jobs in his native Nordic country. He's served as Sweden's Foreign Minister sinc

e 2006, and prior to that held the prime minister post in the early 1990s. He was also the United Nations Secretary General's Special Representative to the Balkan conflicts, helping to co-chair the Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the Bosnian war, and later the first international civilian representative of post-war Bosnia.

In Washington last week to launch the North American branch of the Stockholm-based security research institute SIPRI (with U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, photo at right), Bildt sat down with Yahoo News and a reporter from the Associated Press to discuss concerns about Iran's nuclear program, Russia's veto of UN Security Council resolution on Syria and a UN global net freedom initiative that Sweden is spearheading with the U.S.

Yahoo News: You hosted a discussion this week with several of Washington's leading Iran experts. Are you concerned that the United States and Europe are so focused on implementing new economic sanctions on Iran, that they have stopped developing a strategy for getting back into negotiations?

Bildt: We are focusing more on the diplomatic track. President Obama said we should aim to sit down with the Iranians. It's a question of moving forward in a step-by-step approach. And overcoming mistrust. Then they will get to the table. The timing is important and difficult. You have Iran [parliamentary] elections in early March. There's an element of turmoil in the Iranian regime.

There are some signs that are somewhat encouraging. The Iranians said in public they would be willing to halt their 20% enrichment [meaning they would stop production of low enriched uranium of 20%, as long as world powers give them nuclear materials.] We need to test that. That would also be an important step in confidence building. It's very important for Iran to continue to respect the right of [nuclear] inspectors, in all the facilities. We know exactly what they are doing.

Yahoo News: What signs do you see that there will be a return to negotiations? All of the diplomatic energy in the U.S. seems to be on implementing sanctions.

Bildt: Sanctions are never going to sort out the issue. The military option will not sort out this issue. At the end of the day, there has to be some sort of agreement. It needs to be prepared, it needs to be pursued over some time. One meeting--such as the [unsuccessful P5+1 talks in] Istanbul [last year]--cannot achieve something. What you need is a process. You negotiate with a lot of partners. What is important is an inspection regime, that retains inspections there.

There's a famous phrase [from the Reagan era]: "Trust but verify." It's important we have a political strategy where we can both impose and lift sanctions. If you impose sanctions to make progress on the diplomatic track, sanctions must be related to the issue. If there is a suspicion that sanctions are being used for regime change, it makes negotiations difficult. Iran would like the right to enrich. If we sort out the issues like the protocol, [it would seem a compromise could be reached.]

Yahoo News: What now on Syria after the Russian and Chinese veto of the UN Security resolution calling for ending the violence?

Bildt: It is a setback. I thought it was possible to overcome the gap [between Russian concerns and the draft resolution introduced by Morocco and backed by Europe, the US, Turkey and the Arab League]. At the end of the day, most people thought it was possible to bridge the gap. [The veto] is highly regrettable.

Yahoo News: Do you think if they had negotiated the text of the resolution a few more days it would have passed?

Bildt: I don't think so. A day before the resolution went for a vote, some 300 Syrians were dead in Homs. There was pressure for the Security Council to act.

There may be an element of resentment over Libya [in explaining the Russian veto on Syria.] But I understand [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov returned empty-handed from Damascus. So it may be possible to return to the UN. We will see.

Yahoo News: What's on your reading list recently that you recommend?

Bildt: I just read Zbigniew Brzezinski's new book (Strategic Vision), and Trita Parsi's book [A Single Role of the Dice, on Obama's diplomacy with Iran.][Nudged by an aide, Bildt indicated that he next plans to read Rebecca MacKinnon's book Consent 0f the Networked, on the worldwide struggle for Internet Freedom.]

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