Lally Weymouth spoke this week with Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki Bin Faisal Al Saud, former chief of intelligence and brother of the foreign minister. Excerpts:
Lally Weymouth: Who made the decision to turn down the U.N. Security Council seat?
Prince Turki Bin Faisal Al Saud: It is always in the end the king who makes the decision. But it wasn't a whimsical decision. Nor was it, as some newspapers here have described it, done in a fit of pique. It was a studied and considered decision.
The kingdom conducted a very high-level campaign for the seat, and many people were surprised by the decision to turn it down.
Some governments take decisions that not everybody knows about it. My understanding is that [the decision was based on] the situation in the Security Council, particularly on the Syrian issue, but not just on that. You had also the issue of nuclear nonproliferation .. and then you have the issue of Palestine, which has been with us since 1947. These three issues culminated in the decision where the kingdom felt that by not taking the seat, it would make the point to the Security Council that there is a need to fix it.
Do you think the decision was building for a long time? Were President Obama's decision not to act on Syria and the United Nations Security Council decision to pass a weak resolution on Syria the last straws?
It was based on U.N. Security Council decisions, especially the one on the issue of chemical weapons removal.
The fact that it had no enforcement powers?
Not only that—the fact that even if it had enforcement powers, it would only remove the chemical weapons. But [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad can continue to kill his people using aircraft, artillery, scud missiles, and other lethal means. This also followed the Chinese and Russian veto of the resolution that would have put in place an interim government composed of all the factions in Syria—that was put in front of the Security Council a year and a half ago by the Arab League.
What do you and your country think is the best outcome in Syria?
The best outcome is to stop the killing.
We had a proposal, put forth by our foreign minister, that you have to level the playing field. And that means Bashar's military superiority has to be checked by giving the opposition the means to defend themselves. You're not talking about sending troops on the ground. Over the past two and half years, if anti-tank, anti-aircraft defensive weapons had been distributed to the opposition—and not all the opposition, [but] the opposition that is for an inclusive Syria—then they would have been able to checkmate the military superiority of Bashar al-Assad and force him to come to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, that did not happen. While Europe and America continued to deny the opposition the means to defend against Bashar's lethal weapons, the Russians and the Iranians continued to supply Bashar with whatever he needed.
So it's up to the United States and the Europeans to arm the opposition?
Absolutely. The Europeans put an embargo on arms to Syria. They could see ... that that embargo wasn't affecting Assad but it was definitely denying his opponents ... weapons. It took the Europeans two and a half years to change their view and finally say “OK, we can afford to sell these weapons to the opposition.” But none of these countries did. The Americans have not only not sold them, but they have declared they have no intention of providing these weapons to the opposition. So how can you level the playing ground if one side is continually supplied with what it needs by the Russians and the Iranians, and the other side is continually denied those things?
Do you think your country will sit by?
My country has been trying to push not just the United States but the Europeans as well.
Do you feel Saudi explanations fall on deaf ears with the Obama administration?
Every day there are more than 50 to 100 people killed in Syria. And the world sits back and watches.
Do you feel President Obama just doesn't get it?
I don't know if he gets it or not. But I think the world community is definitely at fault here. The Russians because they are supporting Bashar and allowing him to do the killing. The Chinese because they have vetoed any measures in the United Nations to prevent him from doing that. The Europeans for not supplying the opposition with weapons. The United States for continually not supplying the opposition with what they need. It's a worldwide apathy—a criminally negligent attitude toward the Syrian people.
So what do you think will happen in Syria?
They are going to continue the killing.
And Assad will stay in power as things stand now?
As things stand now, Bashar al-Assad is under the protection of the Security Council because of the chemical weapons resolution. And [U.S.] Secretary [of State John] Kerry is saying that Bashar al-Assad has to stay in power until the chemical weapons are removed and everybody is saying these weapons aren't going to be removed until next year. So you can imagine the public opinion throughout the Muslim world, seeing this tragedy happening and nobody willing to come forward.
How do you see the situation in Iran?
When President [Hassan] Rouhani was elected, King Abdullah sent him a note of congratulations and expressed the wish for a fruitful relationship with Iran, and Rouhani responded in kind. Since then, he has made several statements about how he would like to see improved relations with Saudi Arabia. Under [former Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, there was a very strained relationship. The king during those years publicly called on Iran not to interfere in Arab affairs. As you can see from Lebanon to Syria, to Iraq to Bahrain, there is a chain of actions taken by Iran to interfere in Arab affairs.
The other aspect is the issue of nuclear nonproliferation. Saudi Arabia has always been consistently supportive of the "P5+1" positions at the United Nations against Iran—the sanctions, etc. The kingdom's position is that ... we need to have a United Nations Security Council statement establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction. That statement should also include that the five permanent members will guarantee a nuclear security umbrella for the members of that zone, like America does for Germany and Japan. The other guarantee that they have to provide is that they will sanction anybody in the zone who is seen to be doing something to develop a weapon of mass destruction.
But the problem right now is that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon.
Don't forget there is another country in the area that already has a nuclear weapon and that is Israel.
Aren't you worried about Iran producing a nuclear weapon?
Is Rouhani taking the West for a ride?
It's too early to tell. He's very clever. Being able to engage with Iran is a good thing. But his sweet words need to be translated into action.
Would Saudi Arabia consider becoming a nuclear power?
I suggested two years ago that the [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries should consider seriously all options, including acquiring nuclear weapons if Iran acquires nuclear weapons.
You left out Turkey.
Turkey would develop nuclear capabilities if Iran goes nuclear.
That would really change the region.
It will make it even more radioactive and dangerous. It is a doomsday option.
How do you feel about Secretary Kerry's talks with the Palestinians?
What we hear from the Palestinian negotiators is that the talks are substantive.
Palestine is one of the issues mentioned by Saudi Arabia as a reason for turning down the U.N. Security Council seat, meaning the kingdom feels the U.N. should do what exactly?
The U.N. should implement the resolutions passed by the Security Council—242 and 338.
And the roadblock standing in the way of implementation is the United States?
The U.S. keeps vetoing whatever follow-up resolutions can be put in place for 242. This was one of the complaints by Saudi Arabia. This veto system allows Russia on one side and the United States on the other to do whatever they like.
Russia created the chemical weapons resolution that has allowed Assad to stay in power.
And they continue to supply him with weapons, and they don't get sanctioned.
In this country, there seems to be a big anti-foreign-entanglement movement.
That is correct and who can blame you after Iraq and Afghanistan? In Syria, I said from the beginning something should have been done to help the opposition defend against Bashar al-Assad's lethal weapons. There would not have been need for more involvement than simply supplying the opposition with those defensive weapons.