PARIS—Laurent Fabius is one of Europe’s star diplomats. The French foreign minister has been engaged not only in the Ukraine crisis but also in the Iran nuclear negotiations and the diplomatic efforts over Syria. On the eve of a trip to the United States and China, he spoke Thursday in his office with Lally Weymouth about further sanctions against Russia, Iran’s nuclear program, and whether Syria is using chemical weapons again. Excerpts:
What do you think of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent statements about pulling his troops back from the border of Ukraine?
I spoke with [Russian Foreign] Minister [Sergei] Lavrov. He said that they have decided to get away from the frontier but to maintain the number [of troops]. The most interesting thing President Putin said is that he will ask to postpone the so-called referendum [to be held Sunday in eastern Ukraine on declaring independence]. And that he sort of accepts the presidential election to be held on the 25th of May. For us, the main thing is the presidential election. There is no legitimate president in Ukraine, therefore you have to have an election. And this election must take place on May 25.
What about further sanctions on Moscow?
It will depend on the question of the elections. If actions are taken to make them impossible or to try and delegitimize them, we shall have to increase sanctions. On the contrary, if efforts are made in that direction, there is no reason [to] enhance [sanctions].
Officials in Ukraine feel that the Russian strategy is to prevent the election from taking place.
There is a big contradiction, and I insist on it when I discuss it with the Russians. The Russians are saying the executives in Ukraine are not legitimate. Therefore, how can they act in such a way? If you want to have a legitimate power, you have to favor the election.
Second, what about the election in Syria? It is a mockery, a tragedy. Everybody knows who will be the winner. The opposition is not authorized to run. There have been 150,000 killed. And Russia is supporting it.
The United States is saying it does not see movement of the troops back from Ukraine’s borders.
The statement of Putin was not very clear about it. This morning Lavrov said yes, there has been a move. I think we are checking that.
Lavrov made a statement a few days ago ... and he asked how an election could be held in an occupied country. He said the opposite of what Putin said.
I think in the Russian system, the main thing is what is said by Mr. Putin.
Many believe that Putin is unstoppable. He’s taken Crimea. And he’s taking town after town in the east and south of Ukraine.
It is difficult to know exactly what he has in mind. But we have to be clear about what we have in mind. It is clear that the annexation of Crimea is unacceptable. You cannot accept that one country annexes another. As far as the rest of Ukraine is concerned, we have to support the Ukrainian government in asking for an election. ... We cannot accept the annexation or the fact that Ukraine would be controlled or invaded. On the other hand, we should not go to war with Russia. In between, you have diplomacy and sanctions to exert pressure.
In the United States, officials are discussing putting sectoral sanctions on Russia. They are also saying France is selling Mistral helicopter ships to Russia. Would you consider not going through with that sale?
Many people have commercial interests with Russia. As far as this case is concerned, the decision by the government will be taken in October.
You have pointed out that many European countries are very dependent on Russian gas, which makes it hard for them to endorse sectoral sanctions on Russia.
It is not easy. But look at Iran. It is a means, which can be efficient.
You had a strong position on the Iranian nuclear program during the talks. You walked out during the first round of talks on the interim agreement. How do you see the situation now?
I hope we can find a solution. Everybody would be happy with a situation in which there was no longer a nuclear menace. But our position is simple: Civil nuclear energy, yes. Atomic bomb, no. It is very clear. Referring back to the negotiations we had, my position was to say we want to have an agreement, but it has to be a solid one. At a preliminary stage, it wasn’t solid enough. So we had discussions—the P5+1. We decided on a common position. The Iranians said no in the first round. Then 10 days later, they turned around and said OK.
So you toughened up the interim agreement?
I would say the final result was better than the starting point. …
I must add that up to now, the difficulties we have with Russia in Ukraine have had no impact on the [nuclear] negotiation.
Didn’t the Iranians insist on a sentence saying they have the right to enrich?
We did not accept this wording in the first phase. There can be some enrichment, provided it is limited and not used for military purposes.
The Obama administration is pushing for a final deal with Iran by July, right?
The end of July. But it can be postponed for six months. Obviously if we can reach a solution, it will be excellent.
When President Obama said he would take action if Syria’s Bashar al-Assad crossed the red line and used chemical weapons on his own people, your government agreed to take military action with the United States. Your pilots were being briefed when Obama called off the strike. This was very embarrassing for President Hollande and your government.
We have a very good relationship with the American government. On the subject of this Syrian tragedy—and it is still a tragedy, even though people are talking less about it—every day hundreds of people are killed. We think there is no alternative to a political negotiation. But up to now, the negotiation goes nowhere. ...
Among the horrors committed by Bashar al-Assad, there was the use of chemical weapons. We were the first to raise this issue because we had elements showing they were used. After a while, more people were convinced, and eventually it was clear to our British and American friends that chemical weapons had been used. Therefore, we were ready to react and to have some military action.
There was a preparation with different countries. The British prime minister asked his Parliament for authorization to act, and it was refused. Then President Obama decided to act in a different way, and it was not possible for us to act by ourselves. After that, the Russians changed their mind and said OK, we shall try to convince the Syrians to get rid of these chemical weapons. Therefore, the Syrian regime accepted to get rid of them.
And it is true and positive that step by step, they got rid of them. Today, the work is about 90 percent done. Provided that they did not hide anything from us.
But we keep on considering that Bashar—who is a criminal and, according to [U.N. Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon, has committed crimes against humanity—cannot be the future of his people. Neither can terrorist groups like al-Qaida. The reason we are supporting the moderate opposition is they are moderate. We must support them to find a political solution, not with Assad but with some members of the regime.