AMANPOUR: Welcome to the program, Ambassador. Thanks for joining me.
CHURKIN: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: So here we have again the attempt to get a peace process on the way for Syria. But we don't even know who's actually going. Is that a little alarming? Even the special envoy couldn't say who's actually going from all the parties involved.
CHURKIN: Well, this is precisely the problem. And this is the reason why it has not been possible to convene the conference until this point. And only yesterday the secretary-general was able to announce January 22 as the date for the convening of the conference. But still, work needs to be done about the opposition, because there is no unity among the opposition. And various opposition groups do not recognize the right of the national coalition, which is usually referred to as the logical representative of the Syrian opposition, as their representative. And of course for the conference to be successful, not only the opposition groups need to be constructively engaged, but also there must be acceptance among them that they are well represented.
CHURKIN: So some work still needs to be done. And we are participating in this work, because even though the United States said that they are going -- they were going to bring the opposition to the table, we're also in the process of talking with various opposition groups in order to make sure that they do come to Geneva, they do come as united as possible and they talk constructively on the basis of the Geneva communique of 2012.
AMANPOUR: Well, if you had to bet right now, this peace conference is scheduled for about two months away, do you think it'll happen? And do you think it'll be meaningful? I mean, uniting the opposition has been attempted for the last 2.5 years. Do you think there will be a meaningful conference?
CHURKIN: I -- you know, my gut feeling is that it is going to happen this time unless there is a major provocation. And what is disturbing is that we here again return to this conversation of changing things on the ground before the conference takes place. So the danger now is an effort by the opposition to reverse the military situation and to have some military gains and then things can go badly. And in the absence of unity among the opposition, then the convening of the conference may be at risk. So now everybody should act with extreme responsibility and prudence and focus on the political track of preparing themselves for the conference rather than on the military track
AMANPOUR: All right. You talk about the military track and the opposition; well, obviously also President Assad has very powerful friends, including you and Iran. And there is a lot of military activity on his side as well. We’ve just been reported about terrible humanitarian situation there. Do you think that the Geneva communique with you and US and world powers agreed had to see a transitional Governement? Is President Assad expected to be part of a post-conference reality? Or does the peace proposal envision him leaving power somehow after a peace deal?
CHURKIN: Well, of course, there is nothing about him leaving power in the Geneva communique which is going to be the basis of the negotiations. But our answer to your question is that the Syrians must decide that themselves. They know that there is a Geneva communique; they know that. They need to talk about political transition. They know that they need to put together a transitional body by mutual agreement, including agreeing on the personalities. What is going to happen after that remains to be seen after they have had a chance to get into the negotiations with the support, hopefully, of key members of the international community. Russian support is going to be there, both for the government and for constructive participation of the opposition.
AMANPOUR: Do you agree that Assad’s role is up for negotiation? Do you think that if he wants he can keep staying?
CHURKIN: This is something that Syrians will decide. You referred to his military power, this is true. He does have strong military at his disposal, but also it’a fact of life that many Syrians, large segment of the Syrian population is supporting President Assad that also has to be taken into account. So let’s have the dialogue started and let’s allow the Syrians to decide what kind of path they need to take to end this conflict.
AMANPOUR: As you know the FSA - Syrian opposition forces - say “We are not going, we’ll continue fighting, we are not going to this conference”. But Syrian national council has dropped its former opposition to Assad, stepping down before such a meeting, saying we can go ahead. That’s a movement from them. But they also say that one of their conditions is to have proper international access in a humanitarian way. Can your government at least use its good offices to make sure that happen. Is it a desperate situation in Syria right now?
CHURKIN: First of all I do not like the word “conditions”, let’s not make any conditions, let’s focus on the talks in Geneva because one can set up all sorts of conditions. The humanitarian situation is certainly of great concern and the Russian government has been working very closely with international community and with the Syrian government in order to improve things. And some things have improved. For instance there have been complains from the humanitarian community about overly complicated bureaucratic procedures from the Syrian government, that has been corrected. The Syrian government has approved some the setting up new hubs in Syria to simplify the provision of humanitarian assistance. Today we are participating in Geneva in the high level group which has been convened by UN humanitarian agencies and we hope all the participants in that group which incidentally includes Iran and Saudi Arabia have been invited. I don’t know if the Saudis are going to attend. The Iranians are certainly going to attend, they assured us. That group can also deal pragmatically with the situation on the ground because we have some influence with the Syrian government but nobody knows who is influencing those hundreds or dozens at least of powerful armed groups on the ground from preventing making humanitarian activity very difficult. We need to identify those countries and they need to assume responsibility for dealing with those groups so that they will not prevent the evacuation of the population from besieged areas. Because over the past few months there has been a number of situations when the Syrian government agreed to the evacuation of the population but the opposition groups prevented that from happening. And incidentally an interesting note: whenever the population is leaving various besieged areas they move to the territories controlled by the Syrian government. So I think it tells a lot about whom the population is relying on for providing humanitarian support.
AMANPOUR: Given the fact that in Geneva the world powers just signed an interim nuclear deal with Iran, is Iran invited to this Geneva 2 conference on Syria? And is that presence accepted by the United States and the other parties?
CHURKIN: This is one of important issues because we believe that Iran should be invited. Kofi Annan, when he was special envoy of the secretary-general believed that Iran should be invited. Now both Ban Ki-moon and Lakhdar Brahimi, secretary-general of the United Nations and special representative of the secretary-general for Syria, believe that Iran should be invited. But the United States is against. We think it makes no sense because now the nuclear deal has been made; and the United States engaged Iran both multilaterally and bilaterally. And then, you know, whether Iran is in the room or not, it's going to be a player in Syria. So it's better to have it in the room; it's better to have its support, the deals which we hope will be reached, in Geneva rather than alienate Iran once again. That mistake has been made a number of times before; let's not repeat it in the context of the Geneva 2 conference.
AMANPOUR: Let me ask you then on the -- specifically the nuclear issue, as you can see, this deal has been signed, has created a storm of opposition in Israel, in some parts of the Arab world, in the U.S. Congress. What can you say about your confidence that this deal will be kept to, that Iran won't break out, that there is sufficient verification? Do you feel that?
CHURKIN: Yes, we do. You know, because it's not a rhetorical deal. It's something which is setting in train (ph) very important steps from Iran and the international community and cooperation with Iran. The nuclear program of Iran, the enrichment program will essentially be not stopped but sort of not developed any further and, in some cases, turned back. What I'm referring to is the intention of Iran to dilute some of the uranium which was enriched to 20 percent. New verification measures are being put in place. A joint commission is going to be established between the six and Iran involving IAEA and its inspectors. So this is -- I mean, the paper has been released. It's a pretty detailed and very serious deal which I believe is a great achievement, both for the six and for Iran and it's particularly important that we are finally talking in practical terms and there is a real opportunity here to get rid of this specter of Iranian nuclear weapon. And if this is to happen -- and we believe that there is a very good chance of that -- then this threat to Israel, which has been hanging over their heads for such a long time, will be taken care of. So I think that the Israelis and other doubters should give everybody an opportunity, those who are involved in the actual negotiations, to move ahead on this deal. And that might turn around the entire situation in the bigger region. It will have a positive impact on Syria; will hopefully have a positive impact on the Israeli-Palestinian track and the entire situation of the Middle East. So we're really at a crucial point now. And we are very pleased and encouraged that we are beginning to turn away from the logic of confrontation on the use of military force to dialogue and involvement. This is something which Russia has been advocating for a long time.
AMANPOUR: Ambassador Churkin, thank you very much indeed for joining me.
CHURKIN: Thank you, Christiane.