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Interview with Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey D. Feltman

Jeffrey D. Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, recently spoke to The Washington Post about relations with Syria and the situation in Lebanon.

Question: The administration has issued many warnings about Lebanon, but what are the United States and its allies actually doing about Lebanon?

Feltman: Lebanon is divided right now. There is deep political division and it is clear what side of that division Syria and Iran support. So I think it is important for us, for Lebanon's other friends, to show there is not a vacuum on the other side. I am talking about the state, not just March 14 supporters [political parties that are opposed to Syrian interference]. The United States, the U.N, other countries are able to show this work for the state.

The message I delivered from President Obama to President [Michel] Suleiman, Secretary Clinton's call to President Suleiman, the consultations we have been having with our regional and international friends, the statements made in N.Y. yesterday [Oct. 28] by Ambassador [Susan] Rice -- these are all examples of the United States showing that Syria and Iran are not the only countries that are interested in what's happening in Lebanon.

There have been a number of consultations, phone calls and discussions between senior levels of this government, senior levels of Lebanese government, and senior levels of a lot of other governments. There have been some common themes. One is this recognition that the special tribunal for Lebanon is not going away. And I think it is a message the special tribunal and the secretary general have delivered quite effectively. No matter how much Hezbollah huffs and puffs, the special tribunal for Lebanon's work continues. Part of what we have tried to do is reinforce that message, which is that the work is going to continue. Part of what we have tried to do is to demonstrate that if a country or an individual is truly interested in Lebanon's stability, you don't present a choice between justice and stability. This is an artificial choice. Lebanon, like any country, needs both.

Question: Are there consequences to Iran's and Syria's behavior?

Feltman: Syria has said it wants a better bilateral relationship with us. We would like to have a better bilateral relationship with Syria. Syria and the United States have taken some modest steps to see if we can improve the bilateral relationship. But this cannot go very far as long as Syria's friends are undermining stability in Lebanon. We have made that absolutely clear to the Syrians. There is a cost to the potential in our bilateral relationship to what Syria's friends are doing in Lebanon.

Syria has said that it wishes to have its territorial expectations met through a peace agreement with Israel and that Syria recognizes the essential role that we can play in achieving that. It is in the U.S. national interest that we have a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. So this suggests to me that Syria is in fact interested in a better relationship with us. But our interests in a comprehensive peace doesn't mean that we are going to start trading our other interests in Iraq or Lebanon in order to get Damascus to like us better.

We have attempted to test the proposition that Syria can play a constructive role in the region. But what Syria's friends are doing in Lebanon undercuts the Syrian argument that Syria has itself has a strong interest in Lebanon's stability.

Question: Some believe Iran is gaining in the region, and that is the reason for Syria's lack of interest in improving the relationship. After all, the Obama administration can't even convince Israel to halt settlement construction.

Feltman: Do they [the Syrians] think the Iranians are able to get the Golan back for them? I find that improbable. I don't discount the difficulties of Middle East peace. Clearly we have encountered obstacles in trying to achieve forward momentum in the negotiating process.

But if I look at the Iran question you posed, let's take one country that you didn't mention, which comes up a lot in the Iran context, which is Iraq. I heard people say that Iran is winning, but I look and don't see it. Iran tried to have a unified Shia front for the elections. They failed. Iran summoned Iraqi politicians after the elections to form a government. They failed. Iran tried to unify all the Shia behind one prime minister candidate. They failed. Going back earlier, Iran tried to prevent the Iraqis from approving the security agreement as well the strategic framework agreement. So I hear these tales that Iran is winning in Iraq but I don't see any examples of the facts supporting that argument.

There has been a lot of analysis of the Ahmadinejad visit to Lebanon. But I guess in part he is also practicing the age-old custom of leaders of when they have troubles at home, tend to try to dabble in foreign policy and stage some sort of triumphant foreign tour that broadcasts back home, where he might not have the same sort of support that he appears to be getting in the foreign place. I think that trip to Lebanon has as much to do with domestic politics in Tehran as it did with any kind of proxy politics inside Lebanon.

Question: So you don't think Lebanon is about to fall into Iran's hands?

Feltman: We are deeply concerned about Lebanon, without question we are concerned. You can't help but be concerned when you see the kind of rhetoric that is appearing in columns, on the mouths of what are called politicians, when you hear [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah basically asking for an end to cooperation to a tribunal that was set up under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Security Council, you can't help but be concerned. The divisions that are inside Lebanon, that are apparent to everyone inside Lebanon, I don't think lend themselves to anyone party inside or outside Lebanon being in a position to control everything.

By Glenn Kessler  | November 1, 2010; 5:01 PM ET
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