World's Top Diplomats Examine Security Concerns

Many of the world's top diplomats met over the weekend along with defense officials for an annual security conference in Munich, Germany. Top of the agenda were two countries in particular: Ukraine and Iran.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's get a look now to major concerns of many of the world's top diplomats and defense officials. They met over the weekend at an annual security conference in Munich, Germany. The agenda was filled with crises or potential crises: Syria's civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But top of the list were two countries in particular: Ukraine and Iran.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was at that conference in Munich. And she joined us to talk about it. Good morning.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So let's start with Ukraine, the country has been roiled by anti-government street protests for a couple of months now. The main issue is whether Ukraine should have closer ties to the rest of Europe or with Russia. Protesters want the president - who's blamed for corruption and repression - to step down. So what happened in those panels and private meetings at this conference?

NELSON: Well, this forum allowed for unusual encounters, for example, between the Ukrainian government and the opposition who don't often meet. There were some tough exchanges, especially during one of the panels. The Ukrainian foreign minister more or less accused one of the key opposition leaders, the famous former boxer Vitaly Klitschko - who was sitting next to him - of associating with terrorists.

Klitschko in turn said that the government had blood on its hands and that the opposition won't give up until the Ukrainian people get the government reforms and the say that they want. And he was applauded by members of the audience who were listening to the panel which, of course, includes government officials and analysts from around the world, and his supporters.

MONTAGNE: And Secretary of State John Kerry was a key player at this conference. What did he have to say about the Ukrainian developments?

NELSON: Well, he made it clear from the moment that he landed in Germany that the U.S. is backing the opposition in this. He met and shook hands with opposition leaders and he pressured the Ukrainian government to concede to its people's wishes.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: The vast majority of Ukrainians want to live freely in a safe and a prosperous country. And they have decided that that means their futures do not have to lie with one country alone, and certainly not coerced. Russia and other countries should not view the European integration of their neighbors as a zero-sum game.

NELSON: That didn't resonate with the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. He was slamming Western support of the Ukrainian opposition and suggested it was leading to the escalation of violence in the situation.

MONTAGNE: Now, let's get to Iran. The Iranian foreign minister was also at this conference. What did he have to say about the upcoming talks with the U.S. and other world powers later this month, about his country's nuclear program?

NELSON: Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif says Iran welcomes the chance to bridge the gulf between his country and the West and to come up with a deal that benefits both sides. But he said the mistrust the U.S. keeps talking about isn't just on one side.

MOHAMMAD JAVAD ZARIF: You do not possess the monopoly on mistrust. Iranians believe with good reason that the West wants to deprive Iran of its ability to have access to technology.

NELSON: Zarif also said Iran was complying with the conditions set out in this landmark agreement that reached this fall with six world powers, including the United States.

MONTAGNE: And Secretary Kerry and a number of U.S. senators spoke about Iran at this conference. Did they agree with Zarif's assessment?

NELSON: Hardly. Kerry met with Zarif on the sidelines. And a senior State Department official said Kerry stressed the importance of both sides together in good faith. And then, Republican Senator John McCain talked about a decades-long list of terrorist attacks that are linked to Iran, and that make it incumbent upon the West to verify anything Iran is saying, especially with regards to its nuclear program.

So it seems pretty clear a more permanent deal with Iran is in no way a given. Talks for that agreement start on February 18th in Vienna.

MONTAGNE: Soraya, thank you.

NELSON: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That was NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. And you are listening to NPR News.

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