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DEPARTMENT NEA/ELA; NSC FOR ABRAMS/SINGH/MCDERMOTT; PARIS FOR WALLER; LONDON FOR TSOU
E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/23/2019 TAGS: PREL, SY, LU, IR SUBJECT: LUXEMBOURG/SYRIAN FM'S TUSSLE OVER IRAN PRESIDENT'S REMARKS IN GENEVA
Classified By: Charge d'Affaires Maura Connelly for reasons 1.4(b,d)
1. (U) Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn visited Damascus April 22 and met with President Asad, VP Shara, and FM Muallim. According to press reports, the discussions between the two countries primarily focused on the finalization of the European Union/Syrian Association Agreement and on Palestinian reconciliation issues. The visit appeared to have gone off smoothly, save for the joint press conference between Muallim and Asselborn.
2. (U) The otherwise cookie-cutter SARG press conference took an unusual turn after Muallim fielded a question on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's April 20 speech at the UN anti-racism conference in Geneva. According to a privately-run media outlet Muallim said, "what Ahmadinejad said reflects the popular reactions in our region for Israel's crimes and its racist practices, Europeans hold part of the responsibility, because the policy of empty seats in such conferences is futile." Adding, "I appreciate the guilt of conscience Europeans feel towards the Holocaust, but they have to realize that Palestinians should not be victims of the Holocaust."
3. (U) Asselborn was quick to defend his European compatriots and condemned Ahmadinejad. "I don't support what Ahmadinejad said, because what he said does not contribute towards solving the problem or stability and in my personal opinion Ahmadinejad does not represent Iran, because there are other authorities and there is a generation that should be taken into consideration," he said. To this Muallim remarked, "Don't you believe in freedom of expression?" Asselborn responded, "That is an important point, but don't you think that Ahmadinejad and others should not deny the Holocaust?" Muallim retorted that Danish cartoonists had lampooned the prophet Mohammed and then Western government had defended the insulting images as a "press freedom."
4. (U) Asselborn fired back saying, "Syria has not achieved democracy yet," but was eventually able to right the train saying, "We, in the EU, wish to cooperate with Syrian and reach the partnership association agreement and we will do our best to reach this agreement next month." Adding, "I'm confident that Syria in the future will not remain on the U.S. black list, Syria is on the gray list and I believe that in the next year it will be on the white list."
5. (C) Comment: We find it unusual that Muallim picked this public spat with a representative of an (admittedly small) EU country working to support signature of Syria's EU Association Agreement. But we applaud Asselborn's moxie in fighting back.