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Rice Announces New Set of Sweeping U.S. Sanctions Against Iran

October 25, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, the Iran sanctions story, and to Judy Woodruff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The new U.S. sanctions announced this morning are the first ever aimed at the military of a foreign country. They are directed against Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Ministry of Defense and Logistics Agency, as well as against three major Iranian state-owned banks and eight individuals.

For more on the sanctions and what they’re meant to accomplish, we’re joined by Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns.

Secretary Burns, thank you for being with us. First of all, tell us, what are these sanctions designed to do?

NICHOLAS BURNS, U.S. Undersecretary of State: The sanctions are designed to focus on two big problem areas. The first is that Iran is seeking a nuclear capability, this enrichment and reprocessing research that some people fear might lead to a nuclear weapons capability.

And part of the sanctions today are designed to make it difficult for Iranian government agencies to support ballistic missile research that would accompany a nuclear device and a nuclear program itself.

The other part of the sanctions, Judy, are focused on the Quds Force, which is an arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s core command. And that’s the organization that has been funneling arms to Hamas in Gaza, to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to the Shia militants in Iraq — and some of those weapons have been used to attack American soldiers — and to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

So Iran is aiding, and funding, and giving arms to all the Middle East terrorist groups that are opposed to the United States, and we felt, to defend our interests, we had to take this action to isolate these organizations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And why are you doing it right now?

NICHOLAS BURNS: We’re doing it now because we are trying to seek a diplomatic solution to this problem. We do not believe that a conflict with Iran is inevitable; it is certainly not desirable. We want to have a chance to get to negotiations.

And to do that, you’ve got to increase the cost to the Iranian government of its present behavior and hope that we’ll soon see a third Security Council sanctions resolution and we might see other countries, most principally the European Union, take sanctions actions of their own so that the Iranians understand they’re increasingly isolated and alone in the world because of their policies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you’re sanctioning both the Revolutionary Guards, the Quds Force, as you just mentioned, and these banks and individuals. What’s the connection here?

NICHOLAS BURNS: The connection is that three major Iranian banks, the three major Iranian banks, which were sanctioned today by the Treasury Department, are all involved either in the financing of terrorism or the financing that goes into the nuclear program.

And, of course, what we’re trying to do to avoid the use of military force, which we want to do at all costs, is to try to dry up the ability of these financial institutions to extend capital to the agencies that are organizing both the terrorist apparatus, but also the nuclear program inside Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re trying to put the banks out of business?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, I think the reputational risk for the Iranian firms now is that they’re completely cut off to the U.S. financial system. That will have repercussions in the Arab world; it will have repercussions in Europe. It’s going to be much more difficult for these banks to exist.

I’ll give you an example. The Security Council sanctioned an Iranian bank, Bank Sepah, back in March. And Bank Sepah has had a very difficult time doing business all over the world, because all of the nations of the world are imposing sanctions on it.

So these kind of financial sanctions can be very effective, and they don’t — we don’t mean them just to be punitive. There is an end result here. We’ve actually offered negotiations to the Iranians three times over the last year-and-a-half.

We, the Russians, the Chinese, and the Europeans, together have said, “Meet us at the negotiating table. Let’s see if you could suspend your nuclear research, and let’s see if we can help to provide for civil nuclear power for electricity production for the Iranian people.”

But we don’t want to give them — and we will not give them — assistance, obviously, towards a nuclear capability. And Iran has turned down those negotiations. We’d like to make sure the Iranian government knows how isolated it is, and hopefully they’ll reconsider this refusal to negotiate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But why not give them more time to reconsider?

NICHOLAS BURNS: Well, we’ve given them a lot of time, Judy. The first offer was made on June 1, 2006. That was a year-and-a-half ago. We’ve reissued the offer in June of 2007 and just a couple of weeks ago.

In fact, Javier Solana, the E.U. foreign policy chief, met in Rome on Tuesday with Iranian officials and said the United States wants to negotiate. Secretary Condoleezza Rice she said she would be at those negotiations and that would be the first such meeting since before the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

So the Iranian government seems to be in a mindset where they want to race ahead with the nuclear program, and they’re continuing to support the terrorist groups. And obviously we have got to do something to try to stop them, and that something is diplomacy and sanctions together.

Imposing effective sanctions

Nicholas Burns
Under Secretary of State
Our policy is to -- and we've been at this for two-and-a-half years -- is to patiently follow a diplomatic path, not to choose war, but to choose negotiation and to try to get a peaceful resolution of this dispute.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the point was made today that the United States has had economic sanctions in place against Iran for decades. That hasn't caused them to lay down their nuclear ambitions. What makes you think these new sanctions would?

NICHOLAS BURNS: What has changed, Judy, is that Iran now is living under two U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions, Chapter VII. One passed in December of 2006, and one passed in March of this year. So you have now all the countries in the world implementing sanctions against Iran.

We want to strengthen those sanctions by the actions that the U.S. took today so that they'll be more effective and, therefore, more likely to cause Iran to reflect on its isolation and turn back towards negotiations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Burns, how do you respond, not only to the citizens of Iran who were quoted in news reports today, and to Democratic lawmakers in this country who say this is really just a prelude to war? You said a moment ago this is not a run-up to conflict, but people are looking at it, and that's what some of them are concluding.

NICHOLAS BURNS: I've heard the charges. Our policy is to -- and we've been at this for two-and-a-half years -- is to patiently follow a diplomatic path, not to choose war, but to choose negotiation and to try to get a peaceful resolution of this dispute.

But to be effective, diplomacy often has to be accompanied by tough measures, like sanctions. And so I think, if we just tried to talk, well, the Iranians would do what they've been doing for a year-and-a-half: refuse to talk.

We need to make it very difficult for the Iranian government, hopefully not so much for the Iranian people, but for the Iranian government. And we are joined in this, by the way, by a lot of countries around the world who are also sanctioning Iran.

The European Union began a debate a week ago Monday about its own sanctions, independent of a Security Council, and we are very much synchronizing our policies with those of Britain and France and many of the other countries. And we're actually working with the Russians and Chinese in this larger effort in the Security Council itself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you say you're working with the Russians, but Vladimir Putin, the president, was just quoted today as saying -- and I'm quoting him -- he says, "Why should we make the situation worse, corner Iran?" He said, "Running around like a madman with a blade in one's hand is not the best way to solve such problems."

NICHOLAS BURNS: That's, obviously, an unfortunate quote and highly inaccurate. Why doesn't the Russian government stop arming Iran? They're sending arms to Iran. I think the Russians need to focus on their own behavior.

Now, we don't always see eye to eye with the Russians, but we do agree that sanctions and the offer of diplomacy are the way forward. So, Judy, I'd say to those people who fear that this might somehow lead the United States to war, that is not the intention of these steps. In fact, we want to make diplomacy stronger and more effective so that we have a greater chance at a negotiated settlement down the line once Iran decides to join us at the negotiating table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You don't have a concern that this strengthens the hand of those hard-liners inside the Iranian government who were saying, who are looking at this and saying, "See, this is what happens when you deal with the United States"?

NICHOLAS BURNS: I think it's just too -- frankly, I think the people -- some of the critics who say that we are doing that, it's just too simplistic to say that.

Iran has a highly divisive government. There are various power factions who are clashing with each other. It's not at all monolithic. And what the Iranians need to understand is that there's a sense of unity in the Security Council about the strategy, and there is that unity towards negotiations.

We simply can't calibrate this policy to appeal to one or two or three groups when there are four or five struggling for power within Iran itself. I think we have to have enough self-confidence that what we're doing is the right thing, and that is applying pressure towards Iran.

But the end result, diplomacy, not a recourse to war, if we can possibly avoid it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we're going to leave it there. Secretary Nicholas Burns, we thank you very much.

NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Appreciate it.


Approving military action in Iraq

Sen. Jim Webb
The strategic errors that we have made by invading Iraq and in some of these other areas have actually strengthened China's hand. It's not good for us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, a different perspective now, and it comes from Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia. He's the author of legislation prohibiting the Bush administration from funding military operations in Iran without congressional approval.

Senator Webb, thank you very much for joining us.

SEN. JAMES WEBB (D), Virginia: Good evening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You just heard, I believe, Undersecretary Burns basically say that Iran has brought this on itself.

SEN. JAMES WEBB: Well, I think what we have right now is a lot of different rhetorical balls in the air here in the United States. And there is, I think, legitimate reasons to have some concerns about what other motivations might be in place with this move, not sanctions per se.

I mean, I'm not someone who is opposed to sanctions. I think that, by all reports earlier this year, some of the sanctions that we put into place before were having a good effect.

But when you start pushing the envelope as far as you have now into the military areas of Iran, you could well be setting up a situation, by blurring all of these lines and these definitions between terrorist organizations and sovereign nations, and these sorts of things, that it makes a lot of sense for the Congress to step forward clearly, with language such as I have in this bill that I put forward, to say that there are limitations to the power of the executive branch to move unilaterally in this situation, that they need to come to the Congress for a specific approval if they are going to go beyond the sorts of things that they're doing right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I'll ask you about your proposal, but, again, back on the sanctions the administration announced today. I mean, essentially they're saying they've tried diplomacy, it hasn't worked, and they felt they needed to step up the pressure.

SEN. JAMES WEBB: Well, I don't think they have tried diplomacy in the sense that they're capable of using diplomacy. It's been the greatest regional failure since the invasion of Iraq.

There have been low-level attempts at diplomacy. I think, for instance, Ambassador Crocker attempting to bring Iran into the table and over in Iraq is evidence of some movement, but, as Zbigniew Brzezinski was saying last year, we've kept the bar so high for Iran moving into serious large-scale diplomacy that we can't really say that we've tried diplomacy.

And if we're not careful here, one of the things that we're going to be seeing in the regional diplomatic environment is a further strengthening of the relations between Russia, as you were pointing out in Iran, and also between China and Iran. China is actually increasing its trade with Iran right now, in spite of the fact that these sanctions have been in place, lower-level sanctions have been in place for some time.

And actually, right after 9/11, I was giving a speech to the Naval Institute conference down in Virginia Beach. And one of the things that I said then -- if you're going to watch long term the impact of what happened in 9/11 play out, you need to watch China, watch Iran, and watch China with Iran.

And the strategic errors that we have made by invading Iraq and in some of these other areas have actually strengthened China's hand. It's not good for us.

"A major change in policy"

Sen. Jim Webb
[M]y bill says ... the administration may not take unilateral action against Iran, other than in certain precise situations, such as repelling attack, without the explicit consent of the Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, again, on these sanctions, do you think they could damage? Is that what you're saying? You said the administration hasn't sufficiently tried diplomacy.

SEN. JAMES WEBB: I think this is a major change in policy. And, in fact, when Secretary Burns and his undersecretary were having the press conference earlier today, they made the point that this was the biggest change in relations between or in the situation between the United States and Iran in the last 28 or 29 years. And part of that is the notion that we are pushing toward the military elements in Iran.

The United States Senate passed an amendment, the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, a couple of weeks ago which specifically stated that the -- it was the sense of the Congress that the Revolutionary Guards were a foreign terrorist organization, which gives the administration -- according to some interpretations -- the ability actually to take military action under the same rubric that we use to take military action against terrorists in other places.

This sanction today did not go that far; it went to the edge of it. It used the term "specially designated global terrorist entity." It's a one step back, but it's still enough of a concern that I think the way for us to really clear the air and take some of this skepticism off the table is to pass legislation that specifically says what my bill says, which is, the administration may not take unilateral action against Iran, other than in certain precise situations, such as repelling attack, without the explicit consent of the Congress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So your legislation wouldn't interfere with what the administration has done today? You're moving in a different direction?

SEN. JAMES WEBB: No, it would not, but I think we need some clarity, because what the administration is saying today does not necessarily mean this is what it is intending to do in the near term or in the mid term. And we saw that, really, with all the rhetoric that came out in the invasion of Iraq.

We know now from history that the administration had decided to invade Iraq by September of '02. It got the authorization to invade Iraq in October of '02. And all the way up until March of '03, it was saying that it still wanted to use diplomacy. So let's clear the air here.

Learning from Sept. 11

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what exactly -- I mean, what evidence do you have, Senator, that the administration has something else up its sleeve, which I gather that's what you're saying?

SEN. JAMES WEBB: Well, I think we can look at the pattern of behavior since 9/11 and how the rhetoric goes one way and so much of the action go another way. And what is the disadvantage of clearing the air on this and specifically stating the intent of the Congress?

Another concern, by the way, is if you look at the presidential signing statement, on the October '02 authorization from the Congress to take military action in Iraq, the president, when he signed that statement, didn't simply say, "All right, I accept this resolution as it regards Iraq."

He basically said in that signing statement that he was not giving up his authority to take action anywhere else as it related to his constitutional functions, international terrorism, et cetera. It's very broad, the presidential signing statement is. And unless we clear the air, it could be argued by the administration, if there were some provocation from Iran, deliberate or otherwise, that they had the justification to go into Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator, your legislation is aimed at the administration. Is there anything else you would do to get the Iranians to do as the U.S. wants them to do, which is to give up their nuclear program, to scale that down, and to scale back the terrorist support?

SEN. JAMES WEBB: Well, again, as I said -- first of all, I don't think that it's appropriate, in terms of how you conduct foreign policy, to label a military of a foreign government as a terrorist organization.

I think it is appropriate to have concerns about any foreign government aiding terrorism, but that's different than labeling the military of a foreign government as a terrorist organization.

Terrorist organizations, organizations that conduct terrorism, are extra-state. They're outside the different state functions. They work along the seams of international law. So there is a real concern in that area.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying that's what they've done today?

SEN. JAMES WEBB: Well, they have been doing this over a period of months. The Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which the Congress, the Senate passed, made that definition, and so we need to get the air clear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Senator Jim Webb, we thank you very much for being with us. We appreciate it.

SEN. JAMES WEBB: Thank you. Nice to be with you.