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National Security Advisor Rice: ‘Now is not the time for new sanctions’ on Iran

November 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama urged lawmakers to hold off on seeking new sanctions against Iran, prompting some senators to urge the president to remain tough on that country. National Security Advisor Susan Rice talks to Judy Woodruff about the upcoming round of Iran nuclear negotiations, as well as challenges in Afghanistan and Syria.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: As the U.S. negotiating team readies for the next round of talks in Geneva over Iran’s nuclear program, President Obama urged senators at the White House today to hold off on seeking additional sanctions on the country.

Afterwards, six senators including Democrats Charles Schumer and Robert Menendez, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, insisting that the administration not accept an agreement that would be overly generous to Iran or not tough enough on its nuclear program.

National Security Adviser Susan Rice joins me now from the White House to talk about today’s meeting and the upcoming negotiations.

Welcome.

And we know that going into this meeting, a number of the senators were saying they felt the president was going too easy on Iran in an eagerness to get to a deal. Did he change any minds today?

SUSAN RICE, National Security Adviser: I think so, Judy.

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There was a two-hour meeting in which the president laid out in great detail the substance of what is, in fact, on the table, and explained to the senators that this is the deal that serves American interests.

And let me explain why. First of all, the president has long been committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. We have pursued the toughest sanctions regime ever imposed on any country against Iran. And, as a consequence, their economy is faltering. The currency has plummeted. Their oil sales are down 60 percent. And they have now come to the negotiating table for the first time in some earnest.

The purpose of this deal is to create an interim step, a first step of six months. And in that six months, Iran’s nuclear program, all of its progress will be halted. All of its progress will be halted. And in some very key respects, the program will be rolled back.

At the same time, there will be complete transparency into all aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, so the international community will be able to detect any effort by Iran to do anything in violation of its international obligations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how…

(CROSSTALK)

SUSAN RICE: And that — if I might just add…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.

SUSAN RICE: … that, for a very modest, limited amount of economic relief that is totally reversible and that doesn’t affect the sanctions architecture in any way, shape, or form.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So — but how does that square with the senators’ concerns in this letter, as we reported, they sent to Secretary Kerry today, that they’re saying the Iranians stand to benefit billions of dollars from having a lightening, loosening of the sanctions, and that, meanwhile, the Iranians will be able to continue centrifuges, they will be able to continue enriching uranium, albeit at low levels?

In other words, they’re saying this tradeoff is not a fair one.

SUSAN RICE: Well, first of all, they’re saying that if such a deal were cut, in their judgment, it wouldn’t be fair. This is not such a deal.

First of all, the amount of sanctions — the amount of economic relief we’re talking about is a fraction of what Iran will continue to lose every month because of the ongoing sanctions which will remain in place and continue to be in force. So, they will gain a very little bit, but they will lose a lot more. So they’re still on a downward path and they’re still going to have real economic pressure on them, because the oil sanctions, the financial sanctions, all that stuff remains in effect.

What they are doing, which is very significant as a first step — it’s not the whole game because we’re doing this only for six months to see if we can reach a comprehensive solution — but instead of them talking and talking while they continue making progress on their nuclear program, in this six-month period, there will be no prospect for them to make any further progress.

So whether it comes to installing the centrifuges, accumulating new enriched uranium, all of that will not be possible, and, indeed, key elements of their stockpiles will be reduced.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, the senators are still saying they hold out the option, in fact the likelihood, of trying to add on sanctions, if not right away, in the weeks to come.

My question is, how can you negotiate an agreement with Iran this week — coming out of these meetings this week when you may have the possibility of new sanctions in the near future?

SUSAN RICE: Well, I think the sanctions — the current sanctions will remain in effect in any case, and the administration fully supports that. We will continue enforcing those sanctions.

The question is whether this is the time for the United States Congress to impose new sanctions. And we think, while these negotiations are still going on at this fragile stage — and we ought to know in the next few weeks where these negotiations are going to end up — now is not the time for new sanctions. That would find the United States isolated, when we now have the international community with us, supporting a diplomatic solution. And it would take the pressure off Iran.

Now, if the negotiations fail, then we can all talk about the prospect of additional sanctions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to turn to Afghanistan, Dr. Rice.

And that is, we know the reports out of Kabul today from the Karzai government are that a deal has been reached with the U.S. over what happens to U.S. troops after 2014, a status of forces agreement, so to speak. The State Department is saying there’s no such deal.

But my question to you is, are you close, and could any deal involve the president, in essence, apologizing for mistakes the U.S. has made in Afghanistan?

SUSAN RICE: Well, let me answer both questions, Judy.

First of all, there’s no such discussion of an apology. I’m not sure where the reports of that come from, quite frankly. So let’s take that off the table. That’s not in the cards. There is a bilateral security agreement text that is very close to completion.

And when Secretary Kerry visited Afghanistan last month, he and President Karzai finalized that text. And over the last few weeks, we have been working on some remaining details that need to be worked out. And it’s possible that we won’t reach agreement on those remaining details. It’s hopeful that we will.

And, if we do, then that text will be presented to what the Afghans call a loya jirga, a sort of 2,000-person group of community leaders who will pass judgment on that text. And if it’s approved, then, indeed, we will have a deal. If it’s not approved, it will be very difficult for the United States to sustain the troop presence, the assistance relationship, and all of the support that we have provided to date to the Afghan people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, a question about Syria. As you know very well, the conflict rages on. It’s spilling over into neighboring countries. Today, there were these terrible attacks on — Sunni — the Sunni groups acknowledging that they are responsible for attacks on the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in Lebanon.

I guess my question to you is, is the Obama administration prepared to continue not to get militarily involved, no matter how high the casualties, no matter how much the fighting spills and continues to destabilize the entire region?

SUSAN RICE: Judy, our aim has been to try to support the resolution of the Syrian conflict at the negotiating table.

And let me explain why. This is a conflict which is spilling over borders. It has caused millions to be displaced. Upwards of 100,000 to 150,000 civilians have lost their lives. But what is very important is that the institutions of the Syrian state be preserved, that we don’t have a collapsed state, a failed state in the heart of the Middle East which could become a permanent safe haven for terrorists, and that Assad and his cronies leave the scene.

That can be accomplished in principle through negotiations. And, indeed, that was what was agreed by key players in the international community, including Russia, the United States, and other important players in the region, over a year ago in Geneva.

Our efforts now have been aimed at getting the parties, the Syrian government delegation, the opposition delegation, to the negotiating table to agree on a transitional government that will not include Assad. Now, to support that, in the meantime, we’re providing the greatest amount of assistance of any country in the world, almost $1.4 billion in humanitarian assistance.

We are helping the opposition in many different respects to strengthen itself, to counter the regime and counter extremists at the same time and to come to the negotiating table prepared to make a deal. This is what is necessary to end the conflict. Further external military involvement, the involvement of American troops is not something that the president feels is wise or necessary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, we thank you.

SUSAN RICE: Thank you.