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Video | Clinton: Regime Change For Iranians to Decide

21 Jun 2012 13:01Comments

[ media ] On June 20, the State Department hosted a conversation on U.S. foreign policy between Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Secretary of State James Baker. Following are excerpts from the discussion, which was hosted by Charlie Rose.

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CLINTON: One of the real successes of our diplomatic strategy toward Iran, which was to be willing to engage with them but to keep a very clear pressure track going, is that the Chinese and the Russians are part of a unified negotiating stance that we have presented to the Iranians, most recently in Moscow. I think the Iranians have been surprised. They have expended a certain amount of effort to try to break apart this so-called P5+1, and they haven't been successful. The Russians and the Chinese have been absolutely clear they don't want to see Iran with a nuclear weapon. They have to see concrete steps taken by Iran that are in line with Iran's international obligations. And we have said we'll do action for action, but we have to see some willingness on the part of the Iranians to act first... It took three-plus years, because one of the efforts that we've been engaged in is to make the case that as difficult as it is to put these sanctions on Iran, and particularly to ask countries like China to decrease their crude oil purchases from Iran, the alternatives are much worse. And we've seen China slowly but surely take actions, along with some other countries for whom it was quite difficult -- Japan, South Korea, India, et cetera. So on Iran, they are very much with us in the international arena.

ROSE: Will they support an oil embargo?

CLINTON: Well, absent some action by Iran between now and July 1st, the oil embargo is going into effect. And that's been very clear from the beginning, that we were on this track. I have to certify under American laws whether or not countries are reducing their purchases of crude oil from Iran, and I was able to certify that India was, Japan was, South Korea was. And we think, based on the latest data, that China is also moving in that direction. And thankfully, there's been enough supply in the market that countries have been able to change suppliers.

BAKER: If we're going to have differences with Russia -- and we do have some differences with Russia -- it seems to me the most important difference we might have is with respect to Iran. And we don't have that now, and that's really important. And I don't think we ought to create a problem with Russia vis-à-vis what we want to do in Iran about their nuclear ambitions as a result of something we might do in Syria. I just think the Iranian issue there is far more important really than how we resolve the Syrian issue.

ROSE: [On the Syrian crisis] Is there a role for Iran?

CLINTON: At this point, it would be very difficult for Iran to be initially involved. I mean, I'm a big believer in talking to people when you can and trying to solve problems when you can. But right now, we're focused on dealing with Iran and the nuclear portfolio. That has to be our focus. Iran's always trying to get us to talk about anything else except their nuclear program.

And then we also have the added problem that Iran is not just supporting Assad, they are helping him to devise and execute the very plans that he is following to suppress, oppress the opposition.

BAKER: With respect to Iran, I agree with the Secretary. This is not the place to involve them. However, I would think there might be a place for them in a group with respect to Afghanistan. They helped us when we first went in there. We talked to them. They were helpful. I've never understood myself why we are doing all the laboring, pulling all the -- doing all the labor in Iran, treasure, blood --

ROSE: In Afghanistan.

BAKER: I'm sorry -- in Afghanistan -- treasure, blood. And yet, every country who's surrounding Afghanistan has a huge interest in a stable Afghanistan. Why don't we see if we -- everyone needs to -- we're leaving now, and we've said that, and I agree with that. So why don't we say, "Hey, look it here. You all want a stable Afghanistan? Come on in here and help us. Everybody contribute." In that instance, I think we ought to have Iran at the table.

CLINTON: And we agree with that. We are part of a large group of nations, as well as a smaller segment of that. Just last week, my deputy, Bill Burns, was in Kabul. Iran was there. Other countries in the region and further afield were there. Because Jim is absolutely right. I mean, part of what the problem, as we look forward in Central and South Asia, is that, once again, Afghanistan is so strategically located. And in the neighborhood in which it finds itself, there's a lot of interest at work that have to be in some way brought to the table in order to try to have as much stability going forward.

And Iran is at the table. Now, Iran oftentimes is not a constructive player, but we're going to keep them at the table and try to do what we can on behalf of Afghanistan for them to be a more positive force.

ROSE: My understanding of the Administration's position on containment is that dog will not hunt. Right?

CLINTON: Yes.

BAKER: I agree with that. My personal position on that is this: We ought to try every possible avenue we can to see if we can get them to correct their desire and goal of acquiring a nuclear weapon, but we cannot let them acquire that weapon. We are the only country in the world that can stop that. The Israelis, in my opinion, do not have the capability of stopping it. They can delay it. There will also be many, many side effects, all of them adverse, from an Israeli strike. But at the end of the day, if we don't get it done the way the Administration's working on it now -- which I totally agree with -- then we ought to take them out.

CLINTON: Well, we're working hard. We're working hard... I think the President has been very clear on this. He has always said all options are on the table. And he means it. He addressed this when he spoke to it earlier in the year... And also in public speeches that he's given.

I think Jim and I both would agree that everybody needs to know -- most particularly the Iranians -- that we are serious that they cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. It's not only about Iran and about Iran's intentions, however once tries to discern them. It's about the arms race that would take place in the region with such unforeseen consequences. Because you name any country with the means, anywhere near Iran that is an Arab country, if Iran has a nuclear weapon -- I can absolutely bet on it and know I will win -- they will be in the market within hours. And that is going to create a cascade of difficult challenges for us and for Israel and for all of our friends and partners.

So this has such broad consequences. And that's why we've invested an enormous amount in trying to persuade Iran that if -- as the Supreme Leader says and issued a fatwa about -- it is un-Islamic to have a nuclear weapon, then act upon that edict and demonstrate clearly that Iran will not pursue a nuclear weapon. And we are pushing them in these negotiations to do just that.

ROSE: But as you know, the question is not whether they will have a nuclear weapon, but whether they will have the capacity to quickly have a nuclear weapon.

CLINTON: Well, that is obviously the question, and that is why Jim said at the end of the day, maybe a year. I mean, these kinds of calculations are --

BAKER: It may be more than that.

CLINTON: It may be more than that. They are difficult to make. A lot of countries around the world have what's called breakout capacity. They have stopped short of it. They have not pursued it. They have found it not to be in their interests or in the interests of regional stability.

ROSE: But do you think that's what they mean and that's what they intend?

CLINTON: Well, that's what we're testing. That's what every meeting with them is about, to try to really probe and see what kinds of commitments we can get out of them. Now, at this point we don't have them, so I can't speak to what they might be if they are ever to be presented. But that's why we have to take this meeting by meeting and pursue it as hard as we can.

BAKER: And the problem is not so much the threat they would represent to us or to Israel or to our allies somewhere in the region. It's the proliferation problem, because it would really then be out of control. And that's the real thing you have to guard, and that's why I would say at the end of the day you just cannot let them have the weapon.

Now, what is -- is that breakout time or is that after they make one or after they make three or four, or after you're convinced they have the delivery vehicles? That's all for the military to decide. But at some point you have to say that's simply not going to happen.

ROSE: I think I heard that loud and clear. But you've also suggested that the United States should do it rather than Israel.

BAKER: Absolutely. And the reason I say that is if you look at what [Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General] Martin Dempsey said not long ago, he said if Israel hits the Iranian nuclear facilities, we're going to lose a lot of American lives in the region. Many people in the Israeli national security establishment have come out publicly now and questioned their leadership's view that maybe Israel ought to do it. And they say no, Israel shouldn't do it.

There are a lot of unanticipated consequences that could follow from that, not least of which is strengthening the hand of the hardliners in Iran. I mean, you don't want to do that. They're having troubles now. The sanctions are not complete yet. We want to squeeze them down more. But they're having an effect. And the government is having some problems, and you don't want to lose all that.

CLINTON: In fact, I mean, what Jim is saying is a really important point, because we know that there is a vigorous debate going on within the leadership decision-making group in Iran. There are those who say look, these sanctions are really biting, we're not making the kind of economic progress we should be making, we don't give up that much by saying we're not going to do a nuclear weapon and having a verifiable regime to demonstrate that.

And then frankly, there are those who are saying the best thing that could happen to us is be attacked by somebody, just bring it on, because that would unify us, it would legitimize the regime. You feel sometimes when you hear analysts and knowledgeable people talking about Iran that they fear so much about the survival of the regime, because deep down it's not a legitimate regime, it doesn't represent the will of the people, it's kind of morphed into kind of a military theocracy. And therefore an argument is made constantly on the hardline side of the Iranian Government that we're not going to give anything up, and in fact we're going to provoke an attack because then we will be in power for as long as anyone can imagine.

BAKER: I don't think the Israelis can do it but we can. The reason I say that is the Israeli Government came to the prior administration, the Bush 43 Administration, and then they asked for overflight rights, they asked for bunker-busting bombs, they asked for in-flight refueling capabilities. And the administration said no, that's not in the national interest of the United States today for you to strike Iran's nuclear facility.

My understanding is they made the same request of this Administration. I don't know the answer to that for sure. The Secretary would. But whether they did or not, that's the reason I say if anybody's going to do it, we ought to do it because we have the capability of doing it.

CLINTON: And hopefully we won't get to that...I'm not going to talk about a change of regime. I see no evidence of that. I think the Iranian people deserve better, but that's for them to try to determine.

ROSE: But there is this question too about Iran, and I want to move to some other issues. Looking back at the time of the protest over the election, do you wish you'd done more? Do you wish you'd been more public, more supportive?

CLINTON: At the time there was a very strong, consistent message coming from within Iran that anything we said would undermine the legitimacy of their opposition. This is from the opposition coming out to us. And one can argue, were they right, were they not right, but at the time it seemed like they had some momentum, they did not want to look like they were acting on behalf of the United States or anybody else.

This was indigenous to Iran and to Iranians' discontents. And that made a lot of sense at the time, because the last thing anybody wanted was to give the regime the excuse that they didn't have to respond to the legitimate concerns arising out of that election.

And what we did do, which I think was very value-added, was to work over time to keep lines of communication open. We found out that social media tools, one in particular, was going to shut down for a long-scheduled rebooting of some sort, and we intervened and said no, because the opposition uses you to communicate, to say where they're going to have demonstrations, to warn people. So we were deeply involved in a lot of public messaging that we thought did not cross the line that the opposition didn't want us to cross. That was our assessment.

This article is presented by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

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