QUESTION: Madame Secretary, today you broke with longstanding U.S. Government policy, Republican and Democratic administrations, and offered direct negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. Why now?
SECRETARY RICE: What the Administration offered today is to join talks that are already underway but suspended between the European-3 and the Iranians to try and find a diplomatic solution to bring an end to the Iranian nuclear program. And if the Iranians will suspend their enrichment activities fully and verifiably, we're prepared to join in those talks.
Now, it's time to do that because the Iranians have been steadily progressing in their nuclear program and we can't allow that to go on without knowing whether there is a serious negotiating track or not. The Iranians face a choice. Either they agree to suspend, which has been the condition of the Europeans, of the Board of Governors of the IAEA, of the Security Council presidential statement, either they suspend and come back to the talks or we will know that Iran is not serious about negotiations and the world can move on to bringing sanctions against Iran so that we can perhaps convince Iran in different ways to give up its nuclear ambitions.
QUESTION: Two questions. Suspend uranium enrichment or stop it altogether?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, suspend meaning that they have to stop the program.
QUESTION: For good?
SECRETARY RICE: They should stop it for good and certainly in time in negotiation that would be the issue, but for now they just need to stop. They need to stop where they are and there's a very clear definition of what that means. They signed onto it. It's derived from the Paris agreement that they walked out on. They need to stop those activities, suspend those activities and then we can get into a negotiation about a civil nuclear program that does not have proliferation risk associated with it.
The Iranians, Terry, have tried to make this: "You are trying to deny us our right to have a civilian nuclear program." That's not the issue. The Iranians have engaged in behavior over the last 18 years, we now know, which hid activities from the IAEA, which has been denied access to the IAEA. And it has raised all kinds of concerns about what Iran is really up to. If they're not up to building a nuclear weapon, then why have they been engaged in this suspicious activity? So they need to suspend those activities, come back to negotiations and if they want a civil nuclear program, I'm sure that one can be designed that does not have the risk associated with the fuel cycle.
QUESTION: As you just pointed out, Iran has been in defiance of international demands for a long time now, spitting defiance at the international community. Are you rewarding that behavior by offering to talk to them?
SECRETARY RICE: We're presenting Iran with a choice. The reward would actually be to let them continue down this path, just continue telling the Russians, oh, yes, maybe we are interested in your proposal today. And then next week, no, we're really not unless we can have enrichment on our soil. Or saying to the Europeans, we're glad to go back to the talks without preconditions, knowing that there is a precondition, which is enrichment. That would be rewarding this behavior. This is confronting them with a very clear choice so that everybody knows that there's a clear choice and so that we know whether there is a real negotiating track or not.
QUESTION: You want to force a moment of truth.
SECRETARY RICE: We need to force a moment of truth. And Iran should have every reason to accept what has been the demand not just of the United States but of the entire international community. The reason that you have to suspend the program is that we can't allow them to continue under cover of negotiation to improve their nuclear capabilities. Right now, they're continuing to improve those capabilities. We don't want to get to the end of the year and either face the choice that they have improved to the point that they are what's called industrial-scale production capability, meaning that they are really quite far along to the potential for a nuclear weapon, to either have that choice or to say, well, now, what do we do? So we want now to have this choice. We want now to have this moment of truth and to see if negotiations really have a chance.
QUESTION: Iran has been at this for years. Couldn't you have put this offer on the table years ago?
SECRETARY RICE: Terry, everything has its place in time and for the last year or so we have been very actively creating a climate of opinion that is a consensus now in the international community about what Iran must do. That consensus wasn't there seven or eight or nine months ago. We've now been through a series of steps, first with the Europeans, then with the IAEA Board of Governors -- 27 countries voting for this set of conditions, then a presidential statement that restates these conditions. And in building that international consensus, we've now demonstrated that it is not Iran and the United States; it is Iran and the international community. Having done that, the last piece, if you will, is for the United States then to give weight to those negotiations if Iran is prepared to engage in those seriously.
QUESTION: Does that consensus include an agreement on what would happen if Iran turns this offer down? Is there a credible stick with this carrot?
SECRETARY RICE: There is a credible stick. We have, after our meeting in New York, with the foreign ministers of the Permanent 5+1 -- plus Germany -- we agreed that we would (inaudible) our political directors to work to create a package. That package would have on the one hand a set of benefits that could accrue to Iran if they are prepared to have a reasonable agreement on their nuclear program, and on the other hand a set of penalties if they were not. We've made good progress on getting that package, both its elements, both the penalties and the benefits, and we will, I think, conclude that package when I'm in Vienna. We're pretty close and at that point it will be very clear to the Iranians what the choices are.
QUESTION: The Administration has made no secret over the years that it would like regime change in Iran. The President in the State of the Union talked about a nation held hostage and called for a free and democratic Iran. Is the Administration still seeking regime change there?
SECRETARY RICE: We certainly seek a free and democratic Iran. The President is seeking a free and democratic -- free and democratic countries all over the world. That's the freedom agenda. We believe very strongly there are no people, most especially a sophisticated, longstanding culture like Iran -- this ought to be a democratic society.
The Administration, the President, all of us have no illusions about the nature of this regime; that it is a regime that is a state sponsor of terrorism; that it is a regime that suppresses the desires and will of its own people; that it's a regime that has caused innumerable problems in the Middle East and continues to cause them in Iraq, for instance; and that it is a regime whose president speaks in the most ghastly ways about Israel and about denying the Holocaust. We have no illusions about the nature of this regime. But when you have a regime like that, you have even more reason to do everything that you can to prevent the acquisition of a nuclear weapon by that regime. And so these talks are aimed at that.
QUESTION: So regime change is secondary?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, the President is always going to stand for the rights of people to exercise, as he calls it, the non-negotiable demands of humanity dignity. We do know that there's a regime there that is troublesome from almost every dimension and we are going to take the steps necessary to prevent that regime from getting a nuclear weapon. We can do that through a negotiated track or we can do that through greater pressure through sanctions. But we need to know which course we're on.
QUESTION: So if Iran requested as a condition of this agreement that the United States promise not to attack or seek regime change, would you turn that down?
SECRETARY RICE: We are not in the process of constructing a grand bargain here with the Iranians. That should be very clearly understood. This is a regime with which we have many problems, problems unrelated to the nuclear side. But our goal, our near-term goal, has to be to arrest the progress of the Iranian nuclear program so that we don't get to a point where we are faced with an Iranian nuclear weapon. That is something that is worth doing. We have larger goals concerning Iran. We have larger goals and concerns about their behavior. But it is still worth doing, to put all of our efforts into arresting their nuclear program, because given the nature of that regime, a nuclear weapon in its hands would be an incredibly destabilizing factor in the international system.
QUESTION: Now, Secretary Rice, a lot of Americans might look at what's happening in Iraq, where there were no weapons of mass destruction, and look at this crisis in Iran which really has a nuclear program and say you attacked the wrong country.
SECRETARY RICE: Well, let's remember -- we all have short memories. Iraq was a country that used weapons of mass destruction.
QUESTION: But they didn't have --
SECRETARY RICE: Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons against his own people and against his neighbors. We went to war against him in 1991 when he invaded and occupied Kuwait and we thought was headed for the rest of the Gulf, quite frankly. We were still in a suspended state of war as he shot at our aircraft as they tried to patrol the no-fly zones. We shouldn't pretend that Iraq was just somehow not a threat.
QUESTION: But when it comes to WMD, it hasn't --
SECRETARY RICE: Well, you know what you know at the time, and everyone thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He refused to answer the just calls for answers to what he was doing with his programs. He was continuing to acquire through covert means the materials to build weapons of mass destruction. He was getting very wealthy through his manipulation of the Oil-for-Food program and putting that into weapons and other means. There was every reason to believe that he had weapons of mass destruction.
Now, he did not have weapons on the shelf of weapons of mass destruction, at least as far as we can tell now. But was he a danger? Absolutely. Iran is also a regime of great concern and a danger. But it is not the United States alone that is worried that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapons program under cover of a civilian nuclear program. That's why the IAEA is doing what it's doing. That's why when people offer a civilian nuclear program, they do so without a fuel cycle. Everyone is concerned about what is Iran is doing.
QUESTION: I'm out of time, but I have one follow-up. Is the lesson here then, if you're really scary, if you're really dangerous and you really have a weapons of mass destruction program, the United States will have to come to the table and talk to you?
SECRETARY RICE: Oh, absolutely not. The United States is simply trying to create an option for a negotiated solution to this problem. That's what the President committed to some time ago, that we were going to give diplomacy every chance. The Iranians should have no illusions that they are going to be able to string this along. They should have no illusions that the international community is without options should they not choose to negotiate. Should they not choose to negotiate, we can bring the kind of isolation on Iran that will make it extremely difficult on that regime. And so Iran needs not to miscalculate here; it should take the offer to negotiate seriously, suspend its program and come back to the table.
QUESTION: Madame Secretary, thanks very much.
SECRETARY RICE: Thank you.