USA Today Editorial Board Roundtable with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (Excerpts)

December 11, 2007

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Missile

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QUESTION: Could you comment on Iran, on two aspects of Iran? One, the impact of the National Intelligence Estimate and whether making such National Intelligence Estimates public is helpful or not in the debate? Because obviously, it complicates policy.

And then the second aspect is, obviously, Iran is very important to the stabilization of Iraq and how much do you think that the lull in the violence, or the down-tick in the violence, is because Iran is doing that and going forward, how important it is to engage in a dialogue with Iran and whether that might be possible, whether the United States might drop its insistence on -- that Iran stop enriching uranium first.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, first, on the National Intelligence Estimate, I think in this particular case, it wouldn't always make unclassified an intelligence estimate of this kind, but I think in this case, this has been an important issue of national policy and it was obviously an intelligence estimate that had -- that had a different cast than the intelligence estimate it had two years ago, went in a different direction, and so everyone thought it was important, most importantly, the President, to have it released in a way that people could actually see what the intelligence estimate said.

Because one of the problems with these estimates, if they come out in just bits and pieces, is that what is actually a fairly nuanced case in the intelligence estimate isn't really fully understood. And if you actually look at the intelligence estimate as a whole, you see an estimate that says that the good news is that they -- according to the intelligence community, that they assessed, that they've not been weaponizing, doing the weaponization work, since 2003. Yet they maintain an active enrichment and reprocessing activity which is, of course, the way that one acquires fissile material, which is an element of a nuclear weapons program if you're ever to have one, and that their missile program continues. So it is a more complete picture by releasing the fullness of the estimate.

I actually don't think it's complicated policy. I think that it has, in some ways, clarified certain aspects of this. One aspect is Iran has always maintained that it didn't have a covert weapons program. And I've been a little bit struck by the degree to which they've embraced the intelligence estimate and I wish I had a chance to say, well, do you embrace the whole thing? Does that mean that we should be asking questions about before 2003 that haven't been answered, that the IAEA has not been able to answer? So in that sense, this is somewhat clarifying and I think puts a whole another set of issues and questions on the table that need to be resolved: What was that program? How far did it go? What does it mean to have halted it? All of those are extremely important questions, given that weaponization is only one element of a weapons program.

The second clarifying point is that Iran is apparently responsive to international pressure and scrutiny. And it would suggest to me that if there's not international pressure and scrutiny you're going to have a problem with what kinds of activities Iran will be engaged in. And they can read costs and benefits and that means that the third clarifying element for me is, we've had the right strategy, which has been a strategy, there is a diplomatic strategy, but that has two tracks. One that shows a way forward for negotiations and benefits that would accrue from negotiations, and secondly, a set of consequences should Iran not suspend its enrichment and reprocessing.

In terms of why it's necessary to have a suspension in order for negotiations to begin, I think the situation that we would not want to get into is where there are endless negotiations while Iran perfects the enrichment and reprocessing capability because once you've learned to do it -- it's an engineering problem. It's not a scientific problem. It's an engineering problem. Once you've learned to do it, once you've learned to maintain these cascades over a period of time, you can enrich at ever higher levels to weapons-grade material. And so you don't want them practicing, in effect, while you're talking. That's why suspension has been the requirement first of the Europeans, then of the IAEA Board of Governors, then to Security Council resolutions. So this isn't an American condition, this has been an international condition.

As to Iran in Iraq, I don't know the answer to your question about whether Iran has, in fact, pulled back. There is clearly a reduction in violence with some of the groups associated with Iran. When I was teaching political science, I used to always tell my students, though, to always look for alternative explanations. And so there are alternative explanations. We've been very aggressive against the Qods Force and against Iranian operatives in Iraq, including picking up a fairly senior one. And so there is that element.

Secondly, the -- some of the elements with which Iran was associated got involved in this very bad incident in Karbala which ended up killing a lot of innocent pilgrims and there was some sense in which that was an incredibly unpopular thing in Iraq and perhaps that's the reason that people have pulled back. So the one thing that it says to me is that we should continue along the strategy that we have been employing in Iraq because it is having results both in terms of the surge and in terms of the pretty aggressive work against these Qods Force elements. But we remain open to discussion. The channel with the Iranians is there. They've met three times, I think, and will probably meet again. And if the Iranians are prepared to act on what they say is in their interest, which is to have a stable Iraq, then we definitely want to see them do that. And that would be a good basis for moving forward.

And let me just -- and finally, you know, we've also offered, by the way, if they suspend that we really will -- and I really do mean it -- anyplace, anywhere, anytime about anything.

QUESTION: Has the release of the NIE affected efforts to get Russia and China to go for a new set of trade sanctions?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, we've had affirmations from everyone that the two-track strategy remains in place. We have some tactical differences with Russia, in particular, and to a certain extent, China, about timing, about the nature of any further sanctions. But I do believe that people understand that we need to continue moving forward.

QUESTION: Despite the NIE? Has the NIE had any influence?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, the NIE had people step back and take a look. But I think when they stepped back and took a look, they said, oh, well, susceptibility to international pressure, enrichment and reprocessing continues to go on. What we've been after is enrichment and reprocessing for the reasons that I described. And by the way, what is this about a weapons program prior to 2003? While everybody focused on the fact that it had been halted, many people focused on the fact that it had existed. And if you're concerned about Iranian capability, then that's something to focus on.

QUESTION: But just -- did the conference call that was supposed to be held today, well, has that already been held? Do you know --

SECRETARY RICE: It has and I think there will need to be another. We continue to have some tactical differences about what we might do going forward.

QUESTION: Because you had made some progress on that before the NIE came out.

SECRETARY RICE: Yeah, but I talked with my counterparts, including my Russian counterpart in Brussels, and we continue to -- we agreed to continue working on the UN track.

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QUESTION: After 9/11, the President declared policy of preempting threats to the nation before they fully manifested themselves. Yet we've seen some of the intelligence about those threats is often flawed, significantly. Can a preemption policy coexist with imperfect intelligence?

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The intelligence on the kinds of proliferation targets that we are looking at is, I think, never going to be perfect. And I'm not at all surprised that in -- it's going to be revised and things are going to change, because you're dealing with really hard targets, you're dealing with people who are intending to prevent you from learning what is going on, you're very often dealing with dual use tech -- dual use equipment or dual use activities like enrichment and reprocessing, which can have a civilian component. And so people are going to continue to refine the intelligence and sometimes the intelligence is not going to be right.

And it has said to me that one of the challenges of this era, with these kinds of proliferation targets, is to try to make the job of intelligence somewhat easier. And there are a couple of aspects to that. One is that you need to have greater means of prevention of proliferation. Which is why one of the most important things I think we've done is the Proliferation Security Initiative which actually, using small glimpses of intelligence, can use an international network of countries to try to preempt cargo going someplace, or to try to keep a suspicious shipment from going to a place. And I think that's one way that you use intelligence to make the job somewhat easier.

It would also make the job a lot easier if we could do something about the fuel cycle. The reason that the Iranian problem is so hard is that the enrichment and -- the ability to enrich and reprocess, once you've perfected that technology, you can enrich to high levels of enrichment, 98 percent, and you can have fissile material for a bomb. So whenever that technology is existing someplace in a country, it's a proliferation risk.

It's one reason that the President, President Putin, Mohammed El Baradei, have talked about assured fuel supply as a way to allow countries to have civil nuclear programs without having the fuel cycle. That's another way that you take some of the pressure off of intelligence, because if you don't have the enrichment and reprocessing end of the fuel cycle, you have a much reduced proliferation risk.

So given that these are very hard targets, I do think there is a strong imperative to try to make the problem easier. And those are a couple of ways that I think you can do it.

QUESTION: And what level of certitude would you need to take preemptive action?

SECRETARY RICE: I can't answer it in the abstract. I mean there is always a -- there's a balance between risk of allowing something to continue and certainty about what it is. And that's there across the board. But fortunately, in this particular case, we believed that we have a diplomatic option that, while you would never take other options off the table, diplomatic options are pretty robust.

I think that the NIE has given us some confidence that it's the right option.

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QUESTION: So, but he's very difficult to deal with. And what I imagine is that he's maybe a little more helpful behind the scenes. But how is it that you deal with Russia, with President Putin, and the coming issue of Kosovo, how important is that?

SECRETARY RICE: I have spent a good deal of time with President Putin, and I found him a pretty straightforward person. He will tell you if he plans to do something and he will tell you if he plans not to do something, and he's generally true to his word and I appreciate that. And we've had quite candid conversations about the evolution of the Russian political system and about concerns about the concentration of power in the Kremlin. I've not had any concern about raising those issues and raising them straightforwardly and I think it's been useful to do that.

Generally, I would say that on the big, global issues -- proliferation, terrorism -- we've had pretty good cooperation with Russia. As I've said, we've not always agreed tactically about some elements with Iran, for instance. But I think we've had pretty good cooperation. I'll give you just one example, and here we did make a shift, just to show you an example. The civilian nuclear program Bushehr -- their civilian nuclear reactor that they have built in Iran -- for a long time the United States objected to the building of that reactor. And I remember a discussion that first the President had with President Putin and then I later had with the Russians, which was, well if you're going other say to the Iranians, you can have civil nuclear power, but you can't have the fuel cycle, Bushehr is the perfect example of that, because it has a fuel takeback provision; we provide the fuel, we take it back. Actually, that's a pretty good argument. And it has brought us closer to the Russians on what the solution would be for an Iranian nuclear program.

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