Roundtable Discussion with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Arab Print Journalists (Excerpts)

February 17, 2006

MR. MCCORMACK: This is an on-the-record session. I think it's intended for the Secretary to talk about her upcoming trip to the Middle East, which we have announced. Madame Secretary, I don't know if you have any opening thoughts, but I think if there aren't, we'll just get right into questions.

SECRETARY RICE: I think I will not take up time with opening thoughts. I'll let you ask questions.

MR. MCCORMACK: Let's just go right around the table, sir.

QUESTION: If you can start with Iran diplomacy.

STAFF: Can you state who you're with and --

QUESTION: Yes, I'm Salameh Nematt. I'm with Al Hayat newspaper. You said this is the time for diplomacy and the focus is on diplomacy and the -- why not -- you know, ruling out other options. Is there a deadline for that diplomacy? Is there a point where you would say diplomacy has taken its course and Iran must comply by this deadline?

SECRETARY RICE: Yes, well, we don't think in terms of deadlines because we really do believe that we've got before us now considerable room for diplomacy. It will make a difference to be in the Security Council, because the Security Council has at its disposal tools that are not available to the IAEA, including resolutions that can compel member states for cooperation.

The Iranians, however, I think, should recognize that the timeline is really, in many ways, on their side. Their isolation is only going to get deeper and deeper, as this process goes forward, if they continue to reject and defy the just demands of the international system.

Let's go back a little ways. A little bit over -- about a year ago, I was in Europe and at the time, there was a sense that somehow, the Iranians were not coming along because the United States was not supportive enough of the diplomacy that was going on. And so, we made a major effort to be very clear that we were prepared to support that diplomacy. Then, the Iranians decided that the EU was not offering them civil nuclear power in a way that was acceptable to them. The EU and the United States then backed the Russian idea for a joint venture.

The Iranians have not demonstrated that they're prepared to accept the Russian proposal either. So, it is not that the world has given Iran no way out. The Iranians say they want a civil nuclear program. They can have a civil nuclear program. The civil -- what the problem is, is that they can not have the fuel cycle, because enrichment and reprocessing is a -- the most important step to being able to develop breakout capability toward a nuclear weapon. After Iran's 18 years of deception to the IAEA, no one trusts them with a fuel -- a full fuel cycle.

And so, they need to accept a path to a civil nuclear program that does not give them the capability to build a nuclear weapon and I think they will run out of time, because I believe that issues will get -- the world will get more and more insistent, measures will get tougher and tougher, and I don't believe that Iran is a state that can afford real isolation from the international system.

QUESTION: Hany El-Konayyesi, Abu Dhabi television. I have a couple of questions still on the issue of Iran. I know it's high on the agenda during your visit. What are you expecting from the Arab leaders in the region you are meeting to do -- at this very moment, particularly in regards to -- with Iranian nuclear issue and the links with Hamas?


QUESTION: We heard some statements from Ismail Haniya, the Hamas leader, who said to compensate for the possible funding cuts, he might turn to Iran and he said these (inaudible) Iran. Are you going to discuss this with the leaders and what are you asking from them and -- sorry for that -- the second part of the question is a little bit open or related to Abu Dhabi and the issue of the deal of the ports, (inaudible). We have harsh statement, harsh language from the congressman and I would like some comment from you on that as well.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, first, let me say on the ports, there was a thorough review of this issue by the process that we have for reviewing cases in which foreign entities are going to buy or possess assets that are -- have security concerns for the United States. There was a thorough review. It was decided that this could be done and done safely. Now, we have longstanding relationships, of course, with the UAE and a good relationship with UAE, a longstanding alliance relationship with UAE, a good friendship and good cooperation with UAE.

And so, I would hope that this would be put back in the context of the fact that it was looked at very seriously. It was looked at from all angles. And it's the considered opinion of the U.S. Government that this can go forward and so, that's where we are. And of course, we'll work with Congress. Perhaps people will need better explanation and will need to understand some of the process that we have gone through. And I think we are making efforts to make sure that people really understand that all of the considerations were taken into account when the decision was made.

But I would hope that our friends in Abu Dhabi would not be offended by the fact that in our democracy, we debate these things. People raise questions. It's incumbent on the U.S. Government to answer -- the U.S. Administration to answer questions when the Congress has them, but we consider Abu Dhabi a very good friend.

As to the first issue, on Iran, I will be carrying the message that I and my EU-3 colleagues are carrying all over the world, which is that everyone should tell the Iranians that there is no way out, except to accept a civil nuclear path that does not have enrichment and reprocessing in Iran and that everybody has to do -- has to take that position. Now, Egypt, of course, supported the IAEA and so -- and they are members of the Board of Governors of the IAEA, so those relationships -- those discussions, I think, will be quite specific to what next steps might take place in the IAEA. But I think the path ahead is very clear and we're going to need the support of all member states to convince the Iranians that they're on a destructive path.

Hamas. The international community, I think, has an obligation to first be very pleased for the Palestinian people that they finally got an opportunity to express themselves in free and open elections. It's important. It's important what happened. It's important too, that the Palestinian people -- to understand the Palestinian people wanted change, that after a decade of -- more than a decade of corrupt leadership that did not address their needs, the Palestinian people wanted change.

Now, let me just say a word about Abu Mazen, because this is somebody who tried -- in the years that he was Prime Minister, he did try to change things for the better. He and his very good Finance Minister, Salam Fayad, did try to root out corruption in the Palestinian Authority. I remember that they published the budget on the internet so that people could see what money was going toward. They did such a good job of making the economic policies transparent that they were receiving the regular tax revenues back from the Israeli Government.

We shouldn't -- should not lose sight of the fact that Abu Mazen and his people did try, but they weren't able to fully transform Fatah. They weren't able to fully transform the Palestinian Authority. They were unable to deal with the security situation in Gaza after the Israelis left and the Palestinian people voted for change. But I am quite sure that the Palestinian people did not change their view that they want a good and peaceful life.

And the other obligation of the international community is to say that the only path to a good and peaceful life is to have a government that is prepared to seek a two-state solution, that is prepared to recognize the other party to that two-state solution. You can't say you want the destruction of Israel and be committed to a two-state solution. So, the -- Hamas needs to do that. They also need to renounce violence, because you can't have one foot in violence and terrorism and another foot in the political process. So, the international community is making, I think, what is just a very practical case. You can not be a responsible government and -- govern responsibly and call for the destruction of the Israeli state and resort to violence.

Now, I know that they have said all kinds of things about where else they might seek funding. I would hope that any state that is considering funding Hamas would -- a Hamas-led government would think about the implications of that for the Middle East and for the Middle East peace process. Most of the Arab states are committed to a peace process, including Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan -- all committed to a peace process. Now, if you're committed to a peace process, you also have to be committed to partners who are prepared to seek peace and I would hope that would be the case.

Iran is not committed to a peace process. That's very clear. They're committed to quite the opposite. But I would just put it this way. Iran has its own troubles with the international community and it might want to think twice about enhancing those troubles with the international community, because Iran is clearly not in a very good position right now. They're in the Security Council and unless they find a way to deal better with the international system, that situation is only going to get worse.

QUESTION: But just a comment on this. How do you see the consequences if Hamas will publicly turn to Iran and in light of the possible visit the delegation (inaudible)?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, the Palestinians' need for resources is a lot. It's, by most estimates, about $1 billion -- $1.9 billion a year. It'll be interesting to see if that can be gotten from states that are not committed to the peace process. It'll be very interesting to see if that $1.9 billion is available from Iran.


QUESTION: My name is Munir. I'm with Asharq Alawsat newspaper and I would like to ask you first about your trip. Is it going to be to only Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and United Arab Emirate or some other country? Are you going to stop in Israel, for example?

The second thing, how can you face the Iranian influence in the region, for example, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon with Hamas, even in Yemen? Some people here in the U.S. say Iranian -- Iran is better off after Saddam. Now, we have information leaking from Syria that they get an offer from Iran to rebuild Syria military. They are going to get maybe a billion of dollars. Hamas, as Hany said, getting money from Iran. Even in Yemen and north of Yemen, the military conflict -- as journalists, we see Iranian influence.

How can you face the influence of Iran in the region?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, you are right about the negative impact of Iran's policies in the region and the fact that Iran is pursuing policies that are destabilizing in the region and in fact, that they are doing it in -- it appears in more places than before. But I would just make three points.

The first is, there has to be a consensus among the states and concerted action among the states that are worried about what Iran is doing in the international system to challenge Iran's aggressive policies. That means, for instance, challenging Iran to stop funding terrorists. It means challenging Iran on its nuclear weapons program. It means speaking up for the people of Iran who shouldn't be isolated from the international community. As you know, we announced that we're going to put forward some money for Iran democracy. People should be trying to reach out to the Iranian people

But I do believe that if the Iranians understand that their policies are going to be challenged, not -- people are not just going to turn a blind eye to what Iran is doing, that their policies are going to be challenged, that Iran itself will have to make some choices, which is, does Iran really wish to take on the international community to keep carrying out policies that are so counterproductive?

As it turns out, the -- on the nuclear policy, they are really almost all alone. I think their supporters in the IAEA were Syria -- which has, by the way, become their sidekick in their hostile policies in international politics as they both play all kinds of games in Lebanon, for instance. Syria has become their sidekick. But the countries that supported them were Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela.

Now, I would say perhaps Iran ought to look at where it is when the countries that support you are Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela; not the major Arab states, not any of the European states. This isn't just about the United States. This is about incredible isolation. And so, I do think that Iran needs to know that its policies are going to be challenged, but perhaps Iran should look at where it is and I don't actually see that Iran is in a very good situation.

QUESTION: And your trip will press on Iran issue?

SECRETARY RICE: No. I'm going out to -- I'll be -- the answer to your first question is Egypt, Saudi, and UAE. I won't go to Israel or to the Palestinian territories on this trip. But I just -- there are a lot of things to talk about. We need to talk about the future of the peace process and about Hamas. We need to talk about Iran. I want to talk to people about Iraq, where we're soon going to have the formation of a new government and where I would hope that Iraq's neighbors are ready now to support Iraq as it moves toward the establishment of a permanent government. The Iraqis are going to need the support of their neighbors. The neighbors have been very helpful, by the way, in working with the Sunnis to get them more involved in the political system and so, I think we'll talk some more about that.

It's a broad range of -- there are a broad range of issues to talk about and the only reason that I will not go to Jordan is that the -- His Majesty was just here, so we had extensive discussions when he was here.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, Hisham Melhem from An Nahar in Beirut and Al-Arabiya too. You spoke recently about Iran's meddling in the region and you mentioned that Syria now is its sidekick and you also talked about Hezbollah. Specifically, do you sense that your friends in the Gulf are concerned about that aspect, the Syrian and Hezbollah aspect? And you said that the Syrians have been emboldened by this recently and you have seen from Hezbollah, also, that they have been emboldened. I mean, will you be asking them for certain specific measures, because obviously, Iran is stronger than Syria and Hezbollah?

And on Hamas, specifically, if I may ask another question, because everyone is asking more than one question, will you be asking the Saudis and the UAE and all those states whether they have stringent limitations now on private groups sending money -- not government -- sending money to Saudis like Prince Turki al-Faysal said that we have those mechanisms on the ground now.

Are you satisfied by that and will you ask about that?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, clearly, Saudi Arabia has made a lot of progress in terms of tracking terrorist financing and in terms of these private groups. I think there's still work to do. It's hard. It's not an easy process to know what is happening with so-called or charitable institutions that are really not charitable. They're funding terrorism. But they have measures in place. I think we continue to work to make sure that those measures are getting stronger and that they are robust enough, but it is true that Saudi has taken on this issue much more strongly than they ever had before.

What I will say about Hamas is simply that those who are committed to an international consensus behind the roadmap and behind the peace process should be demanding of any Palestinian entity that it also be committed to the peace process and to the roadmap. You can't have it both ways.


SECRETARY RICE: And that is really the issue on Hamas. On Iranian influence and Iranian mischief-making in the region, yes, I would hope that those states that are worried about this -- and I hear from plenty of states that they're worried about it -- that they're prepared to really say to the Iranians this -- you're going to be isolated from us, too, if you continue down this road because, again, this is not the United States. We have not had relations with Iran for more than two decades. A lot of countries have relations with Iran and have watched as Iran's policies have gotten more and more aggressive, particularly on the nuclear front, and there's really now an obligation to let the Iranians know, in no uncertain terms, that this isolation is going to be complete if they continue down this road.

QUESTION: What about the Syrian-Hezbollah nexus in Iran?

SECRETARY RICE: Yes, yes, yes. Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, it is a nexus and it's clearly a problem for what the Lebanese people want to do, which is to get on with their multi-ethnic democracy and multi-religious democracy. And I think one thing we're going to have to do is, we need to go back the -- after Mr. Meles left, of course, it took Mr. Brammertz a little time to get up to speed. I think he's a very fine -- by all reports, a tough-minded prosecutor and investigator. And what needs to happen now is that we probably have to go back and review the questions about Syrian compliance with UN Security Council resolution.

We have to go back and review compliance with 1559. We have to do some of the things that the Lebanese Government is asking us to do; strengthen the Lebanese army, for instance, so that there is one security force that is actually capable of protecting Lebanon. And we shouldn't expect the Lebanese to do some things until they're actually able or they actually have the capacity to do it. And so, that's also important for the international community.

But there's no doubt that Syria is -- Syria, Iran and Hezbollah are a problem for the future course of Lebanon's development and also, therefore, the future course of the region, because Lebanon's democracy and Lebanon's independence and Lebanon's ability to chart its own course will be one of the most important elements of a changed Middle East. We were able -- the international community was able to get Syria out in -- its military forces out, but now, its negative influences also have to be out.

. . .

QUESTION: (Inaudible). Madame Secretary, you -- a few days ago, you asked for $75 million from Congress to be spent on Iran for democratic changes. What aspect of it -- you know, I saw in the papers -- you know, it was saying part of this money goes to creation of opposition, as well, in Iran. Could you elaborate on that?

And also, if I may add to these questions, the Iranians are saying, you know, if the U.S. is seriously trying to bring the regime change, for instance, in Iran, how can -- be seriously talk -- you know, with the rest -- these two questions?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, what we want to change is Iranian behavior; Iranian behavior in the region, Iranian behavior on the nuclear issue, and frankly, it would be good if Iranian behavior toward their own people changed as well, to give their people a voice. So, this is a choice the regime could make. It could -- when you have an election and the candidates are all chosen by the Guardian Council, that's a problem. But there could be a decision, a choice by this regime, to give their people a political system that they deserve.

So, when we say that we will support democracy in Iran, it's no different than our view of supporting democracy any place else in the world. But it also says that -- you said, are we trying to create opposition. I think there is opposition in Iran and the question is, are they going to have a voice. Opposition ought to have a voice. And it's not opposition that the United States creates; it's opposition that the Iranian people themselves expressed and we just want to see them have a means to express it.

QUESTION: In the same context, you know, do you consider the Mojahedin Organization as an opposition, for instance, or as a terrorist group or --


QUESTION: Mojahedin, yes.

SECRETARY RICE: MEK? No, MEK is listed as a terrorist group. They were involved in some pretty awful and bloody incidents, including -- involving American citizens.

QUESTION: It's Americans?

SECRETARY RICE: Yes. So, MEK, we do not have dealings with, but there are many voices of opposition in Iran. You know, the sad thing is that people say, "Well, Iran is further along than fill in the blank states." But Iran is going in the reverse direction. It's going in the wrong direction, because a few years ago, there was a Majlis where voices of opposition were actually heard, where people felt that they could speak up. But that has now been all but silenced and so, there is opposition in Iran that is not associated with terrorism. And I think we have an obligation to try to give voice to that opposition.

. . .