U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's Interview with Jake Tapper of CNN (Excerpts)

October 15, 2017

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Missile

QUESTION: Here to discuss this and much more is the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Secretary Tillerson, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: My pleasure, Jake.

QUESTION: So before we get to what the President did, I want to ask a question. You said recently that Iran is in technical compliance with the deal, but President Trump said on Friday that the Iranian regime has, quote, “committed multiple violations of the agreement.” So which is it? Is Iran in technical compliance or has it committed multiple violations?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, the answer is really both, Jake. Under the nuclear agreement, the JCPOA that is a multilateral party agreement, there have been a number of technical violations – carrying too much inventory of heavy water, having materials that are used to construct high-speed centrifuges. But under the agreement – and this is part of the weaknesses and the flaws – Iran has a significant period of time to remedy those violations. And so they have remedied the violations, which then brings them back into technical compliance. I think, though, that demonstrated pattern of always walking right up against the edges of the agreement are what give us some concern as to how far Iran might be willing to go to test the limits from its side of the agreement. Our response to that has been to work with the other parties and demand that we be much more demanding of the enforcement of the agreement – much more demanding inspections, much more demanding disclosures – and that is what we are shifting since we have taken our seat at the table of the Joint Commission.

QUESTION: Okay. President Trump decertified the deal on Friday, but he did not withdraw from the deal as he could have. Did the President want to withdraw unilaterally before people in the administration such as yourself, Secretary Mattis and others, successfully persuaded him to pursue what might be described as a middle course?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: No, what the President wants is a more comprehensive strategy to deal with Iran in its totality. I think for too long – and certainly the last administration really defined the Iranian relationship around this nuclear agreement. This nuclear agreement is flawed. It has a number of weaknesses in it. But – and so the President said throughout his campaign, even, he said I’ll either reform the agreement, I’ll renegotiate the agreement. Basically, he’s saying I’ll either fix these flaws or we’ll have to have a different agreement entirely. And I think his decision around the new policy is consistent with that.

So now we want to deal with the nuclear agreement’s weaknesses, but we really need to deal with a much broader array of threats that Iran poses to the region, our friends and allies, and therefore threats that they pose to our own national security. The policy itself really has three components, and I think it’s important that people understand this, and the President described these in his speech. There is the nuclear agreement, which we are going to undertake an effort to see if we cannot address the many flaws in the agreement, working with partners. It may be a secondary agreement; maybe it’s not within the existing agreement, but we may undertake a secondary agreement. But then there’s a much broader array of threats from Iran: its ballistic missile programs, its support of terrorist organizations in the region, Lebanese Hizballah, Hamas. These are all very threatening organizations. And its destabilizing activities in Yemen to support the rebels, the Houthis, to support the rebels in Syria – the Assad regime. Everywhere you look in the region, Iran’s activities destabilize the region and threaten others.

But the third element of this policy, and the President touched on it in his address, is this is not about the Iranian people. This is about the regime in Iran, this revolutionary regime that ever since it came to power has been intent on killing and harming Americans and harming others in the region. We do not hold the Iranian people accountable for that. So our effort is to support the moderate voices in Iran, support their cries for democracy and freedom, in the hope that one day the Iranian people will retake control of the Government of Iran and restore it to its rich history of the past, reintegrate, and become a fruitful member in trade, commerce in the region.

So that is really the end game here, but that’s a very long game, and we realize that.

QUESTION: Before the Senate not long ago, your counterpart at the Pentagon, Secretary Mattis, was asked if he thought staying in the agreement was in the best interests of the United States. Not a question about whether or not he wanted to improve upon the deal or add a secondary deal, as you just discussed, but whether or not the U.S. should stay in it or leave. And he said staying in it was his course. It sounds like you agree with that as well, that you would not want Congress to immediately impose sanctions that would end this deal.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: No, I do agree with that, and I think the President does as well. That’s why he took the decision he took that, look, let’s see if we cannot address the flaws in the agreement by staying within the agreement, working with the other signatories, working with our European friends and allies within the agreement. But that – as I said, that may come in a secondary agreement as well. So we want to take the agreement as it exists today, as I said, fully enforce that agreement, be very demanding of Iran’s compliance under the agreement, and then begin the process of addressing these flaws that we see around not – the absence of addressing ballistic missiles, for instance. The concerns we have around the sunset provisions, this phase-out of the agreement. We know what that looks like. We’ve seen this in the past, in the ‘90s with North Korea, agreements that ultimately phase out. What happened has put us on the road where we are today with North Korea. We don’t want to find ourselves in that same position with Iran.

QUESTION: Speaking of North Korea, you talk about working with European allies. As you know, our European allies are very concerned about the step that President Trump took on Friday. I want to show you what the German foreign minister had to say. Quote, “My big concern is that what is happening in Iran or with Iran from the U.S. perspective will not remain an Iranian issue but many others in the world will consider whether they themselves should acquire nuclear weapons too given that such agreements are being destroyed.” And I guess the question there is, as voiced by the German foreign minister: Why should North Korea believe anything that the United States has to say if the President has shown his willingness to walk away from agreements about nuclear weapons?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think what North Korea should take away from this decision is that the United States will expect a very demanding agreement with North Korea, one that is very binding and achieves the objectives not just of the United States but the policy objectives of China and other neighbors in the region: a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. We intend to be very demanding in that agreement. And if we achieve that, then there’ll be nothing to walk away from because the objective will be achieved.

The issue with the Iran agreement is it does not achieve the objective. It simply postpones the achievement of that objective, and we feel that that is one of the weaknesses under the agreement. So we’re going to stay in, we’re going to work with our European partners and allies to see if we can’t address these concerns, which are concerns of all of us.

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