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Interview With Hisham Melhem of Al Arabiya

Interview With Hisham Melhem of Al Arabiya

Secretary Condoleezza Rice

Washington, DC

October 16, 2008

QUESTION: Secretary Rice, thank you. I really appreciate this opportunity.

SECRETARY RICE: It’s great to be with you.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, let’s take a panoramic look at the region, the Middle East. The Bush Administration came with some high wishes, hopes: preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power; spreading democracy in the Middle East; a peaceful Iraq, a democratic Iraq; and after Annapolis, a commitment to have peace between the Israelis and the Arabs. And are you disappointed because some of these objectives were not met – I mean, especially on the peace process?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, first, let’s look at the Middle East when this President became President in 2001 and the Middle East now. In 2001, you had a raging intifada after the collapse of the Camp David talks. You had in power in Israel a prime minister who did not come to power talking about bringing peace, and you had Yasser Arafat in power in the Palestinian Territories. You had Lebanon with Syrian forces occupying Lebanon, which they had done for decades. Saddam Hussein was in power in Iraq, threatening his neighbors, as he had done for decades. There really wasn’t very much discussion of democracy in the Middle East.

And you look now and you see that, first and foremost, Saddam Hussein is out of power. And while Iraqis are struggling with their new democracy, they are now a democratic state, a multiconfessional, multiethnic, democratic state. Lebanon has a president. Lebanese forces are throughout the country for the first time in decades; Syrian forces are out. Syria has established proper diplomatic relations with Lebanon.

You have a situation in which throughout the Middle East, people talk about popular rule, women can vote in Kuwait, elections have been held in a number of places, and in the Palestinian-Israeli situation, the two-state solution is now taken for granted that this the only real possibility. And President Bush, who put it on the agenda in 2001, has helped the parties come to a process after Annapolis so that you have the first really robust peace process in a number of years.

And so yes, it’s still a difficult region, but I think a lot has been achieved over the last several years.

QUESTION: How worried are you about this notion in the Middle East as well as here that America’s adversaries are on the ascendancy – Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, radical Islamists, armed groups – challenging the United States and its allies in the region?

SECRETARY RICE: I just don’t see it. I think that what we have is that yes, the Middle East is seeing extremism exposed in ways that it was undercover preparing for September 11th, but now it’s exposed and it’s being fought across the region by all kinds of states and all kinds of people. You know, I saw an interesting poll the other day. Osama bin Ladin has just been dropping in terms of, quote, “popularity.” Why? Not because of what the United States says, but because decent, honest people in the Middle East, decent, honest Muslims, are saying that is not a message with which we resonate.

We’re seeing al-Qaida defeated. Yes, they’re still dangerous. But in Iraq, they are well on their way to defeat because Iraqis rose up against them. You are seeing that suicide bombing as a technique doesn't have legitimacy throughout the Middle East, and instead you see a Middle East that is looking to women’s education and women’s rights; a Middle East that is looking to technological change – cell phone usage is up, satellite TVs are up; and a Middle East that is increasingly linked to the outside world and determined to live in peace.

QUESTION: Let’s talk about Iran, the source of a major headache here in Washington. Iran is still on the path of trying to acquire nuclear capabilities for military application, notwithstanding UN resolution, notwithstanding unilateral American measures against it, notwithstanding a basket of incentives.

I mean, is it still possible to pursue a policy with real options with Iran during the few months of the Bush Administration and for the next president? I mean, what is the next president going to inherit when it comes to Iran?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, the next president will inherit an international coalition against Iran and against Iran’s desire to have nuclear capabilities that could lead to a nuclear weapon. The six parties that work together have passed four Security Council resolutions. Iran’s economy is having very deep difficulties, I think in part because of the increasing isolation of Iran. And Iran is getting a very strong message from the international community that it can have civil nuclear power, that there is another way for the Iranian people, but that it’s not the path that its leadership is on. And frankly, it’s touched off interesting debates even inside Iran about what Iran’s future course should be.

QUESTION: We are sitting in Bill Burns’ office. I guess we invaded him – his office.


QUESTION: Why shouldn’t we see his participation in multilateral talks with a senior Iranian official recently as indicating some sort of a shift towards a degree of or a measure of engagement? And is there a softening here of policy towards Iran, or just a recognition that we need to have an international framework to ratchet up pressure on it?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, the United States has been very consistent in its approach to Iran, and that consistency has been with our friends and allies to have two tracks: on the one hand, a track that can go to the Security Council and show Iran that there are costs for being unwilling to do what the international community demands; and on the other hand, there can be negotiations and a track toward better engagement with the world. And what Bill Burns did when he went to meet with his colleagues in the six parties was to simply go to receive the answer from Iran to the very generous package that had been put on the table. Now if Iran wants to have sustained engagement with the international community and with the United States, it’s easy to do: Just suspend enrichment and reprocessing; we’re ready to sit down and talk with Iran about anything at any time, at any place.

QUESTION: But they keep saying no; and they keep enriching uranium.

SECRETARY RICE: They do, but they’re doing it at an increasingly high cost to Iran, and we have to hope that there are, indeed, reasonable people who will see that this course of isolation is not good for Iran. And I do believe that there are now very extensive debates inside Iran about exactly this question, because the Iranian leaders, the Iranian regime, wants the Iranian people to believe that they can’t have civil nuclear power, that they’re being denied civil nuclear power. In fact, they can have civil nuclear cooperation through the IAEA as soon as they stop enriching and reprocessing material.

QUESTION: Iranian officials have warned Iraqi officials publicly that they should not accept certain aspect of the agreements that are being discussed now between the United States and Iraq on the SOFA agreement and other agreements. And the Iranians have friends in Iraq and they have some influence. To what extent Iran’s influence is being felt here in these sensitive negotiations that you are in charge of now with the Iraqis?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, the negotiations with the Iraqis are between the United States and Iraq. And Iraqi leaders are plenty capable of defending their own interests and standing up for their own interests. They have been determined that this new agreement, when we have an agreement, will defend – will protect Iraqi sovereignty. We agree. We have been determined to find an agreement that allows our forces to operate with a legal basis and, more importantly, a framework agreement that speaks to the broad relationship with Iraq that the United States will have over time.

Now Iran, of course, is an external power and it should act as an external power. I think you see that Iraqis are not really willing to allow Iran to control their future. Iraq is, first and foremost, an Arab state. It is a founding member of the Arab League. It is a state that has always had a voice within the Arab world, and that is a voice that is regaining within the Arab world, whether it is now the Arab League going to Iraq, the visit of the King of Jordan, the visit of Lebanese officials, the visit of the Crown Prince of the UAE. On and on and on, you have seen many, many, many different leaders go. Negotiations are underway for the establishment of a number of embassies, and a number of embassies have already been established. And so Iraq seems to me to be finding, absolutely finding its place in the Arab world, and that is not what Iran would have wanted.

QUESTION: Yeah. Speaking of Arab diplomats from the Gulf, I heard some of them somewhat expressing a degree of maybe concern that a restructured Iraqi military force could, in the future, you know, cause them some alarm, given the previous experiences --


QUESTION: -- with the previous regime in Iran – in Iraq and then, because of that, the Iranian – what they perceive as a strong Iranian influence in Iraq. Do they have a basis for these concerns?

SECRETARY RICE: I don’t think that there is a basis for that concern. I think Iraq will rebuild its armed forces. They are going to be independent. They are going to be strong. They, in fact, do have primary responsibility for security throughout much of the country now, and the time is coming when they’re going to have complete responsibility for that security.

And that should be a good thing, but that same security force has demonstrated that it is willing to go after violent people, whatever their group, so that they went after the special groups of the Jaish al-Mahdi in the south, some of whom had been trained by Iranians. The security forces of Iraq are going to be under the control of a democratic Government of Iraq, not a dictator like Saddam Hussein who threatens his neighbors. And I think what you’re going to see is an Iraq that can both be a bulwark against undue Iranian influence in the region, and a strong partner for the other states of the region in making sure that the Middle East is stable and that the Middle East can be a place where reform and change can take place over the next years.

QUESTION: Quickly, are you still hopeful that an agreement will be signed with the Iraqis on the SOFA – on the strategic framework?

SECRETARY RICE: Yes. We are working through and I believe we will get there. We are very, very close and I think we will get there.

QUESTION: You had high hopes about the Middle East. You worked very hard for --


QUESTION: -- peace between the Israelis. I don’t know how many times. Maybe you forgot how many times you went to the region. I mean, I was at Annapolis. I’ve seen the – you know, the hope that an agreement can be signed before the end of the Bush Administration. And yet, we don’t have an Israeli government today. President Abbas’ term will end in January. Hamas has still control of Gaza. You must be disappointed.

SECRETARY RICE: No. You look at it with some – in a different way, which is that first of all, this is an agreement that still has time to come into being. We’re going to continue to work at it. Particularly, I think it is only fair to say that Israel is going through a process now and we will see if they get to – if Tzipi Livni is able to form a coalition. She’s made very clear that the peace process is very, very high on her agenda; as a matter of fact, at the top of her agenda. She is someone who’s been very dedicated to that.

If the coalition goes forward, then, of course, we’re prepared to make a push because Israelis understand, especially this Israeli leadership, that there really isn’t any other option. Some of the things that Prime Minister Olmert has said demonstrate that Israelis know that the time has come for an agreement. The parties have already made a lot of progress. The fact is, this is the most robust negotiating process that they’ve had, perhaps ever. And we should not underestimate the degree to which they have established a negotiating process that is – I believe will be irreversible, a negotiating process that will be able to overcome difficult issues. Let’s be fair; no one’s ever been able to do it. That shows its difficulty. But they’ve got a better chance now than they have had in decades of moving this forward.

I want to note too that also, Annapolis had other stools. And I was just with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who has been here in Washington for the work with the Palestinian American business council. There are very good developments in the Palestinian territories, in the West Bank. Not everything is as good as it should be. Israel should continue to remove obstacles to movement and access. There need to be – the settlements are a problem for negotiations. The Palestinians have work to do on fighting terror. But the West Bank is also a different place than it was just a few years ago. And Gaza is quiet, at least, at this particular point in time.

Eventually, Palestinian leadership will have to take a Palestinian state – a viable, contiguous Palestinian state – to the Palestinian people. They will make a choice, and I believe they will choose peace.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, what is the state of play with the Syrians now? You met with your counterpart, Walid Muallem, for ten minutes, I guess.


QUESTION: And then Ambassador Welch met with him. This was after the Syrians massed troops on the Lebanese borders. And I heard that Secretary Welch, in no uncertain terms, told them that the United States would never accept anything – Syrians exploiting the security situation, whether in Syria or in Lebanon, to intervene militarily in Lebanon. Was this message sent clearly?

SECRETARY RICE: The message has been sent clearly to the Syrians. First of all, we don’t believe Lebanese will tolerate such a thing. And Syria is sending signals that it wants a different kind of relationship with Lebanon. It needs now to carry through with that different diplomatic relationship with Lebanon.

We did talk also with the Syrians about the fact that there is an indirect channel with the Israelis through the Turks and what hopes there might be for that. We talked as well about border controls between Syria and Lebanon that would stop the flow of arms. We talked about border controls between Iraq and Syria that would stop the flow of foreign fighters. It was a wide-ranging discussion. There have been some developments that are worth following up on, and that’s what David has done.

But the fact is that Syria still needs to make clearer choices about where it stands, about a Middle East in which there is overwhelming commitment to a two-state solution, a Middle East in which there is overwhelming commitment to Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence, well-being, free of foreign independence -- interference; a commitment to an Iraq that is stable and democratic, without foreign interference, and fully anchored in the Arab world. These are the essential now agreements, understanding, commitments of most of the states in the Middle East, and Syria needs to be committed to the same thing.

QUESTION: So I have a question or two, if I may.


QUESTION: Speaking of the Turkish role and mediating between Israel and Syria, there’s a view in Israel that one of the benefits of peace with Syria, not only ending the state of war, and peace, and all that – trade, but also peeling away Syria from Iran. Is this something that you share and is this something the United States should encourage, pursue, or maybe even reward?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I believe that the problem is that Iran’s agenda is overwhelmingly negative for the Middle East. In Lebanon, it’s negative. In Iraq, it’s negative. In the Palestinian Territories, it’s negative. Why? Because it stops the Palestinian people, the Lebanese people, the Iraqi people from pursuing their dreams and aspirations for democracy, prosperity, and safety, and security. And those peoples deserve to have exactly that.

Now, to the degree that Syria is somehow associated with that negative agenda of Iran, it is playing a negative role in the Middle East. I would hope that the fact that there is a channel with the Israelis for a Syrian-Israeli peace – after all, we said at Annapolis, eventually the peace in the Middle East has to be comprehensive.

To the degree that Syria is serious about a correct, proper relationship with Lebanon rather than one that treats Lebanon like a client, to the degree that Syria is indeed serious about following up on the establishment of diplomatic relations with Iraq and stopping these terrorists from coming in, to the degree that Syria is no longer – or does not want to be associated with terrorism – by
the way, with real implications for Syria – when you start seeing the bombings in Syria and extremism in Syria, maybe there’s a self-interested reason that Syria ought to be on the side against extremism. So that would – we hope would be the policies that Syria would be prepared to follow.

QUESTION: I cannot finish without asking a question about democracy.


QUESTION: I mean, you worked very hard on this issue.


QUESTION: And I think you were asked once what would you like your legacy to be, and I think you talked about the transformation of, you know, policy in the Middle East, and you gave that major speech in Cairo. And yet, I don’t know if I’ll call them the cynics or the doubters or the critics, whether in the region or here, say that the United States, in the last couple of years, at least, did not stress that issue very much because they were concerned about the elections that brought Islamists to power, whether – you know, in a number of Arab states. And yet, you still see journalists – I mean, we always – we journalists talk about our colleagues as belonging to the same – one tribe being jailed, being harassed, being even killed throughout the Arab world and in the Middle East and in Iran. Are there areas where you see your hopes kind of dashed or disappointed in that particular issue?

SECRETARY RICE: I’m well aware that it takes time and that no one believes that democracy is going to be achieved in a couple of years. But I think that the Middle East has made progress in this. There are still many setbacks and disappointments. The progress –women voting in Kuwait. Iraq is an enormous step forward in this regard. Truly, the popular will is being exercised in Iraq, and it will be exercised even more when there are new provincial elections very soon. I think the popular will is being exercised in Lebanon. I know that people say, well, Hamas won an election. We recognized that election. But there’s a certain responsibility that goes also with governing, which is to be in step with international norms, which is to be able to govern your people.

We have been overwhelmingly in favor of elections, because without them people cannot express their will. But we’ve also been a strong voice for places where this is not being carried forward. Where journalists have been jailed, we’ve spoken out for them. Where political opposition has not been allowed to express itself, we’ve spoken out about it. Where there have been elections that did not meet international standards, we’ve spoken out about them.

And I would say just one thing to reformers throughout the Middle East, and they are there. I hope that no one will ever again say that the Middle East is a place where people don’t desire a democratic future, that somehow the Middle East is different, that it’s an exception to the rule that human beings desire the dignity of being able to choose those who will govern them, to being able to say what they think, of being able to worship freely. I hope that those in the Middle East will stand up, as intellectuals did in the Arab Human Development Report, as nongovernmental organizations will be doing when the Forum for the Future meets this weekend in Abu Dhabi, that people – these young reformers do when they come to visit us here at the State Department.

I know that people have wanted that the change would come overnight. But in fact, changes are coming, and change is inevitable in the Middle East because people are going to demand it. And I know that the – whoever is the next president of the United States is going to stand for the fact that America’s interests and values are inextricably linked and that America is always going to stand for those who desire freedom.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, really appreciate it.


QUESTION: Thank you.


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