Clinton On US Policy Toward Iran – Interview Transcript


BBC interview of Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Secretary of State, released by US State Department

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton, thank you very much for sitting down with the BBC. And the response to our call for questions has been overwhelming. The thousands of viewers we have across the Persian-speaking world have sent in their questions. And in a matter of a few days, back when we were initially scheduled to speak with you in the spring, and, of course, in the last 24 hours, got over 1,500 comments on the website, and then over 1,000 emails, many of them in the form of text messages, cell phone calls from Iran, voice messages and videos. And colleagues have selected a number of them as representing the themes that we have received. If you don’t mind, we’ll just go right to them.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Sure. This is very exciting, Bahman. Thank you.

QUESTION: Yes. This is the first question from a viewer that had to cover his face, blur his face, because of security concerns. His name is Amir and he lives in Tehran:

(Video clip played.) (Via interpreter) Hello. First, let me apologize for covering my face, as I had to. My question is about the sanctions and the fact they have increased in the past two years. Many airplanes have crashed, prices have gone up, and many jobs have been lost due to these sanctions. Considering your claims about friendship with the people of Iran, how do you justify this severe about of pressure on Iranian people? (End of video clip.)

QUESTION: We have recordings that show that we’ve got a lot of questions on the sanctions, more than any other subject really. And the simple fact is, acknowledge pressures are increasing, and a lot of people inside are wondering how any of these sanctions are changing the behavior of the government, and that all is complicating a population that sees itself more and more squeezed between its rulers and then sanctions that are met by United States. How do you tell them that America is their friend?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first, I want to thank Amir for having this question, because I know it represents the feelings and concerns of many Iranians. And I want to begin by reaffirming our very strong support for and friendship toward the people of Iran. We would very much like a different relationship with the rulers, and certainly President Obama came into office seeking that. And unfortunately, that has not come to pass.

And at the same time, we see disturbing trends and actions having to do with the continuing covert effort to build a nuclear weapons program, not a program for peaceful, civil, nuclear power, which Iran is entitled to, but a nuclear weapons program with a lot of deception, a lot of lying to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the rest of the international community. We see aggressive behavior towards neighbors in the region. We see efforts to try to hijack and undermine the so-called Arab Spring Awakening. And we do not want a conflict with Iran, but we do want to see the rulers of Iran change their outlook and their behavior.

So we have always pursued a two-track policy. We are prepared to engage, if there is willingness on the other side, and we use sanctions – and the international community supports the use of sanctions – to try to create enough pressure on the regime that they do have to think differently about what they are doing. I am aware that, from time to time, certain sanctions can be difficult for totally innocent people going about their daily lives.

But I would ask you to put yourself in the position of the international community and those who seek a better future inside Iran. If you do not want to have a conflict, if you do not want to just give way to behavior that is very reckless, as we saw in this recent plot against the Saudi ambassador, potentially dangerous, sanctions is the tool that we have at our disposal to use. The whole goal is to change behavior, and anything that can be done from within Iran to send a message to the regime that this is important to change behavior because of the concerns that the people have and because of the better potential for a better relationship with the rest of the world, we would welcome.

QUESTION: We will get to the plot in a minute. But the question on sanctions is so much more about whether they’re effective, though. You look at 30 years of Iran’s relations post-revolution, and there has been sanctions. It hasn’t changed to – in fact it’s made it worse. If you look at Iraq and all that sanctions didn’t change Saddam’s behavior at the end. The question for the people looking at this is, sure, maybe that’s the only thing you have at your disposal, but it doesn’t seem to work at all.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think it has put a lot of pressure on the regime, which is the first step toward, perhaps, getting some within the regime to look at each other and say, “Hey, come on. Why are we doing this to ourselves and to our people? Our economy is – wasn’t terrific to begin with, and now it is under greater stress. Why do we want to continue down a path that we know is not going to bring the kind of support for our own development, our own economic future?”

Now, when you have a group of people or individuals in control who seem not to care about their own people, who seem to reject human rights, who seem to reject the dangers that nuclear weapons would pose in destabilizing the region, you’re right. It’s hard. But I cannot believe, Bahman, as we sit here today, that there aren’t tens of thousands of educated, smart, influential Iranians who can’t begin to say, “Hey, we got to make some changes here. We need to take a look at how we are governing ourselves.” And that’s what I hope will happen.

QUESTION: Get to a human rights question that is sent from Tehran, and this one is from Sharon — actually he lives – he’s a refugee. He went to Turkey, post the events in 2009:

(Video clip played.) (Via interpreter) I’ve got two questions for Mrs. Clinton. Considering that Iran regime has been unmanageable and un-reformable in the past 33 years and has been recognized in the international community as a state sponsor of terror, why has the U.S. policies towards Iran has been compromising and peaceful? Why has the U.S. not supported Green Movement in Iran? (End of video clip.)

QUESTION: On that, we’ve got lots of questions about the Green Movement and where U.S. stands.


QUESTION: Some – many of our audience have said you were too slow at the beginning to support. Some others have actually come out and said you shouldn’t have supported it at all, because it will give government that excuse to pressure it. If you could go back to 2009, how would you do it differently? What would you say to Sharon?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I would say to him that at the time the most insistent voices we heard from within the Green Movement and the supporters from outside of Iran were that we, the United States, had to be very careful not to look like what was happening inside Iran was directed by or in some way influenced by the United States, when in fact it was an organic uprising by people who knew their election had been stolen, who saw the hypocrisy and the betrayal in the regime for what had been promised. So we were torn.

I will tell you it was a very tough time for us, because we wanted to be full-hearted in favor of what was going on inside Iran, and we kept being cautioned that we would put people’s lives in danger, we would discredit the movement, we would undermine their aspirations. I think if something were to happen again, it would be smart for the Green Movement or some other movement inside Iran to say, “We want the voices of the world. We want the support of the world behind us.”

That’s what the Libyan opposition figures did, as you remember. When they began their struggle against Qadhafi, and it seemed like such a hopeless uphill climb, they, from the very beginning said, “We want all the support we can get from the outside world. We want our Arab brothers, we want the region, and we want the United Nations, and we want everybody to help us.” And I think that maybe in retrospect it was an unfortunate mutual decision on the part of the leaders of the Green Movement and the supporters inside Iran and those of us on the outside, who very much hoped that that would spark reform.

We are not interested in seeing violence and seeing innocent people killed, tortured, detained, mistreated. But we do hope there can be a reform movement that has enough power, like we saw in Egypt or in Tunisia, where they had a peaceful revolution, by and large. So there are different models, but what happened in 2009 was unfortunate, because there was such momentum, and the demands were totally fair and credible. We did things from the outside like tell Twitter to keep operating so people could keep communicating. We tried to be helpful, but we were very careful not to look like we had a role to play, because this was up to the people of Iran.

QUESTION: In fact, we have a question from Shada in Tehran. He sent us this question asking about the internet and the filtering that happens. And the question was: Some of these sanctions are making it harder to actually go around these filterings because some of these technologies that are now banned in Iran to be sold in Iran to the public. But also in wider sense, the fact that many people in Iran get their information from satellite television, like BBC Persia, and they’re being jammed.


QUESTION: Is there a role that America can play to help – more realistic than a box with a plug into the internet that was talked about, that something more – even more practical can be done to fight this kind of jamming and filtering and blocking?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes. And we’re doing it. We’re doing a lot of work to try to come up with technologies that can circumvent the jamming and the interruptions and the tracking that the regime are engaged in right now. We are providing technology, some of which is more effective than others. We are certainly training people, both outside and inside, to be able to use the technology to circumvent. This is one of my highest priorities. I’ve spoken out repeatedly about the right of people to have access to the internet. It is freedom of speech and expression and assembly, values that we think every human being is entitled to.

But we have also seen the regime in Iran impose what amounts to an electronic curtain. It’s the 21st century equivalent of the barbed wire and the fences and the dogs that the old Soviet Union used. Because they come at it from the same mentality; they want totalitarian control over what you learn and what you say and even what you think and how you worship, and all the things that go the heart of human dignity and human freedom.

So yes, we are doing everything we can. Now, I will quickly add that we’re experimenting. Sometimes we think something will work. It turns out not to work. Sometimes we get maybe a year ahead of the regime’s efforts, and then they catch up, and we have to go back to the drawing boards. But I want to assure your viewers that we are committed to doing everything we can to provide as much communication freedom inside and outside of Iran to people trying to speak out for their rights as possible.

QUESTION: And there was a question from (inaudible) from Tehran who said: Some of Ahmadinejad’s opponents accuse him of trying to start negotiations with the United States from back channels. How practical is it if such attempts happened? Do you know about them? And, more broadly, what are the kinds of channels that you would pursue if you were actually to have serious talks with Iran?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, as you know, President Obama made the offer early – immediately after being inaugurated that he wanted to pursue an effort with the regime. And it’s been a little confusing because we’re not quite sure who makes decisions anymore inside of Iran, which, I think, is an unfortunate sign and kind of goes along with the ascendancy of greater military power, because I think Iran, unfortunately, is morphing into a military dictatorship.

But we have reached out, we have expressed our willingness to meet; but, even in public settings, representatives of the regime often don’t want to be seen with Americans. They don’t want to acknowledge that they met with Americans. We’ve said we’re open to front channels, back channels; we sent back an American representative to the so-called P-5+1 about the negotiations over Iran’s program to acquire nuclear weapons, which the entire world feels is a threat – not the right to have nuclear civilian power and energy, but weapons, which we are very much against.

So, we’ve tried many different approaches, but I think because of the – this is just my opinion; I am by no means an expert on Iran or on Iranian politics – but I believe there is a power struggle going on inside the regime and they can’t sort out what they really are willing to do until they sort out who’s going to do what. And therefore I think there’s an opportunity for people within the country to try to influence how that debate turns out.

QUESTION: Onto plot. We’ve got lots of questions and have – there’s one question here I got from Teresa, who actually recently left Tehran. I’ll play that for you:

(Video clip played.) Madam Secretary, in the past 30 years of Iran-U.S. relations we witnessed how any time tension increases between the two countries, whether through sanctions or threats of war, it’s the Iranian people who are caught in the middle and have to pay the price. So, my question today is: Now that American government has not publicly presented any evidence in regards to the alleged Saudi assassination plot, what will you do to ensure that this pattern is not repeated again? Thank you. (End of video clip.)

QUESTION: If I may add to that, we’ve got – we dedicated a (inaudible) show to this plot. And on the same program viewer (inaudible) it that are watching you right now. And the majority of them are simply skeptical, (inaudible) peoples came out and said this just doesn’t sound feasible, that the Iranian Government stands to gain absolutely nothing to provoke a possible military retaliation if this had succeeded. Many people in Washington said that would have been an act of war. It’s really hard to believe, to be honest, at this point that this was really directed by somebody high in the system.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, let me make three points about it, because of course I’ve heard the skepticism, and I appreciate the young woman’s question and the context in which she put it.

First, if you read the criminal complaint that was filed in our court system in New York, there is a lot of evidence. We have three basic categories of evidence: we have the confession/admission of the Iranian American who is in our custody and charged with being one of two defendants; we have the information from the alleged Mexican drug gang member who the defendant tried to hire to be the assassin. Lots of telephone conversations, money being wired from overseas that can be traced back to Iran, and we have other corroborating evidence like the money wire. And so I think there is evidence.

Now, it’ll go to our courts and it will all be hashed out and argued about. We have, as you know, a system of laws and due process and we’ll see what comes out. But I taught criminal law some years ago, it’s very strong case. It certainly raises the right questions and I think it will be a successful case.

Secondly, there is a sense of confusion about what seems like the most absurd plot. Why would this happen? And I think that from our perspective, we can’t possibly, sitting here, tell you all the reasons. But we have seen a pattern of increasingly reckless behavior by the Qods Force over the past years. And because we can link this plot with high-ranking members of the Qods Force in Tehran, we think it’s part of a broader pattern.

Now, you ask yourself, well what would they expect to get out of this plot? Well, I think a couple of things. First of all, the fact they use others to carry out their activities, whether it’s Hezbollah, or other terrorist groups, or in this case, trying to make an alliance with a ruthless bunch of killers, is nothing new. They have done that. The Qods Force and the Revolutionary Guard have done that in the past.

The Saudis are a – considered the main competitor to Iran in the Persian Gulf. We know that as well. And many people who are experts on this say because they’ve gotten more reckless, because this is not totally something new, never done before by their activities outside of Iran, they were trying to, in a sense, what we would say, kind of thumb their nose at the Americans. We got over your border. We came at you in a way that you didn’t expect. We went after someone you should’ve been protecting, and we, therefore, want you to know that we’re not going to in any way take a backseat to trying to cause problems for you.

Unfortunately, we know enough about some of their behavior – there is reason to believe that a Saudi diplomat was assassinated in Karachi as part of a plot emanating out of the Qods Force. So we know that they’ve done things like this before.

QUESTION: But, the skepticism is obviously not just there, here in the United States, you have former CIA members, it’s the national security advisor —

SECRETARY CLINTON: Because everybody’s sitting there saying, these guys, why would they do this? Well, I think we’re going to have to try to piece that together in the trial. But we have no doubt that this was ordered. Now, I cannot tell you how high up the chain it went, which actually bothers me in both ways. If it went up the chain to the supreme leader, for example, that’s really troubling, right? If it didn’t, if it was a plot hatched by military personnel, that should be troubling to the leadership in Iran.

So yes. I think people are right to ask questions. We believe in free and open debate. We have no trouble with that. Well, then why doesn’t Iran participate in a full, open debate and a full, open investigation? Let the Iranian regime come to the United Nations and say, we signed an international convention to protect diplomats, we don’t want to this soiling our good name, we want to get to the bottom of this – let them come and do it. We’d be happy to see that.

QUESTION: And so you’re confident this is not going to be this Administration’s Colin Powell moment, where he’s very confident that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and it doesn’t? A lot of people in Iran feel that you are – or this will inevitably unleash the force of war, that this will – this kind of heightened tensions will provide – lay the ground for another military attack.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first of all, we disrupted the attack. So nothing happened, thank goodness. And we are not seeking conflict. We are not seeking to widen our disagreements with the Government of Iran. We want to create better relations first and foremost with the Iranian people, but then, with a government that is responsive to its own people that is not just giving lip service to democracy and then stealing elections, which is not saying they want to be friendly, but then going behind everyone’s back and causing all sort of problems.

No. We want to have a different relationship. In fact, by the end of this year, I will have a virtual embassy in Tehran. We’ll put it on the web because we get lots of questions that people don’t know where to get answers. How do I study in the United States? How do I travel to the United States? I’m trying to increase the number of visas for students so that we have more Iranian students coming to study here. We’re trying to reach out to the Iranian people, and we’ve tried to reach out to the government, just not very successfully.

QUESTION: We’re very short on time, so I’m going to play three questions together, which they are all about the theme of hypocrisy and double standards. And we’ll get the answers to that.

(Video clip played.) (Via interpreter) Hello, Secretary Clinton. Why was America so active about human rights violations in Libya and is now very vocal about human rights violations in Syria but was acting very differently when it came to Bahrain? Thank you. (End of video clip.)

(Video clip played.) (Via interpreter) Throughout the decades, your country has attacked many countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Somalia, and many other countries. Your country has defended a non-legal document setting up the Palestinian (inaudible) and is still supporting Israel. Your government has supported (inaudible) for years and defended dictatorships such as in Saudi Arabia. Iranians, too, have unpleasant memories from the U.S., the coup d’état against Mosaddegh, attacking the territory, supporting the Shah, instituting (inaudible) embargoes, and attacking an Iranian passenger plan. With all these double standards, how do you expect Iranian people to come to your (inaudible), your message, and feel supported by your country? (End of video clip.)

(Video clip played.) (Via interpreter) I want to ask Mrs. Clinton about the American policy that they always want to be present and in charge. And this presence is more often military in every region and area around the world. For example, why do they feel the need to have presence in the Persian Gulf or in Afghanistan and Iraq and other countries where they’ve always want to have a base? And if one day another country, such as Iran, decides to take their navy vessels to the American borders, the Gulf of Mexico or anywhere close to their turf lines, how would America react to that? Would they view another country the same ways or not? (End of video clip.)

QUESTION: Before you go to that, there has been saying – it’s not your first time you’re hearing that – the theme of double standards. MEK has been raised a lot – constantly by people inside and outside, on your – a terrorist group. Also politicians in the U.S. actually believes and publicly support them. There are talks of you even bringing them out of the list and whether that’s going to happen or not is another sign. From all these cases, Israel to Bahrain, military presence, are you worried that people in the Middle East look at America and see it as a hypocritical power as opposed to one that stands by principle?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think our history is one based on principle and on values that we believe are universal values. Now, we do not expect every country or every people to agree with everything we do. That’s why we are welcoming a vigorous debate. What we worry about is when regimes take over with an ideological or other approach that is threatening to neighbors and damaging to their own people. So we do speak out. We have consistently spoken out about Bahrain and we have pushed the government to do more, and we support the independent investigation. Let’s have the regime in Iran have an independent investigation where people may say some things that they don’t want to hear. We would be very supportive of that as well.

We know that everything we have done in the course of our 235-plus year history is going to appeal to or be supported by everyone, and we take our history seriously. So, for example, we’ve expressed regret about what was done in 1953. We’ve had high-ranking Americans say that that was a disruption of what could have and should’ve been a natural development of democracy with Iran. At the time, it was the Cold War. It was the Soviet Union which seemed to pose an existential threat to everyone, including Iran, Turkey, Greece, you name it. So we sometimes, in retrospect, look back and say, “Could we have done that a different way?” And so we have regretted what happened in 1953.

And then we also have tried to point out that the tragedy of the shooting down of the airline is something that we deeply are sorry for, and we have said that repeatedly. And so we don’t want there to be any increased tensions. We have tried, especially in the last two and a half years to try to lower those tensions.

And finally, when it comes to the whole question about who we are, what we stand for, I think I’ve lived long enough to say that probably every country, every country has hypocrisy because it’s difficult to be always transparent about what you’re doing and what you stand for. But I don’t know any country that has been more transparent, more self-corrective, more willing to say maybe we shouldn’t have done this, where we have elections and we swing from the right, we swing from the left, but within a stable constitutional system that respects the rights of individuals.

So when a country criticizes us, we say okay, let’s take a look at it. We’ll see whether there’s some legitimacy to that, and let’s see what we can do better. When a country that has no freedom inside of it is criticized, that’s viewed as a great insult, and the regime in charge tries to manipulate information in a way that prevents there being free debate. And when it comes to freedom of navigation, if an Iranian vessel wants to be in international waters in an appropriate position, that’s fine. I mean, that’s the rules.

We want a rules-based system, which is why we get so worried when Iran flaunts the rules. It’s the most heavily sanctioned and disapproved of government. Why? Because they have violated Security Council resolutions, and they have lied to the International Atomic Energy association, when everybody believes that if this current regime gets nuclear weapons, that will be incredibly dangerous and destabilizing.

So we look and we see not just the United States expressing worries; we see the entire world expressing worries about the current regime in Iran. Now, I think the great sweep of history should give us some comfort that eventually, the Iranian people will be free, they will have a right to express themselves, they will not be oppressed by the kind of totalitarian regime that currently rules Iran.

QUESTION: Last question, and I know I’m going to lose my head. BBC investigation with lots of viewers in Afghanistan shows Pakistan’s intelligence service supporting Taliban, training them. It’ll be aired today. It’s not just Taliban leaders and local leaders have said it. Former CIA agents have said it. There just seems to be a lot of evidence to show that Pakistanis are still out there helping Taliban. Why do you still call them your friends?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we have had a series of very frank, comprehensive conversations with the Pakistanis. And we’re aware, as we have publicly stated, of some of the activities. Again, it’s more difficult to say that the people at the top are fully aware as it is to say that they are both current and retired members of the intelligence service who either have sympathies or view the use of these organizations as a hedging against their own instability or attacks from somewhere else.

So we are well aware of what has been going on, but we also know that stability and security in Afghanistan requires that the neighbors, including Iran, Pakistan, the Central Asian countries, India, Russia, China, all have to be invested in a stable, secure Afghanistan. So I will go to Istanbul next week for a meeting about the region. And we hope that, while there, all the countries, including Pakistan, will be willing to affirm their commitment to stability and security inside Afghanistan and come forward with concrete actions.

And finally, I really believe that if governments will just unleash the potential of their people, what are they afraid of? Why are they afraid of people doing business across borders? In some cases, like with the Taliban, why are they afraid of their girls going to school? Why are they afraid of letting people contribute to a better future? So that’s really at the core of what I believe in, that what I want to see happen is that individuals, boys and girls, are given the opportunity to live up their own God-given potential. And I know there’s so much potential in Afghanistan, in Iran, in places around the world that is not being realized. And it’s not only a terrible loss for the individual or the family or the community, it’s a terrible loss for the world.

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton, thank you for sitting down with the BBC.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you very much, Bahman.

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