Background Briefing by a Senior Administration Official on the President’s Interview with BBC PersianBy USGOV
Friday, September 24, 2010
11:08 A.M. EDT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, everybody, for jumping on the call. I just wanted, given the interest in the President’s interview, to provide you with a little bit of background on the interview. And then, of course, we’ll get the transcript of the — I believe it will be airing here shortly in an hour or so. So the video will pop and we’ll get the transcript around after it airs.
But let me just start by saying that, as I said yesterday, the President is always interested in ways in which he can speak directly to the people of Iran. That’s something, of course, that we did, for instance, early in the administration through a Nowruz message. And this interview was an opportunity for him to do that as well and to continue to underscore to the Iranian people that it is their government that has made a series of choices that has led to significant sanctions and accountability measures.
Just a little background on BBC Persian. It has a substantial viewership in Iran, millions of Iranian viewers. It also has a radio reach into Iran that is substantial. And it has a website that is one of the most trafficked websites in the region. So we saw it as an effective platform to reach the Iranian audience.
In addition to the interview airing, of course, Iran is a very dynamic new media society, so we anticipate — and we’ve already seen, frankly, within Iran lots of blogging and lots of interest in the new media sphere in the interview. We will, to amplify the President’s messages, be blogging it, Tweeting it, posting on Youtube and, again, ensuring that we are doing everything that we can to disseminate the President’s words.
I won’t go into what he said, because you’ll see what he said. Although I do know there is extraordinary interest in the reaction that we’ve had to the comments that President Ahmadinejad made yesterday. So I’ll just read the initial transcript of the first thing the President said about that.
He said — and we can send this around — “It was offensive, it was hateful, and for him to make that statement here in Manhattan just a little north of Ground Zero where families lost their loved ones, people of all faith, all ethnicities perceive this as the seminal tragedy of this generation. For him to make a statement like that was inexcusable.” And he went on to discuss it at length in a different part of the interview as well.
But with that, I’ll take your questions, again, just on the planning and reasoning behind the interview. And then, of course — but I won’t, again, get into the President’s words, because you’ll have those shortly.
Q Thanks for doing the call. Hey, I wondered if you can explain part of the statement that came out of the State Department yesterday, as well as the White House condemnation of Ahmadinejad’s statement, was a suggestion that he is delusional, sort of not all together with it. And yet, at the same time, you have the President at the U.N. calling for reengagement, saying the door to diplomacy is open. It certainly seems to me that there’s some tension between those. And I wonder if you could just explain how you resolve that or reconcile that tension?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, in the first instance, I think the initial point we’d make, as we said yesterday, and as the President said in his interview, is these are outrageous comments, inexcusable and offensive comments that President Ahmadinejad made. And they part of, frankly, a pattern of outrageous comments that he has made, principally among them of course denying the Holocaust. So this is in keeping with that pattern.
And, frankly, they don’t serve the Iranian people well either. It’s part of a series of choices that the Iranian government has made that’s only served to isolate it and set back its interests.
With regard to the diplomacy around the nuclear program, what we’ve simply done since we came into office is say the Iranian government has a choice. They have the opportunity to live up to their international obligations and to convince the international community of the peaceful intent of their nuclear program and to come into compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions and the NPT. Were they to do that, that would be a good thing for Iran and for the United States, of course, and for the world.
However, if they do not live up to those obligations, we’ve said there are going to be consequences. And I think our openness to diplomacy, frankly, and our openness to engagement has helped rally the international community behind the kind of sanctions that we’ve put in place, because they see the Iranians — Iran as the intransigent actor.
Over the course of the period of months where they were trying to negotiate the TRR, I think it was clear to the world that the international community was operating in good faith and Iran wasn’t. And because of that, we were able to achieve unprecedented sanctions far above and beyond what they’ve faced in previous years through the U.N. Security Council resolutions, through the measures that we took, and through the measures that our allies and partners have taken in Europe and Asia.
And, frankly, we wouldn’t have had those sanctions — we would not have laid the predicate for them without the Security Council resolution that had the support of, of course, of Russia and China — traditional countries with close relationships with Iran. And, furthermore, that isolation was increased the other day when Russia announced that it wouldn’t sell S300s to Iran.
So that said, again, we are always going to be open to a diplomatic path that resolves our differences. And what we’ve said is Iran has to show in deeds that they’re going to live up to their commitments. So whatever they say, we’re not going to settle for words or rhetoric on this. Iran has to demonstrate through tangible actions that it is coming into compliance with its obligations.
Now, with regard to who the interlocutor is or the decision maker in Iran — frankly, it’s a complex political situation in Iran right now. The Supreme Leader, not Ahmadinejad, frankly, is the ultimate decision maker. But, again, we’re not interested in diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake. We’re interested in diplomacy that will resolve the problem of Iran’s nuclear program.
And so, again, the door is always open to that resolution as it should be; it would be irresponsible to close it. But we’ve shown through our own actions that we’ll hold them accountable if they continue to go down this path.
Q Did the President add anything to his message to the Iranian people during the BBC interview that goes further than the remarks he made at the United Nations yesterday? Or is he really just reinforcing the administration’s position?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, I won’t go too much into detail about what he said, just because I — he says it better than I could. What I’ll — all I’ll say is I think what he is making clear in the interview is that the Iranian government has a choice and it is the actions of the Iranian government that have isolated it and that have led to the consequences that have been imposed through the (audio drop). And the Iranian people have the opportunity of a better future. Were their government to make a different series of choices, they could have greater prosperity, greater integration with the international community.
So that’s our fundamental case from the beginning of this administration, frankly, and going forward, that there’s a choice before the Iranian government. The costs associated with continuing to — failure to live up to its obligations are growing. And those costs, frankly, have exceeded even what I think the Iranian government thought they would be. And you’ve seen not just the very real consequences of the sanctions — including private companies pulling out of Iran, people seeing the cost of doing business in Iran, the international isolation of Iran — but you’ve also seen statements from prominent Iranian leaders expressing concern about the sanctions. And that suggests a level of internal debate within the government about whether or not this was handled well on their end.
So, again, you’ll see the President’s words. But I think it was more a message of reinforcing the consistent message we’ve had throughout our time in office.
Q I was wondering if you could elaborate a little bit more on why the door is still open. You made the conciliatory gesture in the speech yesterday, the President did. Five and a half hours later, the response was not very hopeful. I mean, explain to us why the administration still believes that this approach has a chance of bearing fruit.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I’d just say a couple things. First of all, it would be I think irresponsible to say that we would rule out any kind of diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program. So I think this is a matter of course. You always have to be open to a resolution of your problems.
Now, what we’ve said continually is that that has to be demonstrated in action. We’re interested in Iran taking actions that demonstrate that it’s willing to live up to its obligations. Now, if they don’t, we’ll impose consequences. And as I said, they’ve never faced the kind of pressure, the kind of sanctions, and the kind of international isolation that they’re currently facing. And that’s a consequence of our policy that we’ve pursued since coming into office.
Q Thanks for doing this. The other day a senior U.S. official during a backgrounder after the P5-plus-1 meeting said that the Iranians — that Kate Ashton had a hard time basically getting the Iranians really to respond to her offer of resumed meetings. And so even though Ahmadinejad earlier in the week said several times to journalists, including myself, that he expects talks with the West to resume and you all have said several times this week as well in the P5-plus-1 that they’re looking for talks to resume to see if there’s a negotiated solution to be had, are you all concerned somehow that Iran is not able to find the right sort of address of who to come to, to talk, or that they’re trying to bypass the P5-plus-1 and go through another channel, the Vienna channel or something else? Can you speak at all to that? It’s been confusing all week.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. Well, and it relates to the previous question as well. I think that what you see out of Iran is lots of different statements about their interest in diplomacy and not a lot of concrete follow-through. And like I said, what we’re interested in is their actions.
Now, we had talks last year at the P5-plus-1 and Iran committed to an agreement, and then they didn’t implement that agreement around the TRR. And as a consequence of that failure, they face the toughest sanctions that they’ve ever faced before.
Now, right now what we’re focused on is them taking concrete steps that are clear, that are laid out in terms of what they need to do to come into — to convince the IAEA of their peaceful intent, to come into compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions related to their nuclear program.
Those talks we think should happen through the P5-plus-1. That’s the forum that’s been set up for the international community to have these conversations with the Iranians. So for President Ahmadinejad to make statements, to posture, and then to make these outrageous and offensive comments before the United Nations does nothing, frankly, to serve the interests of his own country. It only serves to further alienate him, to further isolate him. And frankly, they’re the ones facing the consequences. They’re the ones facing sanctions that have significant bite into the Iranian economy, that are sparking a significant debate within Iran about the wisdom of the approach that they’re taking.
So they’re the ones who — they’re the ones who are continuing to face, again, a growing consequence of the growing isolation. Our approach is clear here. We have a P5-plus-1 mechanism set up for talks. We have a set of U.N. Security Council resolutions. And we have the IAEA.
So what they need to do is come to the table and demonstrate through their actions that they’re going to come into compliance with the international community’s obligations.
Q And do you have any guidance on the ISNA report today out of Iran today that Ahmadinejad thinks that they’ll be meeting in October with some iteration of the West?
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I can’t speak to their statements. Frankly, they have a tendency to be all over the map on this. As you said, and your question about a return — or an address — it’s clear. We have a mechanism set up through the P5-plus-1. So –
Q But do they know — are you confident that they know that? I know that — I know that you’ve said that, but –
SENIOR ADMINSTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m very confident that they know that. I’m very confident that they know that. And frankly, the point here, though, is they’re the ones who are facing great — who are being hurt in this process through their own actions.
So we see their diplomatic efforts trying to prevent sanctions from — we saw their diplomatic efforts, I should say, trying to prevent their sanctions from going into place last spring through their diplomacy with Brazil and Turkey. That failed. We did exactly what we said, imposing sanctions, because, frankly, we’re not interested in half measures. We’re not interested in Iranian statements. We’re not interested in the things they may say about their desire for diplomacy. We’re interested in their actions. And they have to come to the table and they have to come into compliance with the international obligations that they face as a member of the international community.
And again, as a final note, I’d just close by saying that coming to the United Nations and making this kind of hateful and offensive remark so close to Ground Zero does nothing except further isolate Iran and further set back the interests of the Iranian people.
So that was a key point of the President’s comments today. But you’ll get those shortly. I think the interview is going to air in the next hour or so. And I just wanted to take this opportunity to give a little background on it and answer a few questions. So I appreciate folks jumping on the call.
And we’ll stay in touch throughout the day around the President’s bilateral meetings. He’s going — or should be in now I think with the President of Azerbaijan, then with the President of Colombia. That’s obviously going to be an opportunity for him to congratulate the Colombian people on the extraordinary blow that they struck against the FARC yesterday.
Then he’ll attend — host this lunch of the ASEAN leaders. And then he has a bilateral meeting with the President of Kyrgyzstan to obviously address the situation there. And then finally he has a multilateral meeting on Sudan and the urgency that we are trying to instill around a successful referendum and the situation in Darfur.
So that’s the schedule. I think we’ll have some additional — we’ll keep you updated with any changes. But I think we’ll probably have an additional briefing later around one of the meetings and we’ll just keep you posted.
So, thanks, everybody.
END 11:26 P.M. EDT