Interview with Al-Ikhbariya TV

Jeffrey D. Feltman
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
January 8, 2012

ANNOUNCER: Good evening your Excellency, and welcome to Riyadh. Before moving to our topics of today, let me ask you about the reason for this visit to Riyadh.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I’m delighted to be back in Saudi Arabia. And it’s an honor to be here, and I thank you for inviting me tonight.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have a long, strong, and historic partnership. I’m here to meet with a number of Saudi officials to talk about our bilateral relationship. I also had the opportunity to meet with some young people from Saudi Arabia. It was inspiring to talk to some of the young Saudi citizens about their vision to Saudi Arabia’s future. It reminded me that one of the highlights of this relationship right now, in my view, is the fact that 50,000 Saudi students are studying in the United States thanks in large part to the scholarship program of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah.

And those 50,000 students every year bring back skills and ideas to Saudi Arabia in order to promote jobs and economic progress in Saudi Arabia. At the people level, I’d like to say that this relation between our two countries remains as strong or stronger than it was when President Roosevelt met with King Abdulaziz. In my discussions with Saudi officials, I discussed a number of regional and international issues because Saudi Arabia has shown leadership in the region and globally. Saudi Arabia for example is a member of the G-20 and it is working hard to stabilize the world financial and economic markets. And closer to this region we have worked with Saudi Arabia on guarding regional security, working together to analyze the Arab transition challenge to see how we might best help the Arab transitions. It is an extremely strong partnership that we believe is in the benefit of both of our countries. It is a partnership based on mutual interests.

ANNOUNCER: Once again you are welcome to Riyadh, and let’s go to the headlines.

ANNOUNCER: Welcome to our program once again Mr. Feltman!

We will talk in this part of our program about Syria and the Arab spring. And the developments of the Syrian crisis are so important, so let me start with the recent movements of the Arab League. Today there was a meeting for the ministerial committee and sure you received a copy of the Arab monitors report. The Arab League Secretary General, Nabil Alarabi, said that the mission of the Arab monitors will continue and they do their job as honestly as it should be. The Arab committee calls for providing political and financial support for the Arab monitors mission, in addition to the call for the Syrian government to stop immediately and completely all kinds of violence.

How does the United States assess the stance of the Arab League, the movements of the monitors mission, and the results of the ministerial committee meeting today?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Let me say from the outset, Mr. Khaled, that the United States fully shares and supports the role of the Arab League, which is to stop the violence and verify that the prisoners have been released, the media has access throughout the country, that security forces have been pulled back from populated areas, and to stop the Syrian regime attacking its own citizens. We fully support that course of the Arab League. The Arab League monitors reported to the Arab League. It was an important meeting today in Cairo and I understand from the statements made by Secretary General Nabil Alarabi, by Qatari Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jasem that Syria doesn’t comply with what it agreed to on the second of November. We have stated our support of the Arab League. We think the Arab league is taking an important responsibility on its shoulders and trying to find ways to protect the citizens of Syria.

But from our perspective, the regime of Bashar al-Assad and cronies around him are the cause of what’s going on in Syria. The momentum of the violence stems entirely from the denial by Bashar al-Assad and cronies of the basic rights of the Syrian citizens. It’s pretty remarkable the courage of the Syrian people. They go out day after day and week after week in demonstrations and they know that their own government might be killing them, jailing them, or torturing them due to the fact that they raise their voices and seek their rights. Imagine how many people would come out if they were not afraid of being killed. It’s pretty clear to us that the way to stop the violence in Syria is for the Syrian regime to stop shooting its own people.

ANNOUNCER: Mr. Feltman, I would like to hear a clear answer regarding the U.S. stance on the Arab League movements and the Arab monitors mission in particular. There is a clear cut protocol signed by both parties, the Syrian government and the Arab League, but violence is still continuing, killing and arrests are ongoing. Despite that we see the Arab League giving a deadline after another. Did you expect from the Arab ministerial committee a position different from what they took today regarding the monitors mission?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I think there have been delays since the beginning. The Arab League has tried for a long time to stop the killing in Syria, and the Syrian regime finally agreed on November the second to the Arab initiative. How many people were killed between November 2 and December 19 when the Syrian regime agreed to the Arab monitors to be deployed. I think it’s not for the Arab league to be a success or failure in their mission, the Arab League shouldered an incredible responsibility, and let me ask some basic questions. For example, have the doors of the prisons opened to let all of those detained for protesting free? The answer is no. Some people have been released, but even more have been arrested. (inaudible) Have the security forces pulled back from the cities? (inaudible) Again, if I ask myself has the regime of Bashar al-Assad taken the types of steps to end the bloodshed? The answer is a clear no.

ANNOUNCER: What is next Mr. Feltman? This is a question asked frequently. If the answer for your questions is no, this means that the Arab League has failed in containing the crisis and stopping the ongoing violence in Syria. What is next? How can we stop the violence?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I’m not an Arab League lawyer here, but what the Arab League monitors were to do was to verify the compliance of the Syrian regime with what they agreed to do, with what Bashar al-Assad agreed to do. Bashar al-Assad agreed on November 2 to take certain steps, and the monitors were to verify if the government complies with what it agreed to do. And as I understand from the meeting today and from what I heard from the news that the Arab League will try to strengthen its monitors, providing additional training to see whether the Syrian government has done what it said would do. I think the monitors themselves were deployed to verify compliance with something Bashar al- Assad said he will do.

ANNOUNCER: Sure, I don’t talk to you as a delegate from the Arab League, but you are a member of the US administration whose stance on the Syrian crisis is calling for the violence to stop, for the rights and choices of the Syrian citizen to be protected, and for the right of peaceful protests. But we see now ongoing killings, intimidation, and arrests, some analysts say the solution should be internationalizing the crisis, to submit this file before the Security Council and open the door for the international intervention. How does the US administration view this proposal as a solution for the Syrian crisis?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: The United States does support the Security Council taking up the case of the Syrian regime killing its people. There have been discussions in the Security Council for some time, at some point it may be appropriate for the Security Council to take action (inaudible). But I think you know there are some divisions in the Security Council and I think that the Security Council will be able to move to the type of action or solution that will be most effective if there is regional unity and international unity, that now is the time to move to the Security Council.

ANNOUNCER: If the Arab League goes with this file to the Security Council, would it be considered a green light to go far beyond the divisions among some countries inside the Security Council?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I think if the Arab League spoke with one voice to the Security Council, and explained that they assumed responsibility but the killing continues so I think yes, that would help tremendously in developing consensus inside the Security Council.

ANNOUNCER: How do you describe the atmosphere of discussions in the Security Council regarding the Syrian crisis? I know that there are U.S.- Russian negotiations regarding a Russian draft resolution but it didn’t get European approval, what about this?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Well, as I said to you earlier Mr. Khaled, we see the origins of this violence as being that Bashar al-Assad and his cronies are killing their own people and the best way to preserve Syria’s unity, the best way to stop the violence is for Bashar al-Assad to order his troops to stop killing the people and to stop torturing the people. There are some in the Security Council trying to say that there is a moral equivalence between the opposition and the regime, and that’s something we simply don’t accept. Think about how these protests moved since it started, go back to Daraa, at that time people were carrying posters of Bashar al-Assad and asking Bashar to rescue Daraa. People saw him as the potential savior, but what’s happened to these people now? They got shot, they got jailed, they got tortured. We had lots of talks about reforms, about changing the constitution, about local elections.. etc from the Syrian regime, about what the Syrian regime is doing to its people, but nothing significant has happened.

ANNOUNCER: There are possible scenarios for dealing with the Syrian crisis Mr. Feltman. One of these scenarios is a buffer zone on the Syrian borders, military intervention, a no fly zone over Syria or military intervention under the pretext of protecting humanity and the Syrians and some U.S. and British newspapers talked about US intelligence operatives on the borders or even inside Syria, are all these scenarios possible?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: It’s hard to know exactly what happens in Syria as the Syrian regime has restricted the movement of diplomats and medical personnel (inaudible) and journalists can’t travel freely through Syria. I know that the Arab League is still very committed to trying peacefully to persuade the Syrian regime to stop killing its own people and there are still peaceful ways that should be tried such as going to the Security Council (inaudible). President Obama said on August 18th that it’s past time for Bashar al-Assad to step aside and let transition take place in Syria. And I think that’s the basic point here. If we look at what has happened in the past year, it will become clear what kind of government the Syrian people are living under. There was this discussion here about it just being non-sectarian but it has been revealed that what you have is you have a near monopoly by one Syrian community, a near monopoly of force that is being used against another Syrian community. That what is called government in Syria is a mafia-like family business designed to benefit al-Assad family and its cronies. We simply don’t see that there is going to be a peaceful transition to the democratic, united Syria after al-Assad and the sooner he goes, the better because the longer he stays, the worse the violence is becoming (inaudible) and to prevent any chaos or civil war.

ANNOUNCER: We have many questions regarding this file but to sum it up, I’d like to ask a question about your position on the Russian stance on Syria. We heard some news saying there are two Russian navy ships heading to Syria, and some people say this may be a Russian message to the West if it tries to intervene militarily, how does the United States view this Russian move? Is there a need for an initiative such as the Gulf initiative for Yemen as Russia says?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: In terms of the Russian position, we have remained close (inaudible) to the Russians, we have discussed in New York and we actually started from the same perspective, which is that the violence needs to stop. But we want to also develop a position (inaudible) to the Security Council at the appropriate time on how to come up with a policy that is effective about persuading Bashar al-Assad to (inaudible) his people. You mentioned Yemen, and of course the Yemen initiative was a GCC proposal and the GCC worked hard to base it on its understanding of the Yemeni opposition and the Yemeni ruling party, the security situation in Yemen and they came up with a transition plan that would meet the minimum demands of most people in Yemen. And perhaps having a transition plan that meets the needs of the most Syrians is a way forward, but I think it would need to come either from the Syrian people themselves or from Arabs in the region.

ANNOUNCER: Regarding the Arab Spring, Mr. Feltman, many analysts say that what happened in the Arab region was a surprise to everybody, was it a surprise to the U.S. administration? New York Times said the Arab Spring is a chance and a challenge for the US administration, so what about the real challenge which is the Islamist parties coming to power within the elections in some of the Arab countries from Morocco to Egypt? How are you going to deal with these parties? Are you ready for dialogue with them?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Mr. Khaled, you have asked questions that people will be writing doctoral dissertations on for the years to come. I will try to answer but I think the end of the story of the Arab spring has not yet been written. The Unites States, of course, was surprised by how these events unfolded like so many people in the region, but we were not surprised by the frustration that led to the demonstrations. In fact just before president Bin Ali fled Tunisia, Secretary Clinton had been to a conference in Doha and Secretary Clinton in her remarks there talked about how the foundations of the region are sinking in the sand because of lack of opportunity, because governments were not treating their citizens with respect or dignity, and because people were frustrated that they were not able to affect the way they are governed, they were not able to influence the major decisions that affect their lives. So yes, we were surprised by how this unfolded but we were not surprised by the underlying frustration that had been going for a long time. You ask about is it a challenge or an opportunity, I think it’s both but I don’t want to underestimate the challenges; I don’t want to sound naïve. There are strategic goals in the region, they are the same as they were years ago before the Arab spring but the environment in which we have to pursue those strategic objectives has changed dramatically. It is clear for example that we have to spend a lot more time understanding Arab public opinion moving beyond talking simply to government leaders and government officials. And you ask about the Islamic parties, we want to engage with any party that is truly subscribed to democratic principles. These conversations will not always be easy but the point is it is not important what a party calls itself. There are certain principles for democracy, one principle is that you can win or you can lose, one principle is that there are basic freedoms, freedom of speech, freedom of information, freedom of peaceful protests that you need to protect. There are often minority rights that need to be protected. And one of the most important things is renouncing violence for political means, saying that you will not use violence to achieve political means. So, Khaled, if there is a party that is behaving according to democratic norms, that has accepted democratic principles, we are going to try to engage with them.

ANNOUNCER: Mr. Feltman, sure this topic needs hours and hours to be discussed, and what happened in the region will be written in history but our time for this topic ended and let’s move to another topic.

ANNOUNCER: Regarding the Iranian file, the U.S. Defense Secretary Panetta said that closing off the Strait of Hormuz is a red line for the U.S. and that it will respond if this happens, so how can we understand the U.S. position in light of these statements? Are you really worried by the Iranian threats of closing the strait?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Let me say a couple of things, Khaled: First, we have seen lots of statements from Iran over the years that turn out not to be true. Think about all the gas deals that Iran has announced that simply were not true, so Iran has a history of some sort of boasting and bragging about things that are not true. At the same time Iran also has a history of playing a very irresponsible and destructive role in this region, so we have to take what they say seriously and prepare even as we are recognizing they are probably just boasting. And of course what Secretary Panetta was talking about was that the U.S. has a global commitment to keep international waterways open for navigation. We are committed to the protection of safe navigation, and I think just recently we saw an example where our ships played a very good humanitarian role rescuing Iranian fishermen from Somali pirates. So when Secretary Panetta says that we are committed to responding if Iran tries to close the Strait of Hormuz, people should take this seriously.

ANNOUNCER: The response will be militarily? That’s what I understand from your words.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: I will just repeat, we are committed to freedom of navigation and we are committed particularly to freedom of oil and commerce flowing through the Strait of Hormuz.

ANNOUNCER: The Gulf countries are worried about the Iranian military exercises in the Gulf. The previous exercise witnessed what Iran said were long-range missiles but they were within the range of two hundred kilometers and this caused anxiety to the Gulf countries. During the coming exercises next month, Iran says it will use navy ships to be deployed in this region, so how do you view the next Iranian exercises?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Let me answer in a different way, which is just to emphasize our commitment to the security of our allies in this region and the protection of our interests in this region. And that’s why you see such an active schedule of visits between Gulf countries and the United States, why you see such investments being made by leaders in the Gulf to Gulf security, why you see continuing commitment of the United States to working with the Gulf markets to make sure that our interests and our allies are safe from the Iranian threats.

ANNOUNCER: What will be your position if Israel strikes the Iranian nuclear reactor, and this is a possible scenario according to some analysts?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: You are asking me a hypothetical question and what we will prefer and what we are pursuing are peaceful ways to persuade the Iranian government to comply with the international resolutions regarding its nuclear program. If you look at the Security Council resolutions of the past, if you think about the international sanctions imposed by the United States, by the Europeans and other countries, what you see is a concerted effort by the international community to use peaceful means in order to convince the Iranian regime to undertake its obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. So our goal is to use all the peaceful means in our power to affect the irresponsible behavior of the Iranian regime.

ANNOUNCER: The military nature of the Iranian nuclear program, especially after the recent IAEA report, is still a bone of contention between the United States and Iran. But some analysts say that the isolation policy you adopt towards Iran is toothless, and Iran going on in its program is clear evidence for this idea. And Iran declared earlier today the operation of an underground uranium enrichment facility, so what’s your comment? Some people say the year 2012 may be a decisive year in dealing with Iran, regarding its nuclear program in particular. What do you think?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Mr. Khaled if I could I would like to correct something you said. You said that the difference is between the United States and Iran on the nuclear program, it’s actually between Iran and the world. Iran on the questions of the nuclear file has no friends, has no defenders. The P5+1 process has brought together all members of the Security Council to send a unified message to Iran about the need to comply with the international obligations, and I actually think we have had some success. We have been able collectively to constrain Iran’s ability to import products that could benefit its nuclear program. We are cutting off Iran’s access to the international financial markets that could finance its nuclear activities. We are now moving finally to target its exports of hydrocarbon that can finance the nuclear program. We have made it more expensive, more difficult, and more complicated for Iran to pursue its nuclear program. All this can be changed tomorrow if Iran would simply comply with its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. All of the international community is asking Iran to do what it said it does, what other signatories of the non-proliferation treaty are doing. But that report you mentioned of the IAEA made it clear that Iran is still not coming clean with the priorities of its program.

ANNOUNCER: A final question regarding the Iranian file and it will lead us Mr. Jeffrey to another related topic. Sure you heard some voices from the Gulf region who are suspicious of your handling of the Iranian file. Some of them ask if the United States is really keen on the security of the Gulf, especially in the light of the Iranian threats to the region. So why did the United States leave Iraq as easy prey for the Iranians? Some analysts say it is a strategic mistake in contradiction to your declared policy.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Let me address something regarding Iran first. We have talked a lot about the nuclear program today, but our concerns about Iran go far deeper than just a nuclear program. Iran is playing a very destructive role in the region. Iran is one the key pillars keeping Bashar al-Assad in a position where he can kill his people. We look at Hizbullah, we look at Iran funding terrorist organizations, so please don’t misunderstand. Just because we talked about the nuclear program a lot tonight, it doesn’t mean we accept other bad Iranian behaviors.

We are committed to our strong partnership with Iraq. There is a great misunderstanding about this right now. The civilian partnership that we have with Iraq is strong, it’s wide-ranging, it’s supported by the very top levels of the United States government. And it also includes security elements, police training, training of Iraqi security forces to be able to protect Iraq’s sovereignty, who are very aware of Iranian ambitions. And we don’t intend to leave a vacuum in Iraq that Iran would walk into. We will hope that Iraq’s other neighbors would also make sure there is no vacuum Iran can fill.

ANNOUNCER: Our last file is Iraq and we’ll discuss it in the few minutes left. The US forces have withdrawn from Iraq after 9 years and the situation now is very complicated. Were these political crises and challenges facing Iraq now in your minds before the withdrawal? And what about Allawi’s message to Washington saying that one of the reasons for this crisis is that you spoiled Al-Maliki? What’s your comment?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: We have been watching with concern the political crisis in Iraq. We have been engaged with Iraqis from across the political spectrum, and we have been talking to them locally. People from Washington, like the Vice President have been calling and (inaudible) visiting people, but the most important thing is the Iraqi politicians themselves talking to each other. That should be, the Iraqis themselves are in charge of Iraq’s future and they themselves should be talking to each other now. The situation is not easy, but you have seen that the tensions have been reduced somewhat as Iraqi leaders talk about getting together and renewing their partnership and reaffirming their commitment to Iraq’s constitution. So we are actually encouraged that the Iraqi politician themselves seem to be on the way forward towards progress.

ANNOUNCER: What is your current plan to deal with the ongoing crisis in Iraq? In addition, I’d like to get a comment on Allawi’s message to Washington saying that one of the reasons for this crisis is that you spoiled Al-Maliki?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: We have relations with a broad number of Iraqi politicians. Right now, Nouri al-Maliki is the Prime Minister of Iraq, Usama al-Nujayfi is the Speaker of the Parliament, and Jalal Talabani is the President of the Republic. We have strong relations with them all as well as all political leaders.

ANNOUNCER: What about Al-Hashimi?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Well, I will not comment on an individual case of justice. It is our impression that Iraqi judiciary tries its best to have fair objective priorities. And we have said to all the politicians in Iraq, nobody should be trying to politicize a judiciary case.

ANNOUNCER: Our time is out your Excellency U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman. Thank you very much. You studied history, fine arts, law, and diplomacy, is it right? Thank you once again, our dear guest.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FELTMAN: Thank you very much for having me today, Mr. Khaled