Clinton tackles Tunisia, Iran, Lebanon & Mideast talks
In an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya
United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told Al Arabiya that Washington has no involvement in the current unrest in Tunisia. She denied the presence of any secret agreement between Washington and Tehran over its nuclear program and shed the light on the U.S. efforts to end Lebanon's political standoff and resume the Middle East peace negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis.
In a special interview with Al Arabiya within the sideline of her tour in the Gulf region, Clinton said that there are no current contacts between Washington and the Tunisian authorities, but they will contact them once the state of unrest in the country calms down.
"I spoke with the foreign minister a few weeks ago, before these protests started. But I haven't spoken to him or the president since," said Clinton.
Tunisia summoned the U.S. ambassador Gordon Gray after Washington last week condemned the crackdown on rioters.
The United States last week raised concerns with Tunisia about its handling of the unrest and called for "restraint".
It also expressed concern over apparent "interference" with the Internet by the Tunis government, accused of arresting dissident bloggers and hacking and blocking certain websites.
The U.S. secretary of State touched on Iran's controversial nuclear program. "We think that there have been set-backs in their (Iranians) nuclear program, which we think is to the good, because that's good for the region, it buys time for the international community to try to convince Iran to go another direction," she said.
Clinton denied the forging of any secret deal between Washington and Tehran regarding some of the issues in the Middle East.
The top diplomat also highlighted the recent international effort to end Lebanon's crisis over the killing of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. "The United States, Saudi Arabia, France, Egypt are all supporting the sovereignty, the independence of the Lebanese people, and supporting the effort to end impunity for murder, wherever it comes from," she said.
In her interview with Al Arabiya, the top U.S. diplomat shed the light on the stalled Middle East peace talks, saying the Washington "has consistently, over many years, tried to bring the parties together for a two-state solution.....Now we've got the Israelis and the Palestinians trying to figure out whether they can bridge their gap. We have to keep trying," she said.
The full interview, which was aired by Al Arabiya TV on Tuesday went as follows:
QUESTION: (In Arabic.) We are honored, Madam Secretary, to have you on Al Arabiya. Thank you for joining us.
CLINTON: Thank you very much.
QUESTION: Starting with the latest in Tunisia, what are you exactly worried about?
CLINTON: Well, we are worried, in general, about the unrest and the instability, and what seems to be the underlying concerns of the people who are protesting -- it seems to be a combination of economic and political demonstrations -- and the government's reaction, which has been, unfortunately, leading to the deaths of some of the protestors. So we are not taking sides in it, we just hope there can be a peaceful resolution of it.
QUESTION: But Tunisia had summoned yesterday the American Ambassador to Tunisia. How do you respond to that?
CLINTON: Well, we regret that because, obviously, we have got a lot of very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia. And what the Ambassador and what the State Department back in Washington did was just express concern that this is a protest that has, unfortunately, provoked such a reaction from the government, leading to the deaths of mostly young people who were protesting.
And, as I say, we are not taking sides, but we are saying we hope that there can be a peaceful resolution. And I hope that the Tunisian Government can bring that about.
QUESTION: Do you have now any kind of communications between you and the Tunisian leadership?
CLINTON: I spoke with the foreign minister a few weeks ago, before these protests started. But I haven't spoken to him or the president since. But our Ambassador is, obviously, in close touch, as is the bureau in the State Department that works with Tunisia.
QUESTION: Are you intending to do so?
CLINTON: I think we will wait and see. I mean they are in the middle of a crisis. We want to see that peacefully resolved. We think it's also important for the government to focus on creating job opportunities for young people in Tunisia.
One of my biggest concerns in this entire region are the many young people without economic opportunities in their home countries. I think economies need to be more open, as you see here in Dubai, which is a model for economic dynamism. I would like to see more of that in more countries, because the young people in the countries deserve to not only get a good education, but then, once they finish their education, be able to find a job --
CLINTON: -- in their home country.
QUESTION: Sure. And Madam Secretary, anyway, Iran, apparently, is still your main concern in the region. Let me quote you this from what you said yesterday. "The sanctions started to slow down the nuclear program in Iran." What evidence do you have?
CLINTON: Well, there is a lot of evidence from the analysis that we received from experts, not just American, but from other countries in the region and beyond who report on what the Iranians themselves have said, which is that they've had problems at their nuclear facilities, that they have had economic pressures that they are trying to respond to.
We think this is an opportunity, and mostly an opportunity for Iran. I want to emphasize that our goal is for Iran to be a member of the international community in good standing, and one that is able to meet the needs of its people. The way that the current Iranian leadership has responded after the election of 2009, the very severe crack-down on -- again, mostly young people, but not exclusively -- members of the opposition, leaders --
CLINTON: -- is very distressing. And it's mostly distressing for people who thought that Iran would live up to its republic intentions.
QUESTION: But Iran is announcing what Tehran calls "nuclear achievements," despite the sanctions. So that's why I asked you what evidence you have.
CLINTON: Yes. Well, we --
QUESTION: So it's based on analysis, not on solid information?
CLINTON: We think that there have been set-backs in their nuclear program, which we think is to the good, because that's good for the region, it buys time for the international community to try to convince Iran to go another direction.
And I say in every interview, we do not object to Iran eventually being able to have peaceful nuclear energy. They, like every country, under certain safeguards, is entitled to that. But we, obviously, object strenuously to them pursuing a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: You said, "We still have time." Yesterday you said this. "But not a lot of time." Are we talking here about the same period of time, which is 5 years, until 2015, like Meir Dagan said, as well, until Iran would produce a nuclear weapon?
CLINTON: Well, I don't know that -- I have a great deal of respect for him and others who have followed this issue closely. Somewhere between now and then, if Iran is not dissuaded from pursuing a nuclear weapon, they could perhaps produce one. And we think that would be very destabilizing and dangerous to the greater region and to the world.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) keep implementing the international sanctions against Iran. Does that mean in any way that you are not convinced with the implementing of these sanctions from the government?
CLINTON: No. Actually, I think many of the countries in the Gulf have done a really significant job of enforcing the sanctions, and have, in some instances, lost economic opportunity because of that.
But I think that there are countries around the world, not just in the Gulf, who cannot only do more, but need to understand that we are making progress in the peaceful, diplomatic imposition of sanctions. So the more we can do now to send a very clear message to Iran, the better it will be.
QUESTION: But you think the Gulf is totally implementing these sanctions?
CLINTON: Not totally. But I think that there has been good progress. The UAE has done an excellent job, both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. And we just want to send a message that we hope everyone will do even better.
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, there are lots of rumors, let's say, or people are talking, analysts are talking, that there is a deal between Washington and Tehran regarding some of the issues in the Middle East. So is that true?
CLINTON: No, no. I have heard that. And I am glad you asked me, because there is no back channel, there is no deal, there is no grand bargain.
We, as you know, made it very clear, from the time President Obama came into office, that we would be willing to engage with Iran. They have not been willing to do so with us. If they ever are, we will certainly let people know, because the purpose is to try to bring more stability and predictability to Iran's behavior in the Gulf.
QUESTION: Great. This leads us to talk about Lebanon a bit, Madam Secretary. Politicians there and analysts are a bit worried of the -- about the stability in the country after the indictments issued from the tribunal, Hariri's tribunal. Are you concerned about that?
CLINTON: Well, I hope that the people of Lebanon realize that the tribunal, which is a creation of the United Nations Security Council and the Government of Lebanon, is intended to end impunity for political assassination.
But it wasn't just former Prime Minister Hariri, let us remember, who was killed. It was many others from across Lebanon. Their families, their friends, their loved ones deserve justice, just as much as the Hariri family deserves justice. But most importantly, Lebanon deserves justice. And --
QUESTION: But justice might lead to violence, Madam Secretary.
CLINTON: But I am hoping that it won't. We cannot --
QUESTION: What if?
CLINTON: Well --
QUESTION: What is your priority, justice or stability?
CLINTON: Well, I think there should be both. And I think that the government and people of Lebanon should hold those individuals accountable, not the groups to whom they belong. I don't believe in collective guilt. You have to prove who did what. These indictments are the beginning of a trial when they come. But the individuals should be judged as individuals. And I think that is in the -- to the benefit of all Lebanese people because today's murderer may be from one group, but tomorrow's murderer could be from another group. And it has to end.
So, the United States, Saudi Arabia, France, Egypt are all supporting the sovereignty, the independence of the Lebanese people, and supporting the effort to end impunity for murder, wherever it comes from.
QUESTION: So, let me understand this more. Do you want justice, even if it led to violence?
CLINTON: I think justice is an important, and ultimately stabilizing element in any society, because if people live in fear, then those who wield the weapons can have their way. What you want in a country like Lebanon, which, as we all know, has many different people from different kinds of backgrounds, different beliefs, is for people to live together. Stability requires justice.
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, what if the -- or what is being said now is that the -- Lebanon's Government might, let's say, withdraw from this tribunal, and might stop the funding from -- its part of funding. Would you respect the Lebanese Government decision, if that happened?
CLINTON: Well, I have no indication that that is going to happen. And, of course, this is a United Nations tribunal. It will continue, because it has a purpose that it needs to fulfill.
But I want the people of Lebanon -- and from wherever they come -- to know that there are many in the world who wish them well. And anyone who participates peacefully in politics, even if I may disagree, or a fellow Lebanese may disagree, the peaceful participation in politics should be encouraged. The use of violence instead of peaceful political resolution must be discouraged.
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, last issue here is the peace process. Apparently, Washington failed to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians regarding this. Now there are no -- neither direct nor indirect talks between the two parts. What options do we have here? What other tactics, projects are you intending to consider?
CLINTON: Well, I would, obviously, take issue with your characterization, because I think that the United States has consistently, over many years, tried to bring the parties together for a two-state solution. I regret deeply that we weren't able to achieve that when my husband was President, because he expended an enormous amount of effort to try to bring it about. In that case, it was the Palestinians. Now we've got the Israelis and the Palestinians trying to figure out whether they can bridge their gap. We have to keep trying. Just because something is hard, doesn't mean you stop doing it. You have to keep trying.
And there is so much at stake here. I am personally convinced that the Israelis and the Palestinians both want the same thing, they just can't figure out how to trust each other enough to get there. And what the United States continues to do is to support the Palestinian state-building efforts, which we believe are going well. And I would encourage all of your viewers to support what President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad are doing.
We believe strongly in a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution. We are supporting and working with the Israelis, so that they can deal with what are their legitimate security concerns.
QUESTION: Sorry to interrupt --
CLINTON: At the end of the day, though, the United States cannot impose a deal. No other country can impose a deal. The two parties have to decide to do it.
QUESTION: The last question. If you are saying -- so why don't we support the Palestinians, and recognize the Palestinian state within the borders of 1967?
CLINTON: Because we don't believe that there is any lasting solution, other than through negotiation. We think that unless the two parties agree -- which would not come about through unilateral recognition, but only through a negotiated settlement -- that there is not a sustainable peace. We want a sustainable, durable peace. That's what we are committed to.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, Madam Secretary, for joining us on Al-Arabiya.
CLINTON: Thank you very much.
QUESTION: Thank you. (In Arabic.)
(Compiled by Abeer Tayel)