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Interview With Hisham Melhem of Al Arabiya

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Washington, DC
May 7, 2007

(1:00 p.m. EST)

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, thank you for this opportunity. Let's start with the headline. How do you read the Sarkozy election in Paris and do you anticipate that this will help your efforts in Iraq in Lebanon with -- vis-à-vis the tribunal and the war on terror?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, we very much look forward to working with soon-to-be-President Sarkozy. We've had very good relations with the government of President Chirac. We've had our differences. But we work particularly well, for instance, on Lebanon and on the Middle East and I would expect that to continue, maybe to intensify because there's a lot of work to do in the Middle East and it's good to have a valuable partner like Paris, a partner that shares our values and we look very much forward to working with them.

QUESTION: Okay. Vice President Cheney is leaving to the Middle East and he will be meeting with the crucial leaders, crucial to your efforts in Iraq in particular. Is this only a follow-up to Sharm el-Sheikh or do you want those key leaders to do more in Iraq?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, we had planned for some time now for the Vice President to go. And it's a very good time after Sharm because really now, the neighbors need to focus on what they can do to help this Iraqi -- young Iraqi democracy to succeed. Prime Minister Maliki, I thought, did a very good job at the Sharm conference of showing what Iraq is trying to do. They have a struggle internally because they're extremists who are trying to destroy the foundation for a democracy. And so the Vice President will follow up. He'll talk to our allies in the region and I think it'll be very important for them to take a really hard look at what they're doing and to say how can they do more to help the Iraqis.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, what is the status now of U.S.-Saudi relationship? The Vice President will be seeing King Abdallah in Riyadh. The King was critical of U.S. -- what he referred to as the American occupation in Iraq; your interlocutor the Saudi Prince Saud Al-Faisal in Sharm said that we don't see improvement on the ground. And there was talk about the Saudi monarch delaying or postponing a visit to Washington. Talk a little about this relationship.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, our relations are very good with Saudi Arabia. We agree completely on the strategic direction here. We are both concerned about extremism in the region. We are both concerned about al-Qaida and terrorism in the region. And clearly, the Saudis -- for instance on Lebanon, we have had very strong policies that go in the same direction. Saudi Arabia was very generous for the Lebanese Government during the Paris conference. Saudi Arabia has been a leader in helping to get the Arab League Initiative re-launched again out of the Riyadh Summit so that we can use that as one of the foundations to help press forward on Israeli-Palestinian peace, something that we continue to be very dedicated to, something that the President is committed to and we're going to continue to work, so we and the Saudis are working there. Sometimes we have tactical differences, but that really doesn't matter when you're pushing in the same strategic direction.

And as to Iraq, I think it's well understood by our Saudi friends that the American forces are there as a part of the multinational forces. The multinational forces are there, of course, under a UN Security Council resolution and we are all there to help this young Iraqi Government to succeed. And so I hope that the Saudis were reassured by what they heard from the Iraqi Government. But of course, the government of Prime Minister Maliki does have to work hard to make certain that national reconciliation takes place so that Iraq is an Iraq for all Iraqis.

QUESTION: What about the King's visit to Washington?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, the King will, I'm sure, at an appropriate time, come, but nothing had been scheduled, in fact. We've talked about it from time to time and the President will welcome him whenever it's possible.

QUESTION: I want to talk about the Syrians and the Iranians at Sharm, but before that. I don't -- I know you don't talk about domestic affairs in a state like Israel, obviously. But after the recent report on the Lebanon war, it seems that the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Olmert, has suffered a setback. I mean, what would that do to your efforts -- and you've been to the Middle East several times this year -- when you have a besieged Israeli Prime Minister and a weakened Palestinian Authority, essentially a two-headed authority. I mean, what would that do to your efforts to revive talks? It is tough, is it not?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, first of all, Israel is a strong democracy and democracies have a way of working their way through issues like this and we look forward to working with the Prime Minister and continuing to push forward. I hope that they will again renew the efforts to have the regular meetings with President Abbas. I think those -- I hope those will continue to go forward.

And we're going to continue to work toward the two-state solution because one thing that we know is that the Israeli people overwhelmingly want to get to a place where they have a neighbor who can be a contributor to their security and we know that the Palestinian people have waited a long time for their state. And so the President and I remain committed to that and as Israelis work through their democratic process, we're going to work with the Prime Minister and his government to move forward.

QUESTION: Okay. Madame Secretary, the Syrians would like to -- your meeting with Minister Walid Mualem in Sharm el-Sheikh to lead to something more, to a broader dialogue. And he obviously, in the meeting, asked you to return the American Ambassador to Damascus. Will they get what they want, both on the broader dialogue and the Ambassador?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, this meeting took place in the context of the neighbors meeting for Iraq. And that was what this conversation was about. It was about Iraq. And it's in the Syrians' interest to have a stable Iraq. It can't be a good thing to have extremists transiting Syria and that was the case that I made to Foreign Minister Mualem. It was a professional, businesslike meeting. But as to broader relations with the United States, there are many other issues. And one --

QUESTION: Lebanon, Palestine?

SECRETARY RICE: Yes, of course. And when it comes to Lebanon, I would say very directly to everyone that Lebanese democracy, Lebanese sovereignty is critical to the United States. We consider it one of the most important interests that we hold. The tribunal needs to take place. It needs to take place despite the deadlock that is taking place in Lebanon because the perpetrators of the assassination of Rafik Hariri need to be brought to justice. And the Siniora government, the democratically elected government of Lebanon needs to be supportive -- supported and Lebanon and Lebanese can count on the United States to do that.

QUESTION: So there shouldn’t be any concerns in Lebanon, that there is going to be some sort of a --


QUESTION: -- an agreement with Syria or that -- a lessening of the American support for the Tribunal even under Chapter 7?

SECRETARY RICE: Absolutely. If we have to do that, then that's what we will do because it's extremely important that this tribunal take place so that Lebanon can turn to normal life.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, what happened with the -- with your Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki in Sharm el-Sheikh? He somehow skedaddled before you arrived. Was it because he saw a lady wearing a red dress or maybe he saw red when he saw you?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I think maybe they should ask the Foreign Minister. Look, it was fine. We had not asked for a bilateral with the Iranians and they had not asked for one with us. We did encounter each other at lunch. It was pleasant and civil. But again, this was not a conference about U.S.-Iranian relations.

QUESTION: Yes, sure.

SECRETARY RICE: This was about Iraq. And I hope that in the context of that meeting, the Iranians will undertake to stop the flow of foreign fighters across their border, to stop the flow of sophisticated weaponry, particularly these explosively formed devices that are really just devastating to innocent Iraqis and to coalition forces who are there under a UN Security Council mandate. And so that was the message of the meeting and I think that message got through.

QUESTION: I don't know if you want to speculate on this matter. Could this be, as some people argue, a function of domestic differences within the government in Tehran or if they want a dialogue that will include the nuclear program?

SECRETARY RICE: You know, I don't know. And I -- no one can read the internal politics of Iran, most especially, not me. But I do hope that the Iranians understand that there are two different channels here. We've always said that if it was appropriate we could use a channel in Baghdad. The Ambassador has -- is there. We did this in Afghanistan.


SECRETARY RICE: And we have a channel for the nuclear issue through Javier Solana and the six states with which we have made the offer to Iran. So the proper channels are there. They're established and they can be used at any time.

QUESTION: I'm sure you're familiar with many voices in this country especially in academia who argue that, look, maybe the United States should remove the military option off the table to entice the Iranians to have a dialogue and that the Iranians may have some concern because of the increase in naval power -- American naval power in the Gulf. Now, that option is still on the table, as the President keeps saying.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, the American President is not going to take its options off the table and I would think you don't want the American President to take its options off the table. But the President has also said that he is focused on and committed to a diplomatic course. If the world stays strong, the diplomatic course has a very good chance of working.

And what I would say to the Iranians and in fact had a chance to say to an Iranian journalist when I was in Sharm el-Sheikh is that there are two paths here: one is the path of further isolation; the other is a path of engagement. And the international community has made a UN demand, which is that Iran suspend its enrichment and reprocessing and then there can be a change of 27 years in American foreign policy and we can sit down to talk about whatever is on their minds and on our minds.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, two years ago you gave a very eloquent, well-crafted speech in Cairo where you really laid down the case for democracy promotion in the region. Now, some of your critics now in Cairo and other places in the Arab world believe or get the impression that the United States is now backsliding, backtracking on the democracy agenda because of the fear of Islamists and they point out certain actions or positions by Washington vis-à-vis the Egyptians and other governments in the region. What would you say to those reformers who pinned their hopes on a strong position from the United States on this issue?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, let me be very clear. The Cairo speech to me was perhaps the most important speech that I have given. And it to me says what America stands for and what this Administration stands for and we're not going to back off that. Now, it is true that this has to be an indigenous move, that the people in Egypt have to take up the course. America cannot bring democracy to Egypt. That was never the intention. But I can tell you that when I talked to the Egyptian leadership, I bring up issues of what is happening with nongovernmental organizations. I bring up issues of people like Ayman Nour. I bring these issues up all the time with the Egyptian leadership because ultimately, Egypt is a great country and Egypt can lead the region to democracy. There have been ups and downs. I think that the presidential elections were a point in time that says Egypt will probably never go back to the kind of presidential elections that it's had in the past.

On the other hand, there have been some steps backward. But I'm a firm believer that without democracy in Egypt, without democracy in the Middle East, without moderate voices having a way to express themselves legitimately, the Middle East is not going to be able to defeat extremism.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, I really appreciate it. Thanks so much.

SECRETARY RICE: Thank you very much. Thank you.


Released on May 8, 2007

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