Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
Kuwait City, Kuwait
The Sheraton Hotel
QUESTION: I would like to thank Mr. Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, and thank you for joining us this brief interview. Hopefully it will shed a light on some major issues.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Pleasure to be with you. Thank you.
QUESTION: First, let’s talk about – start with Tunisia. It’s like, been political development and it’s – things are moving in different directions. What’s your take on this?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, Tunisia’s been a strong, remarkable example of democracy in recent years, and I think it sends a strong message to see a strong democracy in Tunisia that represents the will and the interests of the people. So we’ve been concerned by the steps taken to move out of the constitutional order, and that’s a real concern. I spoke to the president just a few days ago to express those concerns. We know the devastation that’s occurred in Tunisia through COVID-19, the economy. We know that the government needs to be responsive to those challenges and to those problems. But we – we’re urging our friends in Tunisia to move forward in a way that’s consistent with the constitution, that gets back on the democratic path, follows the democratic order, and including unfreezing the parliament and, of course, establishing a government.
QUESTION: Okay. Another very important issue for at least people in the Gulf area is the nuclear Iraqi – I mean, Iranian nuclear deal. You just talked in the press conference about diplomacy will not be forever. What are other options if these talks fail? I mean, is the military option on the table?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I don’t want to get into hypotheticals other than to say that we are determined that Iran not acquire a nuclear weapon. And that has been and remains resolutely our policy. We believe that it’s in our interest and Iran’s interest to come back into compliance with the nuclear agreement, the JCPOA. But that really depends on Iran making the decision to do so. It’s not yet made that decision. Meanwhile, it continues to advance its nuclear program in very dangerous ways, and at some point those advances will be such that returning to compliance with the nuclear agreement won’t solve the problem. So that’s why I say this can’t go on indefinitely.
Meanwhile, of course, we’ve seen protests in Iran that started outside of Tehran; they’ve now come to Tehran. In the first instance they were really about people’s deep frustration with the failure of government to meet their basic needs, including water, mismanagement of the economy. And now we’ve seen them move to people expressing their larger aspirations for freedom and for a government that respects them and respects their rights. And, of course, we stand with the people of Iran in the desire to have their voices heard, and we urge – strongly urge the government not to use violence and repression to silence those voices.
QUESTION: Do you think if the talks succeed, and Iran will actually agree to not only the nuclear deal but also the broader picture of the missile problem and the other issues of its behavior in the area, do you think this would open the door, and do you envision seeing normal relation with Iran or even – in the foreseeable future, or maybe Iran become an ally in distant future?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, we’re focused right now on determining whether Iran is willing to come back into compliance with the nuclear deal, and doing what the nuclear deal did, which is to put its nuclear program in a box and to remove the danger that Iran would be in a position to acquire a nuclear weapon very, very quickly.
At the same time, we’re determined to address the other challenges posed by Iran to us and to other countries in the region, including its destabilizing actions, its support for proxies and other militia that are engaged in violent action, its support for terrorism. And that requires Iran’s engagement as well.
So our hope would be that we can return to the nuclear agreement and use that as a foundation for engaging Iran on these other issues where its actions are of real concern to us and to partners in the region. Beyond that, it’s very hard to imagine the future. We need to be focused on what we can do in the time ahead.
QUESTION: When people in the region now, they are – some people or some allies maybe, they’re concerned about what they see. I mean, they see – some people are interpreting what’s happening as U.S. pulling away, they’re questioning the commitment of the U.S. to their security, especially after withdrawing from Afghanistan in the manner it’s happened, and also the pact with Iraq which is rebranding the – your operation to an advisory position or an advisory phase and then reducing some of the defensive assets here in the Gulf. People are a bit worried, even some of them might say they’re not, but that the United States is moving now to confront China, maybe at their own security – at the expense it. What do – how do you answer such concerns?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I think you have to look at each situation in its own right, which I’ll come to in a second. But I also think it’s a mistake to equate engagement to the extent of our military presence in any one place. We remain and we will remain very much present in the region and committed to the defense of our allies and partners. That’s not going to change. But my definition of engagement is much broader than the number of forces we may have in any one place. It’s our economic engagement, our diplomatic engagement, our political engagement, and that is only increasing, including here in the Middle East. And deepening, strengthening partnerships with countries throughout the region, to include Kuwait where I am today, is very much part of the agenda.
Now, the individual cases, it’s important to look at them, as I say, in their own right. Afghanistan – we – why did we go to Afghanistan in the first place? It was because we were attacked on 9/11. We went there to bring to justice those who attacked us and to try to make sure that that could not happen again from Afghanistan soil. And we largely succeeded in achieving those objectives. Osama bin Laden was brought to justice 10 years ago, and al-Qaida as a threat from Afghanistan to us and to others has been vastly diminished. And we’ll keep an eye on things to make sure it doesn’t reemerge, and if it does, we would take action to deal with that.
And, of course, again, it’s 20 years later, $1 trillion. Even as we are removing our forces, we’re remaining very much engaged in Afghanistan, supporting Afghanistan economically, development assistance, humanitarian assistance, support for its security forces, and diplomatic engagement to try to bring the parties to the table – the Taliban, the Afghan Government – to negotiate an end to the conflict. So I think that’s the story on Afghanistan.
When it comes to Iraq, the success of Iraqi security forces is such that we are able to transition the mission that we have in Iraq so that our focus there is on supporting those forces with training and advice to deal with Daesh and any prospect that might reemerge. Meanwhile, we have a very broad relationship with Iraq economically, diplomatically, politically. We just had a Strategic Dialogue in Washington with senior Iraqi leadership that is evidence of that partnership. So again, I think you have to be very careful with equating our engagement in any particular place just by looking at the numbers of American forces there. I think we’re much more effective when that engagement is broad-based across the board, and on that basis, our engagement has only deepened.
QUESTION: The last question, Mr. Secretary. China is coming with a – very strongly in this area with the Silk Road initiative. Do you have a competing vision from the U.S. to compete now with China for the future in the next decade and other decades?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, a few things are important here. First, this is not a question of having to choose between China and the United States. We know that people have relationships, economic relationships with a variety of countries, including China, and that includes investments from China. But I think what’s very important is this: We all have to look very carefully at the investments that are being made. First, if they’re in sensitive areas involving sensitive technologies, that’s something people have to look at very carefully. Unfortunately, when it comes to China, there’s really no difference between its so-called private companies and the state. The state can order the companies to do anything at any time. And we know that when it comes to human rights, when it comes to privacy, when it comes to protecting intellectual property, China has a different view of those issues than we do and others do. So there’s that.
Second, in terms of investments, and as countries receive them and are in – doing business, they have to look very carefully at what that might involve. And if it involves, for example, taking on a tremendous amount of debt that you can’t repay, if it involves workers coming in from another country to do the work – in this case, China – as opposed to having local workers do it, if it involves corruption, if it involves a lack of transparency, if it involves building things to bad standards without care for the environment, well, all of those things have to be factored in. We do, I think, have an alternative vision, and that is to make investments that are, as we would say, a race to the top, not a race to the bottom, with a focus on making sure that countries don’t take on debt that they can’t manage, with a focus on the rights of workers, being attentive to the environment, making sure that we’re building things to high standards. So, people can decide and make a choice about what makes the most sense for them.
QUESTION: Well, thank you very much. I really appreciate it. Would love to have more time with you, but our time is out.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.
QUESTION: Appreciate you being with us. Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much.