Andrew Peek - US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs HARDtalk


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Andrew Peek - US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs

Stephen Sackur speaks to Andrew Peek, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran and Iraq. Is the Trump presidency changing the rules of the game in the Middle East?


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LineFromTo

Now on BBC News, it's

time for HARDtalk.

0:00:020:00:04

Welcome to HARDtalk,

I'm Stephen Sackur.

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In the spirit of marking his own

homework, President Trump has

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already declared his foreign policy

and outstanding success.

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So-called Islamic State vanquished,

Iran put on notice, the Middle East

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reminded that America sticks

by its friends and

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stands up to enemies.

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My guest today is Andrew Peek,

Deputy Assistant Secretary

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of State, with responsibility

for Iran and Iraq.

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Is the Trump presidency

really changing the rules

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of the game in the Middle East?

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Andrew Peek in Washington, DC,

welcome to HARDtalk.

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Thank you so much.

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It's great to be here.

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If I may, I'm going to begin

with some words of yours,

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written right after Donald Trump's

extraordinary election win

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back in November 2016.

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You said, "America's role

in the world will be fundamentally

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altered by this election

and in the middle

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East, most of all."

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Well, now that you are inside

the State Department,

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do you stand by that and in what way

do you think this fundamental

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alteration has happened?

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Oh, I think there is a lot of common

threads that run through American

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foreign policy from one

administration to another.

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I think one of the alterations

we saw was that in 2016

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there was a fundamental choice

between a more hawkish foreign

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policy, that for the first time,

really in a long time,

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was offered by the Democrats.

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And a more restrained foreign policy

that was offered by Donald Trump,

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who sought to conserve American

resources while still accomplishing

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a vital aims, kind of in the wake

of the excesses of the Iraq war

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in 2003 and perhaps,

the Libyan and Syrian interventions

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and nonintervention you know,

respectively in 2011.

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I think there's been a different

approach to the region.

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I think there has also been

a reassurance of our traditional

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allies, Israel and the Sunni Gulf

countries, of their security

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and America's commitment

to regional stability.

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And also, I think there is a genuine

focus on perhaps strengthening some

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of the holes or the,

you know, challenges

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that are inherent in

the Iranian nuclear deal

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that the Obama Administration

left behind.

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OK, well there's plenty

to unpack there.

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I'm just very struck by another turn

of phrase of yours, you said,

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"we are going to see the end

of America as a crusader

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and the return of America

as a great power."

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What exactly did you mean by that?

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Well, I think this goes back to

2001, where in the Republican Party

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there's always been these

two competing poles.

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There's been the kind of 1990s

America as a great nation

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with a unique moral message,

but not necessarily a proselytiser.

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And then I think after 2001,

there was a definite shift

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to America the proselytiser,

and America the country

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that spread democracy

while wearing combat boots.

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Which was a turn of phrase

which in the last Bush

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administration, was quite common.

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And I think that really the election

of Trump and some of the people that

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he's brought into office

on the foreign policy side,

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reflect that slightly older

republican tradition,

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the 1990s, the H W Bush.

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America the realist, not necessarily

America the Evangelist.

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But you can't be a great power

if the rest of the world doesn't

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really understand what you're doing.

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So let's get into your

areas of responsibility

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and talk in some detail.

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Iran, first of all.

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I think it is fair to say the rest

of the world is somewhat confused

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and indeed alarmed by your policy,

that is US policy,

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towards Iran today.

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Can you try and assure me that

you know what you are doing?

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I'm not sure I would make

that general statement.

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I'm not sure that when you say

the rest of the world,

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I know who you are talking about.

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OK, I will be clearer,

fair point, I will be clear.

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The European Union,

the Russians, even the IAEA,

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the nuclear watchdog authority,

all believe the US is mistaken,

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fundamentally mistaken

in its current approach

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to the nuclear deal with Iran,

which of course was struck

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by the Obama Administration,

amongst the other great powers

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with Iran and which Donald Trump now

seems intent upon tearing up.

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Well, let me offer that

in the countries that

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I most often deal with,

Israel, the Sunni Gulf

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countries, Saudi Arabia,

The Emirates and others,

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there's no confusion at all.

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In fact, they are greatly reassured

by this Administration's approach

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to Iran, because they are living

at the front line with

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the challenges that Iran

and its regional behaviour plays.

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From my interactions

with the European Union

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and Western European countries,

I would say that I have found great

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interest in trying to address

some of the challenges

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of the Iranians nuclear deal.

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If I may interrupt for a second,

surely what matters most

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is the thinking in those partner

countries that you did

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the deal with Iran with.

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Of course, that is the Europeans,

the Russians and to quote the EU

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foreign affairs spokeswoman,

Federica Mogherini, she says

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the deal is working,

it is delivering on its main goal,

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which means keeping the Iranians

nuclear programme in check.

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And as I said, the IAEA,

which is the watchdog

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authority overseeing it says,

"I can quite clearly state that Iran

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is implementing its nuclear

related commitments."

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The views of these people

matter, don't they?

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They sure do.

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I'mnot sure that I would be so bold

as to say the views of the countries

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on the front line of Iran matter

less than the countries

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in Western Europe.

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I think that would be

a strong thing to say.

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I would bet that Israel

and Saudi Arabia have very,

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very strong feelings

about the Iranians nuclear deal.

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Indeed, I know they do,

because I have talked to them.

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I know they do to because I read

what they say, but nonetheless

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the point of that deal

was to try to rein in

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Iran's nuclear programme.

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All of the experts who are given

the responsibility of monitoring

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it, say it is working.

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I just want to figure out

what you think Donald Trump

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is going to do next,

because again, in terms of my point

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about confusing signals,

we've had Mike Pence recently

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indicate that as far as he's

concerned, the Trump administration

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is going to trash the deal.

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The deal is pretty much over.

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But we've had other members

of the Trump team suggesting,

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Rex Tillerson, the Secretary

of State is one of them,

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suggesting there is much

more talking to be done.

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So what is going on right now?

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Well, I think the president has

been reasonably clear.

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I think he wants, by May 12th,

an agreement with the Europeans that

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will address some of the weaknesses

that are inherent JCPOA,

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the Iran deal, that we inherited

from the Obama administration.

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These are weaknesses

like the linkage between

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sanctions and inspections.

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How quickly sanctions come back

on if Iran doesn't comply

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or doesn't comply fully,

or pushes back on inspections.

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Or on ICBMs, why does

a country make ICBMs,

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if not to carry a nuclear weapon?

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Thus, shouldn't ICBMs be considered

part of a nuclear programme?

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That's a question we're working

on with the Europeans also.

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And lastly, this issue...

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The Iranians with their...

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I'm sorry, hang on one second...

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The Iranians, on the

intercontinental ballistic missiles,

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the Iranians aren't going to give

ground on that, they've

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made that quite plain.

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They are not interested in giving

new assurances on permanent

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restrictions on uranium enrichment.

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So there's really no wriggle room

here and Donald Trump has put

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himself in the position

where he says he won't

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certify the deal again.

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He has basically asked the Europeans

to do the impossible

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and if they can't do the impossible,

I just wonder, are you clear,

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is the United States clear,

come May, sanctions will be

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reintroduced and as far as the US

is concerned, the deal is over?

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Again, there's a couple of different

areas that we're working on.

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A third one is the

sunset clause, right?

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I think there's broad agreement that

it's concerning that some of these

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safeguards begin to be lost

after years eight, ten and so forth.

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I will say, with the Europeans,

that there has been great interest

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in working to strengthen elements

of the deal.

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The president has said,

as you know, he's not

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going to waive sanctions again,

he wants a follow on

0:09:250:09:28

agreement with the E3.

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And I think that's pretty clear.

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It just comes to my point

about the United States

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being a great power.

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If you are truly a great power,

you would be showing the sort

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of leadership on this issue that

would have your partner

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countries come with you.

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But they are not coming with you.

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In the end, it could well be

a humiliating situation where the US

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is out on its own on this issue?

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But I think it is being a great

power because other countries

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are greatly reassured by car

approach to this issue.

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And the fact that one

administration has a slightly

0:10:050:10:07

different policy focus,

or a greatly different policy focus,

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as in the case of this

administration than the past

0:10:100:10:12

administration, being a great power

doesn't mean consistently doing

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exactly what was done

the administration before.

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These are real concerns we have

that are broadly shared

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by a lot of Americans.

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They broadly shared by a lot

of the international community.

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And the fact the Iranians don't

like them, I don't think mitigates

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the fact that we need address them.

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Again, I am just wondering

what you mean, or what Donald Trump

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means by some of the words he uses.

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For example, during the recent spate

of street protests in Iran,

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which mostly seem to be about issues

of costs of living,

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but they became deeply political.

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Some people calling even for the end

of the Islamic regime.

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Donald Trump said in his tweets,

"the world is watching", he said,

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"it is time for change."

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So what is the United States doing

in terms of engineering change

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and what sort of change do

you realistically expect to see?

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You know, I thought the protests

that broke out in Iran

0:11:050:11:08

were so interesting.

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They were fundamentally

different than in 2009.

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This was a different demographic,

it was many working-class

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Iranians, more regional.

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They broke out in Iran's most

conservative, or one

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of its most conservative

cities, in Mashhad.

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You know, I would say

that we want to see a change

0:11:250:11:28

in Iran's behaviour.

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I think some of the economic

hardships that are faced

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by Iranians, which contributed

to the unrest in Iran,

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came from sanctions and responses

by the international community

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to Iran's destabilising behaviour

and I think reinforcing that link

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on behalf of the US is something

we are quite committed to.

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You saw protesters chanting,

"no to Lebanon", "yes to Iran".

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That sort of thing is a real

undercurrent in Iran.

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Yeah.

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In addition to do basic weaknesses

of the regime and the economic

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structure that it's trying to impose

on its people.

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We want...

0:12:140:12:14

Interesting that...

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Yeah, go ahead.

0:12:150:12:25

Sorry, interesting that

in your Iran policy,

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and you mentioned it in this

interview, working and feeling that

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you are echoing the feelings

of allies in the region

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like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

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Egypt being described by many

independent human rights

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organisations as more repressive now

than at any time

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in its recent history.

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You are lining up with extremely

repressive authoritarian regimes

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against a country where frankly,

at least protesters feel they're

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able to take to the streets

and voice their concerns.

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I am struggling again to see

what values are principles the Trump

0:12:470:12:50

administration is applying here.

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Well, what I would offer

to you is that as it

0:12:510:12:54

has in the past, the US

makes its feelings on democracy,

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on pluralistic government,

on basic rights, well-known

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across the board.

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This is not an Iran specific

issue, this is regional.

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Hang on a second, please.

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With respect, if we're talking

Egypt and President Sisi,

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the United States is signally silent

and there is no condemnation.

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In some cases where we have a good

relationship with countries,

0:13:170:13:18

we do it in private.

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In other countries,

we do it in public.

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There is not a one size fits

all to how we make our concerns

0:13:220:13:26

about human rights known.

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Simply, that would be untenable,

we would have a galaxy of different

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hues of relationships

with these countries.

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We address this issue

differently in many cases.

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A final point on Iran

and then we will move on.

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The former UK ambassador

in the country and one of the UK

0:13:450:13:48

negotiators involved in the Iran

deal says of Donald Trump's

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interventions, rhetorical

interventions in Iran,

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he said, "to try to insert yourself

into the middle by too overt and too

0:13:530:13:57

activist an approach,

actually just plays into the hands

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of the hardliners in Iran."

0:14:000:14:00

It's counter-productive.

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Yeah, well look, this is an argument

that has been made in the foreign

0:14:120:14:16

policy community since the 1970s,

since the Helsinki act, right?

0:14:160:14:20

I mean, how do you encourage

the growth of freedoms

0:14:200:14:23

in autocratic countries?

0:14:230:14:26

I remember we had this exact

same discussion under

0:14:260:14:28

the Reagan Administration

and in the late years of the Carter

0:14:280:14:31

Administration.

0:14:310:14:33

How do you engage

with those countries?

0:14:330:14:35

Do you engage through their

government with the thought

0:14:350:14:38

of improving the rights

of the people?

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Or do you engage through civic

society, which has traditionally

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been the US platform?

0:14:430:14:46

So I think this is a continual

policy debate in this town.

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This Administration has chosen

to differentiate itself

0:14:500:14:51

from the Obama Administration

by siding loudly and vocally

0:14:510:14:54

with the people who are

on the streets getting beat up.

0:14:540:15:00

OK, that's your template,

"we are doing things differently

0:15:010:15:03

from the Obama Administration".

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Let's leave Iran for

a while and look at other parts

0:15:060:15:09

of the region.

0:15:090:15:10

You are responsible for Iraq.

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Donald Trump made it plain

that whether it be Iraq,

0:15:120:15:17

Afghanistan, Syria, he didn't

want to see US troops on the ground

0:15:170:15:20

any more in these

foreign entanglements.

0:15:200:15:22

So literally, specifically,

how many US military personnel,

0:15:220:15:25

trainers and whatever

are in Iraq right now?

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Gosh, you know, for specific

operational issues I would urge

0:15:310:15:34

you to bring a defence

department person in here.

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You know, I am happy to talk

about the foreign policy aspect,

0:15:370:15:40

I am happy to talk...

0:15:400:15:41

It is definitely part of foreign

policy if you've got boots

0:15:420:15:45

on the ground in Iraq.

0:15:450:15:46

Several thousand.

0:15:460:15:49

That will do, a ballpark,

several thousand.

0:15:490:15:51

We now learn you are going to keep

2000 boots on the ground or pairs

0:15:510:15:55

of boots on the ground in Syria too

and we understand that more

0:15:550:15:59

than 15,000 US military personnel

are either already in or going to be

0:15:590:16:02

deployed to Afghanistan.

0:16:020:16:05

So coming back to your opening point

about the difference between Obama

0:16:050:16:10

and Trump when it comes to these

difficult foreign policy issues,

0:16:100:16:13

the difference ain't

so great after all, is it?

0:16:130:16:16

Well, in fact, I think

there is a lot of difference.

0:16:170:16:19

Trump is halving at least the amount

of people that we are going to be

0:16:200:16:24

having in Iraq.

0:16:240:16:25

In Afghanistan, there is

a recommendation from the commander

0:16:250:16:28

on the ground, Nick Nicholson,

with whom I served when I was

0:16:280:16:31

deployed there, that they needed

to reinforce the existing train,

0:16:310:16:34

advise and assist structure,

to give the Afghan government

0:16:340:16:36

a better grip on the country as it

moves forward over the next two

0:16:360:16:40

or three years.

0:16:400:16:49

Hang on, Donald Trump tweeted

literally dozens of times saying

0:16:490:16:51

that the Afghan policy was a huge

mistake, the troops should never

0:16:510:16:55

have been sent and if he were

president, those troops would be

0:16:550:16:58

coming home right now.

0:16:580:16:59

He's completely changed his policy.

0:16:590:17:04

Again, this is my understanding,

it was a request directly

0:17:040:17:09

from Nick Nicholson

to the president.

0:17:090:17:11

Afghanistan is not my area of writ.

0:17:110:17:16

Having served there myself,

I can tell you it is

0:17:160:17:18

a multifaceted problem set.

0:17:190:17:20

John Allen, my old commander,

used to call it the Ph.D.

0:17:200:17:23

Of Warfare and so it's a decision

that the White House

0:17:230:17:26

is constantly looking at.

0:17:260:17:27

I understand that Afghanistan

is not your specific bag and indeed

0:17:270:17:30

neither is Syria, but because Iraq

is, I am sure you take a great

0:17:300:17:33

interest in Syria because they are

neighbouring countries and some

0:17:340:17:36

of the issues cross the border, not

least the fight against so-called

0:17:360:17:39

IS and America's military

strategy in both countries.

0:17:400:17:51

Obviously, they are interlinked.

0:17:510:17:53

And in Syria in particular,

again it seems to me

0:17:530:17:57

you have a massive problem

because you have backed Kurdish

0:17:570:17:59

forces in northern Syria,

partly to eradicate remnants

0:18:000:18:02

of Islamic State and the Turks

are now calling the force you've

0:18:020:18:05

worked with, funded and trained,

a terrorist army and Mr Erdogan

0:18:050:18:08

in Turkey is sending his

forces in to fight them.

0:18:080:18:11

Turkey of course,

a fellow member of Nato.

0:18:110:18:13

The United States in Syria

is in a very big mess right now.

0:18:130:18:27

Well, listen, we are constantly

reinforcing to the Turks

0:18:270:18:29

that we want whatever

is happening in Afrin right now,

0:18:290:18:32

their operations, Operation Olive

Branch to limit civilian casualties,

0:18:320:18:34

to be proportional

and to be restrained.

0:18:350:18:46

We are constantly reinforcing

to the YPG not to provoke the Turks,

0:18:470:18:50

not to step outside of their

boundaries and to concentrate

0:18:500:18:52

on the fight that we all

agree on against Isis...

0:18:520:18:55

Your Nato partners in Turkey

are accusing you of funding

0:18:550:18:58

and training a terrorist

army on their border.

0:18:580:19:04

Again, we are constantly engaging

with the Turks on this issue.

0:19:040:19:10

We are constantly engaging the YPG

to de-conflict this and keep

0:19:100:19:13

the focus on Isis.

0:19:130:19:15

I mean, that is the core of US

policy, that is what we are doing.

0:19:150:19:19

It takes a little bit of time

sometimes, but we are constantly

0:19:190:19:22

engaged on this.

0:19:220:19:24

The country you are specifically

responsible for as well as Iran,

0:19:240:19:27

is Iraq.

0:19:270:19:28

There are supposed to be

elections in Iraq in May.

0:19:280:19:31

Do you have full confidence

in Prime Minister Abadi,

0:19:310:19:33

are you backing him

and you want to see him succeed

0:19:330:19:36

in those elections?

0:19:360:19:41

Oh gosh, the Iraqi elections

are really interesting.

0:19:420:19:44

We are not backing

Abadi specifically.

0:19:440:19:45

We think his leadership has been

extremely positive for Iraq,

0:19:450:19:48

not least of which pulling it back

from the brink in 2014.

0:19:480:19:58

What I would offer is,

I think it is a reflection

0:19:580:20:01

on the progress that has

been achieved in Iraq,

0:20:010:20:03

that it is one of the few countries

in the region where we genuinely

0:20:030:20:07

don't know who is going to lead

the country after May.

0:20:070:20:13

There is a couple of

main Shia candidates.

0:20:130:20:15

Whoever wins will likely amalgamate

a list with several,

0:20:150:20:18

probably several

smaller ethnic parties.

0:20:180:20:22

But we think Abadi's leadership has

been positive for Iraq,

0:20:220:20:25

that goes without saying.

0:20:250:20:28

Interesting that just

a very short time ago,

0:20:280:20:30

Mr Abadi tried to bring

in an Iranian-backed Shia militia

0:20:310:20:33

into his governing coalition.

0:20:330:20:39

It failed in the end,

but it was an intent that he had

0:20:390:20:43

and certainly if one looks at Syria,

the Iranians' influence is huge,

0:20:430:20:46

long-running and military

and political.

0:20:460:20:48

So going back to your point that

you see Iran as an overarching

0:20:490:20:52

threat in the region,

things really aren't going that well

0:20:520:20:55

are they, for the United States,

if that is your overarching concern?

0:20:550:21:01

Well, I was encouraged by the fact

that the Iranians backed group

0:21:010:21:05

you mentioned that tried to join

with Abadi, engaged in an electoral

0:21:050:21:08

coalition with him for a grand total

of 20 hours, before withdrawing.

0:21:080:21:11

So from that perspective,

I was greatly encourage.

0:21:110:21:13

The reality Iraq faces, as you know,

it is adjacent to Iran.

0:21:130:21:21

It will be next to Iran

for the rest of the time

0:21:210:21:24

that there is an Iraq and Iran.

0:21:240:21:26

So it's going to have some kind

of relationship with that country

0:21:270:21:30

and thus, Iranian backed

candidates like Amiri will,

0:21:300:21:32

are allowed to participate

in the elections.

0:21:320:21:37

Now, we think that Hahram Amiri

is genuinely a negative force.

0:21:370:21:41

But, you know, Iraq is a sovereign

country, we cannot force

0:21:410:21:45

the Prime Minister to enter

into electoral coalitions

0:21:450:21:47

with people we don't like.

0:21:470:22:05

All right, we must end

soon, but before we do,

0:22:050:22:08

a more general point.

0:22:080:22:09

You have made a point to me

of saying, you know what,

0:22:090:22:12

we are rebuilding our friendships

and partnerships with long-time

0:22:120:22:14

allies in the region.

0:22:140:22:15

How does that square

with the fallout from Donald Trump's

0:22:150:22:18

very personal decision to move

the US Embassy in Israel

0:22:180:22:21

from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,

recognising Jerusalem

0:22:210:22:23

as the capital of Israel?

0:22:230:22:29

The fallout from that has been

profoundly negative,

0:22:290:22:31

not least in some of countries

like Saudi Arabia that you've cited

0:22:310:22:35

to me as your staunchest partners.

0:22:350:22:38

For you, it makes your job so much

more difficult, doesn't it?

0:22:380:22:44

You know, I would say that Saudis

recognise that decision as one

0:22:440:22:47

element in our relationship.

0:22:470:22:52

I would say that the president

was simply carrying out a law that

0:22:520:22:55

had been on the books for over ten

years, in doing that.

0:22:550:22:59

And by the way, a campaign

promise of his from 2016.

0:22:590:23:02

So I think all of those

countries that I referenced,

0:23:020:23:05

see the US regional relationship

as composed of many things

0:23:050:23:08

and aren't going to tank it over

any single one of them.

0:23:080:23:18

Well, you may be confident,

many others aren't.

0:23:180:23:20

Relevant to this, he wasn't just

making a point just about the move

0:23:200:23:24

of the embassy in Israel,

but he was making a point

0:23:240:23:27

about the way in which Donald

Trump's foreign policy has become

0:23:270:23:30

so controversial in so many

countries with his global approval

0:23:300:23:34

rating, according to Gallup,

down at historic lows,

0:23:340:23:36

much lower than Barack Obama's.

0:23:360:23:40

In a response to all of that,

it has to be said, conservative

0:23:400:23:43

commentator, Max Boot,

wrote this, he said,

0:23:430:23:45

"Trump has proved to be the worst

salesman that America has ever had.

0:23:450:23:49

Far from winning over other

countries, he's actively repelling

0:23:490:23:51

and repulsing them."

0:23:510:23:54

Again, makes your job awfully

difficult, doesn't it?

0:23:540:23:58

Not at all, I think the region has

been greatly encouraged

0:23:590:24:01

by Donald Trump's election.

0:24:020:24:03

I can't stress that to you enough.

0:24:030:24:05

The Sunni Gulf allies and Israel.

0:24:050:24:07

All right, we'll leave it there.

0:24:070:24:09

Andrew Peek, I thank you very much

for joining me on HARDtalk.

0:24:090:24:13

Thanks so much, great to be here.

0:24:130:24:15

Stephen Sackur speaks to Andrew Peek, deputy assistant secretary of state with responsibility for Iran and Iraq. In the spirit of marking his own homework President Trump has already declared his foreign policy an outstanding success - so-called Islamic State vanquished, Iran put on notice, the middle east reminded that America sticks by its friends and stands up to enemies. Is the Trump presidency really changing the rules of the game in the Middle East?