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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Now on BBC News, it's
time for HARDtalk.
Welcome to HARDtalk,
I'm Stephen Sackur.
In the spirit of marking his own
homework, President Trump has
already declared his foreign policy
and 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.
My guest today is Andrew Peek,
Deputy Assistant Secretary
of State, with responsibility
for Iran and Iraq.
Is the Trump presidency
really changing the rules
of the game in the Middle East?
Andrew Peek in Washington, DC,
welcome to HARDtalk.
Thank you so much.
It's great to be here.
If I may, I'm going to begin
with some words of yours,
written right after Donald Trump's
extraordinary election win
back in November 2016.
You said, "America's role
in the world will be fundamentally
altered by this election
and in the middle
East, most of all."
Well, now that you are inside
the State Department,
do you stand by that and in what way
do you think this fundamental
alteration has happened?
Oh, I think there is a lot of common
threads that run through American
foreign policy from one
administration to another.
I think one of the alterations
we saw was that in 2016
there was a fundamental choice
between a more hawkish foreign
policy, that for the first time,
really in a long time,
was offered by the Democrats.
And a more restrained foreign policy
that was offered by Donald Trump,
who sought to conserve American
resources while still accomplishing
a vital aims, kind of in the wake
of the excesses of the Iraq war
in 2003 and perhaps,
the Libyan and Syrian interventions
and nonintervention you know,
respectively in 2011.
I think there's been a different
approach to the region.
I think there has also been
a reassurance of our traditional
allies, Israel and the Sunni Gulf
countries, of their security
and America's commitment
to regional stability.
And also, I think there is a genuine
focus on perhaps strengthening some
of the holes or the,
you know, challenges
that are inherent in
the Iranian nuclear deal
that the Obama Administration
OK, well there's plenty
to unpack there.
I'm just very struck by another turn
of phrase of yours, you said,
"we are going to see the end
of America as a crusader
and the return of America
as a great power."
What exactly did you mean by that?
Well, I think this goes back to
2001, where in the Republican Party
there's always been these
two competing poles.
There's been the kind of 1990s
America as a great nation
with a unique moral message,
but not necessarily a proselytiser.
And then I think after 2001,
there was a definite shift
to America the proselytiser,
and America the country
that spread democracy
while wearing combat boots.
Which was a turn of phrase
which in the last Bush
administration, was quite common.
And I think that really the election
of Trump and some of the people that
he's brought into office
on the foreign policy side,
reflect that slightly older
the 1990s, the H W Bush.
America the realist, not necessarily
America the Evangelist.
But you can't be a great power
if the rest of the world doesn't
really understand what you're doing.
So let's get into your
areas of responsibility
and talk in some detail.
Iran, first of all.
I think it is fair to say the rest
of the world is somewhat confused
and indeed alarmed by your policy,
that is US policy,
towards Iran today.
Can you try and assure me that
you know what you are doing?
I'm not sure I would make
that general statement.
I'm not sure that when you say
the rest of the world,
I know who you are talking about.
OK, I will be clearer,
fair point, I will be clear.
The European Union,
the Russians, even the IAEA,
the nuclear watchdog authority,
all believe the US is mistaken,
in its current approach
to the nuclear deal with Iran,
which of course was struck
by the Obama Administration,
amongst the other great powers
with Iran and which Donald Trump now
seems intent upon tearing up.
Well, let me offer that
in the countries that
I most often deal with,
Israel, the Sunni Gulf
countries, Saudi Arabia,
The Emirates and others,
there's no confusion at all.
In fact, they are greatly reassured
by this Administration's approach
to Iran, because they are living
at the front line with
the challenges that Iran
and its regional behaviour plays.
From my interactions
with the European Union
and Western European countries,
I would say that I have found great
interest in trying to address
some of the challenges
of the Iranians nuclear deal.
If I may interrupt for a second,
surely what matters most
is the thinking in those partner
countries that you did
the deal with Iran with.
Of course, that is the Europeans,
the Russians and to quote the EU
foreign affairs spokeswoman,
Federica Mogherini, she says
the deal is working,
it is delivering on its main goal,
which means keeping the Iranians
nuclear programme in check.
And as I said, the IAEA,
which is the watchdog
authority overseeing it says,
"I can quite clearly state that Iran
is implementing its nuclear
The views of these people
matter, don't they?
They sure do.
I'mnot sure that I would be so bold
as to say the views of the countries
on the front line of Iran matter
less than the countries
in Western Europe.
I think that would be
a strong thing to say.
I would bet that Israel
and Saudi Arabia have very,
very strong feelings
about the Iranians nuclear deal.
Indeed, I know they do,
because I have talked to them.
I know they do to because I read
what they say, but nonetheless
the point of that deal
was to try to rein in
Iran's nuclear programme.
All of the experts who are given
the responsibility of monitoring
it, say it is working.
I just want to figure out
what you think Donald Trump
is going to do next,
because again, in terms of my point
about confusing signals,
we've had Mike Pence recently
indicate that as far as he's
concerned, the Trump administration
is going to trash the deal.
The deal is pretty much over.
But we've had other members
of the Trump team suggesting,
Rex Tillerson, the Secretary
of State is one of them,
suggesting there is much
more talking to be done.
So what is going on right now?
Well, I think the president has
been reasonably clear.
I think he wants, by May 12th,
an agreement with the Europeans that
will address some of the weaknesses
that are inherent JCPOA,
the Iran deal, that we inherited
from the Obama administration.
These are weaknesses
like the linkage between
sanctions and inspections.
How quickly sanctions come back
on if Iran doesn't comply
or doesn't comply fully,
or pushes back on inspections.
Or on ICBMs, why does
a country make ICBMs,
if not to carry a nuclear weapon?
Thus, shouldn't ICBMs be considered
part of a nuclear programme?
That's a question we're working
on with the Europeans also.
And lastly, this issue...
The Iranians with their...
I'm sorry, hang on one second...
The Iranians, on the
intercontinental ballistic missiles,
the Iranians aren't going to give
ground on that, they've
made that quite plain.
They are not interested in giving
new assurances on permanent
restrictions on uranium enrichment.
So there's really no wriggle room
here and Donald Trump has put
himself in the position
where he says he won't
certify the deal again.
He has basically asked the Europeans
to do the impossible
and if they can't do the impossible,
I just wonder, are you clear,
is the United States clear,
come May, sanctions will be
reintroduced and as far as the US
is concerned, the deal is over?
Again, there's a couple of different
areas that we're working on.
A third one is the
sunset clause, right?
I think there's broad agreement that
it's concerning that some of these
safeguards begin to be lost
after years eight, ten and so forth.
I will say, with the Europeans,
that there has been great interest
in working to strengthen elements
of the deal.
The president has said,
as you know, he's not
going to waive sanctions again,
he wants a follow on
agreement with the E3.
And I think that's pretty clear.
It just comes to my point
about the United States
being a great power.
If you are truly a great power,
you would be showing the sort
of leadership on this issue that
would have your partner
countries come with you.
But they are not coming with you.
In the end, it could well be
a humiliating situation where the US
is out on its own on this issue?
But I think it is being a great
power because other countries
are greatly reassured by car
approach to this issue.
And the fact that one
administration has a slightly
different policy focus,
or a greatly different policy focus,
as in the case of this
administration than the past
administration, being a great power
doesn't mean consistently doing
exactly what was done
the administration before.
These are real concerns we have
that are broadly shared
by a lot of Americans.
They broadly shared by a lot
of the international community.
And the fact the Iranians don't
like them, I don't think mitigates
the fact that we need address them.
Again, I am just wondering
what you mean, or what Donald Trump
means by some of the words he uses.
For example, during the recent spate
of street protests in Iran,
which mostly seem to be about issues
of costs of living,
but they became deeply political.
Some people calling even for the end
of the Islamic regime.
Donald Trump said in his tweets,
"the world is watching", he said,
"it is time for change."
So what is the United States doing
in terms of engineering change
and what sort of change do
you realistically expect to see?
You know, I thought the protests
that broke out in Iran
were so interesting.
They were fundamentally
different than in 2009.
This was a different demographic,
it was many working-class
Iranians, more regional.
They broke out in Iran's most
conservative, or one
of its most conservative
cities, in Mashhad.
You know, I would say
that we want to see a change
in Iran's behaviour.
I think some of the economic
hardships that are faced
by Iranians, which contributed
to the unrest in Iran,
came from sanctions and responses
by the international community
to Iran's destabilising behaviour
and I think reinforcing that link
on behalf of the US is something
we are quite committed to.
You saw protesters chanting,
"no to Lebanon", "yes to Iran".
That sort of thing is a real
undercurrent in Iran.
In addition to do basic weaknesses
of the regime and the economic
structure that it's trying to impose
on its people.
Yeah, go ahead.
Sorry, interesting that
in your Iran policy,
and you mentioned it in this
interview, working and feeling that
you are echoing the feelings
of allies in the region
like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Egypt being described by many
independent human rights
organisations as more repressive now
than at any time
in its recent history.
You are lining up with extremely
repressive authoritarian regimes
against a country where frankly,
at least protesters feel they're
able to take to the streets
and voice their concerns.
I am struggling again to see
what values are principles the Trump
administration is applying here.
Well, what I would offer
to you is that as it
has in the past, the US
makes its feelings on democracy,
on pluralistic government,
on basic rights, well-known
across the board.
This is not an Iran specific
issue, this is regional.
Hang on a second, please.
With respect, if we're talking
Egypt and President Sisi,
the United States is signally silent
and there is no condemnation.
In some cases where we have a good
relationship with countries,
we do it in private.
In other countries,
we do it in public.
There is not a one size fits
all to how we make our concerns
about human rights known.
Simply, that would be untenable,
we would have a galaxy of different
hues of relationships
with these countries.
We address this issue
differently in many cases.
A final point on Iran
and then we will move on.
The former UK ambassador
in the country and one of the UK
negotiators involved in the Iran
deal says of Donald Trump's
interventions in Iran,
he said, "to try to insert yourself
into the middle by too overt and too
activist an approach,
actually just plays into the hands
of the hardliners in Iran."
Yeah, well look, this is an argument
that has been made in the foreign
policy community since the 1970s,
since the Helsinki act, right?
I mean, how do you encourage
the growth of freedoms
in autocratic countries?
I remember we had this exact
same discussion under
the Reagan Administration
and in the late years of the Carter
How do you engage
with those countries?
Do you engage through their
government with the thought
of improving the rights
of the people?
Or do you engage through civic
society, which has traditionally
been the US platform?
So I think this is a continual
policy debate in this town.
This Administration has chosen
to differentiate itself
from the Obama Administration
by siding loudly and vocally
with the people who are
on the streets getting beat up.
OK, that's your template,
"we are doing things differently
from the Obama Administration".
Let's leave Iran for
a while and look at other parts
of the region.
You are responsible for Iraq.
Donald Trump made it plain
that whether it be Iraq,
Afghanistan, Syria, he didn't
want to see US troops on the ground
any more in these
So literally, specifically,
how many US military personnel,
trainers and whatever
are in Iraq right now?
Gosh, you know, for specific
operational issues I would urge
you to bring a defence
department person in here.
You know, I am happy to talk
about the foreign policy aspect,
I am happy to talk...
It is definitely part of foreign
policy if you've got boots
on the ground in Iraq.
That will do, a ballpark,
We now learn you are going to keep
2000 boots on the ground or pairs
of boots on the ground in Syria too
and we understand that more
than 15,000 US military personnel
are either already in or going to be
deployed to Afghanistan.
So coming back to your opening point
about the difference between Obama
and Trump when it comes to these
difficult foreign policy issues,
the difference ain't
so great after all, is it?
Well, in fact, I think
there is a lot of difference.
Trump is halving at least the amount
of people that we are going to be
having in Iraq.
In Afghanistan, there is
a recommendation from the commander
on the ground, Nick Nicholson,
with whom I served when I was
deployed there, that they needed
to reinforce the existing train,
advise and assist structure,
to give the Afghan government
a better grip on the country as it
moves forward over the next two
or three years.
Hang on, Donald Trump tweeted
literally dozens of times saying
that the Afghan policy was a huge
mistake, the troops should never
have been sent and if he were
president, those troops would be
coming home right now.
He's completely changed his policy.
Again, this is my understanding,
it was a request directly
from Nick Nicholson
to the president.
Afghanistan is not my area of writ.
Having served there myself,
I can tell you it is
a multifaceted problem set.
John Allen, my old commander,
used to call it the Ph.D.
Of Warfare and so it's a decision
that the White House
is constantly looking at.
I understand that Afghanistan
is not your specific bag and indeed
neither is Syria, but because Iraq
is, I am sure you take a great
interest in Syria because they are
neighbouring countries and some
of the issues cross the border, not
least the fight against so-called
IS and America's military
strategy in both countries.
Obviously, they are interlinked.
And in Syria in particular,
again it seems to me
you have a massive problem
because you have backed Kurdish
forces in northern Syria,
partly to eradicate remnants
of Islamic State and the Turks
are now calling the force you've
worked with, funded and trained,
a terrorist army and Mr Erdogan
in Turkey is sending his
forces in to fight them.
Turkey of course,
a fellow member of Nato.
The United States in Syria
is in a very big mess right now.
Well, listen, we are constantly
reinforcing to the Turks
that we want whatever
is happening in Afrin right now,
their operations, Operation Olive
Branch to limit civilian casualties,
to be proportional
and to be restrained.
We are constantly reinforcing
to the YPG not to provoke the Turks,
not to step outside of their
boundaries and to concentrate
on the fight that we all
agree on against Isis...
Your Nato partners in Turkey
are accusing you of funding
and training a terrorist
army on their border.
Again, we are constantly engaging
with the Turks on this issue.
We are constantly engaging the YPG
to de-conflict this and keep
the focus on Isis.
I mean, that is the core of US
policy, that is what we are doing.
It takes a little bit of time
sometimes, but we are constantly
engaged on this.
The country you are specifically
responsible for as well as Iran,
There are supposed to be
elections in Iraq in May.
Do you have full confidence
in Prime Minister Abadi,
are you backing him
and you want to see him succeed
in those elections?
Oh gosh, the Iraqi elections
are really interesting.
We are not backing
We think his leadership has been
extremely positive for Iraq,
not least of which pulling it back
from the brink in 2014.
What I would offer is,
I think it is a reflection
on the progress that has
been achieved in Iraq,
that it is one of the few countries
in the region where we genuinely
don't know who is going to lead
the country after May.
There is a couple of
main Shia candidates.
Whoever wins will likely amalgamate
a list with several,
smaller ethnic parties.
But we think Abadi's leadership has
been positive for Iraq,
that goes without saying.
Interesting that just
a very short time ago,
Mr Abadi tried to bring
in an Iranian-backed Shia militia
into his governing coalition.
It failed in the end,
but it was an intent that he had
and certainly if one looks at Syria,
the Iranians' influence is huge,
long-running and military
So going back to your point that
you see Iran as an overarching
threat in the region,
things really aren't going that well
are they, for the United States,
if that is your overarching concern?
Well, I was encouraged by the fact
that the Iranians backed group
you mentioned that tried to join
with Abadi, engaged in an electoral
coalition with him for a grand total
of 20 hours, before withdrawing.
So from that perspective,
I was greatly encourage.
The reality Iraq faces, as you know,
it is adjacent to Iran.
It will be next to Iran
for the rest of the time
that there is an Iraq and Iran.
So it's going to have some kind
of relationship with that country
and thus, Iranian backed
candidates like Amiri will,
are allowed to participate
in the elections.
Now, we think that Hahram Amiri
is genuinely a negative force.
But, you know, Iraq is a sovereign
country, we cannot force
the Prime Minister to enter
into electoral coalitions
with people we don't like.
All right, we must end
soon, but before we do,
a more general point.
You have made a point to me
of saying, you know what,
we are rebuilding our friendships
and partnerships with long-time
allies in the region.
How does that square
with the fallout from Donald Trump's
very personal decision to move
the US Embassy in Israel
from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,
as the capital of Israel?
The fallout from that has been
not least in some of countries
like Saudi Arabia that you've cited
to me as your staunchest partners.
For you, it makes your job so much
more difficult, doesn't it?
You know, I would say that Saudis
recognise that decision as one
element in our relationship.
I would say that the president
was simply carrying out a law that
had been on the books for over ten
years, in doing that.
And by the way, a campaign
promise of his from 2016.
So I think all of those
countries that I referenced,
see the US regional relationship
as composed of many things
and aren't going to tank it over
any single one of them.
Well, you may be confident,
many others aren't.
Relevant to this, he wasn't just
making a point just about the move
of the embassy in Israel,
but he was making a point
about the way in which Donald
Trump's foreign policy has become
so controversial in so many
countries with his global approval
rating, according to Gallup,
down at historic lows,
much lower than Barack Obama's.
In a response to all of that,
it has to be said, conservative
commentator, Max Boot,
wrote this, he said,
"Trump has proved to be the worst
salesman that America has ever had.
Far from winning over other
countries, he's actively repelling
and repulsing them."
Again, makes your job awfully
difficult, doesn't it?
Not at all, I think the region has
been greatly encouraged
by Donald Trump's election.
I can't stress that to you enough.
The Sunni Gulf allies and Israel.
All right, we'll leave it there.
Andrew Peek, I thank you very much
for joining me on HARDtalk.
Thanks so much, great to be here.
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?