QUESTION: Joining me now is the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. Welcome, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Fareed. It’s great to be with you.
QUESTION: President Biden says that he thinks now that there is a ceasefire in – between the Israelis and Palestinians – there is a significant opportunity for even more positive developments, or a “genuine opportunity,” I think, if I’m quoting him correctly. And I’m wondering: Is there really? I mean, you have an Israeli Government that seems pretty unyielding. You have a Palestinian Authority led by an 85-year-old man who doesn’t – is too scared to hold elections for fear of what will happen. Hamas controls Gaza. Is there really a prospect of some kind of movement towards a genuine political solution?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Fareed, I think there has to be. I think both sides are reminded that we have to find a way to break the cycle, because if we don’t, it will repeat itself at great cost and at great human suffering on all sides. Look, we worked very hard with this intense but behind-the-scenes diplomacy to get to the ceasefire, and I think President Biden leading this effort made the judgment that we could be most effective in doing that. And ultimately, after this intensive effort across the government, we got to where everyone wanted to be, which was to end the violence.
But now, as the President said, I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to try to make the turn to start to build something more positive. And what that means at heart is that Palestinians and Israelis alike have to know in their day-in and day-out lives equal measures of opportunity, of security, of dignity, something that you touched on in your piece in The Washington Post this week.
QUESTION: Will you use, as a template, the last peace plan put forward by the United States Government that is the peace plan shepherded by Jared Kushner?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, I don’t think we’re at the – in a place where the – getting to some kind of a negotiation for what ultimately, I think, has to be the result, which is a two-state solution, is the first order of business. We have to start building back in concrete ways and offering some genuine hope, prospects, opportunity in the lives of people.
And of course, in the first instance, we’ve got to deal with the humanitarian situation, which is grave in Gaza. We’ve got to start to bring countries together to support reconstruction and development. And as we’re doing that, we’ll be re-engaging with the Palestinians, of course, continuing our deep engagement with the Israelis, and trying to put in place conditions that allow us over time hopefully to advance a genuine peace process. But that is not the immediate order of business. We have a lot of work to do to get to that point.
QUESTION: But does the United States Government still endorse the outlines of that plan?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’re going to look at everything that’s been done before, learn from that just as we have in other areas, and see what makes sense and what doesn’t. But our focus right now relentlessly is on dealing with the humanitarian situation, starting to be – to do reconstruction and rebuild, and engage intensely with everyone, with Palestinians, with Israelis, with partners in the region.
QUESTION: Prime Minister Netanyahu says that he will form a national unity government, but not with any Israeli Arabs in it. Israeli Arabs, as you know, make up 20 percent of the population of Israel. Is that a positive step?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, I don’t do politics, whether it’s our politics or Israeli politics. They have to make their own judgments, and the government will be formed eventually, one way or another. We leave that to the Israelis. But we will work with, obviously, the current Israeli Government, whatever government emerges from the current process, and it’s really a decision for Israelis to make, not us.
QUESTION: But you have been very clear in being in favor of democracy and worrying about the decay of democracy in countries. Is it a step forward for democracy for a national government explicitly, on racial lines, to rule out 20 percent of its population?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, one thing that’s been, I think, deeply disturbing about recent events has been the inter-communal violence. And that’s something that we have not seen, at least in recent years. And I believe and I hope that Israelis of all persuasions will find ways to come together to try to make sure that that doesn’t happen again. And hopefully that finds expression as well in their politics and in their governments. But again, these are decisions for Israelis to make, not for us.
QUESTION: Let me ask you while we’re on the Middle East, Mr. Secretary: The Biden administration, President Biden when he was campaigning said as soon as I become president, we will rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. The Iranians said the same thing. We’re now four months into the administration. Nothing has happened. Both sides said there seems to be a – something of a stand-off. And Iran is meanwhile visibly enriching, the very thing people like you warned about when – again, when Joe Biden was campaigning. Isn’t this a failure of diplomacy? Shouldn’t you guys have been able to get back into the deal within a week or two?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Two things, Fareed. First, I think the steps that Iran is taking underscore the urgency of trying to get Iran back into compliance with its obligations under the nuclear deal, the deal that stopped their – the dangerous aspects of their nuclear program, the prospect that they could have fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order. We’ve had, I think, five rounds of conversations now, of talks now, indirect in Vienna. And in fact, our team’s going back to Vienna in the coming days to pursue that. I think we’ve actually made progress in clarifying what each side needs to do to get back into full compliance.
The outstanding question, the question that we don’t have an answer to yet, is whether Iran, at the end of the day, is willing to do what is necessary to come back into compliance with the agreement. That’s the proposition that we’re testing. But it’s getting, I think, through these rounds of discussions and talks, clearer and clearer what needs to happen. The question is: Is Iran prepared to do it?
QUESTION: Well, the Iranians say that that’s actually not what’s happening, what – the United States – the Biden administration has moved the goalposts, that rather than talking about simply both sides getting back to the original deal, doing what was required to comply, the Biden administration is now saying they want to talk about ballistic missiles, they want to talk about regional issues, they want to talk about extending the timeline. Are you willing to go back to the original deal as it was? Because the Iranians say they are willing to get back to that tomorrow.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Fareed, we’ve been very clear. We are fully prepared to go back to the original deal as it was. That’s our initial objective. And we – again, we don’t know if the Iranians are. If we do, if we succeed in that, then we can use that as a foundation both to look at how we can make the deal itself potentially longer and stronger, and also engage on these other issues, whether it’s Iran’s support for terrorism, its proliferation, its destabilizing support for different proxies throughout the Middle East.
All of that does need to be engaged and something we need to deal with, but we’ve been very clear that from our perspective, the first step needs to be a return to mutual compliance. That’s what we’re working on and that’s where we still don’t know if Iran is willing to say yes.
QUESTION: Saudi Arabia says that it now is willing to contemplate better relations with Iran. Is this a recognition by Saudi Arabia that its strategy so far has not really worked? Is it a sign that we could see a peace deal in Yemen and we could see an easing of tensions over places like Qatar and Lebanon?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, there needs to be a peace deal in Yemen. We’re working very hard on that. We’ve been doing that from day one. And I think Saudi Arabia has clearly indicated by some of the things that it’s done that it now wants to move in that direction, so that’s very positive. We need to get the Houthis to come along. And that, in turn, I think depends significantly on whether Iran is ready to make clear to the Houthis that they need to engage positively and need to resolve this war.
So to the extent that there is a better relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that can produce or help produce at least more positive results in ending some of these other conflicts, ending some of these proxy battles, which are incredibly dangerous, incredibly potentially destabilizing, and have a real human toll.
QUESTION: And do you see a shift in Saudi foreign policy?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, my sense is that, again, on Yemen in particular, where we’ve engaged intensely – we have a senior envoy who is doing this every single day – the Saudis have been engaged productively in trying to bring this war to an end. We need to see the same kind of response from the Houthis who continue to hold out, and Iran should use the influence it has to move them in that direction.
QUESTION: You just met with the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and I was wondering: I mean, this is a country that has, by the acknowledgement of U.S. intelligence, engaged in what is possibly the largest cyber hack of America ever, massed 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, and still continues to, in various ways, oppose U.S. interests and – essentially to kind of act as a spoiler on the world stage.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, we had, I think, a constructive, very businesslike conversation over the course of nearly two hours, but President Biden has been very clear with President Putin, and I repeated what President Biden has said to President Putin, to Foreign Minister Lavrov, and that’s this: We would prefer to have a more stable, predictable relationship with Russia. We’ve all got lots of things going on around the world and lots of work that we’re trying to do to make the lives of our citizens a little bit better. A more stable, predictable relationship with them, I think, would be good for us, good for them, and I’d even argue good for the world. And there are clearly areas where it’s in our mutual interest to find ways to cooperate, whether it’s on Afghanistan, whether it’s on so-called strategic stability, arms control agreements, whether it’s on dealing with climate change.
But equally clear – and the President has been very resolute on this – if Russia continues to take reckless and aggressive actions aimed at us or aimed at our allies and partners, we will respond, not for purposes of escalating, not to seek conflict, but to defend our interests. And that was the nature of the conversation that I had with Foreign Minister Lavrov. It’s really important to be very clear about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it. And ultimately, it is up to Russia to decide whether it wants to have that more predictable, stable relationship. We need to test the proposition.
QUESTION: Secretary of State Antony Blinken, thank you for coming on the show.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks for having me, Fareed. It’s great to be with you.