U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela and Iran On the Record, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – November 11, 2020


Mr. Abrams:  Thank you.  It’s a great pleasure to be back in Saudi Arabia.  I’ve had some very interesting and very valuable meetings as we anticipated, and I was pleased and honored to have a lengthy meeting last night with His Royal Highness Prince Khalid bin Sultan.  So, it was great to have the chance to speak at some length yesterday.  

And we were able to cover really the full range of issues, and there are a lot of issues that are of great interest go the United States and Saudi Arabia.  We started, of course, with the issue of Iran and its impact on the region, which is unfortunately malicious and widespread, and not only here in the Gulf but extending to the shores of the Mediterranean.  So there was a lot to talk about with respect to Iran’s regional activities, its missile program, needless to say the nuclear file as well.  We were able to talk about all aspects of that.   

We talked about new developments in the region including the accords between Israel and United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and Sudan.  We talked about the important relations between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the need to work together so that Iraqis really have control over their own country despite Iran’s efforts which are really dangerous in Iraq.  

 I could go on.  We had a very useful and lengthy conversation.   

And of course we talked about U.S.-Saudi relations starting way back with the founder and President Roosevelt and up to the present day and the relations that we’ve had in the last few years and what to expect in the coming years.  In all of this, of course, I was very pleased that I had the opportunity to talk to Ambassador Abizaid again and have his help and guidance throughout this visit.  He’s a great man and a great American official.  You are very lucky to have such a fantastic Ambassador here in Saudi Arabia, and we are lucky that we have such an envoy to Saudi Arabia. 

I think with that I’ll stop and I’m happy to take your questions.  

Question:  Thank you, we really appreciate you taking our questions.  I want to start off [inaudible] partnership, [inaudible]. 

Mr. Abrams:  I think we have a very strong alliance overall and we have a very strong relationship individually with a number of countries in the region.  And I think it has grown stronger in the last few years and that is partly a tribute to Arab leadership and party to President Trump and partly to the Iranians because it’s become increasingly clear both to us and to leaders in this region, leaders here in Saudi Arabia we well, what a danger Iran represents.   

 If you think of Iranian activities in Lebanon, supporting Hezbollah, or in the Palestinian territory supporting Hamas, or in Iraq supporting the armed Shia militia groups, or in Yemen supporting the Houthis, this is really very dangerous activity.  And it focuses the minds of all of us who want a peaceful and stable Middle East. 

 So I think our cooperation really has grown in the last few years.  It’s grown when it comes to diplomacy and it’s grown when it comes to the military relationship we all have.  It’s very unfortunate that so much of our attention has to be dedicated to resisting the Iranian efforts at destabilization but it does.  And unless and until there’s a change in Iranian conduct we will continue to need to do it and we will continue to do it. 

Question:  From your visit to Riyadh, how do you evaluate this visit through the light of the lack of international support regarding the arms embargo on Iran? 

Mr. Abrams:  One of the very striking diplomatic events in the last two months was the letter from the Gulf Cooperation Council to the UN Security Council about the arms embargo.  As we know, there is a division, a rift within the GCC.  This was an almost unique in recent years, almost unique joint effort on the part of the countries in the GCC and it shows how united they are in their concerns about Iran.   

We believe we have initiated the snapback of UN sanctions.  People say that you don’t have the support of this government or that government.  Or, you know, this reminds me of what happened a couple of years ago when we started imposing heavier sanctions on Iran.  A lot of people said, yeah but you don’t have this government on board and that government on board and unilateral U.S. sanctions cannot work.  But unilateral U.S. sanctions have worked and the reason they’ve worked is that actually it is not the foreign ministries that determine the effect of sanctions, it is 10,000 banks and companies around the world and their executives and their lawyers sit down and they weigh the risks of violating U.S. sanctions and they want to avoid those risks because they’ve seen people really get hit pretty hard when they violate the sanctions.    

So we think that the sanctions are very effective.  How do we measure that?  We look at things like Iranian oil exports.  We look at things like the value of the Rial.  And we see that we’ve had a very significant impact on the finances of the regime, which is what we were trying to doto reduce the money they have available for the kind of destabilizing activities they undertake, and to pressure them into abandoning that kind of behavior. 

So, we’re comfortable where we are and we think that there is enormous pressure, and more than there has ever been on the Iranian regime. 

Question:  Are there any steps [inaudible] access to Iran [weapons] in time of continuous of Iran smuggling [inaudible]? 

Mr. Abrams:  Are there any? 

Question:  Smuggling of weapons.   

Mr. Abrams:  There’s a great concern.  We’re all aware of it.  We see this armory that the Houthis have and we know that there is, right now, continuing smuggling if arms to them and it is primarily felt in Yemen, but you have felt it here in Saudi Arabia.  You’ve been attacked. 

It’s a great concern and we are making efforts along with your government and other governments in the region to stop it because the impact on, again primarily the Yemen people, is tremendous. 

This is an ongoing problem and it’s an ongoing effort on the part of the United States and Saudi Arabia, and we’ve talked to other governments in the region including the government of Oman.  So, we have not solved this problem, obviously, and we need to continue to work at it together. 

Question:  I want to go back to Iran.  Are you worried that sanctions enacted by the Trump administration will [inaudible] with Joe Biden in the White House?  And do you foresee a [inaudible] to the JCPOA as it [inaudible]?  How would this impact the current arms embargo on Iran? 

Mr. Abrams:  Let me speak in general terms because I’m an official here on an official visit and officially we have an electoral system.  Each state now has separately to certify their results.  I don’t think many have actually done that.  Maybe one or two have.  This will happen this week and next week.  Then they choose electors and then the electors meet in the electoral college.  So we’ll let that play out.   

But I can I think address the issues.  We believe that there’s never been heavier pressure on Iran.  Never.  And we believe that of course the purpose of the maximum pressure campaign is not about pressure.  The purpose is to achieve something in changing the way the regime in Tehran behaves.   

We believe that if this pressure is used they can’t take four more years of it, and if this pressure is used they will actually be willing to change their behavior because if they don’t change their behavior they are actually threatening instability in Iran.  They have a change of presidents in June.  A four year period coming in which you could even see a succession crisis related to the Supreme Leader.  They know that better than we know it. 

So if the pressure is utilized to demand changes we think it will work.  If the pressure is not utilized, if it’s really discarded, that would be I think very foolish, even tragic.  So, we’ll see what happens next year. 

I don’t want to make predictions, but I will only say this analytically.  The sanctions on Iran are very broad and there are varying bases for the sanctions.  There are nuclear related sanctions, there are human rights related sanctions, there are counterterrorism related sanctions.  When a president imposes sanctions of course he can withdraw them, or another president can.  I don’t think it’s so easy.  I think we should not think of it as a kind of light switch.  All the sanctions go on, all the sanctions come off.  They didn’t go on in one day and they are, again, of varying kinds. 

If you take, for example, the counterterrorism sanctions.  When they are put on it is because we have looked at an individual or an entity and the lawyers at the State Department and Treasury have said yes, this [inaudible] persuasive  This man, this company, this government agency is supporting the Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force.  So how do you just sort of say one day, okay, got it.  Okay, we’ll lift those.  When the same person or entity is engaged in the same support for terrorism?    

So I think there is sometimes a misunderstanding, primarily in the United States, that it’s easy to flip the switch and all the sanctions go away which is of course what the regime in Tehran wants.  But I think it’s more complicated than that. 

Question:  What steps are United States taking to formulate an international action to protect the original countries from Iran’s hostile policy? 

Mr. Abrams:  This is a genetic problem, and again we see it throughout the region.  I would say the greatest single reason is cooperation among all of these countries.  Frankly, this is one of the reasons that we would like to see unity of all the anti-Houthi forces in Yemen, because their divisions are helpful to Iran.  I had an opportunity to speak with President Hadi about this yesterday.  That kind of unity and cooperation of all the anti-Houthi forces in Yemen we think is very important.  We think that cooperation among the Gulf Cooperation Council countries is very important.  We have been unhappy with the divisions within the GGC since the day they began, and we hope that there can be diplomatic efforts that overcome that division.  We think that this new cooperation between Israel and the Emirates and Bahrain and Sudan is very important, again, because these are countries that face a threat from Iran, and if they work together their ability to resist that threat is greater. 

So, the more we cooperate, the United States and Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, all of us together.  And I would add Iraq to this picture too because the government of Iraq is under very heavy pressure.  It is obvious that people of Iraq want to govern themselves.  They want to govern their own country.  They do not want the policies of their government to be dictated by a bunch of armed militias that are directed from Tehran.  This is a difficult struggle. 

We all need to remain committed to it and we all need to work together. 

Question:  On several occasions the Iranian officials are trying to adopt conciliatory discuss with region.  How does the United States see this? 

Mr. Abrams:  Their conciliatory discourse? 

Question:  Yes. 

Mr. Abrams:  I don’t think anyone is fooled.  We have to judge what the Iranians are doing by their actions and not by their words.  I read the various speeches including in the United States by Prime Minister Zarif, and you have to have a sense of humor sometimes to read his comments because they’re completely unrelated to the aggression that Iran is conducting every day in this region.  

What is the purpose of these conciliatory statements?  To mislead people who are not paying close attention to the facts.  If you are paying close attention, they are no relationship to what Iran is doing and we see these comments on a daily basis and we see the tweet primarily by Zarif but by plenty of other people too.  Some people in the parliament and many others in the government of Iran.  I don’t find as I travel around the region, and frankly when I speak privately with officials in Europe, that anybody who is really paying attention to this is misled by these comments.  Their purpose is to distract attention from Iran’s actual conduct. 

Question:  What do you view as the greatest accomplishment of the sanctions? 

Mr. Abrams:  We believe that the Iranian regime understands now that it cannot take more years of this.  We see this in some of the economic conditions in Iran.  I mentioned before oil exports have declined.  We also see it in some of the things that have happened to Hamas and Hezbollah where we know that the amounts they have made available have decreased. 

I think if you look at the current negotiations on the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel, those should have taken place ten years ago.  They didn’t because Hezbollah said no.  Why did they say yes all of a sudden?  Because of the impact of the sanctions on them.   

So, as I said before, the goal here is not pressure for the sake of pressure.  It’s pressure for the sake of changing Iran’s conduct.  And I think we have reached a level now where the know they are in trouble.  And if the United States government uses this leverage, this leverage has been created to change Iran’s conduct and it will. 

Question:  I have a follow-up question regarding this.  Do you think with all this pressure Iran has abandoned its idea of a nuclear weapon because of the maximum pressure?  Do you think there’s still a nuclear ambition? 

Mr. Abrams:  I don’t think so.  There are two separate questions here.  One is their desire for a nuclear weapon and the other is what are they actually doing on a day to day basis. 

We have seen a number of countries around the world that want nuclear power and don’t want nuclear weapons.  I suppose the first one I should mention is South Arica under Nelson Mandela.  He wanted to abandon the nuclear weapons program and he did, and he did it by opening up to the IAEA and the international community and saying inspect anything and get this stuff out of here.  We have no interest in a nuclear weapon.  That’s how a country behaves that has no interest in a nuclear weapon.    

What have we seen in Iran?  Something completely different.  This archive of materials that the Israelis discovered and have exposed to the world shows that Iran carefully preserved everything in its sight with respect to building a nuclear weapon, kept it altogether and kept the nuclear weapons team together under the same leadership.  That isn’t how you behave if you have no interest in a nuclear weapon ever.  

Even under the JCPOA where they agreed to all sorts of inspections, in the two sites that were inspected recently, in the last couple of months, the IAEA requested access in January.  Why did it take nine months to get access if you want to be completely open about your nuclear program?  In some cases the IAEA has reported well, we went to this site or that site and we didn’t find anything because it has been sanitized.  Why do you sanitize a place if you have nothing to hide? 

So I think intelligence agencies around the world have different estimates of precisely what the Iranians are doing at any given moment, but I think there’s really no evidence that they have abandoned the goal of a nuclear weapon.  People talk sometimes about a fatwa that bans nuclear weapons.  I have been hearing about this literally for 20 years and they have never produced it.  So, I don’t take much comfort in that either.  I think we all need to worry about this and the U.S. government continue, particularly through the IAEA to press for inspections and access to nuclear sites to make sure that Iran can never get a nuclear weapon.  And President Trump is the like fourth or fifth U.S. President in a row to state clearly we will never permit Iran to get a nuclear weapon.  

Question:  About the current waterways and the Strait of Hormuz and Bab al Mandeb, is there a joint working mechanism with the original countries for influence security?  

Mr. Abrams:  This is another problem that fundamentally stems from Iran.  Whether it’s in the Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Bab al Mandeb, the Strait of Hormuz, why is there a problem here?  Iran is the answer to that question. 

So we have, as you know, the International Maritime Security Construct, we have lots of countries that are involved in making sure that these international waterways remain open.  There is a second goal.  We want them to be open to commerce and we don’t want them to be open to weapon smuggling.  So we work together with allies really from all over the world who contribute to these activities.  Allies in the region like Saudi Arabia but allies as far away as Australia are contributing.  This has to be maintained.  Unfortunately, it will probably have to be maintained as long as Iran is a threat to international waterways and as long as it is engaging in weapon smuggling.  

Question:  What did your discussions [inaudible] regarding clauses of pressure policies on Iran?  

Mr. Abrams:  I didn’t understand the question. 

Question:  I mean the clauses of pressure on Iran.  What did your discussion reach about it? 

Mr. Abrams:  Here? 

Question:  Yes. 

Mr. Abrams:  The U.S. understanding of the problem of the threat from Iran, and we understand the Saudi government are really very close.  So, we were able to review what are we doing together and look at ways of improving our cooperation.  The cooperation is really quite fantastic, and it has grown considerably in the last four years, and we want it to continue to grow.  So, we’ve talked about the various forms of cooperation that we are undertaking.  To the extent that this is military cooperation I don’t want to say too much about it.  But we talked about ways of building on the current cooperation and doing more together.  I think it’s clear not only to the Saudi government but to many governments in the region, that we need to keep on guard, and we need to increase the amount of military cooperation. 

Question:  Last night the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars said the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization?  Do you feel that this understanding has is one the United States shares? 

Mr. Abrams:  I think generally we share a view that terrorism is terribly dangerous.  You and we have had people killed by terrorism groups recently and over the decades.  You can probably trace the beginnings of the global expansion to 1979.   

We work together on this every day.  The intelligence organizations of the Saudi government and the U.S. government have an extremely close and longstanding relationship where we cooperate literally every day in the fight against terrorist groups. 

I think it really gets closer every year and the same is true with a number of your neighbors.  The threats change over time.  Groups rising and falling.  There was a moment in which we all probably would have agreed the greatest threat today is ISIS.  At another moment we would have said al Qaida.  And groups like [inaudible].  The size of the threat and the location of the threat as well. 

I don’t think there’s been a great change here.  I think we have understood this threat together for quite a long time and have been working together on it literally for decades.  I think it is useful when any government looks at this very coldly and analytically and looks at the behavior of different groups and then gives its best judgment.  

Question:  I want to go back to one of the questions asked, after January 2021 how does United States or Washington evaluate Iran sanctions and Houthis and Brotherhood?  

Mr. Abrams:  As I said, we’ve just completed voting day, but the election process continues.  And the answer to that question depends in part on who is President after January 20. 

Question:  If it’s Biden. 

Mr. Abrams:  Well, I’ll come back to that.  The reason I say in part is that it is not true that the interests of the United States change on January 20th.  The interests of the United States remain the same.  Yes, people have different judgments about how to protect those interests, but countries don’t change overnight.  Our alliances don’t change.  Our geography doesn’t change.  Your geography doesn’t change. 

So, people should not expect gigantic changes overnight. 

If you look back four years, eight years, twelve years, sixteen years, twenty years, there’s an awful lot of continuity. 

During an election campaign no one likes to talk about that because it’s not sensible to talk about that during an election campaign.  The goal in an election campaign is to dramatize the differences, not to dramatize the continuity. 

If there is a Biden administration some policies will change, and some won’t.  Now I’m not a mind reader and I am not a spokesman for the Biden campaign.  So I really shouldn’t speculate about what the policies would be.  I would only say that again, I think that I mentioned 1945 and the meeting on the USS Quincy, relationships among nations don’t change overnight.  That has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia.  It’s true with relations of the United States too.  Friendly and unfriendly relations with countries around the world because fundamentally they’re based on our values and our interests.  

So, no matter who wins the election there will be an American ambassador here, there will be American military presence in this region.  There will be tremendous counterterrorism cooperation because all of this is in the interest of the United States and the interest of Saudi Arabia.  

Question:  On the Abraham Accord.  You just came back yesterday from the Emirates, and the region has been changing.  With this greater cooperation amongst these countries do you foresee other countries following suit?   

Mr. Abrams:  I think there will be a pause as people wait for the political developments in the United States.  But I do think so, yes.  And the reason I think that other countries will join is, it really relates to what I was just saying.  Countries do pursue their interests.  And these changes reflect people getting over stark differences to act on their deepest security interests. 

None of these activities is a gift from one country to another.  They reflect countries assessing their interests and deciding what do we do to promote our economic interests, commercial interests, security interests in the best way?  And I think there are other countries in the Middle East that will say well, I look at what the Emirates and others did, and it seems to be a good idea. 

I think there are great opportunities here for greater commercial activity for exchanges among universities, for medical exchanges.  There’s a lot that can be done.  And then we get in the area of security.  You all face a common threat from Iran and from terrorist groups and of course from Iranian support of terrorism groups.  The more you work together the mores security you’ll be. 

Now people are going to do it in different ways.  In some cases, we’ve already seen what I’d call full normalization.  I thin in other cases there won’t be full normalization yet, but there will be more cooperation.  And from the American point of view, the more [inaudible] the better because we do face a common threat and more cooperation among the responsible countries of this region can help their security and our security in the United States. 

So, we are very much in favor of it and we think that it’s been a long time coming.  It does reflect, we think, a very cold and sober assessment of the Iranian threat.  It does reflect, we think, the activities of the Trump administration in standing up to Iran.  So more of this would really be in the interest of all of the countries in the region and friends outside the region. 

Question:  Iran is a threat to the entire region.  Do you think because there’s a common threat that that’s the reason all these countries came together?  If there was no threat, would we also have seen this happen? 

Mr. Abrams:  I think it would have happened eventually.  I really do.  I think that you all live in this region.  There is a very long history here, going back at least to 1917 on the question of building a Jewish state in the region, and of course going back several thousand years before that. 

I think there is a genuine interest on the part of the King and many others in the region to help the Palestinians.  And what I think has been happening in part is a realization on the part of many leaders in the region that what was happening, the policies that were being followed were not actually successful in helping the Palestinians.  And as you look at the Palestinian situation in 2020, 2010, 2000, going back, it has not changed.  In a way it has not changed since 1967, so a long time. 

So whatever policies were being followed weren’t helping.  I think there’s been a reassessment.  And part of it frankly is a reassessment by many of the policies being pursued by the Palestinian regime and whether those policies are actually helping the Palestinian people.    

So we’ve seen in the statements from those countries that have agreed to normalize, in each case they’ve said we’re not doing this because we are no longer interested in helping Palestinians.  We’re doing this because we think this is a better way of helping them.   

So, I think first of all, that’s correct.  I would hope to see — COVID is a problem also.  But let’s say after COVID, when everyone has a vaccine, I would hope to see more travelers from the Arab world toing to Israel and the West Bank.  There are a couple of million Israeli Arabs.  They would love to see you and they would love to visit here.  And then there’s the West Bank.  And I’ve talked, even in the last couple of months since this normalization began, I’ve talked to Arab officials from some of those countries and said have you ever been to Jerusalem?  And of course, they say of course not.   And they then say, but I’m looking forward to going for religious reasons. 

I think that’s terrific and I think that a greater involvement on the part of the Arab states will also be of great value to everyone [concerned about] the Palestinians.    

If it weren’t for Iran would people have reached this conclusion?  Yes.  I really think so.  But I don’t think they would have reached it in 2020.  

Moderator:  Thank you very much for your time.  We appreciate it. 

Question:  Thank you so much for your time.  

Mr. Abrams:  You’re very welcome.  Thank you. 

# # # #