Identifying a Strategic Approach to the Middle East

Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Joe Penney/Courtesy Reuters
Antony J. Blinken

Deputy Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State

Doyle McManus

Washington Columnist, Los Angeles Times

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken discusses strategic issues following his recent trip to the Middle East and the Maghreb. Blinken reflects on the role of U.S. leadership in influencing events in the Middle East and North Africa, and the interests and values driving U.S. foreign policy toward the region. He identifies the need for the United States to leverage its economic and military capabilities to lead the region from a position of strength. During the conversation following his lecture, Blinken explores a range of issues relevant to the Middle East, including negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, the relationship with Saudi Arabia, the ongoing conflict in Yemen, and the effects of the Arab Spring.

The Paul C. Warnke Lecture on International Security, established in 2002, is dedicated to the memory of Paul Warnke (1920–2001), member and former director of the Council on Foreign Relations. The series commemorates his legacy of public service, his friendship to the Council, and his unique combination of eloquence, intellect, and pragmatism in the cause of peace and the values of the United States.

MCMANUS: Good evening, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. Most of you don't need to be welcomed because you've been here plenty of times before, but welcome to this evening's meeting, the Paul Warnke Lecture.

And I want to take a moment to thank the members of the Warnke family who are here tonight, as well as the donors to this lectureship in honor of a great American diplomat and a great American negotiator.

As you will have discerned by now, I am not Andrea Mitchell. I am Doyle McManus with the Los Angeles Times. I've stepped in to serve as moderator tonight.

Two housekeeping notes. Unusually for the council this event is on the record. It's not only on the record, but you will note there are cameras in the back and it is being webcast to other facilities around the country. So you will want to be on even better behavior than council members normally are.

By now you will have silenced your cell phones. And after a few brief remarks by our speaker, we will get back into the usual form of discussion.

Tony Blinken, the deputy secretary of State needs little introduction to this audience. He has done just about everything on foreign policy in the White House, in the State Department and on the Hill that it is legal for anyone as young as he to do.

He is just back from a trip to Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Lebanon, Tunisia and Oman, which may be a matter of some interest. And so let's get right to the lecture. And please join me in welcoming Tony Blinken.


BLINKEN: Doyle, thank you very, very much. And good evening. It is a pleasure to be here at the council this evening.

Since the council was founded now more than 90 years ago there is a well worn path between most recently this building and the building in New York, and the councils of government. And through the decades, those of us in government have regularly sought the insights, the advice, the counsel of the council's members, and indeed many of its members have somehow wound up in government.

All of you who work here have helped infuse what we do with a sense of perspective and a sense of pragmatism. And I think that's especially true for this lecture series' namesake, Paul Warnke, who fought on behalf of our nation not only in the trenches of war, but at the negotiating table for peace. And so I'm very grateful to his family for having me here to speak with you tonight, and to have a conversation with Doyle.

Let me just say very briefly a couple of things at the outset. As Doyle mentioned, I just returned from a productive trip that took me from Beirut to Riyadh to Abu Dhabi to Muscat and then finally to Tunis, all in about five days' time, which sounds impressive until you look at Secretary Kerry's schedule and what he's able to accomplish in a single weekend.

I'm happy to get into some of the details of that trip. But I have to tell you that as I was travelling it was also an opportunity to step back and think a little bit about the role of American leadership, not only in the region, but around the world. And I just wanted to spend a few minutes at the outset talking about that. And then we can get into a conversation.

If you think about it, in just the past year alone American diplomacy has mobilized countries around the world to confront ISIL and Ebola. We've revitalized NATO's commitment to the defense of its own members and rallied Europe to support Ukraine, and penalized Russia for its actions in Ukraine.

We've deepened our engagement with Asia, and enlisted China in the effort to combat climate change. We've eliminated serious stockpiles of chemical weapons. We negotiated, of course, an interim agreement with Iran that froze and in some places rolled back its nuclear program. And now we stand on the verge of a comprehensive agreement.

We helped competing Afghan political blocs avoid civil war, and achieve the first ever peaceful democratic transition in that country's history. We strengthened the security and the resilience of the Internet.

We promoted more open governance, and empowered young people and young leaders in emerging democracies. We've worked with the leaders of Central America to strengthen institutions and combat the corruption, crime and trafficking that pose a threat to our own security. And we hosted the first ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit to build new relationships among our governments and with the private sector.

Those are just a few examples of the leadership that I alluded to. And in each of these cases, what I like to do is conduct a very brief thought experiment. And it's drawn from watching virtually every year a movie that many of you are familiar with, "It's a Wonderful Life."

We all know what happened to Bedford Falls when George Bailey was out of the picture. Think for a moment what each of these situations would've been like if the United States were out of the picture. I think it's self-evident where the world would be without American leadership meeting these challenges.

So for me the question is not, an indeed it's never been, whether America's leading. The question is how are we leading? By what means and to what ends? That's the question for debate. That's the question for discussion.

And let me just conclude with suggesting a few basic principles that we might follow in thinking how to address that question. First, we have to lead with a sense of purpose to ensure the security of our country, its citizens, and our allies and partners, to promote a strong U.S. economy, to advance our values, and to shape an international order that bolsters peace, security, and opportunity.

Second, we should lead from a position of strength with unrivaled military might, a dynamic economy and the unmatched strength of our human resources.

Third, we must lead by the power of our example as well as the example of our power, lifting our own citizens, growing our economy, living our values here at home. All of which strengthen our leadership abroad.

Fourth, we should be leading with capable partners wherever possible because we can best advance our interests in an interconnected world when others are working with us, while recognizing that our leadership is often necessary to mobilize collective action.

Fifth, we must lead with all the instruments of American power. With an ever ready military our economic might, the powerful attraction of American science, education and culture, and determined diplomacy.

And finally, we must lead with a sense of perspective and humility. The strategic environment in which we're operating is more fluid and more fraught with complexity than ever before. Power amongst states is shifting with new entrants and aspirants to the ranks of the majors.

Power is shifting below and beyond the nation-state, requiring governments to be more accountable to sub-state and non-state actors, for mayors of megacities to the private sector to super empowered groups and individuals.

The growing interdependence of the global economy, the rapid pace of change is linking people, groups and governments in unprecedented ways, incentivizing new forms of cooperation, but also creating shared vulnerabilities.

And of course, maybe most evident in our front pages these days is a struggle for power that's underway among within many states in the Middle East and North Africa a combustible process of trying to define a new order.

In short, for all of our unique power there are historic transitions underway that often are not about us and cannot fully be controlled by us. But they affect us. And American leadership, more than that of any nation, can help shape this change, mitigate its risks and take advantage of its opportunities.

With that, let's have a conversation. Thank you.


MCMANUS: Well, thank you, Tony. And as promised, let's go to your trip. And let's start, if we can, in Saudi Arabia.

While you were in Riyadh you announced an increase in American assistance to the Saudis in their efforts against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, which seems to be something of a new model of American leadership. In an earlier era it might've been called leading from behind. But I will stay away from that phrase.

But this is an intervention that the Saudis undertook essentially on their own and asked us about either concurrently or later. How do you describe, first the specifics of the situation. And then second, how that fits as a model of leadership.

BLINKEN: So, let's first put this in context. Yemen has been a very challenging situation for us, for Yemen's neighbors and for its people for a long, long time.

Our engagement initially was principally focused on a threat that Yemen posed to us in harboring Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And our intense focus has been on trying to prevent AQAP from being able to have the capacity to attack us or our partners or allies.

At the same time, to do that we were looking in the immediate at counterterrorism means and mechanisms, but also in order to try to have a sustainable solution to the problem, helping Yemen itself to develop economically and politically.

And over the past years that process is actually moving in fits and starts with great difficulty in a more or less positive trajectory. And by that I mean two things.

First, in terms of our ability to take on AQAP, we were actually having some significant success in helping the Yeminis push it back, contain the territory that it had control over significantly, and thwart a number of attacks that were being attempted against the United States.

Second, we supported the Yeminis in trying to build their own economy and their own political future. And here there was a transition plan elaborated after the fall of President Saleh by the GCC countries, and the institution itself the GCC, that the Yeminis with our assistance, the assistance of other countries began to follow.

And it produced an interim president in President Hadi. And critically, a national dialogue that brought virtually all of the stakeholders in Yemen together to try and decide together the future of the country, and it produced results.

And then unfortunately what happened was two things. First, the process took longer than was anticipated. And Hadi was in power as president, but for an interim period longer than anticipated.

Second, and most critically, the Houthis decided to take matters into their own hands, aided and abetted by the former President Saleh, and tried to take over the country by force, starting with its institutions in Sana'a and then moving south. And the Saudis stood up against that.

They stood up for the GCC initiative and the transition plan. They stood up for their own defense because the Houthis had posed a challenge to them in the past. And they stood up for the proposition that the country cannot be taken over by the force of arms, by any armed group. And in that effort we have and we will continue to strongly support them.

But the purpose of this engagement by the Saudis and other GCC countries with our support is and has to be to get the parties back to a political dialogue and a political process. There is not going to be a military solution to what ails Yemen.

The solution is the process that was already underway, elaborated by the GCC, strongly supported by its countries and interrupted by the Houthis in collaboration with the former president. That's what we're trying to get back to.

Final piece of this, what I was talking about a moment ago in terms of some of the principles of leadership, one of them is having effective partners. That's exactly what we want. And in this case the Saudis and the other countries in the GCC stood up.

It makes absolute sense for us to be working with them, supporting them, helping them in their endeavors. We shouldn't be the ones who have to do everything. And it was a very positive development to see them do that.

MCMANUS: Are they taking their—our advice?

BLINKEN: So one of the things that I was doing last week, and more important that Secretary of Defense Carter, Secretary of State and others have been doing has been engaged intensely with them to think about and think through how they are pursuing this effort, looking carefully at what we're trying to achieve and how we achieve it.

And I think that they are very welcoming of any counsel that we can provide, and obviously the assistance that we are providing, as well as the collaboration of other countries in the GCC. And they've been clear with us that their objective is to get back to this political process, and for the (ph) dialogue.

MCMANUS: Now, a name that was missing from your narrative of how this war in Yemen began is Iran. And as you know, some have portrayed this as essentially a proxy war instigated and encouraged by Iran. Is that the case? And how do we deal with that factor?

BLINKEN: Iran has clearly taken advantage of the situation. We do not see this conflict as being commanded or controlled by the Iranians, but it's clearly being supported by them, including in the provision of weapons and support to the Houthis.

And we have made it very clear to the Iranians that we will stand against that. And we've urged them to do exactly the opposite of what they're doing, which is instead to use their influence with the Houthis to get them back into the political process.

Because let me also make it clear, the Houthis need to be at the table. It's not a question of taking them out of the political process. They need to be in it as well.

And so what Iran can best do now, if it, as it says it truly wants to end the conflict and end the violence, what it can do is instead of supplying and supporting the Houthis, it should use its influence with them to get them back to the table.

One last thing on this, one of the terrible byproducts of this crisis is the humanitarian suffering that comes along with it. And one of the things that we're very focused on is making sure that even as this is happening the humanitarian groups have access as best possible to people in need in Yemen. This is critically important and it's something that we're also very focused on.

MCMANUS: Let's expand the conversation beyond Yemen, but stay in the region. The president has invited the GCC leaders to Camp David. After two years of let's say a scratchy relationship with Saudi Arabia we seem to be allies in the sense of the 1950s or the 1960s.

What is the president has talked about formalizing a security relationship? What's the goal here? Is it containing Iran? Is it arranging an equilibrium among countries in the area? And what form is that formalization going to take?

BLINKEN: Well, I think there're two things that principally motivated this meeting and the president convening the leaders of the GCC to Camp David. One is the nuclear agreement with Iran, and to make sure that we were all fully on the same page when it comes to that agreement.

And in particular it's an opportunity to reinforce the point that even if we get to a final agreement with Iran, that does not mean it will get a free pass on its other activities that are profoundly troubling not only to us, but obviously to countries in the region, particularly its support for terrorist groups, its destabilizing activities in the region and so forth.

And so this is an opportunity to talk about that, to talk about the work we've done together over the past six-and-a-half years to strengthen our common capacity to deal with these challenges, and to think about what we will do going forward.

Second, Yemen of course is also very much on the front burner. And it's a very opportune time to talk about that. And then you have a whole series of challenges in the region that will be very ripe for conversation.

MCMANUS: OK. The people in my business and many of the analysts in the room are constantly looking for the right metaphor, the right label, the right doctrine to put around this.

Now, it's possible to look at what the administration is doing and to see a design for a future in which the United States has a better relationship with Iran, but also a tighter security relationship with Iran's Arab neighbors who are worried about Iran.

And to see in that something really rather Kissingerian, a balance between Iran, the largest regional power, and a network of power that we're trying to put together on the other side. Is that a fair or an unfair description?

BLINKEN: I'm going to resist embracing any grand designs.

Let me put it this way. First we had a longstanding and profound challenge in how to deal with the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. And that is something that has been front and center for a long time.

And we have exerted an extraordinary effort over the last six- and-a-half years to grapple with that problem and to try and bring it to a place where our security and the security of our partners and allies in the region, and indeed the entire world, is advanced. We believe we are at that place. And we'll see if we can bring it over the finish line.

That effort was focused and remains focused exclusively on Iran's nuclear program. It is not about any side deals on other issues. It is not about trying to forge a broader and deeper relationship with Iran. It is about the nuclear program and trying to answer the international community's concerns about that program.

That effort, of course, raises questions and concerns among some of our partners. And we need to be able to address them.

And again as I said earlier, we made very clear throughout this process and will continue to make clear that even as we finalize this agreement, we're not taking our eye off the ball when it comes to Iran's other actions that pose a threat to us and to countries in the region.

So that's what this has been about and what it is about. What's hard to anticipate with any certainty is what things may flow from this effort and from these events, and when they might flow.

So you can imagine different futures. You can imagine a future in which as a result of this agreement, assuming it's finalized, the more pragmatic elements in Iran get wind in their sails and have greater say over Iran's broader foreign policy. And that would be a positive development.

You can also imagine a future in which the hard line elements in Iran, to demonstrate that they are still very much in control or still relevant, actually take even more aggressive action. And you can imagine both futures at the same time.

So how this plays out in terms of Iran's actions going forward, I couldn't tell you. What I can tell you is this. Iran has said in the context of talking about the nuclear agreement that it wants to be taken seriously as a major actor, a responsible actor in the international community. And that's of course something that we would welcome. But the nuclear agreement in and of itself does not suffice, does not nearly suffice for Iran to meet that self-imposed benchmark. Its conduct in so many other areas is what's in question. And that's what we'll be looking toward.

So, this is really one step at a time. And if there are ancillary benefits that flow from a nuclear agreement, terrific. If, on the contrary, there are problems that emerge from it, we will be ready to deal with them.

MCMANUS: And on the specific question I asked, what did the president mean when he said he would like to formalize the security relationship with the GCC countries? What did he have in mind?

People have talked about non-NATO allies. People have talked about a nuclear umbrella. What's under consideration?

BLINKEN: We're looking at a number of things. I think it's important to note a couple of things.

First, we have different specific relationships with individual members of the GCC, for example. Some are already major non-NATO allies. Others are not. So it may be that the ones who are not would be interested in getting that status and the practical things that flow from it.

We have a developing relationship with the GCC as an institution, which didn't exist before. And I think what the—one of the things the president has in mind is for the GCC to be able to act in a more coordinated and collected manner in terms of securing the defense of its member countries.

And so for example, one of the areas where we worked with them in recent years is missile defense. But it's one thing to do it individually with each of the component members of the GCC.

It's another for them to be coordinated and to act more collectively. Those are the kinds of things that he has in mind. But I think that's going to be very much the subject of conversation at Camp David.

MCMANUS: Now, when we look at the list of potential allies in the GCC, some factors stand out. They're hereditary monarchs. They were mostly either alarmed—somewhere between alarmed and panicked by the Arab Spring. They—most of them supported the military coup in Egypt. Their human rights records are mixed at best.

Where does the democracy and human rights agenda of the United States fit into this pragmatic alliance?

BLINKEN: I think it's important to keep a couple things in mind in thinking about that.

First, it has been, it is, it will remain a core component of our foreign policy. That is the advocacy, the promotion, the advancement of democracy and human rights. And we're very clear about this in our dealings and engagements with our partners, including our closest partners who may have deficiencies in those areas.

And we do this because obviously we believe it from our own experience. But we do it because we also believe first that this—these values are not unique aspirations for us. They are aspirations that people all over the world.

And we do it because we think at the end of the day, the stability and security of our partners and our own security and stability over time will be enhanced if countries fully embrace these values. So it's always part and parcel of what we do. That's one.

Second, there's a question that I think virtually every administration struggles with and answers in different ways. Which is OK, having accepted the proposition that that is going to be part and parcel of our foreign policy, what's the best way to advance those particular values and interests?

And I think that one way of looking at it is maintaining these relationships, strengthening them, advancing them may give you the best opening and avenue to actually influence the decisions and evolutions of these countries.

There's obviously a very contrary argument. And different administrations have pursued it in a different way, which is to hold the relationship back and attach it to an insistence on meeting certain requirements in the areas of democracy and human rights.

Third point, I think it's very important, without excusing or papering over any of the concerns that we may have with an individual country, to look at this not as a snapshot but as a moving picture. And a number of countries in question are young, not been around for a long time.

And if you look at the trajectory that some of them have been on in their recent history, the moving picture shows something very different than the snapshot. It does show progress. It does show movement toward some of these core values that we hold dear. So I think that's important to keep in mind as well.

MCMANUS: This will be my last question before I turn it over to an impatient audience.

I would imagine Syria came up in your discussions in Riyadh and probably elsewhere. Are we and the Saudis closer to the same page? Are we able to promise them progress? Were they able to promise you progress?

BLINKEN: Well, we're all in the same page in the sense that the conflict itself is horrendous. The human toll grows every single day. And we share a determination to try and bring it to an end.

And we believe that this is a shared conviction that the best way to do that would be through a political transition. And that Assad is not going to be any possible answer to that political transition.

Where there are differences in tactics are exactly how you would do that an exactly what kinds of timetables you're looking at, and of course how best to get traction to achieve that. But I think the basic objectives are the same.

You know one of the things that's extraordinary when you travel in the region is the resilience of Syria's neighbors, the refugee crisis that has spread throughout the region is of a magnitude that's actually hard to comprehend, and even when you put the numbers down on paper.

I was in Beirut and the population of Lebanon now is somewhere between a quarter and a third Syrian refugees. I mean if you think about it in terms of the United States, that's as if we had 80 million to 90 million refugees in the space of three-and-a-half or four years from a neighboring country.

And yet the country, for all of its travails remains resilient. And of course you can go and look at all of the neighbors and see the strains that they're under from this.

So, this is a problem that is in many ways spreading. And the work that we've tried to do to deal with those aspects of the problem, including the recent donor's conference in Kuwait where the resources that were raised are going to help many of these countries who are dealing with the refugee problem to help of course the refugees themselves, but also to help communities that have to support them is a vitally important enterprise.

MCMANUS: I have promised to turn it over to the audience. You know the drill. Please raise your hand and please do us the favor of introducing yourself.


QUESTION: Yes. Marisa Lino with Northrop Grumman.

Respectfully I would at least in part disagree with something you said in the beginning where you said the United States was responsible for revitalizing NATO. I think Mr. Putin perhaps has more to do with revitalizing NATO than we do.

But with respect to Europe, I would ask—my question is this. What can the United States do to help revitalize Europe itself, because it needs energy both politically, economically and militarily. Thanks.

BLINKEN: Thanks. I want to come back to your first point in a minute. Thank you.

Look, first and foremost of course it is the mission and responsibility of Europe's leaders and its people to take on that effort. And I think we see that every, single day.

For example, in the leadership of Angela Merkel and what she's doing in Germany. We see the challenging situations that some of our other close partners and allies are facing in dealing with an economic crisis that has endured for a long time in Europe, and working their way through that.

And so first and foremost, though, it—that is their responsibility. The question is how can we—how can we help, how can we support?

One of the things I think that would make a difference over time, especially in giving added impetus to European economies, is the TTIP agreement. That is something that we're working to negotiate. And of course right now we're also very focused on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

But TTIP, bring those two things together and you cover somewhere between 70 and 75 percent of world GDP, which would facilitate a significant expansion of trade and investment, and at the highest standard. So that would be one of the important things that we can actually do that would materially benefit the countries in Europe.

When it comes to the revitalization of NATO, you're certainly right that President Putin's actions in effect have managed to precipitate virtually everything he sought to prevent, including a much more energized NATO.

But I have to tell you, the energy that we've seen and the initiatives that have been undertaken, and the effort to press partners on defense spending, the successful work to significantly increases the focus on Article 5, and have a virtually constant air, land and sea presence in front line states, the work to modernize some of the resources that it brings to bear.

In my judgment at least none of that happens without the United States and our leadership, again. Take us out of the picture and you may not think the picture is as clear and sharp as it should be now, and that's probably true. But you take us out of the picture and it's a lot more out of focus.

MCMANUS: Let's stay in the front row.

QUESTION: Thank you. Barbara Slavin from the Atlantic Council.

BLINKEN (?): Barbara.

QUESTION: Very nice to see you, Mr. Deputy Secretary.

Let me ask you about the Iran negotiations, two factors this week. The Russian decision to sell the S-300, which suggests that the sanctions regime is already beginning to unravel. And then the action taken by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, your old home, yesterday in inserting itself into this process.

What would you say to members of Congress now about where sanctions stand, what impact they can have on this and whether in a sense we've already reached our maximum leverage on sanctions as we go forward? Is there any way in which they can really stop this train in its tracks?

Thanks. MCMANUS: Thanks, Barbara.

BLINKEN: So, on the S-300, look, this is something of course that has been in the mix for some time. The Russians were moving forward with it some years ago. Then they pulled back. And now it appears that they are moving forward again. And throughout we've made very clear our concern and opposition to the sale of the system.

But interestingly, this is in a sense apart from the nuclear negotiation, and indeed largely apart from the sanctions regime. This, if you put aside everything we're trying to do on the nuclear agreement and the sanctions that have brought the Iranians to the table, this is a system that we've opposed being provided to the Iranians for security reasons, including that of our closest partner in the region, Israel.

So this has been a problem. And we're looking at it very carefully. But I don't think that it will in any way undermine, interestingly, the unity that we have on trying to bring this agreement to closure, including with Russia, through the P5-plus-1.

More broadly on the sanctions I would say this. There is no doubt in my mind that the sanctions that we've put on the table, and here I have to credit the leadership of Congress over the years. But critically sanctions that were then adopted and implemented by international partners, without whom they would be infinitely less affected and in some cases not effective at all. That is what brought Iran to the table.

And many countries, as you know, signed onto sanctions, holding their noses. Not something they wanted. Not something they liked. And indeed, it was against their immediate economic interests in many cases.

But they did it out of concern for the Iranian nuclear program and the threat that it could pose. And also because they believed the sanctions and the pressure were not an end in themselves, but a means to get Iran to the table in an effort to address the concerns of the international community.

And once those concerns were addressed, the understanding was the sanctions would go away. And as long as we were seen to be serious about the diplomacy, about that process and about using sanctions in order to get Iran to the table to get a reasonable accommodation and agreement that satisfied the concerns of the United States and the international community, they were with us.

As soon as it seems that that is not in fact the purpose, and that we're actually not serious about trying to resolve the international community's concerns about the program through diplomacy, then these sanctions are likely to have a much shorter shelf life in terms of other countries being willing to stick with them and implement them.

That's why when you look at this agreement, and hopefully the final agreement that will be reached with the, i's dotted and the t's crossed by the end of June. It's really important in my judgment to do two things.

First you have to look at the agreement itself on its merits. Does it accomplish what we set out to do in terms of cutting off Iran's pathways to a bomb and giving us extraordinary insight into what they're doing.

But you also have to ask if you oppose the agreement, what are the alternatives and how do you achieve them? And the hard reality is that for those who argue that we should simply ratchet up the sanctions even more in order to get the Iranians to do even more, that is a dubious proposition.

First because it is very unclear that other countries would go along, that they would have us turn away from what everyone else consider to be a good deal in order to try to extract even more. And in that instance they are likely to abandon the sanctions program.

Second, of course, Iran, even under extraordinary pressure dramatically increased the size of its centrifuge program, going from 100 to 150 of them in 2002-2003 to 19,000 today. So if you actually tried to squeeze them to the point of total capitulation, the likely result would be the end of the sanctions regime and a nuclear program that went full steam ahead to industrial capacity.

The other alternative, potentially, is taking military action. And of course that's an option that remains on the table, and would be there even at the end of various aspects of an agreement to be reached.

But there too we have to be cognizant that military action would likely set back Iran's program for some years, but a lot fewer years by far than the agreement that we're trying to reach. And in the meantime what's likely to happen, of course, is that again, other countries would abandon the sanctions regime.

And so Iran would benefit from the resources. And the Iranians would likely pursue a program and go much more quickly to try and develop an actual nuclear weapon and put it under ground and make it as tough to defend as possible.

So it's a long way of saying that as we move forward over the next couple of months, and as all of the details hopefully get locked in, there has to be real scrutiny. And people need to look and make sure that they agree that on its own merits the deal clearly advances our security and that of our partners.

But again, if you're going to criticize the deal and say that it is insufficient and you don't support it, then you have an obligation to say what the alternative is and how you can achieve it.

MCMANUS: On this side of the room I saw a hand in the front row.

QUESTION: Oda Aberdeen (ph).

Tony, you had a good trip from what I have read about you. You met King Salman. Were you able to persuade him that the deal with Iran was a good deal, number one?

Number two, if you look at the events in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, they all have a sectarian component. How does President Obama and the administration navigate these issues?

BLINKEN: I did not actually have an opportunity to meet King Salman. I met with a number of senior officials in the kingdom, including the foreign minister, the defense minister, the minister of the interior and others.

But you're right that certainly the deal that's being negotiated with Iran was front and center in our conversations, as well as Yemen. And the same is true, for that matter, in the UAE, in Oman and indeed in Lebanon and Tunisia. But from the perspective of the Gulf countries I think the deal is manifestly in their interest for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, take a nuclear weapon or the prospect of a nuclear weapon by Iran off the table, and you remove the greatest potential source of instability in the region that exists for a couple of reasons.

First, as concerned as we are about some of the actions that Iran is taking throughout the region in terms of interfering in the affairs of other countries, imagine how much more it could and would do emboldened by the cover of a nuclear weapon. So take that away and at least you are taking away something that would further embolden the Iranians to the detriment of everyone in the neighborhood.

Second, Iran with a nuclear weapon is likely to cause others to believe that they had better get one themselves, fueling an arms race, and the instability that flows from that in the region. So again, take that off the table and you take the prospect of an arms race off the table.

And more broadly, this effort, if we bring it to fruition, we think will strengthen the entire nonproliferation regime around the world, which will again be to the benefit of countries in the region. So, from that perspective I think the agreement, if finalized, is manifestly in the interest of countries in the region. And so we had that conversation.

But it's also clear that, as I said before, even if there is a nuclear agreement, that does not address Iran's actions that are of concern to its neighbors. The various destabilizing activities, the support for terrorist groups, et cetera.

And there, what we talked about is something we alluded to earlier, which is the work that we've already done together over the last six-and-a-half years to build the capacity and the resilience of countries in the region, and ourselves, to deal with these problems. And going forward how we can strengthen even more those efforts, build even more of that capacity and push back even harder against Iranian actions if they continue.

Now, as I said earlier, in the best of worlds over time maybe there are changes in Iran—in the conduct of its foreign policy. But that's not at all something anyone is counting on. And that's exactly why we will be prepared to deal with it.

MCMANUS: In the second row on this side, the gentleman in the red tie had his hand up first. That's a ruling from the chair.

QUESTION: Maybe this is—my name's Walt Cutler, former Foreign Service. Maybe this is a more positive track to be on. You did stop in Tunis. And this is—Tunis is as Tunisians refer to is the ray of hope coming out of the Arab Spring, et cetera.

At the same time we've seen some horrific terrorist activity there. We know that a lot of Tunisians have gone off to ISIS. And we keep our fingers crossed. Should we?

BLINKEN: Yes, but more than crossed. I think we keep our fingers crossed. We clap our hands because they deserve it. And then we continue to support them in various—in very material ways as they move forward.

You're right. To me it really is a ray of hope in a number of ways. First, in terms of the wisdom of Tunisia's leaders who have come together in a consensus inclusive government, bringing together secularists, Islamists, others in an effort to move the country forward. And right now at least that's working.

And there seems to be an understanding on the part of leaders in all camps with whom I had the opportunity to meet that working together despite their very real differences in an inclusive effort was the best path forward for their country, and also the best way to deal with the extremist problem that has emerged very much in Tunisia, as you rightly noted.

Unfortunately, the number of foreign fighters coming from Tunisia in Syria and Iraq probably exceeds those of any other single country involved. And it's a real problem.

But it is precisely because they have come together politically, and unlike a number of other countries that are either failed or failing states, they have a resilient state and resilient institutions, and also traditions and a history that's a little bit different. I think there's real hope.

I went to the Bardo Museum, which is the site of the horrific terrorist attack that took the lives of 20—almost all tourists, as well as of some Tunisians. And I don't know if any of you have had the opportunity to go there. But it was my first time.

In and of itself the museum is one of the most extraordinary museums I've ever seen. The collection of mosaics from Roman and pre- Roman times is breathtaking.

But to see in this one place the beauty, the culture, the civilization and the history represented by those mosaics, and then the evil that came into that building. And sought not only to kill innocent people, but to destroy that sense of culture and civilization and history, and the aspirations of the Tunisian people for a better future, it's a very powerful thing.

And what's even more powerful is to know that the building is still standing. The government and its institutions are still standing. And the people that I talked to in Tunisia are more determined than ever to move forward with this common project, and to reject the extremism that has come and struck them.

So I find that to be a profoundly hopeful situation. We are looking at significantly increasing the security assistance that we provide to Tunisia, basically doubling last year's budget and the president's new budget. But across the board, when it comes to socioeconomic development, also doubling down on Tunisia and working with them as well to strengthen their institutions.

The other challenge that's immediate and that we're grappling with is Tunisia is of course Libya where many of the foreign fighters that are doing great damage in Libya also pose a threat to Libya itself.

So we've talked a lot about all of those efforts. But to come back to where you started, I do think it's a ray of hope.

And it's something that we have a real stake in helping shine even brighter, because it won't just affect the future of Tunisians, which in and of itself is vitally important. But if Tunisia succeeds, it sends a very powerful message, well beyond Tunisia's borders that there is real hope, and that people with different views and different approaches actually can come together in a common endeavor and the extremes are marginalized and isolated.

MCMANUS: In the back of the room, Rick Burt?

QUESTION: Hi. Richard Burt.

I want to come back to Iran. And I'm a little bit befuddled I guess is the right word for how the administration has tried to sell this potential deal with Iran.

You have said, and the others in the administration have said that it's a deal meant to delay, defer or stop the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear capability. Don't attach too much broader political or strategic significance to it. And I say why not?

Why wouldn't you want to argue that the real problem with Iran is not just the nuclear problem. And we can argue all night about how—what the strategic significance of the nuclear acquisition would be. But wouldn't we want to begin a process of moving toward normalization?

Maybe we'll never get there. And maybe you're right, we'll continue to have serious differences. But we'll continue to have serious differences with the Saudis. We'll have serious differences with Egypt, with the Turks and other major powers in the region.

Don't we want to give ourselves maximum flexibility in the region, room to maneuver and leverage? And wouldn't and opening to Iran make our policy in the region that much more effective? I don't understand the reason that the administration is holding off in describing this, the potential of the strategic significance, moving ahead with Iran.

BLINKEN: Thanks, Rick.

Of course if a result of this agreement, if it's finalized is that it winds up being the first step in a broader engagement that actually helps change Iran's approach to the region and to the world, we would welcome that. What I don't want to do is to tell you that that is the purpose of the agreement or the anticipated result.

As I said at the outset, we have to approach things, I think, with both perspective and some degree of humility, even as we acknowledge our unique capabilities to try to advance some of these—dealing with some of the challenges that we face.

And so we've been very focused on the matter at hand, which is the nuclear program and the threat that it poses to countries around the world, and in dealing with that threat. And that's exactly what we're doing, and that's what we hope to achieve come the end of June.

If, as a result of that effort, there are broader changes in Iran's thinking about how it pursues its own interests in the region and in the world. And if it comes to the realization that actually working with and adhering to the norms and basic principles of the international system are actually a good way to advance its interests, then it will serve that purpose of beginning, hopefully, a new and better relationship.

But I don't want to sit here and say that I would anticipate that, or that that is actually the larger intent behind the deal.

Again, if you're looking at this from the glass half full perspective, one can hope that more pragmatic elements in Iran have concluded that Iran can best advance its interests by working with and through the basic norms of the international system.

If they gain credibility and they gain strength as a result of this process then there will be a larger dynamic. And that will be good, and something that we will embrace and work with. But it's not something I can sit here and say is—that's what we anticipate or that is the purpose.

If it is what flows from it, we will work with it and we will welcome it. But we also have to make sure that we are prepared for and protecting ourselves against all sorts of other things that could still flow from this agreement, including, as I mentioned earlier, the possibility that more hard line elements in Iran try and reassert their relevance and their authority and take even more aggressive action.

You're exactly right, though, that we need to be open enough, flexible enough, nimble enough, adept enough to deal with all of those contingencies. To be prepared to work more with an Iran that changes its conduct and changes its policies, but also to stand strongly against it if it doesn't.

MCMANUS: Again in the back of the room, Simon Henderson?

QUESTION: Thank you. Simon Henderson, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

At the end of last week the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, referred to Saudi Arabia as being led by what were translated by the New York Times as inexperienced youngsters.

An obvious candidate for this label is the 30-something minister of defense, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who's also the apparent architect of the Imam Wall (ph). You've just said that you met him.

You also met the foreign minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal, who's been in his job 40 years. Prince Mohamed bin Salman has been in his job two-and-a-half months. I wondered whether you could make some sort of comment on what you made of this young man.


BLINKEN: Thank you for your very interesting question.


Let me say this. Let me put it this way.

First, as is usually the case with all of our Saudi interlocutors, we had very concrete, very detailed and I think helpful discussions and meetings. Because one of the benefits of this relationship for whatever differences there may be or whatever strains there may be at various periods is that we speak very directly and frankly to each other in both directions. And that remains the case.

And it is certainly the case with everyone from Prince Saud to the new defense minister. And I found him, let me just put it this way, to be extremely knowledgeable, focused and engaged, and someone with whom we had a very good exchange.

MCMANUS: Allan Wendt. And I fear unless we go to a lightning round this will be the last question. So you may want to go to telegraphic answers to let more...

QUESTION: Yes. Allan Wendt, formerly with the Department of State.

Could you comment on our relationship with Egypt, which has had its ups and downs, but certainly remains vital to our interests in the region?

BLINKEN: Thanks. Egypt has and continues to play a central and absolutely vital role when it comes to both the security and stability of the entire region. And this is manifested, of course, in its relationship with Israel and upholding the commitments that were made many years ago in the treaty. It's seen very vividly in the struggle that Egypt is facing with terrorism and extremism and the work that it's doing to deal with that. But also as a significant force diplomatically, persuasively in the region to meet broader challenges and to try and advance them.

So a strong, effective working Egypt is profoundly in our interests and profoundly something that we support. And that support manifests itself through the security relationship, through the economic relationship, through the political and diplomatic relationship.

But of course we have sometimes different views on the best way to advance not only our common interests, but also our own perception of Egypt's interests. And there again we make that very clear in our conversations.

And it comes back to something we talked about earlier, which is what is the best way for us to have some influence in a hearing (ph) when it comes to our own views about the best path forward?

And I think that having the relationship, trying to strengthen it to focus it on areas where we are clearly working together in the same direction. And then speaking forthrightly within the four corners of that relationship about where we have differences is probably the best way to move forward.

But, I think Egypt is grappling with a tremendous challenge. But it's one that affects us as well. We've seen that successive governments, starting with the Mubarak government all the way through to the present government, have been grappling with this challenge, in some cases from totally different angles, but also in various ways.

And when it came to President Mubarak, we of course did not put a million people in Tahrir Square, even though some people seem to think that we did. And it was our strongly held view, which we expressed to him at the time, that he needed to open the system more and to create an environment in which more people had a voice an indeed a vote.

And it's hard to know, can't prove it one way or the other whether history would've been different if he had moved more in that direction than he did. We don't know.

He was succeeded by the SCAF, this military committee that came in and was very popular. And there too in our conversations with them, which were very open and direct as befits partners, we also suggested that bringing more people into the system, giving them an opportunity to express themselves politically was the best path to long-term stability.

And that was not the direction they were moving in. But they did do one very important thing is that they provided for what was largely a free and fair election.

And what's really interesting is that if you look at that election, Mr. Morsi and the party that represented the Muslim Brotherhood probably went into that election with 20, maybe 25 percent maximum of the electorate behind it. But it emerged with 51 or 52 percent.

And that's because a big group of people in the middle, some Islamists, some secularists, some others, liberals, looked at the choice. And I think what they saw was either a candidate supported by the military who seemed to be going back to where President Mubarak was, and this unknown in the Brotherhood that posed real questions and concerns, but was not moving them backward.

And so they took a big gamble. And that big block in the center moved to support Morsi and the Brotherhood Party won the election fair and square.

So then you had almost exactly the mirror image, which is Morsi governing as if he had 100 percent, not 51 or 52 percent. And there too in all of our engagements with him and with the people around him, we made the case that this was not the path to long-term stability in Egypt.

And we had no affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood or its policies. But Morsi was the elected president of the country. We engaged with him. And we tried to work with him and give him the best counsel we could. And of course, we know what the result was.

My concern now about the great challenge that President el-Sisi faces in moving his country forward economically and dealing with very real security challenges posed by terrorists is that Egypt needs to find a way, at least in our humble judgment, to create more space for all of the stakeholders in Egyptian society.

Because if you don't, and if you wind up disenfranchising a significant minority of your population, that is not a recipe for long-term stability. It may work in the short term. But we don't think it works in the long term.

And so I think the challenge before him, as we grapples with very real, very hard security challenges, as he grapples with and is making difficult decisions on the economy. To also figure out a way to create more space to give people a sense that they have a future in the system. Because we know what happens not only to Egypt, but to us if that's not the evolution it takes.

Because if you drive a problem underground, into jail, out of the country and into violence, it's not only going to undermine your own stability, it's likely to come and harm the interests of some of your friends, including us. And we've seen that movie play itself out before.

So that's the nature of the conversation and the dialogue. But I think we can best advance that by working with the Egyptians and trying to strengthen the partnership. And hopefully help them deal with both their challenges, but also with the need to create lasting stability in the country.

MCMANUS: I am...

BLINKEN: Thank you.

MCMANUS: ... very sorry to say that we have run out of time. My apologies to all on whom I failed to call. But we can continue this conversation in the dinner reception outside those doors. But first, please join me in thanking Tony Blinken for this valuable hour of talk.


BLINKEN: Thanks.


MCMANUS: Thank you.

BLINKEN: Thank you.


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