NPR's Steve Inskeep interviewed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Iran and U.S. and Israeli diplomacy in the Middle East. A full transcript of the interview follows:
STEVE INSKEEP: Well, let's begin here. If I thought about what I learned from your message — from your speech the other day — I might have summarized it by saying, don't take a risk in negotiating with Iran. You said you wanted to make sure that Iran ceased uranium enrichment and several other things happened before any concessions are made to Iran.
American diplomats here seem to think that a risk is going to be required. The United States might have to give something to get something. So I'd like to begin by asking you if President Obama decides that it's necessary to take a risk to move toward peace with Iran, are you prepared to support him in taking that risk?
NPR's Steve Inskeep speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday.
NPR's Steve Inskeep speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday. Nick Fountain/NPR
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I think the question is, how do we achieve a common goal? A common goal that the president articulated, which I share, is the prevention of — preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. He also said that the — Iran's conciliatory words should be met by meaningful action. We were discussing at great length for about three hours what is "meaningful action." I appreciate that on a day when you had a meaningful agenda —
— a government shutdown. But obviously we were discussing the shutdown of Iran's nuclear weapons program, and that's the critical thing. The critical thing is, we want to make sure that we shut down Iran's ongoing efforts to achieve nuclear weapons.
In the case of Syria, where you have chemical weapons, the — that's exactly what was put on the table and demanded — a complete dismantling of the chemical weapons program. You didn't say, well, give me 20 percent of the chemical weapons and we'll take off the pressures on you and then we'll see. No, it was a complete cessation of the program and dismantling of the program — in this case, in exchange for not doing certain things to you, like a military strike.
In the case of Iran, there has to be a totality of demand, because [Iranian President] Rouhani himself said two things: One, "I was able to achieve with negotiations, when I was the chief nuclear negotiator" —
In the early 2000s, right.
— 2003 to 2005 — he was Iran's nuclear negotiator. And he said, "While we were talking to the Europeans in Tehran" — this is a quote —
— as we were installing the equipment in Isfahan — Isfahan is the conversion plant where you take uranium —
— yellowcake and make it into enrichable form for making bombs. He said, "While we were talking to the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in Isfahan." And he says, "By creating a calm environment, a calm international environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan."
So you don't want him to achieve a "fool me once, fool me twice" arrangement. You don't want him to just talk and remain with the capacity to continue the program.
It sounds like you're saying that if, at some point in the diplomatic process, President Obama calls you up and says, we need to take a little risk here, we need to take a leap of faith, your answer is going to be, no, this is not appropriate.
Well, I don't think anybody should take a leap of faith with a regime that systematically defies Security Council resolutions, has cheated twice, whose chief negotiator said, this is my strategy, cheating. He wrote the book about it; it's called National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy.
You brought the book here, I see.
I bought the book; we got the book; we actually read it. He's an open book. He's an honest deceiver. He said, this is — this is what this book is about — I honestly — I am honestly telling you how I deceived the West to enable us to proceed to the — to end the nuclear — to complete our nuclear program, or at least advance it significantly.
Now, he wants to complete that job. Now, of course, he's working at the behest of the real ruler of Iran, the Ayatollah Khamenei, and he is a servant. And he is saying to him, look, I know that Ahmadinejad was advocating hard words along the hard steps that we took. They took a lot of hard steps; they brought themselves very close to the nuclear threshold. But they're not there yet, because the hard words of Ahmadinejad produced hard sanctions. I've been advocating and President Obama has been advocating hard sanctions coupled with a credible military threat. And the more they progressed on their program, the more the sanctions got tough.
In comes Rouhani and he says to his boss, Khamenei, he says, let's not do hard actions and hard words; let's do hard actions and soft words. And we can — I'll get you over the top. Now, what is over the top? That's what is meaningful action, which is for him, and what is — should be meaningful action for us?
Let me make sure that I — let me ask you about something, Prime Minister, because I understand from your statements that you do not trust this man. You point out correctly that he has been part of the regime for a long time, President Rouhani.
At the same time, I was in Iran at the time of their election, and he was elected by a substantial majority of the Iranian people on a platform where he explicitly said I want to improve relations with the world —
Sure, why not?
— which suggests that there is going to be pressure on the regime to improve relations with the world. If they fail, they will be shown to have not followed their own people's will.
Isn't this a moment of opportunity?
It might be, if you continue the pressure.
It's true that his election reflected the tremendous disaffection of the Iranian people with this regime, but you know, he was — you know what the regime did, what Khamenei did. He took 700 candidates, eliminated 99 percent, left 1 percent — some democracy. And out of that 1 percent, the Iranian people chose the least bad that they could get, which was Rouhani.
But if they had a free choice, they would have tossed this regime out. They would have done it long — they did it actually 4 1/2 years ago. They had elections; they won the election; Khamenei stole millions of votes and then sent his goons into the streets and butchered the dissenters.
So what is the opportunity now?
So I think — I think this reflects undoubtedly — his election reflects that disaffection.
But he is a servant of the regime. And what he is offering is to — and he said — he wants to relieve the sanctions. The way he wants — what he wants to do is to relieve the sanctions, but advance the program, which is essentially what he did in 2003. He just wants a repeat of it on a bigger scale. And here is what he's saying now — and this is very important; you don't want to fall into his trap. You want to use the pressure and the desire for sanctions relief to get a real deal, not a fake deal. He is offering a fake deal. A fake deal is a partial deal that leaves Iran with enrichment capability. Rouhani says — this is another quote from him; he's an open book — he says, a country that can enrich uranium to about 3 1/2 percent — that's low-enriched uranium — will also have the ability to enrich it to about 90 percent, which is weapons-grade uranium. He said, having fuel-cycle capability — the ability to do that, to take 3 1/2 percent to 90 percent — virtually means that a country that possesses this capability is able to produce nuclear weapons.
So here's what Rouhani is saying: He's saying, listen, I'll take some material out. I'll take some — some stuff out. I don't know, 20 percent stuff. But leave me with 3 1/2 percent or 5 percent enriched uranium. That's the material. Leave me also with a machine — machines, in this case — that can take this low-enriched uranium and make it into weapons-grade material — material, enriched uranium that you can put in a bomb.
And all I have to do is give — make some minor concessions, cosmetic concessions, we'll have a partial lifting of the sanctions. What do you think will happen when you have a partial lifting of the sanctions? You'll probably have a full collapse of the sanctions regime because there are many countries in the world that are waiting to abandon the sanctions. So that's their strategy. Their strategy is to maintain their nuclear weapons capability, the critical things that are necessary for nuclear weapons, which is enrichment, have a partial lifting of the sanctions, which would bring sanctions collapse. Iran wins out. The sanctions all collapse, and Iran maintains the ability to enrich uranium and make nuclear bombs.
Would you meet Rouhani if you had an opportunity to do that somewhere in the world?
I don't care about the meeting. I mean, I don't even — I don't have a problem with the diplomatic process. I have the problem — my question —
You're saying you would meet him?
I haven't been offered, and I don't — you know, if I'm offered, I'll consider it. But it's not an issue because I don't think — and you know, if I — if I meet with these people, I would stick this question in their face: Are you prepared to dismantle your program completely? Because you can't stay with the enrichment. And they say, well, of course we have to stay with the enrichment because we have a right to enrich. They say, we have a right to civilian nuclear energy.
That's not the same thing. There are 17 countries in the world, including your neighbors Canada and Mexico, including Sweden and Switzerland, including Spain, including a country like Indonesia, 250 million people — some very substantial countries — they have nuclear energy programs, but they don't have enrichment.
The reason Iran is demanding enrichment is because that's the way you get to nuclear weapons. If it's civilian nuclear energy you want — I don't know why Iran wants it because it's swimming with not only oil but natural gas; for the next 200 years it will suffice for all their — you know, for all their energy needs. The reason they insist on enrichment is because they want to maintain the path to nuclear weapons.
And, coincidentally, they have another path that is there, a heavy water reactor to go through the plutonium route to the bomb. They don't need either. Countries that want just civilian nuclear energy do not have heavy water for plutonium and do not have centrifuges for enrichment.
Prime Minister, when I have traveled in Iran and when I've traveled in Arab countries, you — as you can imagine, you hear a variety of things about Israel, a variety of things about Jews, many very prejudiced statements. And at the same time, you do hear from more thoughtful people who ask questions that can be harder to answer. One of them would go something like this: People will ask, Why can't we have nuclear weapons since Israel has them? What is a reasonable answer to that question?
Well, I'm not going to say what Israel has or doesn't have, but I will say Israel has no designs to destroy anyone. We have not called for the destruction of a people, the annihilation of Iran or any other country. But that's exactly what Iran's doctrinaire, messianic, apocalyptic regime — it's a terrorist regime. It's applying terrorism on five continents as we speak — as we speak.
They tried to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in downtown Washington. They would've taken quite a few congressmen and senators with him in that watering hole. We just caught them with an operative now — now, three weeks ago in Tel Aviv with an operative that was collecting information about the American Embassy. I don't think he was looking at how to get to the Fourth of July celebrations. I mean, it's obvious. This is what these people do.
So a terrorist regime bent on world domination, seeking to navigate their way cleverly to the point where they have awesome power, should not be allowed to achieve it. If we've learned anything from the history of the 20th century — and not only from the 20th century — is that a regime with unbridled radical ambitions should not get awesome power, because once they do, they will unleash it.
What's the answer to that question about what people see as a double standard?
Well, Israel — I think Israel is not the issue. And in general in the Middle East, the issue is not those who have signed the NPT, the non-proliferation treaty —
People also ask why Israel hasn't signed the non-proliferation treaty —
Well, you should look at those who signed it and see that the signing of it is meaningless, because Syria signed it. It was developing, you know, facilities for nuclear weapons. Libya signed it under Gadhafi. It was developing facilities for nuclear weapons. Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, signed it. It was developing nuclear weapons — twice actually — from the 1970s on. And Iran signed it, and it's developing these nuclear weapons, developing ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missiles.
They only have one purpose, by the way: nuclear payloads. And, by the way, not for us. They have missiles that can reach us. Those ICBM missiles, projectiles, are for you, to reach the — the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, which they'll do in a few years. So that's — so the reason — the reason this is not an issue — the reason the real issue is Iran is because Iran is intent on using nuclear weapons to annihilate a member state of the United Nations.
President Obama is seen as very much wanting a settlement to the —
Can I — before we get into that —
— the small matter of a radical regime that goes — that wants to go to nuclear weapons. I say don't make a partial deal. Make a full deal. If you want to lift the sanctions, don't lift them in the middle. Have, as in Syria, full dismantlement.
Second, don't give them enrichment and don't enable the heavy water — the heavy water route for plutonium to continue. That's a reasonable demand. If they want civilian nuclear energy, fine, they can import fuel rods the way 17 countries do. If they want medical isotopes — I don't know if Bolivia imports medical isotopes. So many countries do. This is all hogwash. What they say is nonsense. And you know, I'm 64 years old this month. I've decided, you know, just say it like it is. I mean, we can go into jargon —
Because you were restraining yourself before?
Yeah, I was restrained. This is jargony. This is so — you know, this is so simple: Don't have nuclear weapons, Iran. You don't deserve it. You're slaughtering, by the tens of thousands, innocent men, women and children in Syria. You're trying to subvert every country, just about, in the Middle East, with the exception of Assad's regime. You're sending terrorists to five continents, 25 cities only in the last three years, ordering them, planning, using Hezbollah, from — you know, from Bangkok to Buenos Aires to — whatever, they've been around the globe, in the last three decades and now, in the last three years. No, you don't get nuclear weapons. A regime like that with this messianic, crazy idea that they have — you don't — we learned anything from history, you do not let these people, because they sweet-talk you, to get nuclear weapons.
You want a deal? Fine, I will be the first one to applaud it. If we can get a diplomatic solution, as opposed to a military solution, I would be delighted. But it has to be a real solution, not a fake solution, not a partial solution, not one in which they continue to enrich, no way. That is wrong.
And you know, and I think — people say, well, I'm the only one who's saying it. No, I'm not. I finished my U.N. speech — dozens of ambassadors say they can't clap; you know, there are cameras and — you know, it's all political correctness. And they come around, you know, the back, they shake my hand, they say, Prime Minister, you spoke for us. I don't have to tell you what the Arab countries are thinking. Many in Europe, many elsewhere, they get it. Sure, we all want to see a genuine diplomatic and peaceful solution, but no, we don't want to be hoodwinked. We're not gullible. We're not suckers.
You mentioned Arab states, which of course are also concerned about Iran. Would an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, or at least progress, make it easier for you to make friends, make alliances with some of those Arab states?
Of course it would help. There's no question, but they're coming to us — oh, I would say they're coming to our position without our doing anything because they realize their own survival is on the line. In their case, it's the survival of their governments and their regimes that would be overtaken by Iran with nuclear weapons. In our case, it's the survival of the state, of our people. And you know, we didn't travel 4,000 years — nearly 4,000 years in history — to be wiped out by this regime. You know, that's not going to happen.
President Obama is seen as wanting talks with the Palestinians perhaps more than your government does at this time. Your government is seen as perhaps wanting stronger action against Iran than even the United States does. Is there a little room for horse trading there? Have you been making any kind of trades?
I think these two — these two things stand separately and independently, and they're both important.
Stopping Iran from having nuclear weapons is a vital interest not only of Israel but of the United States and of the world because if you — this will be a change. This will be a pivot of history. So you want to stop that.
Getting peace with the Palestinians is important because we want to end the conflict. Sixty-five years, you know, we've lost some — a lot of people, we all lost friends. I lost a brother in this battle, and I myself was wounded in battle against terrorists, nearly drowned in the Suez Canal. Peace is something very dear. If you've been through wars and operations and battles, you want peace. To get that peace, and to avoid a binational state is what I want. I'm prepared to make real compromises for that. But it'll require two to tango.
Avoid a binational state, meaning a state where Jews are not predominant.
Exactly. We want Israel as a democratic and Jewish state. So you have to maintain a Jewish majority, and you want to do that by legal means, by democratic means. That's one thing.
But the other thing I don't want is to hand over territory and have it taken over by Iran's proxies, which is what happened when we got out of Gaza. We went out of Gaza. The Palestinian Authority collapsed in two seconds. Hamas, Iran's proxy, took it over. And by the way, they put in there another proxy called Islamic Jihad. And they fired 10,000 rockets at us from the places we vacated. Everybody said, uproot the settlements, give them territory, you get peace. We got territory — we gave territory, and we got missiles. And we don't want that replicated in Judea-Samaria, the West Bank.
I want to ask one — I want to ask one further question before I let you go. As you know, Prime Minister, many analysts have said the United States is in retreat or in decline from the Middle East. President Obama himself has talked often about a pivot to Asia, but — meaning East Asia. What are the long-term implications of that for Israel?
Let's ask what the long-term implications would be for the United States. And I haven't seen — I haven't heard the United States saying, we're leaving the Middle East. I understand their — its interest with Asia. I mean, how could you not be interested in Asia? The world is changing. The East is rising. I wouldn't short-change America. I think America is a greater force. It's got tremendous internal robustness, freedom, diversity, pluralism, free inquiry — it's got a lot of energy. This is a society that I recognize very well because — because Israel is as close as you can get to America. It's not an accident we have these fantastic things in high tech that replicate what you have in your various Silicon Valley [companies]. I went to school at MIT, and I saw the first one, you know, with Route 128 and Route 495. I — this is what is happening in Israel. And there is so much similarity there. But Asia is rising. They've opened up their economies. They've released a lot of the constraints on the initiative of their societies.
But here's what's happening. With a rising East and the reorganizing West — I mean, things are changing with the global economy — you'll have competition. I don't think you'll have Huntington's clash of civilizations. I think you'll have competition within circumscribed nodes, the rules of the game, both for China and for, obviously, the United States, and the rising powers — the other rising powers in the East. There is competition. That's part of history, historic change. But it's not wild.
In between East and West is this phenomenon, this convulsion that is striking in the Middle East, and extends to Iran, which is an Islamist convulsion that doesn't have rules, it doesn't have where to settle. Countries are imploding and exploding. But if in that spat of land and nations, Iran — the penultimate Islamist dictatorship, a radical regime that knows no bounds — gets nuclear weapons, it will be the most dangerous development for our future — much more dangerous than the inevitable and, I say, limited competition between the supe — the new superpowers.
But what's it mean if the United States backs away from the Middle East — or backs away further, perhaps I should say?
I don't think it will back away from its — the most important interest. You don't want Iran with nuclear weapons because that will affect the main energy supplies which will affect whatever you have. It will affect the main energy supplies. It will spark immediately an arms race — several countries in the Middle East that would make the Middle East a nuclear tinderbox. That's the most dangerous part of the planet.
And it would give also Iran the ability to play with those weapons against you — in my opinion, not only against us and you but against everyone. And you could have the specter of nuclear terrorism become a fact for the first time in history. There's an abiding interest by the United States, by the American people and by anybody with his eyes set in his head, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. I don't think it's accidental that President Obama has spent the time with me and is spending the time on this because I think this is a vital American interest.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, thanks very much.