U.S. Department Of State
Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
September 19, 2017
New York City, New York
QUESTION: Live at the White House for a special report tonight. The focus of the Trump administration this week: international relations. The President addressing the United Nations General Assembly, as we’ve been talking about this morning, making a case for his “America first” policy and against what he called the evil regimes of North Korea and Iran, also mentioning Venezuela.
Let’s talk now with the country’s top diplomat. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson joins us from New York. Mr. Secretary, thanks for being here.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: My pleasure, Bret.
QUESTION: I want to start with what you just wrapped up with, your meeting with the Russians. How is that going, that relationship? And what’s the fallout from your meeting?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, Bret, I think we’ve established many points of contacts with the Russians at various levels. Obviously, we’ve been dealing with a few differences over our embassies and I think we’ve got that stabilized now. But I think importantly we know what the really big issues are. We continue to find areas of mutual interest, cooperation in Syria. We’re both focused on defeating ISIS in Syria, stabilizing the country so the civil war does not re-erupt, and moving to the Geneva for – Geneva talks pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
So we have many common objectives; sometimes we have different tactics of how to achieve those, and certainly we have different interests. But a lot of very serious work underway in Syria to see if we can’t find a solution to that. And then we discussed the situation in Ukraine, where we have an engagement underway to see if we can’t move that process forward. It’s been stuck, as you know, now for several years. We’re still committed to the delivery of the Minsk accord objectives, and we have active dialogue there. Then we have an active strategic issues dialogue, and we’ve begun starting some early talks around the New START Treaty and INF as well. So very, very fulsome discussions.
QUESTION: Well, I wanted to ask you about the speech, the President’s speech to the General Assembly today. A lot of reaction, pretty much along party lines – some saying that it was bold, direct, needed to be said to the world; the criticism from top Democrats like Dianne Feinstein: President Trump’s “bombastic threat to destroy North Korea and his refusal to present any positive pathways” toward any – “on the many global challenges we face are severe disappointments. He aims to unify the world through tactics of intimidation, but in reality he only further isolates the United States.”
Your reaction to that?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I thought the President’s speech was extraordinary. I think if you go back to the speech itself, he opened in the early part of the speech with making the case for the responsibility of sovereign nations, the accountability of sovereign nations, that it is through sovereignty and responsibility to their people, and keeping their people first, and that’s very much in line with his theme of “America first” is that he’s really saying America’s people come first. But he was making the case to other countries around the world to the extent they can adopt that same approach to governing, that that leads to peace and stability, and that’s in fact what many of our allies and friends do adopt. And I think he was really making a compelling case for that being the approach for successful governance.
And he closed the speech with a very strong challenge and call to everyone to join together, that he sees great potential in the United Nations, that does not feel it has ever lived up to its potential, and that this is where many of the world’s most challenging and vexing problems can be solved working collectively.
In the middle of that speech, though, I think he was very directly describing the threats to democracies, the threats to governments the world over, from North Korea’s threatening behavior to Iran’s destabilizing activity, to the decaying democracy in Venezuela that we’re all witnessing, and just the sad, sad human tragedy that’s unfolding before our eyes in what was once the most – one of the most thriving democracies in our own hemisphere.
So I think the President did a very good job, as I said, of laying out the themes at the beginning, coming back to them at the end, and in the middle really hitting head-on with what the real challenges are, not shying away from those in any way.
QUESTION: Despite the words that have been said, since the first – the provocations since the first UN sanctions against North Korea – you have three short-range missiles, one intermediate-range missile launched, another intermediate-range missile launch September 14th, and then you had a nuclear test. So clearly whatever is happening, it’s not getting through to Kim Jong-un.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, it is very disturbing, Bret. It’s very concerning not just to us, but I know to the entire world, that we are watching Kim Jong-un advance his technologies, advance his capabilities. I do think that the President’s done a very good job of uniting the international community in its voice to Kim Jong-un that we do not believe this is in – certainly not in the global interest, but it’s really not in his interest either, longer term. The path he’s on is just to a path of further isolationism.
We have the strictest sanctions ever put in place. We do believe there are early signs of those having an effect. Ultimately, though, we’re going to need the assistance of the neighbors in the region. We have strong support in our trilateral security arrangements with Japan and South Korea, but we also are in very, very constant dialogue with China and with Russia, because they have a very important role they can play here to also carry the message of the international community that this program really has to be halted, and we have to have an opportunity to talk about the future of North Korea and a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
QUESTION: Secretary Tillerson, there was a tease in the speech about Iran and a possibility that this Iran deal might not be renewed, or somehow might be changed. October 15th is your deadline. Can you shed some light on that?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think we all are well familiar with the flaws of the Iranian nuclear deal, Bret, and the most glaring flaw is the sunset provision that – we all know that this is merely a kick-the-can-down-the-road agreement. And we just spoke about North Korea, and unfortunately, this is what governments in the past did with North Korea. They just simply – they entered into agreements that were short-lived or were easily cheated on, and I think that’s the President’s assessment of the Iranian nuclear agreement, is that it’s not a stiff enough agreement. It doesn’t slow their program enough and holding them accountable is difficult under the agreement. But most importantly, the agreement comes to an end, and so we can almost start the countdown clock as to when they will resume their nuclear weapons capability.
The President really wants to redo that deal. He said renegotiate it. We do need the support, I think, of our allies – the European allies and others – to make the case as well to Iran that this deal really has to be revisited.
QUESTION: But you know that the messages from those countries are that they are not interested in renegotiating, and the message from Iran is that if there’s any effort to renegotiate or change it, they’re going to tear it up and there’s no deal.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, if the Iranians tear it up and walk away, then under the terms of the agreement, all of the sanctions, both American and European, snap back into place. So we’ll see what they choose to do. But I think the other thing that the President was highlighting today, and we’ve talked about it as well in the past, is that the Iranian threat to the region is much broader than defined simply by the nuclear talks. Our relationship with Iran from a security standpoint and a threat standpoint is much broader than that, as is the entire region. And we’ve really got to begin to deal with Iran’s destabilizing activities in Yemen, in Syria.
The President highlighted that today, that under the agreement – the spirit of the agreement, if you want to use that word – but even the words of the preamble of the agreement, there was clearly an expectation, I think on the part of all the parties to that agreement, that by signing this nuclear agreement Iran would begin to move to a place where it wanted to integrate – reintegrate itself with its neighbors. And that clearly did not happen. In fact, Iran has stepped up its destabilizing activities in the region, and we have to deal with that, and so whether we deal with it through a renegotiation on nuclear or we deal with it in other ways.
QUESTION: Two quick things. Just to make sure I’m clear – you said it there at the end – is the goal tonight, is it a renegotiation of the Iran deal?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, if we – if we’re going to stick with the Iran deal, there has to be changes made to it. The sunset provision simply is not a sensible way forward. It’s just simply kicking that – as I said, kicking the can down the road again for someone in the future to have to deal with. The President takes responsibility seriously, he takes his responsibilities seriously, and that’s why he’s giving very, very careful consideration as to what’s the best way to address that issue.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, we appreciate your time tonight on a busy day up there in New York. You’re welcome back anytime.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Thank you, Bret.
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