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CNN'S AMANPOUR

Nuclear Options; The Pope and the Rabbi; Imagine a World

Aired November 6, 2013 - 14:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

A senior U.S. official tells CNN that sanctions relief is on the table for Iran if it takes certain steps to restrict its nuclear program. The official today says the sanctions are reversible and require Iran to move quickly.

This word ahead of a new round of negotiations between Iran, the United States and the five other major world powers, which get underway in Geneva tomorrow. Talking for his side, the chief Iranian negotiator, the foreign minister, Javad Zarif, says a deal is possible as early as this week.

The talks, which start again, follow a session in October, which produced no breakthroughs but had all sides expressing cautious optimism. International negotiators want Tehran to take specific steps to prevent it ever being able to make nuclear weapons. And Iran wants international sanctions lifted which are crippling its economy.

Encouragingly, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has now publicly expressed support for his negotiating team and has urged hardliners at home to give them a chance. And here in the United States, major Jewish groups have agreed to the Obama administration's request not to lobby for more sanctions against Iran for now.

But President Obama remains under huge pressure from Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stepped up his campaign against Iran's new reach-out to the West. And at home, Obama faces pressure from his own party in Congress, where leading senators are talking about ratcheting up sanctions.

So is that smart negotiating? Or will it torpedo whatever chance there may be of a diplomatic deal to resolve this issue?

We have both sides coming up; Democratic Senator Robert Menendez; he's the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he's leading the effort to crank up sanctions on Iran. And he'll join me from Capitol Hill in a moment.

But first, we go to Paul Pillar. He's a long-time veteran of the CIA and he has had nearly 30 years of experience working on Iran and other regional issue. He now joins me from Washington.

Mr. Pillar, thank you very much indeed for joining me. So tell me right now what do you make of the Senate's idea of ratcheting up sanctions? Good idea or bad?

Apparently Mr. Pillar -- can you hear me, sir?

Do you know what, we are going to take a break -- technical difficulties; these things happen on live television -- and we'll be right back.

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AMANPOUR: Welcome back. And we want to go straight to Senator Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is joining me now from Capitol Hill.

Senator, thank you for being here.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), N.J.: Good to be with you.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you, sir, what you think is going to happen right now. We have just heard news from the United States' officials in Geneva, that they say sanctions relief is on the table for Iran, reversible if Iran takes certain measures.

Are you on board with that now?

MENENDEZ: Well, Christiane, it depends what is Iran doing. I think Iran can avoid any future additional sanctions if, in fact, it follows an immediate suspension, which freezes its program in place subject to negotiations. But I have a problem if Iran is going to continue to allow to be able to pursue uranium enrichment, continue to spend its centrifuges, to continue to perfect it while we are negotiating without any suspension that the United States would suspend its actions moving forward.

AMANPOUR: But Senator, you know, the -- as I don't have to tell you, because you've had visits from many members of the Obama administration; your own party, who are asking you now to give talks a chance and to give this diplomacy a chance. They seem to say that Iran is moving much quicker than it did before and is engaged seriously.

So the question is, do you feel that calling -- and I hear you clearly. You still are calling for ratcheted-up sanctions. Could that torpedo this frail and fragile diplomatic chance right now?

MENENDEZ: First of all, Christiane, number one is I haven't heard anything substantive on the table; all I've heard is that the tone and tenor and the directness has been different.

But I haven't heard anything substantive and the reality is what the U.N. -- not the U.S., but what the U.N. Security Council resolutions say, two simple things, suspend and submit to new protocols.

Well, at a minimum, it doesn't seem to me that Iran is harmed by suspending. And if they suspend, I certainly would be an advocate of suspending any further sanctions moving forward, that is of new sanctions while we see what the negotiations bring.

But what I do not understand is a negotiating posture in which we suspend our actions; we give them sanctions relief on existing sanctions, yet they continue to be able to enrich, to be able to have more sophisticated centrifuges, which, in testimony before my committee now says that within a month, if they chose to, that they would have the uranium material necessary to have one nuclear bomb. That is a dangerous proposition.

AMANPOUR: Let me go straight to this other issue, though. You have said -- and I believe you said to a speech here in New York this week of APAC leaders that now is not the time to loosen sanctions. But as you know, and it's been heavily reported, APAC, other Jewish groups have acceded to the Obama administration's request not to lobby for new sanctions for now.

So they seem to be on board. In Iran -- I know this is not your problem, but in Iran, the Supreme Leader is urging his hardliners to keep quiet and allow negotiations a chance.

So do you want to be in a position of potentially wrecking the chance of a diplomatic solution?

MENENDEZ: Well, you know, first of all, regardless of what those groups' positions are does not dictate my position, number one.

Number two is my understanding, for example, from APAC, among others, is that they did not agree to support a present freeze on any additional actions.

Number three is the only reason we're in these negotiations is because of the sanctions that I and other offers have authored, that passed unanimously in the United States Senate. We wouldn't even be in a discussion of a track of negotiation, yet we were told at that time that sanctions was the wrong policy to pursue as well.

So I'm not seeking just to pursue sanctions for sanctions' sake. I am seeking for Iran to ultimately suspend so that a negotiation can take place. Now if President Rouhani, when he was Iran's nuclear negotiator years ago, boasted, as well as in his book, that, in fact, he was able to convince the West not to have any sanctions while, in fact, Iran continued its nuclear program, which is now far advanced. And so you don't create a uranium enrichment facility underground if your mode is our civilian peaceful processes. You don't hide in Parchin in the military facility unless you're trying to weaponize your nuclear capability, a country that has huge oil reserves doesn't need nuclear power for domestic use. And so there is a way to have a peaceful nuclear program that doesn't also include enrichment at the end of the day.

AMANPOUR: Senator, clearly everybody agrees that sanctions has -- had the effect of bringing all sides to the table right now. But I guess the question is do you continue with those punitive measures at a time when negotiations are carrying on?

And to that end, let me ask you this, a former administration official in the administration of President George W. Bush, has said, and I quote, "The only thing stronger than love of Israel in the Congress is aversion to another military conflict." And there is worry in Congress that taking an extra hard stance might actually not just torpedo diplomacy in any small chance there might be of that, but actually lead to military conflict.

Does that not worry you?

MENENDEZ: Of course we want to avoid military conflict, which is we have pursued the sanctions regime that has got us into a negotiating posture.

But I would flip the question on those who ask the question you have asked, Christiane, why is it impossible to simply accept -- get Iran to accept that it's suspend? It's not rolling back its 20 percent or 3.5 percent enrichment; it's not reducing its centrifuges. Why can you not simply suspend in order to have the negotiation that you want? That would be a good faith effort. And in return, I and others would say what the House of Representatives passed 400-20, which is a new round of sanctions, we should wait. But at least Iran should suspend. Otherwise, what we have seen in that past is prologue. We have been down a road before, Rouhani said he was able to convince the West not to add sanctions and they have dramatically expanded their nuclear program.

So a good faith effort by Iran would suspend, and we will suspend.

AMANPOUR: And finally, obviously the president, it seems, does have the ability, constitutionally, to actually go over the head of Congress and waive, does he not have a national security waiver if he chooses to enact that?

MENENDEZ: There are provisions in the laws that we already pass on sanctions to have waivers that the president can certify to Congress. And I would be willing to say that if we can't get Iran to suspend its present activities as we move towards what I hope would be fruitful negotiations, that any new round of sanctions would say that they could be ceased immediately upon Iran meeting its verifiable actions under the Security Council resolutions. These are not U.S. positions. These are global positions under the United Nations.

AMANPOUR: Senator Robert Menendez, thank you very much for joining me from Capitol Hill today.

MENENDEZ: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And we turn now to Paul Pillar. He is a veteran of the CIA for more than 30 years. He worked on issues of Iran and other areas in that same region, joining me now.

Paul, thanks for joining me. What do you make of what Senator Robert Menendez said?

Is it a good idea to keep up this pressure right now?

PAUL PILLAR, FORMER CIA OFFICER: It is not a good idea to add more sanctions. The senator is quite correct that the existing sanctions are one of the major ingredients in the Iranian calculus and why they are sitting down at the negotiating table.

It does not follow from that, however, that adding more sanctions to the mountain of sanctions that are already in effect is the way to close the deal.

The way that sanctions or any other kind of pressure achieves its purpose of getting concessions we want from the other side is twofold. There are two things you need, Christiane. One is if there's no movement at the negotiating table from the other side, we keep the sanctions in place.

But the other, just as important, is to persuade the other side that if they do make the kind of concessions that we want, it's part of a package in which sanctions come off. So I think one of the main problems of the idea of adding still more sanctions is it simply adds to the perception which is already pretty prevalent in Tehran. It's the suspicion that none other than the Supreme Leader holds that we in the United States aren't really interested in an agreement; we're interested in regime change. And there we're using the negotiations to stall for time while the sanctions cause more and more damage on Iran. And if that's the case, they simply have no incentive to concede any more.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you this, because you heard Senator Menendez say what would be required of Iran in order to get sanctions relief. He talked about suspension of the program, you know, all sorts of rollbacks. Clearly the West needs to have full transparency and full assurances regarding its intentions.

But the conditions that Senator Menendez had laid out there, do those seem to you to be the conditions that the Obama administration, the P5+1 have put on the table right now?

PILLAR: We have to be crystal clear at the distinction between one or the other side, either the U.S. or Iran, taking some unilateral action versus something that's part of a package. So what is reportedly part of the package that I hope, indeed, the U.S. and its negotiating partners are considering, does involve significant sanctions relief tied to, tied explicitly to as part of a proposed deal the kinds of restrictions on the Iranian program that we're looking for. I don't think either side, either the Iranians or the U.S. should be looking for a unilateral move from the other side. We would not expect the Iranians to expect from us to simply start taking sanctions off unilaterally and we should not expect from them to simply start stopping aspects of their nuclear program unilaterally. It has to be part of a negotiating package, and that's what's going to take place over the negotiating table.

AMANPOUR: And you say that anybody who wants to avoid an Iranian nuclear weapon should avoid giving the Iranian hardliners more ammunition.

What do you mean by that?

PILLAR: We have hardliners on both sides of this. We have our own that we have to contend with over here. And certainly President Rouhani -- and I would say not just President Rouhani, but the Supreme Leader himself have to deal with hardline sentiment in Tehran. I think you already alluded, Christiane, to the statement that the Ayatollah made just three days ago, which was widely and correctly interpreted as an admonishment to his own hardliners to give negotiations a chance.

So we're hearing it right from the guy at the top. He supports the negotiating effort of President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif. He also expressed skepticism which refers to what I was talking about a moment ago, an uncertainty in Tehran as to whether the United States really does want an agreement. But he's telling his own hardliners give negotiations a chance.

AMANPOUR: And we'll see how it all works out in Geneva this round.

Paul Pillar, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

PILLAR: My pleasure.

AMANPOUR: And we're going to take a break. And when we come back, the pope and the rabbi, a very high-profile interfaith friendship with broad and deep implications worldwide.

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AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

Now imagine the Holy Father being spied on by the NSA. During the conclave that elected him last year, that's according to an Italian newspaper. But before he became Pope Francis, one of his closest friends, a prominent Argentinian rabbi, took the measure of this man in a much more open way.

He talked to him for hours and days and even weeks and years. And their conversation is the topic of a book written by both and called "On Heaven and Earth."

And close Vatican watchers say it provides as good a guide as any to the pope's hopes, his dreams and his theological leanings on all the hot button issues.

So I sat down with Rabbi Abraham Skorka to see where this highest profile interfaith friendship may lead.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) AMANPOUR: Rabbi, welcome to the program. Thanks for coming in to the studio.

ABRAHAM SKORKA, ARGENTINE BIOPHYSICIST, RABBI AND BOOK AUTHOR: It's my pleasure.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you what everybody wants to know after your book has come out, how did you forge your friendship with now Pope Francis? How did it begin?

SKORKA: The beginning was through jokes about what we call in Argentina football, that soccer there, the American soccer.

But behind the jokes was a message I understand -- understood then, that he sent me a message. I open my heart.

AMANPOUR: What does it mean for your faith, the Jewish faith, that you, a rabbi, have such a close personal relationship and a theological relationship with the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics?

What does it mean for your faith?

SKORKA: An historical moment, a very historical moment because he is very close to us.

AMANPOUR: Obviously there's a lot of skepticism still amongst many Jews about the Catholic faith, about the actions of the pope, particularly Pius XII during the Nazi period, during World War II.

This pope, when he was cardinal, has talked about opening the Vatican archives.

Do you believe he will set a debt -- date for doing that?

SKORKA: So he told me that and so it appears in the book.

AMANPOUR: Well, I'll put up the quote, because it's very important, and then we can discuss it.

Then-Cardinal Bergoglio said, "Let them be opened and let everything be cleared up. Let it be seen if they could have done something to help and until what point they could have helped. And if they made a mistake in any aspect of this, we would have to say we have erred. We don't need to be scared of this. The truth has to be the goal."

So how did you read that?

It's a very frank admission that he's prepared to finally answer all the questions about what did the church know and when did they know it.

SKORKA: And surely that he will do what he said, that it has to be done.

AMANPOUR: You also did talk about those terrible years in Argentina, the military dictatorship of the 1970s; it was known, to a large extent, as the Dirty War.

And in the book, he talked to you and was very frank about the role of the Catholic Church at that time. He compared, for instance, the way the Argentine church dealt with the dictatorship, compared to where the Chilean church dealt with their dictatorship and stood up much strongly -- much more strongly to the dictator there, Pinochet.

He said in the book, "The way you wanted the Argentine church to act was the way the Chilean church acted."

What do you think he meant by that?

SKORKA: It's a mecritic to the Argentinian church in -- it's very known that some priests were -- Catholic priests were present in the places where people were tortured. And he criticized a lot this kind of priest. And so it appears in the book.

AMANPOUR: And what did he say about his own experience during that time? There have been many questions, as you know.

SKORKA: Yes. He has a very critical point of view regarding his own attitude during that period, asking himself did I do the utmost, which was my possibilities, but would we know now very clear that he hoped a lot of people -- he saved a lot of people.

AMANPOUR: There's so many different constituencies who look at this pope now, Pope Francis, and they want to know what he's going to do on any number of issues.

Let's just take the woman issue.

Describing yourself as someone who's very familiar with the pope, who knows the pope's thinking, you said, were all the decision power in his hands, he would do a lot. He would do a lot.

What can you tell us about what you think he might do about the role of women?

SKORKA: I am not so sure exactly in a pragmatical way what he will do. But what I am really sure is that he will analyze one and thousand times what is possible to be changed. He will open the debate. That's the first point because don't forget that he has had history of 2,000 years behind him.

And how to change that, he has a very open mind in order to analyze all the things. For him, there's not a closed thing. Even homosexuality, even abortion, to analyze. Now how to change, I cannot foresee.

AMANPOUR: And on celibacy, priestly celibacy, he said in the book, "It is an issue of discipline, not faith; it can be changed."

Do you think that's something that he really wants to delve into deeply and possibly institute changes?

SKORKA: So he said in the book. He said that -- he told me -- I don't remember if this appeared in the book -- but he told me, look, I receive this tradition, but I know this is not a dogma. This is just a tradition and maybe that in the future it could be changed. I don't remember if this words appeared in the book --

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SKORKA: -- but during our conversations, it shocked when -- why I remember this so clear, because I remain shocked when he said, in the future, it could be.

This is my tradition, but in the future. And could be that he will pave the way, not in his papacy, but in another papacy to come, that another one would change that.

AMANPOUR: What is your observation of the difference between the cardinal and now the pope who you know so well and his predecessor, Pope Benedict?

SKORKA: He laughs more.

AMANPOUR: He laughs more?

SKORKA: He laughs more. He -- yes, he smiles more. He used to smile, but now very much open. He laughs with a -- with a big laugh. And why? Because he knows that he must -- and it's coming out from his heart, because he knows that he must transmit an image of hope, of hope through his life (ph).

Now the difference -- the differences between Ratzinger and my good friend, Francisco, he lives with his mind on heaven and with his feet on Earth. And Ratzinger lived totally in heaven.

AMANPOUR: Rabbi Skorka, thank you very much indeed.

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AMANPOUR: And on an earthly note, the Vatican says the pope has now reached more than 10 million Twitter followers. That puts him just behind the rapper Kanye West.

And that's it for tonight's program. Remember, you can always contact us at amanpour.com and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.

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