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View from Tehran; Interview with Ben Rhodes; Selling the Iran Deal to the Skeptics; Imagine a World

Aired November 25, 2013 - 14:00:00   ET


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

Celebration in Tehran, which is causing dismay in Jerusalem. And setting the Obama administration on a very tough sales job with its closest Middle East ally, Israel.

Iran's nuclear negotiating team got a hero's welcome as they returned home a day after the country agreed to freeze then limit its nuclear program in exchange for modest and reversible sanctions relief, newspapers hailed their accord. "This is Iran and everyone is happy," reads this headline, and many Iranians indeed are upbeat.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're happy, actually. We're a lot happy. So after all these tensions we have finally reached an agreement. So with the West, that also protects our rights and also -- I mean, remove their concert (ph) so of course we're happy. That's -- I think that's everybody's reaction.


AMANPOUR: Now in a moment, we'll have a report from Tehran. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is sending his national security adviser for consultations to the White House, and as we've said, persuading him to change his tune will be no easy task.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: What was concluded in Geneva last night is not a historic agreement, it's a historic mistake.


AMANPOUR: But the United States and other world powers around the bargaining table want a historic final deal, and they hope this six-month interim deal will provide the time, the trust and the breathing room to hammer that out.

To define Iran's nuclear program, as limited and entirely peaceful in return for lifting all the crippling sanctions against it.

In a moment, my interview with the U.S. deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes.

But first, the view from the streets of Tehran and Thomas Erdbrink, "The New York Times" bureau chief, joined me a short time ago.


AMANPOUR: Thomas Erdbrink, welcome to the program. And thank you for joining me.

Let me ask you about what's going on on the ground in Tehran, because you've written incredibly movingly about people's emotions, people being so happy that they were crying.

What is the emotion that you're getting most of there?

THOMAS ERDBRINK, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, of course, right after the deal was made and President Rouhani announced what he called the Iranian victory, a lot of people came up to me, people whom I know, my neighbors, friends, who are very moved and touched.

And you mustn't forget, these people have been living under incredible pressures over the last years. They've had to face sanctions, high unemployment, high inflation and basically they have grown so accustomed to hearing only horrible news that this is the first time in almost a decade that they're hearing something positive.

Now that said, today, the second day, reality is also starting to kick in. People today were a bit more subdued and today were telling me, sure, we make this deal and we are happy. But we've been tricked so many times. Maybe this time we'll be tricked again. And people told me that they really, really want to be sure that their future will be brighter than it has been.

AMANPOUR: Thomas, what about the usual suspects, the hardliners, some of the hardline press, or even Ayatollah Khomeini, what is his reaction been publicly?

ERDBRINK: Well, Ayatollah Khomeini has -- is widely seen as the architect behind the scenes of this deal. We don't know what prompted him to make this deal, but he has clearly given the go-ahead to President Rouhani, to go out there and start trying to repair those broken relations with the West.

Now he came out yesterday, saying that, yes, he supported the deal; he thought the deal was a success. But he also had one caveat. He said as the way you present a deal to me, sounds like a success, so he left a kind of way out in case the deal doesn't work in the future for him to say, well, this is not working out; I haven't totally backed this deal to the maximum.

Now if you look at the normal hardliners, the hardline clerics and Revolutionary Guard commanders, they have been very, very silent on this deal. They have been supporting the negotiating team, as has been the state line for over the past month.

But they have not come out with their usual criticism, which is a signal that across the Iranian political spectrum, most factions in power are in full support of the deal as it is now.

Will they still support it after a week, after a month, when maybe some issues will be raised, some problems will start? We don't know.

AMANPOUR: And Thomas, finally, what do Iranians say about the fact that this is happening now, so many years later? It was obviously impossible that this could happen under Ahmadinejad, the previous president.

ERDBRINK: You know, one young man came up to me and he told me, Thomas, I'm now 30 years old. When Ahmadinejad came to power, I was 22. Why were those eight years of my life wasted? Why am I still without a job? Why do I hold a university degree but don't have a future in this country?

Now some people are very bitter. But at the same time, the emotions, the hope is so high that people are ready to cling on to everything they can.

AMANPOUR: On that note, Thomas Erdbrink, thank you so much for your insights from Tehran.

ERDBRINK: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: Now we heard the excitement there from Tehran, but the mood, as we know, is very different in the halls of power in Israel. And now the pressure is on to prevent America's biggest ally in the region from undercutting this deal.

The British Foreign Secretary William Hague issued a warning today.


WILLIAM HAGUE, FOREIGN SECRETARY OF GREAT BRITAIN: We would discourage anybody in the world, including Israel, from taking any steps that would undermine this agreement and we will make that very clear to all concerned.


AMANPOUR: Now Ben Rhodes is President Barack Obama's deputy national security adviser, and he joined me moments ago from the White House.


AMANPOUR: Ben Rhodes, thank you very much for joining me.


AMANPOUR: Let me ask you first, we just heard from the British Foreign Secretary William Hague, saying that Israel must not do anything to undermine this agreement and nor must anybody else do anything to undermine this agreement.

Are you convinced -- I know you have a tough sales job ahead of you -- that Israel will actually support this agreement?

RHODES: Well, Israel's expressed concerns about this first step agreement. President Obama spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu the day after the agreement was reached. And what they decided was let's get our teams together.

Let's hear from Israel what the concerns are about the Iranian program, because now that we're negotiating the comprehensive solutions, the long- term deal over the course of the next six months, we want to be working closely with Israel, hearing from them, here are the elements of the Iranian program that we're most concerned on, the ones that we're most focused on.

And we can take that into account as we head into the negotiation.

AMANPOUR: And obviously Israel, as you've sort of mentioned and alluded to is sending over the national security adviser.

But let me ask you this. One of the things that Israel is incredibly concerned about is the Arak heavy water plant.

Now would you concede, would you admit that France actually here was incredibly helpful to you in securing this part of that deal in standing firm on the Arak issue and introducing and insisting that Iran come to the table by lighting Arak?

RHODES: No, Christiane. I think some of this was overplayed. The fact of the matter is, we always were aiming for a deal that halted progress in the Iranian program across the board. So their stockpiles of enriched uranium, their development installment of advanced centrifuges. But also that heavy water reactor in Arak.

The United States position in the negotiations was always that Iran should not be able to fuel that reactor; Iran should not be able to install components of that reactor and Iran should not be able to do additional testing associated with that reactor.

France was in full agreement with those positions; at that second round of talks in Geneva they did take a very hard line on that issue. But the United States certainly was addressing the same concerns in our talks with the Iranians. We believe that we got to a good outcome that halts progress at Arak and prevents Iran from developing a plutonium track to their nuclear program.

AMANPOUR: So are you telling me that all the language that's in this final interim deal is the same language on Arak that was in the first round?

RHODES: No. In fact, Christiane, these were some of the last issues in the negotiation. I think in the third round in Geneva, when we were down to just a few issues, one of them was Arak. And one of the questions for instance was would Iran be able to do any testing of the components that go into the Arak reactor? And would they be able to install components at the Arak reactor?

And our point was it wasn't enough to just say they can't fuel this reactor; there had to be a broader halt so that they weren't making progress towards a plutonium track. And we were able to get that in the final agreement.

AMANPOUR: All right, Ben. Let's move on to what you expect now from the Israelis and from Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Do you believe that the prime minister is being naive by believing that sanctions will force Iran to completely surrender its nuclear program?

RHODES: Well, with respect to Prime Minister Netanyahu, I believe that Israel has a right to be skeptical of Iran and its intentions. Given the threats made out of Iran towards Israel in recent years, it's understandable that they would take a very hard line in terms of what they want to see in an agreement.

We did have a tactical difference with the Israelis about whether to do this first step. And our case was let's do this first step to halt the program so that they're not making progress over the course of the next six months.

With regard to your question, though, it is not our judgment that you can just sanction Iran to the point that which they capitulate and essentially give up everything in return for nothing.

We believe that there has to be some diplomatic back-and-forth, which was why we were willing to provide albeit limited sanctions relief on this front end of the deal, because ultimately we need to reach an agreement between the P5+1 and Iran.

We believe sanctions, again, are a part of the pressure that brought them to the table; we wouldn't be where we are without sanctions. But ultimately you have to use those sanctions to get a diplomatic resolution.

AMANPOUR: But let me just play this sound bite, because the sort of argument of the day is over enrichment. Let me play this little bit about what Secretary Kerry said about that.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: No, there is no right to enrich. We do not recognize a right to enrich. It is clear in the NPT, in the nonproliferation treaty, it's very, very clear that there is no right to enrich.


AMANPOUR: So I hear what Secretary Kerry is saying loud and clear.

But is this a semantic game, Ben? Because does not the final agreement -- even the interim agreement -- have Iran actually enriching?

Are not these centrifuges still spinning?

RHODES: Well, Christiane, let me say a couple of things.

First of all, we recognize a right to a peaceful nuclear program. We do not recognize a right to a domestic enrichment capability. And the fact of the matter is, right now Iran is in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that have to do in part with their enrichment.

What we did say, though, is that as part of a final resolution, you could have a mutually agreed-upon state in which Iran's program is much different than it is today. They dismantle the elements of that program; they've accepted constraints, limitations, verification measures and have a very limited enrichment capacity on Iranian soil.

However, that is only if we agree to it. It's only if the P5+1 and the United States defines that end state and agrees to it.

If we cannot get to that state, then essentially we revert to a status quo in which Iran is in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions outside their national obligations and is confronted with pressure. And the first step agreement makes very clear that over the course of the next six months, Iran will have to address those Security Council resolutions.

So the bottom line is it's not a right that they can inherently have based on this agreement or any other; it is something that could be negotiated as a part of an end state in which the international community was assured that they could not develop a nuclear weapon.

AMANPOUR: Right. So just to be clear, in the final agreement, you expect -- there is an expectation or you envision that there will be enrichment under mutually-agreed circumstances and constraints in the final agreement.

RHODES: Yes, if and only if Iran can meet all of our concerns, give us assurance that their program is peaceful, accept significant constraints that meet the test of the United States and the international community, if and only if in that circumstance could we foresee that acceptance of that capability.

However, if Iran does not meet all of our concerns, they maintain their current status quo of being outside of their international obligations, so to be clear, this is not a right that we are conferring; this is a negotiation to see if we can get to a place where we're assured if we can't get there, they have no right and continue to face sanctions.

They continue to face the leverage of those U.N. Security Council resolutions.

AMANPOUR: And then obviously they continue to enrich, as they have done under 10 years of sanctions.

So I was just trying to understand the enrichment part of it.

Let me just quickly move on to Afghanistan now, where the national security adviser, Susan Rice, has been meeting with the Afghan president.

Can you tell me what is she there to tell President Karzai about the U.S. troop deal?

And is the United States prepared to walk out and take its troops out with no residual force, as it did in Iraq?

RHODES: Well, Christiane, what we have is a BSA, bilateral security agreement, that could allow for U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan in a very limited number, to carry out two missions, counterterrorism and training of Afghan forces.

The Loya Jirga that President Karzai convened, approved and accepted this bilateral security agreement, what we've said the President Karzai, however, is that we need to move to complete this, sign it by the end of the year, because the United States needs time to plan for any post -2014 presence. We need to consult with NATO allies who might be a part of that effort.

So we cannot wait as he has suggested until after the Afghan election to complete that BSA.

So our message is we've got a good agreement on the table for the American people, for the Afghan people, in terms of meeting our mutual concerns. But we have to get this done and get it done as soon as possible so that we can make the decisions that are necessary about the future of our relationship with Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: And very finally, on the sanctions and the Iran deal, there's a sort of a mix-up in public about the timeline.

The French are saying the sanctions could start to be eased, the ones that you've agreed to, in December.

Is that correct?

RHODES: Well, we're still working through the modality essentially, Christiane. What happens is we control some of these funds that will be released to Iran on a metered basis over the course of the six months of the agreement.

So I think we are still setting that timeline.

But it is likely that you will see that within the coming weeks, because the agreement is going into force.

I think it's also important to note, though, that even as we are providing that relief, we are still enforcing the oilless (ph) sanctions, the banking sanctions. So Iran will actually be denied more revenue over the life of the agreement than they will gain from this temporary relief that's a part of this first step.

AMANPOUR: Ben Rhodes, thank you very much for joining me from Washington.

RHODES: Thanks, Christiane.


AMANPOUR: Now the next big meeting coming up in Geneva is the one that will restart vital talks on the future of Syria. Iran could have a major role if it's allowed to take part.

Indeed, the United States admits that back in 2001, Iran was instrumental in helping to achieve a political solution in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.

Now President Karzai nears the end of his second and final term in office, amid haggling, as we've heard, over a deal to extend the presence of U.S. forces as a bulwark against the Taliban's return.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

Fresh off the Iran nuclear interim deal, the United States ramps up efforts to secure a troop deal with Afghanistan. National Security Adviser Susan Rice is there right now for meetings with President Hamid Karzai, presumably to tell him to put up or shut up, by which I mean sign the troop deal already or risk no help in staving off the Taliban once U.S. and NATO forces finally pull out next year.

Late last week, everyone thought they had a deal, but then out of the blue, President Karzai moved the goalposts by refusing to sign until after the presidential election next spring.

So what is going on? My guest to explain is Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. He's a long-time leader of the anti-Taliban resistance movement. He ran against President Karzai for the role in 2009 before he then dropped out of the race amidst allegations of election fraud and he joins me now from Kabul.

And let me warn you, we do have a significant delay on our satellite transmission all the way to Afghanistan. But welcome, Dr. Abdullah, and please, can you tell me why President Karzai is not signing this deal that was endorsed by the Loya Jirga that he called?

He says he doesn't want to sign it until after the presidential elections next year.

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH, FORMER AFGHAN FOREIGN MINISTER: Thank you, Christiane. Right from the beginning, since quite a few months, this has been my doubt and I had expressed my view over that issue, that these negotiations between Afghanistan and the United States are being delayed not because of the content of the bilateral security agreement, but primarily because of the personal feelings or personal interests of President Karzai and then, (INAUDIBLE) President Karzai expressed his views.

And he wanted this deal to be signed later on so he has leverage and in exchange he asked for good elections. I don't know what did he mean by good elections. As a result of bad elections? He became the president of Afghanistan in 2009. And he was the one who was to be accused of fraudulent elections and he was the culprit behind it.

AMANPOUR: All right.

ABDULLAH: Now he wants to change his story and I think it's -- he wants, in exchange for signing of the agreement, a sort of guarantee about his favorite candidate.

AMANPOUR: All right.

ABDULLAH: That's all that one can say about it (INAUDIBLE).


AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you, what if he's pushing the envelope -- and it sounds very much like so -- you heard deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes say this has to be signed by the end of this year; otherwise, they won't have the time to put all issues in place.

Susan Rice, the national security adviser is there, presumably she's giving the same message to President Karzai.

Are you worried that, just like Iraq, the U.S. will pull out its troops when it leaves, with no residual force?

ABDULLAH: It -- in the same way that he has -- he had a miscalculation about the views of the people of Afghanistan, and the way that he could play with the feelings of the people of Afghanistan, he has a miscalculation about the United States as well.

He thinks that whatever happens, there is an interest in the United States to stay here forever for ulterior motives rather than securing Afghanistan or helping -- restoring the stability in the country by fighting terrorism.

So he can do whatever he wants. So it's all based on his miscalculations and also irresponsible attitude towards dangers of the country as well as towards the demands of the people.

AMANPOUR: So the head of the Loya Jirga, the tribal elder, basically pleaded with President Karzai in public to sign the deal now.

What do you think the attitude of the majority of the Afghan people are?

Do they want a residual protective U.S. force?

ABDULLAH: The absolute majority of the people would have wished that during the past 13 years President Karzai and the administration, the Afghan administration, should have utilized the opportunity, the golden opportunity, which was there for the interests of Afghanistan and the stability in our region, in much better ways.

After 15 years of U.S. presence or international troops presence, we would have been able to stand our own feet. But he has misused this opportunity, missed out with this opportunity. And now (INAUDIBLE) people are realistic.

They know that we need the continuation of support, continued support and security in military terms from the United States and the NATO forces and ISAF and the international community as a whole, as well as economic support.

So the people are in favor of the continued engagement with the international community. But he himself has a different view. And he has developed different ideas; he is pursuing his own paths. And there was a lesson for him, that all -- for the leaders like him, which were oblivious about the feelings of their own people, about the thoughts of their own people.

Because the Loya Jirga (ph) was handpicked and even handpicked personalities and people, they independently expressed their views and at the same time President Karzai was not expecting that.

So he has to know that now he's out of touch with the people's opinion and he has to listen to his own people, if not to the friends of Afghanistan.

AMANPOUR: So do you think he'll change his mind and sign on after his meeting with Susan Rice?

And if not, what do you think is the risk of not having a U.S. residual force after 2014?

ABDULLAH: Whether he will going to change his mind or not, he is highly unpredictable these days. He has been like this since quite a few months.

But I think what is expected from him is much more responsible attitude towards the interests of the country. The risk of U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan today or tomorrow or zero option is risking the -- using all the achievements of the past 13 years and messing up with the contributions or sacrifices of the people of Afghanistan and friends of Afghanistan.

And getting the situation back to the old days, mainly due to the failure of President Karzai's administration, mainly because of that, and also because of the conditions which are prevailing in the country and in our region.

AMANPOUR: Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, thank you very much for your sober assessment. Thank you for joining me.


AMANPOUR: And given the political pressure at home in the United States to withdraw American troops, this might have been the last Christmas they'd celebrate in Afghanistan. But as we just heard, U.S. troops may continue to light Christmas candles if finally the agreement is signed in Kabul for some time to come.

After a break, from candle power to a dazzling display of Christmas lights, put on your shades, Santa, and prepare for landing, when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, in a time of nuclear diplomacy and sparring over foreign forces, imagine a world where peace on Earth and goodwill is rekindled by half a million electric light bulbs. Forget decking the halls with boughs of holly. The Richards family of Canberra, Australia, have decked their house with 500,000 Christmas lights, 50 kilometers of wire and who knows how many extension cords.

They're in a friendly fight for first place in lights with a family in New York. Their spectacular display, which will cost over $2,000 in electric bills, broke the Guinness World Records for Christmas light bulbs. An electrifying achievement that would warm the heart of Thomas Edison. It was one of his team of inventors who strung the first electric Christmas tree lights back in 1892.

Before Edison's eureka, Christmas trees were lit by little candles, a dangerous decoration that helped make December the most fire-prone month of the year.

Today, with Christmas lights gone wild, the greatest danger is that Santa's reindeer will be blinded by the glare and overshoot the rooftop. And to think: Rudolph only needed on shiny red nose.

And that's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website, Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.