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PBS "Newshour With Jim Lehrer" - Transcript


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Copyright ©2009 by Federal News Service, Inc.

MS. WOODRUFF: Up until today, President Obama's response to the developments in Iran had drawn fire from congressional Republicans. As we just saw, the president responded to that.

And now we hear from two members of the U.S. Senate: Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina; and Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senators, thank you both for being with us.

Senator Graham, I'm going to start with you, because your name came up today at that news conference. You have been saying until now that the president has been timid and passive in his comments. What did you make of what he said today?

SEN. GRAHAM: I thought he was very strong today. And the reason I said that is because it's what I believe. I think he's right on Iraq. I think he's been good on Afghanistan. And with Senator Kerry's help, we're going to do some good things in Pakistan.

But the president believes that he can sit down with this regime and negotiate to end Iran's ambitions to pursue a nuclear weapon. I hope he can. But this regime has lost credibility with its people, with the world at large and France, Germany and England came out strong.

I think the president did today what I was hoping he would do before, because he is the leader of the free world not me. His voice does matter. He's an eloquent spokesman for freedom and I think what he said today will penetrate in Iran. And I'd like to see the U.N. Security Council, led by us, condemn the Iranian regime. I'd like to see more sanctions.

And I'd like to see the president continue to speak out about freedom in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, because he is such a strong voice for these ideas. So that was my criticism.

MS. WOODRUFF: Senator Kerry, did you hear something materially different from the president today?

SEN. KERRY: I think the president has been absolutely square on and correct in his statements about Iran.

You know, there's a difference between politics and statesmanship. And the president has to be a statesman and the leader of our nation in terms of foreign policy.

At the beginning of your show, you talked about how BBC and Voice of America and public statements are being used by the Iranian government to distract -- those were your words in the reporting -- to distract from the real cause here. The president has been sensitive to that, but anybody who believes that the president has been less than forceful on this is simply ignoring history.

He went to Cairo. And in Cairo, he made a major speech about democracy, about Iran, about how we will stand up to Iran. He has been clear about the questions raised about this election. And no one in the world doubts where the United States of America is with respect to this election or where the president is.

But this has to be about Iranians and Iran. This is Iran's moment, not America's. And I think the president has played it absolutely correctly. He's been clear now about what is at stake. And I think he's allowed the Iranians to define this moment of history in Iranian words, in Iranian actions. And that is really the power of it.

MS. WOODRUFF: Senator Graham, in saying today, the president did, that he said he has been entirely consistent and he said he did not want to become a foil for the Iranian leaders -- for them, in other words, to conveniently use the U.S. What about that?

SEN. GRAHAM: Very unpersuasive to me. The Iranian regime has accused the BBC, CNN, and any other news organization of being a pawn of Israel. They're going to say these things no matter what we do. And it's unpersuasive to me.

Ronald Reagan spoke up when the government of Poland oppressed the workers, and it mattered. The pope spoke up, and the people behind the Iron Curtain were encouraged by that. I think the president was timid, quite frankly.

He wants to negotiate with this regime. And this disturbance in Iran has sort of thrown a wrinkle in the game plan. And I think the best way for our country to be stronger and safer and the world to be better off is to stand with the protesters, not to pick the leader of Iran, but to let them know we hear what they're saying. They've got the signs in English. And what the president said today was much better than what he said earlier. And words do matter.

So I think history would say that those who speak up for freedom at a time when it matters are going to get a better result than trying to play this parlor game of wondering if our enemies will use our words against us. This regime will use everybody's words against us, including their own people.

MS. WOODRUFF: Senator Kerry?

SEN. KERRY: Well, if I could comment on that. You know, Lindsey is simply not acknowledging what the president said.

I went back and reread his statement of last week over the weekend to see whether or not I thought that, in fact, it ought to be strengthened. And I read it. I felt that he had, in fact, said everything that was appropriate at that time about the elections, about doubts about the elections, about where our support stood, about the condemnation of the violence -- as well as his hopes for the freedom and aspirations of the democracy movement. He said all that last week.

The fact is, this tough rhetoric -- the rhetoric that inserts the United States in the middle of this -- has been tried. We saw eight years of it. And you know where we went from? We went from a president of Iran who believed in a dialogue between civilizations and in dealing with the problem of Israel to a president who denounced everything the United States did, denied the Holocaust and condemned and talked about the annihilation of Israel.

We went from a president of Iran who was ready to engage on Iran's nuclear program to one who asserted the rights of Iran to simply go ahead and build a program. In other words, we went backwards as a consequence of the kind of rhetoric that Lindsey is talking about.

We also cannot ignore the history of Iran. In Iran --

MS. WOODRUFF: Let me -- I'm going to interrupt you there and ask Senator Graham just to comment on what you just said.

SEN. GRAHAM: Well, you know, here's my big problem, is that the president says we're not going to meddle in internal Iranian affairs. It's never meddling when you stand up for people who take to the streets -- this young lady who got killed on behalf of freedom.

The people who've been meddling is the Iranian regime, who sent IEDs into Iraq to kill American troops and innocent Iraqis, who've now turned on their own people. You're never meddling.

Ronald Reagan and the pope weren't meddling. They were doing what the free world needs to have done: lead. And this president hasn't been leading; he's been following other nations of the free world. He did much better today.

And I want my country, my president to lead on things like this, to stand up to this regime, and let them know they will not be rewarded by this behavior, they will be punished in the eyes of the world. And today is a new start.

MS. WOODRUFF: Senator --

SEN. KERRY: You know, Lindsey's a great pal of mine. And he and I honestly get along really, really well.

SEN. GRAHAM: We are good friends, but we obviously don't agree.

SEN. KERRY: But I have to tell you something: There is a tried and traditional Republican tactic in this city which is to sort of set up a red herring, set up a straw man and knock it down.

To ignore that this president of the United States, unlike George Bush over eight years, went to Cairo, gave a New Year's announcement to the Iranians congratulating them on the New Year, has already initiated major initiatives involving himself in their lives and hopes and aspirations.

To ignore that this president went to Cairo and gave a speech that reverberated into the elections of Lebanon and clearly has inspired a younger generation to already seek some of the things they're doing today is just to kind of set up something that is absolutely unnatural, not real, and kind of knock it down.

This president -- and ignore history.

MS. WOODRUFF: Let me ask you both --

SEN. KERRY: This president did what he had to do in terms of stating America's hopes and aspirations for the region, for Iran specifically, for democracy. And he is carefully calibrating what he has to say and do now in order to act like a statesman, not the leading political voice of the United States.

MS. WOODRUFF: Senator Graham, let me ask you about a point -- and I believe Senator Kerry has referred to this; I know that others have -- and that is the argument that, if he were to align himself very closely with the protesters, the president would, in effect, give them false hope that he could change things when, in fact, he's not in a position to do that.

SEN. GRAHAM: You know, that's the point. And I guess when Ronald Reagan went to the Berlin Wall, he didn't say, you know, let's think about this wall. He said, tear it down. And I'll negotiate with you, but I'm going to negotiate with you speaking truth to power.

In Cairo, I wish he would have said that this Iranian regime has had blood on its hands and be more forceful. This is not about Cairo; this is about now. This is about the people in the streets that are literally dying.

So what I hope we can do is do more than talk. Why don't we take a U.N. resolution, lead it, author it, condemn this regime for the way they treated their people and the way they fostered terrorism, take it to the Security Council of the United Nations, and ask for a vote?

Why don't we call for tougher sanctions on this regime, because it will help the people down the road? Even though it may hurt now, it will help them later. We can do what -- I can't promise you an outcome, but I can promise you this: That as the leader of the free world, the president of the United States, when he speaks, people listen. And we need to not only speak more forcefully; we need to act more forcefully.

This is a chance, in my opinion, to change history for the better.

MS. WOODRUFF: Senator Kerry, in just a minute I want to ask you to respond to that, but also to this point that the president, in dealing -- in leaving the door open to potentially dealing with the regime in power -- that this puts him, it puts advocates like you in a position you really don't want to end up being in.

SEN. KERRY: Well, I mean, look -- well, inevitably, I mean, this regime is not a regime that any of us in the United States if we had our choices would choose to deal with. It's like what Bill Perry said about North Korea. You have to deal with the country as it is, not as the country that you wish it was. You know, we don't have that luxury.

What we have to do is deal with the power center that is. Richard Nixon sent Henry Kissinger to deal with Mao Zedong. It didn't sit well with his own party, but it changed our relationship with China. Gorbachev (sic/Reagan) went to Reykjavik and sat down with Gorbachev, the evil empire, and came out with an agreement on nuclear weapons. It wasn't the government he wanted to deal with.

Obviously, this is not the government that we like or appreciate. No one has any doubts about where America stands with respect to President Ahmadinejad. But we have to go forward here.

And I don't think the president has walked back on any of America's hopes and aspirations. You know, you can't sort of pick and choose what the reality is. The fact is that the president in Cairo was bold, speaking on Egyptian ground where there are issues about democracy, and spoke loudly and clearly about the hopes of people in the region to be able to express their views, have the governments of their choice, reach their aspirations. It was a bold and historic speech which never happened in the eight years of George Bush.

Now, you can sit there and have all the tough rhetoric in the world that you want and you can go backwards. You know, with North Korea, when George Bush came in, we had only about two nuclear weapons. We had television cameras in the nuclear reactor. We knew where the rods were. And we had limited their nuclear program.

After all the tough rhetoric, they're in the double digits of nuclear weapons. We don't have any television cameras. We don't know what they're doing in there, in the nuclear reactor. The rods are out and the centrifuges are growing.

We are worse off! We are in a more dangerous world as the consequence of those like Dick Cheney who just chose rhetoric. We need diplomacy and intelligent statecraft.

And I think no one in the world doubts where the United States of America is with respect to Mr. Ahmadinejad and Iran. This is a moment of history. The president, I think, has calibrated his comments. And it's interesting. Only the politicians are throwing their barbs and a couple of pundits. The vast majority of experts, of people who really live and breathe Iranian policy, are all saying that the president has calibrated this correctly.

Tomorrow, the Foreign Relations Committee will have a working roundtable on this topic. And I think people will see why this is, in fact, the right way to approach the question of Iran and our security interests.

SEN. GRAHAM: Can I just add one thing?

MS. WOODRUFF: We're going to -- very quick, Senator. We have to wrap it up.

SEN. GRAHAM: Thank you.

Experts do not change history. It's people who are willing to die and take to the streets that change history.

No one saw this coming. It has now happened. We have a chance to change history. This regime has lost credibility in terms of us negotiating with it and leading its own people. And we need to get into this fight with the words that will change things, and go to the U.N. and hold this regime accountable, not back off, not be timid, not be passive.

MS. WOODRUFF: Senator Graham, Senator Kerry, thank you both.

SEN. KERRY: Thank you very much.

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