As the Russian war in Ukraine rages on, the Biden administration is seeking to build alliances and partnerships with an eye on two other adversaries—China in the Indo-Pacific and Iran in the Middle East. Siamak Dehghanpour of VOA’s Persian Service recently spoke with Admiral John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, on what the Biden doctrine looks like in the Middle East, where the president seeks to bolster security for key ally Israel and reengage Saudi Arabia—a country that remains a U.S. strategic partner despite its human rights record.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
VOA: Admiral Kirby, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
KIRBY: Absolutely. Good to be with you.
VOA: President Joe Biden said in Jeddah during the GCC (41st Summit of The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf), ‘We will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.’ Yet right after President Biden's trip to the region, we see Russian President Vladimir Putin went to Tehran to meet Iranian leaders and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Is this trip a matter of concern to the administration?
KIRBY: Well, we'll let those leaders talk [about] the trip and whatever their agenda is, but I think, in part, what you're seeing here is a couple of things. One, I think it's further indication of just how isolated from the international community countries like Iran and Russia have become, that they are now meeting and talking about the provision of new drone capabilities to Mr. Putin. Number two, I think it's an indication that Mr. Putin is becoming desperate in terms of trying to replenish his inventory of advanced systems. Now he's got to go to Iran, which has domestic drone production capability, to get drones for his war. And number three, and this is probably the most significant sign, is that it's an indication that Mr. Putin has absolutely no intention of ending this war or sitting down in good faith with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Quite the contrary, he shows every indication — obviously because he's going to Iran, shopping for drones — to continue to prosecute this war, to continue to kill Ukrainians. He can still do the right thing, whether it's in Tehran or in Moscow. He can do the right thing by ending this war.
VOA: So you know this is his fifth trip to Iran. Do you see that as a diplomatic counterpoint to President Biden’s trip?
KIRBY: No. I mean, again, we'll let these leaders speak for themselves, but I think it might be a stretch to read this as some sort of counterpoint to President Biden's trip. We know that Putin is interested in Iranian drones. We know that the Turks and Russia and Ukraine are in talks about grain shipments potentially coming out of Odesa. So, I don't know if I would read it as a counterpoint to Biden's trip. In fact, quite the contrary, if you look at the split screen here: You had the president going to the region to have bilateral and multilateral discussions about what? About an integrated more cooperative Middle East, across a range of issues. And you’ve got President Putin on this trip basically shopping for drones and looking for ways to prosecute this war, and dealing with another nation, Iran, which is, again, increasingly isolated from the international community because of their growing nuclear ambitions, their failure to sign on to the deal that is on the table before them, their burgeoning ballistic missile capabilities, their support for terrorist groups, their threats in the maritime environment in the Gulf region. I mean, I can go on and on and on.
VOA: In terms of integration, President Biden's presser in Jeddah discussed Saudi Arabia's security needs, particularly the need to defend the kingdom given real threats from Iran and its proxies. What is the U.S. providing to Saudis?
KIRBY: We continue to provide the Saudis with defensive capabilities. This is a country that is under attack almost every single day. It's also a country in which we have 70,000 Americans. [We continue to] include thousands of U.S. troops who continue to be under threat by attacks across the border [from Yemen]. Now, I would tell you, we’re [...in] our 16th week of a cease-fire in Yemen that the Saudis helped broker with U.S. engagement. And we welcome that, we're grateful for that. We hope that that extends, because it is saving literally thousands of Yemeni lives. There's still great humanitarian need in Yemen, but we are committed to making sure that Saudi Arabia can continue to defend itself against future threats. One of the things that we didn't talk about yet, but that the president talked about when he was in the region, was trying to forge a more integrated air and missile defense capability across the region, and not just bilaterally with Saudi. And of course, Saudi Arabia continues to be under threat of attack, both from drones and from missiles. But we believe there's great benefit to trying to knit together some of these air and missile defense capabilities that many of our Gulf allies and partners have intrinsically on their own. We've helped them develop some of those, [but] some of them they have on their own. We think, as we've learned through our own experience in the U.S. military, that when you can integrate, get a network, get these capabilities sort of niched together (sic) ... they can have a greater effect. And while there's no architecture in place right now, the discussions on the president's trip were constructive and positive. And I think there's great promise there if we can continue to advance this idea.
VOA: I'm sure you heard that Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said GCC leaders didn't have any discussion on missile defense systems with Israel ...
KIRBY: Well, I'm talking about integrated air and missile defense across the region. It's not just about Israel being integrated into that. That said, Israel also has very sophisticated air and missile defense capabilities. And again, these are sovereign decisions that these countries have to make about whether they're going to move forward on this idea, and certainly there are sovereign decisions that they have to make if they're going to improve their relationships with each other, and that includes with Israel. We come away from this trip feeling very positive about some of the cooperative steps that have already occurred. And you saw that Saudi Arabia on this trip announced that they're going to open up their airspace to all civilian aircraft, including Israeli aircraft, and that, for the first time since the late '70s, we're going to be able to take peacekeepers off the Tiran Islands in the Red Sea. So, look, every nation there has to decide for themselves how they're going to integrate, and whether they're going to normalize their relations with Israel. But there are some things changing. There are more positive signals. As King Abdullah of Jordan said, there's a new vibe in the region, and that was another reason why the president thought it was so important to go.
VOA: So, President Biden in Jeddah said we have now finalized an agreement to connect Iraq's electric grid to the GCC grid through Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, thereby reducing dependence on Iran. Why does the U.S. think that it's important to reduce dependence on Iran for the Iraqi people?
KIRBY: We think that the Iraqi people—obviously they have to make these decisions for themselves—but they are key partners of ours, certainly, in the continued fight against ISIS. We are very invested in Iraq. And making sure that Iraq is secure and stable and prosperous and it's not just the United States, but even Iraqis would tell you that they want to be more integrated in the region. And so, this decision does that. It does help integrate Iraq in with her GCC partners and friends and neighbors, and we think that's a positive thing for the whole region.
VOA: Do you support Iraq’s joining the GCC?
KIRBY: That's up to Iraq and members of the GCC. The United States isn't going to take a position on that. We do favor, as we've said, a more integrated cooperative Middle East. But these are sovereign decisions that these nations must make.
VOA: So who’s funding this project, the electricity grid going through Kuwait and Saudi Arabia?
KIRBY: This would be something that the GCC countries would work out.
VOA: On the nuclear issue: while in Israel, as President Biden emphasized diplomacy with Iran, Prime Minister Lapid said, ‘Diplomacy will not stop them. The only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table.' Is this disagreement a matter of concern for Biden?
KIRBY: I don't think we would call this a disagreement. Our Israeli friends see the threat from Iran in the same way that we do. They don't want to see Iran become a nuclear-armed state. No problem in the Middle East—none—gets easier to solve with Iran having a nuclear weapon. And we respect the Israeli view here. We understand it. We appreciate it. Israel is such a key partner and friend in the region. President Biden believes that diplomacy is the best first path forward. And that is why he has invested so much into making sure that these negotiations continue, and now they're basically complete. And now there's a deal on the table, and now it's up to Iran to take that deal or not. If they want to see sanctions relief, if they want to be less isolated from the rest of the world, there's a deal on the table. Take that deal. Come back into compliance. The sanctions relief will come and the region will be safer for it. If they don't do that, then we're going to continue to work with our allies, partners and friends, including Israel, to make sure that pressure increases on Iran. That's one. Two, we're also going to stay plugged in to our allies, partners and friends to make sure that we have the appropriate capability and capacity in the region to defend our national security interests if we need to.
VOA: In the Jerusalem Declaration signed by President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Lapid, it says Washington will use all elements of its national power to ensure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. Does this declaration mean the U.S. and Israel are joined to deter the nuclear threat of Iran?
KIRBY: I think that for the whole region—and this is another reason why we want to work on integrated air and missile defense capabilities—there's terrific promise in terms of being able to try to deter Iran should you need to do that from a security perspective. But again, President Biden believes diplomacy is the best path forward. That diplomacy is the right approach to take. And there is a deal now. Again, it's up to Iran to decide whether they're going to take that deal.
VOA: Do you think an Israeli-Arab alliance will push Iran towards a nuclear deal?
KIRBY: I will let Iran speak for their intentions here. We know that they have gotten closer to a capability, closer than they were when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was put into action in the Obama administration. Thanks to the preceding administration pulling out of the Iran deal, Iran has now been able to move toward trying to get that capability. And they're closer now than they were six, seven years ago. That's troubling to everybody. Again, we believe that coming back into compliance with the JCPOA is the best path forward. It's in Iran's interest. It's in the region's interest. It's certainly in our interests. But President Biden has also been clear he's not going to take any option off the table. We are absolutely, fundamentally committed to never allowing Iran to become a nuclear-armed state. Biden was crystal clear about that on this trip, and he's not going to take any option off the table. The preferred option is diplomacy.
VOA: Does the Biden administration want Iranian oil back in the world market to bring down the price of oil?
KIRBY: This discussion about Iran and the nuclear deal has nothing to do with their oil. It has everything to do with them not becoming a nuclear armed state.
VOA: So, you don't mind if they sell their oil at this point?
KIRBY: They are already. Because of sanctions, there are some limits put on their ability to tap into these markets. But I think it's really important that we don't leave people with the impression that we're trying to pursue the JCPOA—getting them into compliance—because there's some underlying tone of getting their oil on the market. That could be a tangential result of this. If they come back into compliance, sanctions relief will come. There could be benefits to the Iranian people, and the Iranian people's economy, and their own financial future. But that is downstream. The focus now is on trying to halt their march toward nuclear weapons capability.
VOA: When I announced our interview on social media, hundreds of messages came in. I would like to share a couple of them quickly. In Jeddah, President Biden said the future belongs to countries where a woman can exercise equal rights. A social media user asked, ‘Does human rights in Iran have the same priority as the nuclear issue for the Biden administration?’
KIRBY: Human rights are a central, core value of President Biden's foreign policy. It's right at the center, and he never misses an opportunity or a chance to advance human rights. Obviously, we have nothing against the Iranian people, and we certainly want to see the Iranian people safe and secure and prosperous. That's difficult for them to be, given the path that their government is taking.
VOA: I can't remember the last time President Biden talked about the struggle of the Iranian people for freedom. I mean, is there any reason President Biden is not supporting them?
KIRBY: The implication that President Biden is not supporting the Iranian people is just patently false. This is not about the Iranian people, whom we would like to see safe and secure and prosperous. That is a key part of why we believe strongly that Iran should not get a nuclear weapon, because no problem in the Middle East, no problem for the Iranian people, gets easier if [Tehran has] a nuclear weapon. All that does is decrease stability and security in the region. And all that does is increase the chances of some sort of conflict.
VOA: President Biden said foundational freedoms are key to who we are as Americans. In just the first six months of 2022, 251 people were executed in Iran. Another social media user asked what should happen to make the Biden Administration believe that this regime is not in the interest of the U.S. and the people of Iran?
KIRBY: We are focused on the behaviors of this regime. The behavior of marching toward a nuclear weapons capability, support for terrorism, maritime threats and increasing ballistic missile capability. We are focused on that destabilizing behavior and making sure that we can address that destabilizing behavior. We believe diplomacy is the best way to prevent a nuclear arms capability for Iran. And we believe that shoring up, revitalizing our network of alliances and partnerships in the region is the best way to deal with that behavior.
VOA: We know that Iran holds at least four Americans, four French, two Swedish, one Belgian, one Polish, two Germans and two Australian hostages. What does President Biden hope to achieve by this recent executive order on hostages?
KIRBY: This executive order will allow the United States government to have additional tools and capabilities to try to bring wrongfully detained American citizens back home. It includes additional visa restrictions; it includes the potential for additional sanctions; it gives us yet one more set of tools to try to bring all Americans who are wrongfully detained home.
This story originated in VOA's Persian Service.