Europe and Eurasia: Interview With Roxana Saberi of CBS News


Michael R. Pompeo

Secretary of State

Sheraton Warsaw Hotel
Warsaw, Poland
February 13, 2019

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thanks for joining us.

SECRETARY POMPEO: It’s great to be with you.

QUESTION: You said one focus of this conference is Iran. The U.S. has been applying a lot of pressure to Iran, withdrawing from the nuclear deal last year, also re-imposing sanctions. Have you seen any sign that this pressure is pushing Iran to negotiate with the U.S.?

SECRETARY POMPEO: What we’ve seen is that our effort to get Iran to behave like a normal country – to stop supporting the Houthis, to stop supporting Hamas, to stop supporting Hizballah, to stop supporting the Iraqi militias, the Shia militias in Iraq, their efforts in Syria – all of these things are destabilizing in the Middle East. That’s why we’ve gathered 60 countries-plus here today for a discussion about this. Their behavior hasn’t changed materially. They’re weaker. Their economy is a wreck. The Iranian people are very frustrated. Forty years on, forty years after the revolution, things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we’re convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime.

QUESTION: So that’s what you’re hoping, that these sanctions are going to help push the Iranian people to rise up against the regime and overthrow it?

SECRETARY POMPEO: The sanctions are designed to deny the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani and his mischief makers who are killing people in Europe, conducting assassination campaigns in Europe – it’s to deny them the wealth and resources they need to continue to create havoc throughout the Middle East and, frankly, throughout the world.

Hizballah still receives funding from Iran, is operating in Venezuela today. And this is a global problem. That’s why we’ve convened a global ministerial. We have countries from – every country save for Antarctica coming here together to figure out how to get Middle East stability, and pushing against Iran is one component of creating that stability in the Middle East that the world so desperately needs.

QUESTION: You’ve mentioned Iran’s activities in the Middle East. In some conditions that you introduced last year, you said Iran needs to meet these —


QUESTION: Yes. Iran needs to meet 12 conditions before it will – before the U.S. would be willing to negotiate a new nuclear deal. Why are there no preconditions for North Korea?

SECRETARY POMPEO: We’ve made very clear that these situations are very different. We take each of them where we find them. North Korea today has weapons, nuclear weapons, capable of reaching the United States of America. This is a threat that President Trump said we needed to take on now and take on immediately. The President’s chosen to meet with Chairman Kim. I’ve now met with him several times myself. We’re very hopeful that we can push them back. Remember too, North Korea behaves very differently. They’re not destabilizing Yemen. They’re not destabilizing Syria. They’re not conducting enormous assassination campaigns. These countries’ behaviors are different, therefore, the way America is approaching resolving this.

Our goal isn’t to punish the North Korean people. Our goal is not to punish the Iranian people. Our goal, indeed, is just the opposite: It’s to create security, safety, and frankly, prosperity for the people of each of those two countries.

QUESTION: And yet, in North Korea, you do see human rights violations such as —


QUESTION: — labor camps, forced labor.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, ma’am. Absolutely.

QUESTION: Are those not issues of concern?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, absolutely.

QUESTION: So what should be done about that, those – there’s no precondition —

SECRETARY POMPEO: We’re – we – we talk about them with great frequency, the same way we talk about human rights violations in every country in which we find them. We have lots of goals. They’re complex; they compete. We try to achieve them all.

QUESTION: What are you hoping from the summit?

SECRETARY POMPEO: You mean the summit that will be held in Hanoi. Well, look, we hope that we will make a substantial step on each of the four pillars the two nations committed– Chairman Kim and President Trump committed to four primary pillars. We hope to make substantial steps on each one of them: security and peace on the peninsula, denuclearization, the effort to create a brighter future for North Korean people. It’s our intent to make real progress on each of those pillars, and the two leaders are hoping they do that as well.

QUESTION: What kind of tangible progress do you need to see?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, I’m not going – I’m not going to talk about specifics. We’ve been engaged in lots of negotiations, not all of them have been public. Many of them more recently have, in fact, been public. You can see the work that’s being done by our two teams. We have a team leaving again this weekend to travel to Asia to continue to prepare for the summit. I’m not going to talk about what it is we hope to achieve, but I’m very hopeful that we’ll get a good outcome.

QUESTION: The commander of U.S. Forces Korea has just said that – he said last week he hasn’t seen a change in North Korea’s military capabilities since the last summit that President Trump held with North Korea. How confident are you that North Korea is committed to complete denuclearization?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Chairman Kim’s told us that repeatedly. And we’ve also said: trust but verify. We’re going to have to see that he does this. We’re going to have to be able to verify that he does it. And until such time as we do that, the economic sanctions that the whole world has put in place – not American sanctions, not European sanctions, but U.N. Security Council resolutions that every nation in the world supported save for North Korea – every nation saw that this was in the world’s best interest, and it’s our full intention of getting a good outcome in exchange for relieving those sanctions. I’m very hopeful that we can do that. It will be up to Chairman Kim to make this decision. He’s told us that he will, and now it’s time for him to deliver.

QUESTION: So first complete denuclearization, verification of complete denuclearization, and then removal of sanctions?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Remember, you have to go back to first principles, right? For years the United States has conducted negotiations with the North Koreans, and what we’ve done is we’ve taken a pig in a poke. We’ve said we’ll do something and then we handed them a whole bunch of money or agreed to build them a light water reactor, and the North Koreans didn’t come through on that.

President Trump engaged. He’s gotten missile tests stopped. There haven’t been nuclear testing in a substantial period of time. We have the beginning of the effort to return all of the remains. I’ve had a chance to talk to some of those families; it’s been a remarkably good outcome. Now it’s time for us to begin the effort to take the step on denuclearization, and I’m hopeful that this summit will deliver that.

QUESTION: I want to go back to – all right. So here’s a quick question I’m just learning about. What can you tell us about this Air Force officer who has just been indicted for sharing information with Iran?

SECRETARY POMPEO: I don’t have anything to discuss with you about that.

QUESTION: I just heard about it right now. Going back to the region, the Middle East, we were talking about human rights violations by Iran. The Trump administration has been very critical about human rights violations in Iran, but when it comes to America’s allies such as Saudi Arabia, it seems that the U.S. is less critical. For example, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, is believed by the CIA to have been involved in the killing of American resident Jamal Khashoggi. Do you believe the CIA’s assessment?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Roxana, that’s a ridiculous question.

QUESTION: Why is that?

SECRETARY POMPEO: It’s a ridiculous question. The United States calls out human rights violations each place that we find them, whether it’s the Chinese holding Muslim Uighurs inside of their country in detention camps, the activities in North Korea, anyplace else we find them. We call them out and we do our best within the powers that we have to identify them, to encourage others to change their behavior. There is no nation that acts against violations of human rights in the way the American nation does, and President Trump has been at the forefront of doing that as well.

QUESTION: And yet President Trump has been more hesitant to criticize Mohammed bin Salman, particularly in regards to the killing of —

SECRETARY POMPEO: We’ve called – Roxana, Roxana, you and the media keep —

QUESTION: — Khashoggi.

SECRETARY POMPEO: You and the media just keep repeating this. We’ve talked about this. This is an unacceptable murder. Make no mistake about it. The American people understand that; the Trump administration understands that too. We also know that we have an important relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and we are determined to make that a successful relationship. It’s in the national security interest to keep Americans safe, and so we’re going to do that. But we’ve made clear as the facts are developed, as we learn more, we will hold everyone responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi accountable, just in the same way we do when the Iranians murder journalists or hold journalists in jail. America is at the forefront. We’ll never change that, Roxana. So when you suggest otherwise by your question, you’re really doing America a disservice.

QUESTION: So are you saying that the assessment by the CIA is not enough evidence to prove that Mohammed bin Salman was involved?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Roxana, you can ask this question 57 times 57 different ways.

QUESTION: Was the investigation still —

SECRETARY POMPEO: I’m going to – I’m going to give you the same answer. President Trump and this administration are committed to holding each individual accountable as we develop fact sets that permit us to do it. We’ve already applied sanctions to a number of people who were involved in it that we had a fact set that support it – an American fact set that supported it. We’ll continue to do that.

QUESTION: So more action is possible?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Of course. We’ve said that repeatedly.

QUESTION: Let’s talk about Syria. CBS News has a crew in Syria and they say that every commander with the Syrian Defense Force, Syrian – sorry, let me say that again. CBS News has a crew in Syria and they say that every commander with the SDF, our partners on the ground, has told them that the job is only half done and that they need U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, not next door in Iraq or elsewhere in the region, to continue to counter ISIS. So why is the U.S. planning to withdraw troops from Syria now?

SECRETARY POMPEO: President Trump has led the most successful campaign against a radical Islamic terrorist organization that held real estate in the history of the world. We have taken down now – your crew is there reporting it – taken down all but the last square feet of real estate in Syria. President Trump has also said very clearly that the effort to defeat radical Islamic terrorism, whether it’s ISIS in Syria, al-Qaida around the world – there are many groups – we’re determined to continue to keep that pressure on, and we’ll do that. We’ll make decisions about whether the most appropriate way to do that is with U.S. forces. Other places we’ll just share American intelligence with others so that they can complete that mission and we’ll build out coalitions, much like the coalition you’re seeing here assembled today. Here today there are 60 countries working on Middle East stability. Last week we held a Defeat-ISIS ministerial in Washington, D.C., and had over 80 countries working on this problem.

So we share the view this challenge continues and the Trump administration will remain in the fight.

QUESTION: Did any of America’s partners in the coalition to fight ISIS whom you met with last week commit to sending more troops to Syria or to keeping their troops there once the U.S. withdraws?

SECRETARY POMPEO: I’m not going to talk about commitments that may or may not have been made.

QUESTION: Will there be a concrete plan before the U.S. begins withdrawal of its troops?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Oh, we have a plan and we’re working closely – we’re working closely with all the parties involved, including the SDF about which you speak, to develop a plan which will ensure that the threat from ISIS, their opportunity to retake that real estate, is diminished.

QUESTION: Are you able to share anything about that map?

SECRETARY POMPEO: No. When we have it ready to go, we’ll let everybody know.

QUESTION: All right. One question about prisoners in Iran, which is of course close to my heart.


QUESTION: You have said bringing prisoners back – you have said bringing American prisoners back from Iran, securing their release, is a top priority for you. When I was in prison there were reports that the U.S. Government handed Iranian officials a letter calling for my release and the release of other prisoners in Iran. Does the U.S. now have any direct channel of communication with Iran over the issue of American prisoners there?

SECRETARY POMPEO: This administration has delivered unequal efforts – unequaled, unparalleled efforts – to free every American held anywhere in the world. That certainly includes the more than half-dozen folks who are today held in prisons like Evin, the place that you were held. I think about this every day. It weighs on my mind, whether they’re held in Iran or the Americans held in Syria or those held in Afghanistan. We think about them. We work on them. We’ve now had the glory of bring home three from North Korea. We brought back Mr. Holt from Venezuela. I was in the Oval Office when Pastor Brunson returned to the United States from Turkey. The American people should know that this administration is determined to bring back each and every one of them. And as for Iran, they have – make no mistake, they know exactly what our demands are.

QUESTION: To free the American prisoners who are there?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, they know exactly what we’re asking for. We want them back.

QUESTION: In return for?

SECRETARY POMPEO: We want them back. In return for America beginning to consider whether they can eventually return to the community of nations. Look, I’ve seen this before. I’ve seen where people wrote big checks to get folks back. It only encourages other Americans like yourself to be held hostage. It creates an incentive for hostage-taking. That’s not how President Trump and this administration behave. Each of the detainees we’ve returned to date has come back because we have demanded it and we’ve made the case for why it was in that country’s best interest to do so. Rest assured that we’ve done that with Iran as well. We’ve made clear that it’s in their best interest to return these Americans to their families back here in the United States.

QUESTION: Without a payment and without a prisoner swap?

SECRETARY POMPEO: The same way we’ve gotten everyone back so far.

QUESTION: I’ve spoken to some families who have their loved ones in prison in Iran and they wonder why was the Trump administration able to speak to the governments of North Korea, Egypt, and Turkey to secure the release of Americans in those countries, but the Trump administration is not having a direct dialogue with Iran over Americans imprisoned there.

SECRETARY POMPEO: We’re doing everything we can everywhere there’s any American held to get them back, and we’re having conversations with all the people that have the ability to help get them back. Each of those families should know that.

QUESTION: Including direct dialogue?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Each of those families should know we’re doing everything we can to get their loved ones home.

QUESTION: Quick question about Venezuela.

MR PALLADINO: No, no, we’ve got to go. We’ve got to go.

PARTICIPANT: Last question?

QUESTION: Okay. That’s it then.

MR PALLADINO: He’s got to go. Sorry. Yeah, got to go.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Secretary.