tv HAR Dtalk BBC News January 15, 2020 12:30am-1:01am GMT
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now on bbc news — hardtalk. welcome to hardtalk, i'm stephen sackur. though the fear of imminent war has receded, the middle east has been profoundly destabilised by the american assassination of iranian general qasem soleimani. the unfolding us—iran conflict will impact the whole not least iraq, where the iranians are intent on hastening the end of america military presence. much now depends on the strategic vision of the trump administration. my guest, douglas silliman, was us ambassador in iraq until one year ago. does trump have a strategy? if so, what is it?
ambassador doug silliman in washington, dc, welcome to hardtalk. steven, i'm very happy to be here. well, you have a very special perspective of what's happened over the past ten days or so as the last retiring ambassador in baghdad, you leftjust one year ago. from your perspective, does the assassination of qasem soleimani in baghdad appear to you both lawful and wise? i must say first of all, i'm not going to address the question of whether it is lawful or unlawful because i'm not an expert in international law or a particularly good diplomatic historian. looking at this from the standpoint
of president trump and the trump administration, he seems to prefer shaking up the situation to see how the chips fall and then try to make things go his way on the back end. i think certainly with the killing of qasem soleimani, and also the killing of the chief iranian lieutenant, abu mahdi al—muhandis, inside iraq, he has certainly shuffled the deck and made things a little bit more interesting on the back end. shuffle the deck, you say — it's a metaphor that implies gambling. do you regard this move as a high—risk gamble? i don't know if this is a high—risk gamble, because there's certainly a lot of reason why an american administration would want to take out qasem soleimani. especially since the us invasion of iraq in 2003, soleimani has driven the iranian expansion into iraq, into syria, into yemen,
afghanistan and pakistan to some extent and has consolidated the control of the revolutionary guards inside iran and planted sleeper cells and trained rebels in saudi arabia, bahrain and other places in the region. he has been one of the most destabilising figures and has certainly been the mastermind behind the post—2003 hegemonic iranian expansion into the region and support for lebanese hezbollah. so he was a very high level target to take out, and i think iranian strategy and probably some of their implementation will suffer without him at the helm. interesting you rate it as that significant and i want to get back to soleimani and indeed the wider iranian influence in iraq a little later in the interview, but one more point on the issue of lawfulness. you very carefully say it's really not for you to judge the lawfulness or not, i would put it to you that
as a us ambassador long—standing, it really does matter to you and now your successor in baghdad this question of whether it's legal or not. you are there not as donald trump's representative but a representative of the us government, a government that prides itself by its abiding by international rules, international law. when you hear the un special raconteur on extrajudicial executions, agnes callamard, concluding that in this case the test of legality or illegality is unlikely to be met, i.e it looks illegal to her, you must be worried, musn‘t you? i'm worried about the reputation of the united states but frankly the reputation of the united states is still going to be shaky given the policies of the trump administration in many other places
in the world. the reality is there's also a strong argument to made for self—defence, and that's the argument the american administration is making. i am personally aware from my time serving as a us diplomat of what qasem soleimani and some of the groups he supported and trained in iraq and elsewhere have done to try to target american diplomats, american servicemembers and other coalition members serving in iraq and in other places in the region. i'm quite certain he was behind the escalating attacks in 2019, the attacks on shipping outside the strait of hormuz, attacks on saudi civilian infrastructure, the downing of an american drone and the attacks on abqaiq, the saudi arabian oil processing centre. so there are a number of reasons how you can define this as an act of self—defence. ambassador, if i may say so, when you put it like that it makes me wonder why the americans
sat back so long and allowed qasem soleimani to build his expansionist network inside iraq. you were sitting there as ambassador for more than two years. were you constantly telling washington they should be addressing in really serious terms what soleimani was building inside iraq with all of those popular militias, the popular mobilisation units, the shia forces at his disposal. should america have acted sooner? i was telling washington absolutely the threat i saw both to american policy and america citizens serving in iraq from the iranian supported shia militias. i will not paint the entire popular mobilization forces units with the same brush. there are some that were very responsive to soleimani and tehran, and there were others who are more iraqi nationalist and even some of the units were trained by the coalition military and later absorbed into the popular mobilization forces.
a number of shia militias, most of them predated the rise of isis, and many of them cut their teeth in fighting american forces in iraq between 2008 and 2011, forming the backbone of soleimani's iraqi proxy forces. they have been dangerous for a long time, and i was absolutely telling washington that they were dangerous. how difficult is it as an ambassador to represent a government that seems so chaotic in its thinking? donald trump in the last 48 hours has said he had direct information, there were four attacks in train under soleimani's guidance on four different embassies in the region. the defence secretary, mark esper, said he didn't see any such evidence.
you've been at the sharp end working for the trump administration as an ambassador, how difficult is it to make sense of what goes on in washington? i would also say the trump administration is not the first administration that had contradictions, and as an ambassador or a morejunior diplomat, i generally triangulated different statements and try to walk down the middle to try to make sure i captured the message washington was trying to convey. what about when the message isn't clear at all? what about when the president is speaking off—the—cuff, random quotes that don't seem to tally with the intelligence and information coming from other parts of the security establishment. what do you do then? well, in that case you go to the basic point that underlies what everyone is saying, qasem soleimani and iranian supported forces and iranian forces in some cases pose a danger to american and coalition forces in iraq and in the region, and likely to american diplomats in embassies in the region as well. let us now consider what next in iraq. it's a political situation you know very well.
you will have seen the acting prime minister, adil abdul—mahdi, has said this egregious violation of iraq's sovereignty must be met with a response and he supports the parliamentary vote to expel us troops from iraqi soil. do you think that's going to happen? it's a very good question and i honestly do not know yet. i will also note when the iraqi parliament took its vote, theoretically there were 170 votes to zero, but nearly that many members of the parliament, mostly kurdish and sunni members, but also some shia members, boycotted the session because they did not agree with the vote that was being taken. i also heard many allegations of threats of physical harm to mps who did not come and vote for the resolution to ask the prime minister to ask coalition forces to leave. what you have seen since that vote is statements by prominent politicians in the kurdistan, a number of sunnis and a couple of fears in support of a continued
coalition military presence, focused on fighting isis and focused on training and professionalising the mainline iraqi security forces, i.e the air force and the counterterrorism forces. you talk about the focus on the islamic state group but the truth is the 5,000 or so military personnel in iraq are completely hamstrung. they have bunkered down and they are focused on their own forced rejection, such is their own insecurity in iraq today, and they certainly aren't doing any counter is operations in conjunction with the iraqi military, who they don't seem to trust. that entire is strategy lies in ruins today. i would actually take issue with your statement that the iraqi army or the us army do not
trust the iraqi army. what you have in iraq unfortunately is security forces that are split in the middle. you've got the mainline forces — the army, the air force and the navy, and the counterterrorism service, largely supplied and trained and mentored by coalition forces. then you have the popular mobilization forces, which have been dominated by iran and qasem soleimani throughout this period. the impression i get from people who are still in baghdad is the personal and cooperative relationships between coalition military and the iraqi military remain strong. there is, however, more tension with the popular mobilization forces forces, especially those more tied with qasem soleimani. with respect... no, no, to answeryour question, the violence of the past week and a half has constrained what the nato mission and what the coalition has been able to do, and it is incumbent
upon the prime minister and the iraqi government to put in place methods to protect coalition forces from attacks from other parts of the iraqi security forces. this is an issue with which i've been most frustrated throughout my period, both under the 0bama administration and trump administration — the unwillingness or inability of the iraqi government to challenge the expansion of these shia militias to conduct activities, use force separate from the command structure of iraq with the prime minister at the top. surely another frustration is the apparent contradiction in a us strategy which needs a strong relationship with the iraqi government, which of course right now is still headed up by acting prime minister adil abdul—mahdi. and at the same time, donald trump has started issuing
threats toward the acting prime minister and his government, saying that if they couldn't make good on any attempt to remove forces from iraq, then the most punitive sanctions the iraqis had ever seen will be imposed. and we've got one source today talking about the americans telling the acting prime minister's office that the us is countenancing blocking iraqi's account at the federal reserve bank in new york, which would effectively completely destroyed iraq's oil economy. what on earth is going on here? what does donald trump want from the iraqis? does he want to be their friend, or does he now see them as an enemy? 0n the economic front, the iraqi government has been cooperating with the us treasury to prevent the flow of dollars into iran, as part of the sanctions, because we are afraid that especially the quds force and the revolution guards use the hard currency they earn to expand their activities
into and outside of the region. iraq has been very cooperative, and we think relatively few dollars have gone into iran from iraq. now that i'm outside the administration, i don't want to speak of it too much. but i know that when i was doing myjob in baghdad, we were concerned that if the cooperation of the iraqi treasury or the iraqi central bank ended, it would be much easier for iran to get dollars to iraq. and i think that is one of the main fears. because the goal of iran, of soleimani, was not only a security goal. i mean, you keep telling me about all the concerns you had as ambassador, and that continue, about iran's various leverages inside iraq. is it not your concern and the truth
that the killing of qasem soleimani has actually strengthened iran's hand in iraq? it has made it much more difficult for your us troop presence to continue. it has made it more difficult for those allies of the united states inside iraq to have their voices heard. and what we see is an iran which over the next few months and years has every prospect of projecting more power and control over iraq. what i think the killing of qasem soleimani has done has a short—term impact that is sort of what you describe. it is clear that those in iraq who would like to see a continuation, an increase, of iranian influence in the country now have more enthusiasm for that point. it also has a short—term benefit to — or i should say provides an opportunity to an iraqi government that wants to be more independent of tehran, and for an international community
that would prefer to see iraq plugged into the world community and the world economy more effectively. let me tell you why. qasem soleimani and his iraqi lieutenant, muhandis, both accelerated expansion of iranian influence, attacks on coalition and other forces, and support for shia militias in iraq. they were also a brake on those activities when tehran and especially soleimani saw that to be to the benefit of iran. what happened through tehran, to soleimani, to muhandis, i suspect what you will see inside iraq over the coming year or two will be something akin to a power struggle. the shia militias in iraq are not unified.
they are made up of individual commanders, often brigade—sized units, who have now lost their recognised command structure, and i think they will now begin to struggle and jostle for predominance among this group. one thing seems clear, that as a result, again, of the soleimani assassination, tehran is now intent on pushing ahead with its nuclear programme. they haven't formally left the international agreement, the so—called jcpoa, but they are now enriching uranium to new levels. they are to all intents and purposes back on the nuclear weapons track — agree? i think this is in fact correct, and there are actually three points i want to make. all of what has taken place in the past two weeks has shuffled the deck, as i said, but it has not resolved any of the underlying issues. from the standpoint of washington, and largely from the west, there are still three big issues that iran continues. one is a support for proxy forces in the region. the second is the now lack
of commitment to thejcpoa, the nuclear agreement. and the third is iran's development and deployment of ballistic missiles, and you saw the strategic use of iranian ballistic missiles in the attacks on coalition forces last week. from the iranian side, you still have the united states, which is outside thejcpoa, and you have a united states which hass not only supporting sanctions, but last week secretary of state pompeo and secretary of the treasury mnuchin doubled down on sanctions and imposed a number of other sanctions. so the underlying questions and the reasons for the tension will remain there. but, if i may, i want to keep this as simple as possible. itjust seems to me and to many observers around the world there is still a fundamental contradiction, a deep confusion, in trump's strategic vision for iran and the wider mid east region. and david singer of the new york times put it very well the other day. he said mr trump has yet to resolve the two conflicting instincts
that he has on national security. that is, on the one hand, bellicosity, and on the other hand, desire for disengagement. so for you, as a 35—year—long diplomat who is recently out of baghdad, which is driving a strategic vision here? is it the gut bellicosity of trump, or is it the desire, as he has said so many times, to get us forces out of this mid east sand, where so much blood has been shed for so little? which is it? i think it's fundamentally the difficulty that the trump administration has in following and articulating a consistent set of goals that they want to see on iran. the three that ijust mentioned, ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons, and support for proxies, are always in the mix. but there are other members of the administration, and i am not certain whether president trump fits in that, who would like to see regime change.
although last week president trump said very clearly in public remarks that he did not seek regime change in iran, i think that there are still people in the administration hoping that pressure on the iranian economy, and perhaps now pressure on the quds force and the military, will result in a revolution from within, inside iran. if i may say so, ambassador, that's a very interesting answer, ‘cause you have just revealed to me your very deep confusion. because you have just left government, let's not say the administration, but you've been in baghdad for a long time representing the us government. it sounds to me like you are deeply, deeply confused about who is really driving policy in the white house, and what that strategy is. well, the day after, i believe, last week president trump said i do not seek regime change, former national security adviser john bolton tweeted that he supported regime change. and if i were in tehran, and i was not getting a consistent message from washington that we do not seek to pull down the regime, i would be very
reluctant to go into any sort of negotiations. i would also say that it appears to me that the trump administration seeks iranian capitulation under pressure. as i've said a couple of times in the media, economic sanctions are a tactic. they are not a strategy or a goal. and i'm struggling to find out, what does the trump administration hope to achieve at the end of this road? if it wishes negotiations, does it want to do negotiations in conjunction with our traditional allies, as we did in thejcpoa, plus the security council members? do we seek a smaller group? and what is in it for iran if they engage in negotiations? because the trump administration has been unable to articulate what the end result, the benefit for iran would be, were they to engage in serious negotiations on the three issues i mentioned. you say you are struggling
to really comprehend what the trump endgame is. many other diplomats have quit, saying that they can no longer serve a president that they don't really respect, in terms of the way he conducts foreign policy. i'm mindful that bill burns served 35 years in the state department and in diplomacy, just the same way you did with your 35 years, and he left saying this. he said, i've never seen an attack on diplomacy as damaging as what we have seen under the trump administration. notjust on the state department as an institution, but our international influence. did you leave feeling the same, and is that frankly why you were pleased to leave government? i think that the trump administration came in in 2017 not quite knowing what to do with the state department. first of all, the way that we are structured, if you look at the top, with ambassadors, ambassadors are the personal representatives of the presidents that appoint them, as well as the representatives
of the united states. and i think that president trump felt that all of the ambassadors appointed by president 0bama really represented 0bama, and did not represent him. so you have seen a replacement of a lot of ambassadors, and the departure of a lot of people, even though they were career diplomats, who had been in senior positions in the 0bama administration. so i think some of that is trump not believing that a cadre of diplomats, of civil servants who are committed to the constitution, would be as committed to him as he would like, and i think he wanted to see more of his own people in senior positions at the state department. and, to put it bluntly, were you glad to get out? i should say i'm very happy now, being in the private sector, and i enjoy the opportunity for the first time in 35 years to say what i actually believe, as opposed to having to speak only on behalf of the united states.
so i've found a bit of freedom in leaving the us government. all right, well, ambassador douglas silliman, i thank you very much indeed for being on hardtalk. stephen, thank you very much. it was a pleasure. hello there. tuesday was another very windy day across the board, particularly england and wales, which saw another area of low pressure move up from the south. early on wednesday it looks like the strongest of the winds, heaviest of the rain, becoming confined to the south—east corner of the country. elsewhere, clearer skies to start wednesday, but it will be another blustery one, very
windy for scotland. with further heavy showers here, some snow on the hills. so wednesday looks like being a bright day for many. lots of sunshine around, but there will be plenty of showers, particularly across scotland, close to this area of low pressure. and you can see the isobars closer together here, so it will be another windy day for scotland. less so for england and wales, but we'll have this weather front, which will continue to bring some rain through the morning across east anglia and the south—east. so a bit of a wet start here, but then that should clear away into the afternoon. it should brighten up nicely, and there should be quite a bit of sunshine around across the country. but western areas see a few showers, most of these, though, across the north—west of scotland, where some will be happy with snow on the hills. temperatures range from seven or so in the north, eight or nine in the south, a little bit cooler across the south than what we had on tuesday. so it is a brief window of fine weather. the next area of low pressure is hurtling into thursday. you can see lots of isobars on the chart, but the strongest of the winds we think will tend to be further west once again,
where we will see some of the heaviest of the rain, too, here. elsewhere, a bit of early brightness, but then the clouds will tend to build in. could see a few showers across eastern areas, but generally speaking, it's going to be another windy day across the board, and i can mention the strongest of the winds perhaps around some irish sea coasts. 50 to maybe 60 mph in some of the worst affected areas, and some of that rain will be quite heavy and persistent too. the milder air returns with this wet and windy weather. 10—12 degrees for england and wales, single—figure digits in the north. that area of low pressure sweeps northwards. we see a tangle of weather fronts move in for friday, but friday is a transitional day to something cooler, and something that's gradually going to become more settled as we head into the weekend. so we'll start to see some sunshine for scotland and northern ireland, cooling here, england and wales, thanks to those weather fronts, but also a scattering of showers, some of which will be quite heavy. but notice the temperatures. the single—figure values will even be across the south and the south—east too, so 5—9 degrees. that cooler air invades across the whole country,
then, late on friday and into the weekend. but, with high pressure building in, it looks like conditions will settle down. so the weekend really will feel colder, but at least it'll be largely dry, thanks to high pressure with light winds. some sunshine around, but also a return to some overnight frosts.
i'm mariko 0i in singapore, the headlines: after her resounding election victory, taiwan's president tsai ing—wen tells the bbc china needs to "face reality". a very strong message for the people of taiwan. that is, they don't like the idea of being threatened all the time. —— from the people of taiwan. the impeachment charges against president trump will be sent to the senate on wednesday. a trial could start within days. i'm kasia madera in london. also in the programme: the royal couple are
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