RFE/RL: Senator Lieberman, on the Iraq issue, can you give us a picture? What's the role of the Iranian government in Iraq?
Joseph Lieberman: Well, at this point the role of the Iranian government is a destructive one, particularly in Iraq, particularly when it comes to the United States. We now have very clear documentation that Iran has essentially been running a proxy war against American and Iraqi individuals and forces, to the extent that Iraqi extremists are taken to bases in Iran to be trained, then sent back, and have been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi civilians because of the extremists' aggression once they get back into Iraq.
Now this is why...look, I have supported discussions between the United States and Iran, but they have to be honest and mutually respectful. And the initial discussions that have occurred in Baghdad between our ambassador [Ryan Crocker] there and the ambassador of Iran [Hassan Kazemi-Qomi] have really focused on this problem with a request -- a plea -- from the American ambassador to the Iranian representative, to accept the evidence we have and to stop this aggression, and then we can begin to talk about other questions.
RFE/RL: As you said, you supported the current talks between Iran and the United States on the ambassadorial level. Why now? There is a history between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States for the past 27 years. The question is, why now?
Lieberman: Well, these are talks for a very limited purpose, which is to confront the Iranian government with the evidence of the proxy war that they're running against us and the people of Iraq.
But I think we have to be very careful as we talk about U.S.-Iranian relations, and it's very important for me to say here that I and, I would say, most every member of the U.S. Congress, differentiates between the current Iranian regime, which we take to be fanatical and extremist and totalitarian, and the people of Iran who are the victims of this regime, just as others who the regime is attacking through proxies are victims.
I don't think we can suggest that we can simply reason the current regime of Iran into behaving in a more law-abiding and humane way. We cannot deceive ourselves; I'm always interested in diplomacy, but diplomacy has to produce action. And thus far, as you go back -- really to the beginning of the revolution and the late '70s and the first shouts of "Death to America" in Iran, those shouts that have been repeated hundreds of thousands of millions of times -- that's not the kind of message that should encourage any American government to think that it's possible to really have peaceful relations with this Iranian regime, as distinguished from the Iranian people.
When I said that the Iranian people are victims of this regime, they are in many ways -- first, in many ways the government of Mr. [Mahmud] Ahmadinejad is squandering the money of Iran to spend millions, billions of dollars to fund foreign terrorist groups.
And also, in a modern age when the world is growing smaller and smaller and economies of the world are coming closer and closer together, this fanatical regime in Tehran has made Iran into a pariah nation, separating Iran from so much of the rest of the world, isolating its people economically, culturally, and politically.
I can say for the American people [that they] have the greatest admiration for the Iranian people, the history of this great nation, the intellect of the people, and yearn for the time when we can have better people-to-people relations between Americans and Iranians, liberated from this current totalitarian regime.
RFE/RL: The Islamic Republic of Iran has been considered by the United States since 1982 a state sponsor of terrorism, and in the last two years the current government of Iran has been bold, especially on nuclear issues and the Middle East crisis. How can we [believe] that current talks on the ambassadorial level on Iraq issues are going to help something...if you say that there is [proof] that [Iran is] waging a proxy war in Iraq? What was the response and was there any change in any way from the Iranian side?
Lieberman: Right, as I understand what happened at the meeting -- and I wasn't at the meetings and I wasn't there -- the Iranian side essentially denied the evidence, and this is evidence that I've seen and that I consider to be absolutely trustworthy that Iran is conducting a proxy war against American troops and Iraqi civilians in Iraq. But the more compelling proof, unfortunately, tragically, is this: Nothing has changed; Iraqi extremists are still being brought to Iran where they are being trained by not just Iranians, but by the terrorist Hizballah clients of Iran and then sent back to blow up these explosives, fire sophisticated weapons that Iranian taxpayers are paying for at Americans and Iraqis. While this goes on, there can be no hope of really better relations between the U.S. government and the Iranian regime, and this is why we are at a very difficult moment.
Even the program as you referenced to build nuclear weapons by the Iranian government...a significant part of what motivates American opposition and I think global opposition to this is the nature of the regime in Tehran that is developing these programs, a regime that is, as you said, [according to] the U.S. State Department's evidence and conclusion, the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism right now, conducting through proxies, wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Palestine, all supporting fanatical extremists against more moderate and democratic movements.
So this has to change, and it's part of the reason why I've been a very strong supporter of U.S. government funding for civil-society programs in Iran. The repression...look, this is a regime that has been brutal to its neighbors and others through the support of terrorism and proxy wars, but it unfortunately, as you well know and as the people of Iran well know, has been brutal to the people of Iran. The repression of human rights activists, of women's rights activists, of labor unions, of anybody who expresses a different political point of view -- that has to change, and I'm going to be working with colleagues in both political parties in the Senate, as it happens in the next few days, to increase the amount of funding to $75 million from $25 million per year for support of so-called civil-society, freedom-advocating, human-rights-protecting, free-expression groups within Iran. Let the people of Iran have a chance to have a government that really is as good as they are.
RFE/RL: Do you mean that in addition to the $75 million that has been previously addressed, there is going to be $25 million?
Lieberman: Here's what happened: The Bush administration recommended $75 million for this coming fiscal year for human rights, civil-society programs in Iran. Unfortunately, the Senate Subcommittee on Foreign Relations Appropriations reduced that to $25 million. And that bill, that piece of legislation, that budget recommendation, we expect to have on the floor of the Senate tomorrow (September 7) or at the latest the next day.
A number of colleagues and I of both political parties will be submitting an amendment to increase that funding to $75 million, which really is a small amount considering everything we're spending to defend ourselves against the fanaticisms of this current regime and the suffering of the people of Iran and other victims of this regime....
I was extremely upset when the committee came in with that $25 million, and part of their argument is that money from America is dangerous for Iranian dissidents or human-rights or civil-society groups to accept. Most of this is given through third parties in any case. But my argument is: Let the Iranian groups decide. If we had taken this position in the Cold War that it could be risky for freedom fighters behind the Iron Curtain to accept funding from us, you know, the Iron Curtain might still be up, instead of the people having risen up to build a better future for themselves.
RFE/RL: Having a budget is one thing, but having a mechanism for spending that budget effectively is something else. Is there a clear mechanism [for] how it's going to work?
Lieberman: Yes, this is not much talked about. I have been briefed on it, but there is work in the State Department -- working through third-party organizations, not directly from the federal government -- to support student groups, women's groups, the whole array of civil society, to give some hope to the people of Iran.
I know people are very disappointed by the economic leadership given by the current government, but the Ahmadinejad administration, and the isolation of Iran which is...you know, generally the Iranian people are well-educated, forward-looking people. This government seems to want to take Iran backward instead of forward. But there will be an effective system set up for distributing this money, and I don't know that I can talk about it too much more; but I think that groups that are interested will know how to find their way to this support ,and perhaps people from the State Department and others will come on Radio Farda and explain in more detail.