Susan Rice: ‘Premature to Judge’ Outcome of Iran Talks

Craig Ruttle/AP

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Obama's national security advisor also said that differences with Saudi Arabia are mainly over tactics on Middle East policy and not overall strategy. By Uri Friedman

On Wednesday, Benjamin Netanyahu issued a warning to the international community. A bad deal on Iran’s nuclear program, the Israeli prime minister cautioned in an address to the Israeli parliament, could lead to war.

As U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice sees it, however, the Israeli leader is getting ahead of himself.

I think it’s important that everybody understand what the deal is that needs to be reached and then they can make a judgment on its contours,” Rice said this afternoon, during an interview with Walter Isaacson at the Washington Ideas Forum in Washington, D.C.

You think [Netanyahu] doesn’t understand the deal?” Isaacson asked.

Well it’s not done, so by definition it’s premature to judge it because the outlines have yet to be finalized.”

With an interim deal with Iran stalled, Rice attributed the gridlock to Iranian reservations, not French opposition, as some have reported. The French are “fully on board,” she said. “Some of the reporting on this has been frankly misleading.”

(Related: Only Diplomacy, Not Force, Will Prevent Nuclear-Armed Iran)

Rice also addressed friction with another longtime ally in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia. Ever since the Saudis took the stunning step in October of rejecting a seat on the U.N. Security Council—in protest over Western decisions to not intervene militarily in Syria and reach out diplomatically to Iran—speculation has mounted about just how frayed relations are between Washington and Riyadh.

On Wednesday, Rice admitted that U.S. disagreements with the kingdom went beyond Syria and Iran, though she argued that differences between the two countries involved “tactics”—not “strategic objectives.”

For example, on Egypt: the Saudi view has been that the interim government, which came to power through some ambiguous events, to put it diplomatically, ought to have the complete and unreserved endorsement of the United States no matter what actions it takes,” she explained, referring to the Egyptian military’s ouster of Mohammed Morsi, the country’s democratically elected president, over the summer.

Well, we think what happened in July was ambiguous,” she continued. “We recognize that even though a democratic government was removed, that that removal came with the support of the vast, vast majority of Egyptians, who had grown frustrated with the misgovernance and core policies of the Muslim Brotherhood. We have tried to indicate to the Egyptian people and the Egyptian government that we support them in their transition back to an elected, democratic government.”

But it’s unclear how committed Washington is to supporting that transition. In a visit to Egypt earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the partial suspension of U.S. assistance to Egypt was a “very small issue” and “not a punishment.” And, as The New York Times recently reported, the White House, in reevaluating its Middle East strategy, appears to have prioritized striking a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace, and resolving the Syrian civil war over facilitating a political transition in Egypt.

As for the Syrian conflict, Rice insisted that it was America’s threatened use of force in the country that drove Russia to make a deal on destroying Syria’s chemical weapons. Moscow “all of a sudden” had “a great sense of urgency about it when we had some warships off the coast of Syria, locked and loaded,” she said.

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