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DoD News Briefing: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
June 19, 1997 12:30 PM EDT

[The following press briefing occurs on the Secretary's flight enroute from Oman to the United States.]

This was an important trip for me as Secretary of Defense. I had been to the area before, but not in recent times. I felt a particular gratification about CENTCOM itself, because I was sort of there at the creation. Back in the early '80s we created CENTCOM, I had the chairmanship of the Seapower Sub-committee which was a jurisdiction over force and projection. So to see CENTCOM in terms of how it is operating, not only from McDill -- where I've been -- but also out in the field, was important.

What I stressed to every leader that I met was our -- the United States -- commitment to the region, our strength and reliability, and the fact that we are dedicated to continuing our relationship and building upon it. There is virtual unanimity of opinion among all the countries. They support the United States. They support what we are doing. They intend to continue to remain in a cooperative relationship with us so that we can preserve the stability and peace in the region. There were a lot of … every country was unique. I found that each country's leader had a somewhat different approach to things and how they manage their affairs, obviously. But on one issue they were unanimous, and that is, that they supported United States policies. I think you've covered me from morning to evening. Last evening was a late evening [with Sultan Qaboos]. We met around nine o'clock and had a meeting for about 45 minutes -- a private meeting with a larger group. Then, we went to dinner. The dinner lasted until about 12:45 a.m. We got back to the guest house at about 1:00, 1:15 a.m. So it was a rather short evening . . . up at 5:30 a.m.

Q: I read an interview that was published in Foreign Affairs with the Sultan, in which he said that isolating Iran was not the way to go because Iran is a big country and it can't be isolated. It kind of reminded me of the logic that the United States has been using about China. Was that the nature of the discussion? Did that come up?

A: I also had the occasion to read the interview he had with Judith Miller. Is that the one you are talking about? What he indicated was the opposite, actually. Not the opposite, but the converse, I should say. Mainly that Iran should not isolate itself. That Iran should change its ways, because it would be isolated in the region. That there are the other Gulf States who are cooperating, obviously, who are unanimous in terms of their relationship with the United States. That you could see that prosperity has been developing in all of the Gulf States. That Iran, if it continues on its present course will be isolated from the rest of the Arab World. So, I think that he is a real visionary, in terms of what he has done with his own country. He obviously keeps a dialogue up with Iran so that he can understand better what their thinking is. But also, it is a two-way street -- that they can understand opinions from the outside. And that is very helpful to the extent that he can impart some of his wisdom to the Iranian leadership. That they can benefit from having his insights. I think that is all to the better. He also indicated that he felt that, let's be very cautious in how we deal with Iran. That we should look with some hope as we talked about with President Clinton's view, but also be wary. Make sure that the deeds follow-up to the words. I think that his approach basically is supporting what we are doing as far as maintaining our policies, but to watch and see if there are some signs on the part of the new leadership and the President as to whether they are going to change their policies.

Q: What was his advice in terms of encouraging them - to not isolate themselves? Did he have an approach?

A: I think he maintains contact with various people from time to time. And that's helpful, and so his advice, I think, to Iran is not unique. Others I think, probably share that view -- that Iran should stop isolating itself, should stop promoting terrorism or trying to acquire as many weapons as they have and posing a threat to the region. That would work to the betterment of everybody.

Q: What was his reading of the new government in Iran - the new president?

A: Well he, again, is somewhat encouraged by the posture of some of the statements from the soon to be new president. I guess he takes office in August, officially. But he also thinks that we have to watch Iran to make sure that what they are doing is actually consistent with what they would be saying. So it is one of caution. It would be quite similar to President Clinton's own position -- hopeful, still skeptical, but keeping an eye, and looking for the positive and being wary of any negative.

Q: The very recent acceleration in the military build-up in Iran, does that concern you?

A: I think that there has been a steady build up over the recent years, and of course, it is of concern, to the extent that they can pose multiple types of threats to our forces in the region. As I indicated yesterday, it complicates our job of keeping free access to Gulf. But it is not anything that we can't deal with. It just puts you into a much tighter time-frame in which you have to react. So to the extent that you can calculate the nature of the threat from land, sea, and now from air -- it increases the complexity of the operation. But I'm satisfied after talking with our Naval Commanders, that we can handle anything that they have.

Q: Do you think the United States should put more pressure on China? Realizing of course, that the cruise missiles don't break the missile agreement. But do you think you should put more pressure on China not to sell those. . .

Q: There is a report in the paper today, that apparently an agreement has been reached for the Saudi who is being held in Canada, to be brought back to the United States. I was wondering whether you expect that to accelerate the determination as to whether there was a third country involved. And also whether, it is still your position -- still the position of the Government -- that if there is third country involvement that there will be strong action taken in reprisal.

A: Well, I'm not sure that it will accelerate the investigation. Certainly, it will be helpful to the investigation. My understanding is, that he will be charged with something unrelated to the Khobar bombing.

Q: He is supposed to arrive today to appear before a judge today, I don't know . . .

A: If he is in U.S. custody, then we will have access to information. It may prove reliable, it may prove contradictory to other evidence. It is too early to say. The one thing that we can conclude is that we should make no prejudgment in terms of any third country being involved at this point. And something that I think is important to stress. We have not arrived at any judgment, the evidence is still incomplete. I don't know what his veracity may be. I'm not sure if it is reliable in terms of contributing to the investigation. We will have to wait and see and weigh his statements against what we have acquired from the Saudis and other sources. So, I think that it is just premature to speculate on.

Q: What about the position of strong action against any third country that is found to have been involved?

A: I think the United States has demonstrated in the past, whenever there has been a threat to our interest, we have not hesitated to use, or resort to, strong action. The action can come in a variety of forms. A lot will depend upon the degree of substantiation there is of the evidence. It is something that we will look at very carefully. We will not take any precipitous action, but I think our record is very clear that when our interests are struck by third countries, other countries, it does not go without some response.

Q: Is the United States willing to sell AMRAAMS to the UAE? And do you consider those defensive weapons as opposed to cruise missiles?

A: I think that is still under negotiation. I don't know if there's any indication on our part yet that that is agreeable. It is still under discussion.

Q: Those would be different from the cruise missiles… if you did decide to do that.

A: That would be different. That's right, they are a different type of system.

Q: Often, especially on this trip, objections to Iran include their sponsorship of terrorism. If it turns out that they were not involved in the Khobar Towers case, what are some other examples of Iranian involvement in terrorism? A: (Ken Bacon speaking) - There is the Mykonos bombing judgment in Germany, which tied terrorism to the top levels of the Iranian government. There is a similar trial going on in France now, charging Iranians with terrorism there, and there are examples that extend way beyond the United States.

Press: Thank you.