Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
New York City, New York
QUESTION: And joining us now in Studio 1A, Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Secretary Blinken, good morning to you. Good to have you here.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good morning.
QUESTION: Let’s talk about the news this week, the prisoner swap – five Americans brought home. You cannot look at these pictures of Americans being returned to U.S. soil and not be elated for them, emotional. But the thornier issue, of course, is at what cost? When you free up $6 billion in order to get Americans back, does that not endanger Americans elsewhere, put a higher price on their heads?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, Savannah, it was incredibly powerful and emotional to get these Americans back. I was on the phone with them after they touched down in Doha – the first port of call before coming back to be reunited with their families – one after more than eight years in an Iranian prison. And for me, my number-one responsibility around the world is to help Americans who are in trouble, and particularly those who are being unjustly held in jails anywhere – I want to bring them home.
Now, in this particular case, what’s so important to understand is that the monies that were freed up was Iranian funds that they had gotten from the sale of oil that were stuck in a bank and that, from day one, had been exempt from our sanctions. In other words, the Iranians have always had the right to use those funds for humanitarian purposes. We moved them from one bank account to another in another country with very clear controls on them to make sure that they could only be used for humanitarian purposes. Not a single taxpayer dollar is involved. Nothing is going into Iran itself. This is all for humanitarian purposes. So I think in order to get Americans home, that was a pretty good deal.
QUESTION: Well, fair enough. But as you well know, money is fungible. So the notion is that $6 billion Iran doesn’t have to spend on whatever the Iranian people need is $6 billion they can spend elsewhere and be up to no good. How do you respond to that? They’re suddenly flush with $6 billion of cash that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Two things. First, again, from day one, our sanctions, the penalties that we try to impose on countries that are engaged in activities like Iran is that we profoundly object to, have always, always exempted humanitarian needs. And we don’t want to be in the business of denying the Iranian people what they need. The government, the regime is something totally different.
Second, for better or worse – and unfortunately, for worse – the Iranians have always found a way to spend money for the nefarious actions that they’re engaged in. They’ve done it before sanctions, during sanctions, after sanctions. That’s going to continue. But what we’re continuing to do is two things. First, making sure that everywhere Iran is acting in a way that is dangerous, destabilizing, supporting terrorists, we’re taking action – taking action with sanctions, taking action with travel restrictions, taking actions with other countries to come down on them. Second, here in New York at the United Nations, we’re coming together with other countries to try to establish a much stronger norm and understanding in international law that countries that engage in these practices —
QUESTION: The big-ticket item at the UN this week, of course, is Ukraine. President Zelenskyy addressed the UN General Assembly. He’s coming to Washington hat in hand, looking to secure more funding. He’s going to face skeptics. Let me play something that Speaker Kevin McCarthy said yesterday. Take a look.
SPEAKER MCCARTHY: Is Zelenskyy elected to Congress? Is he our president? I don’t think I have to commit anything. I have questions for him. Where’s the accountability on the money we already spent? What is the plan for victory?
QUESTION: How hard of a sell is this for President Zelenskyy?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Savannah, what we’ve seen to date is very strong bipartisan support for Ukraine, and there’s a good reason for that. It’s the right thing to do. We see the horrific abuses being committed by the Russians against Ukrainians, going back more than a year and a half. And I think that’s something that Americans respond to. But it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the necessary thing to do in our interests. Because if we allow these kind of aggressions to go forward with impunity, if we allow Putin to get away with this, then it is open season for any would-be aggressor to do the same thing. Putin wouldn’t stop there himself, and then others in other parts of the world are looking to see, “Can he get away with this? And if he can, maybe so can I.” And that’s a recipe for a world of conflict. That’s a recipe for a world that inevitably creates bad things that are going to hurt Americans, not just the countries in question.
QUESTION: I understand the argument. If you don’t stop Putin here, you’ll be at war with him somewhere else. That’s the argument.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And not just him, potentially. Again, other would-be aggressors and other parts of the world having nothing to do with Putin, they’re watching this very carefully.
QUESTION: But the larger question is – I mean, already the U.S. has committed $113 billion in 18 months to help Ukraine. How sustainable is this level of support when there’s really no end in sight to the war, no hint that there’s any talk of diplomacy among the two parties, and it – there doesn’t seem to be a strategy for victory, so this could just go on and on and on. And how much are you concerned that – about war fatigue, that people will not want to continue to be able to give this much support to Ukraine?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, just over the last year, Ukrainians have taken back more than 50 percent of the territory that Putin seized from them going back to February of 2022. But to the point of sustainability, what we’re working on, what dozens of other countries are working on is a plan to be able to support Ukraine for the long term but in a sustainable way. On the margins of the NATO Summit a couple of months ago, we had countries come together to say we’re going to look at how we can help the Ukrainians build their own military and build it so it’s a force for the future that can deter aggression, that can defend against aggression coming down the road.
QUESTION: In your mind, does this seem a war that will just go on for years? I mean, is that the expectation?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, it’s important to note this. Putin’s already failed in what he was trying to achieve, because remember, Savannah, his goal was to erase Ukraine from the map, to end its status as an independent country, to subsume it into Russia – that has failed. Now, exactly where the lines are drawn, that’s going to be up to the Ukrainians. But there’s a big difference here. Ukrainians are fighting for their own country, for their own land, for their own future. The Russians are not. At the end of the day, I think that is the biggest difference maker.
QUESTION: And I’ve got to ask you about the images we saw – Kim Jong-un traveling to Russia, walking with Putin. What are these two up to? And can the U.S. do anything to stop, for example, Kim Jong-un supplying weapons or arms support to Russia?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It speaks first and foremost to a certain amount of desperation on the part of Russia that it has to go to regimes like the one in North Korea – or Iran, for that matter – to try desperately to get the weapons, the technology that sanctions, export controls that we and many other countries have imposed, (inaudible) —
QUESTION: But if he’s got willing partners there with Iran, North Korea, and those alliances are deepening, isn’t that a pretty big concern?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And we are looking and taking action to try to disrupt that, to break that up wherever we can. But Russia is in a world of hurt as a result of the actions that Vladimir Putin has taken. Militarily, economically, diplomatically, it’s in a much worse position than it was before it engaged in this horrific war against Ukraine. And again, when the countries that it’s confined to dealing with – Vladimir Putin is not here in New York. He wasn’t at the G27 recently. He is in effect persona non grata in many parts of the world. And so the only thing they have left is to go to regimes like the ones in North Korea and Iran to try to get what they need.
QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, on a busy week, it’s nice to have you here in the studio.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Savannah.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good to be with you.