Hillary Interview: What Iran Needs to Understand

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat down for a 40-minute interview last week with NEWSWEEK's Michael Hirsh at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Tallinn, Estonia, where she was attending the NATO foreign ministers' meeting. Excerpts:

The great psychodrama that people are interested in is how do you go from one of the great battles in modern American political history to this close partnership?
Actually, it was kind of funny. It was the Sunday after the election, and Bill and I were going for a hike at a reserve near where we live in New York. About an hour and a half into it, [Bill's phone] rang. It was the president-elect saying he wanted to talk to Bill about some potential appointments. Bill said, "Well, we're on this walk and it's kind of awkward talking to you. Can we talk later?" And the president-elect said, "Yes, and I want to talk to Hillary too, so tell her to call me." I assumed it was along the same lines. And then when he asked me if I would be his secretary of state, I said there are so many other people you should look at [laughs]. I really felt an obligation to the people of New York to go back and serve, and I was just so surprised. I had never, ever, ever thought about it. We began a series of conversations. They ended with my deciding if the shoe had been on the other foot, and I had won and I had asked him to be part of my administration, I would have hoped he would have said yes. And I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that when a president calls, you should have a presumption of saying yes.

You have delivered some of the toughest messages to come out of this administration. Are you President Obama's bad cop these days?
I don't think there's anything as formal as that … It's not "You're with us or against us." It is "We have a lot of business to do. But just because we're going to work with you to achieve progress on issues A, B, and C doesn't mean we're forestalled from raising questions about what you're doing on X, Y, and Z." We do a lot of business with China, for example.

Are you encouraging Google in its current standoff with China?
That was always a business decision on the part of Google. But we are encouraging the Chinese to recognize the importance of this form of free expression.

We know how hard you're working now to get a U.N. resolution on Iran sanctions. But last year you proposed what you called a defense umbrella for the region, and we've gotten indications that Secretary Gates is interested in the idea of containment should sanctions fail. Is it fair to say that you two are pushing for that?
We are committed to doing everything we can to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-weapons state. Sanctions are a tool, which we are pursuing with our partners in the United Nations. And it is an important effort because it will put the international community on record, [and] it carries benefits in terms of influencing the decision making within Iran. The other important [aim is to change] the Iranian calculation that they will be stronger and safer if they pursue nuclear weapons. We want them to understand they will be neither. And that's not a policy of containment. It is a policy of deterrence.

Was there any particular trip or meeting when you said, "This is a lot of fun"?
I may define fun differently than some people … I get a lot of satisfaction out of the person-to-person contact. So it's not, for me, just sitting in rooms and meeting with my fellow ministers or heads of state.

And you think you've made a difference with those person-to-person contacts— for example, in Pakistan?
Yeah, I do. In Pakistan we have a long way to go, but we've made a lot of progress. I got there in the fall, and I did things that nobody, even their elected officials, had ever done before [like holding town-hall meetings]. And it still is reverberating. We now have a public-diplomacy effort that is worthy of the name ... If people are saying things about the United States that are not true, we don't just say, "Oh, well, what are you going to do?" Get in there and mix it up.

The book Game Change had you saying to President-elect Obama that you were concerned about the role of your husband if you became secretary of state. Is that accurate? What is his role?
First of all, I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on anything in it. [Bill] is very actively engaged in his own work on behalf of his own foundation and now on behalf of the United Nations in Haiti. He gets calls from a lot of people in the administration on a pretty regular basis and offers [advice] with the full awareness that he's on the outside and doesn't have all the information that those of us on the inside might have. And he's a great sounding board for me. Because he knows 90 percent of the people that I deal with in the world today and has astute observations about what moves them and what doesn't and how it's all interconnected.