CNN "The Situation Room" - Transcript: Middle East Conflict and Iran Nuclear Deal

Interview

Date: July 27, 2015
Location: Washington, DC

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BLITZER: Let's talk about all of this and more with Senator James Risch of Idaho. He's a top Republican on the Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. JAMES RISCH (R-ID), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Hey, Wolf.

BLITZER: And lot to discuss. But let me quickly get your thoughts on some of these Republican presidential candidates and other senators, Republican senators, what they're saying about the president of the United States, the secretary of state.

You were relatively mild in your criticism last week before the Foreign Relations Committee. You said Secretary of State John Kerry had been bamboozled by the Iranians, but Mike Huckabee now is saying that the president of the United States is leading the Israelis, the Jews in Israel to the door of the oven, a reference to the holocaust. Is he going too far, Governor Huckabee?

RISCH: Well, I don't want to get between Governor Huckabee and the president, but let me say this, with all of this rhetoric that's going on, Wolf, you can see that this is a serious, serious matter. And the people on each side are dug in. Each side has positions that they think are the right positions. And that very frequently causes the war of words that we're seeing right now. So it is serious. And I --

BLITZER: I'm just saying, because when the governor -- Governor Huckabee seems to be making this comparison between the president of the United States and Hitler, Hitler who took the Jews, as we know, to the doors of the oven, that seems to be going way too far.

RISCH: Well, again, like I say, when you get into these kinds of situations, people will say things that perhaps on reflection they wish they hadn't ratcheted that up quite that much.

BLITZER: But he's not backing away. He's reiterating -- he's standing by those comments.

RISCH: As time goes on, perhaps he will have a different view of it. But again, like I say, I think the takeaway here is the fact that people feel so strongly about this on both sides. I mean, this is a serious, serious matter.

BLITZER: Right. No, I totally agree. You can make criticisms.

RISCH: I agree.

BLITZER: There are arguments on both sides.

RISCH: I agree.

BLITZER: You can make it, but you don't have to start throwing holocaust into this, you don't have to start saying that the Jews in Israel are about to go to the door of the oven.

RISCH: When I train young legislators, I always told them words are like bullets. You can never take them back. And you always want to be careful about the words that you use.

BLITZER: You wish Governor Huckabee had not uttered those words?

RISCH: That's a matter between Governor Huckabee and the president. I'm not going to get in the middle of that and I come back to the fact that this is a serious issue that really demands serious debate and serious consideration from the people on all sides.

BLITZER: And very quickly before we move on, Ted Cruz calling this Iran nuclear deal a jihadist stimulus bill. Senator Tom Cotton, your colleague from Arkansas, saying John Kerry -- comparing him to Pontius Pilate, if you will. Are they going too far?

RISCH: Well, again, like I said, people feel very strongly about this. And when they do, they will ratchet it up. The kind of words that are used. Words are important and we all need to debate this, I think, civilly, and at the end of the day we're going to have to vote on it. There's a lot of pressure on the people in Congress, mostly pressure on the people who are thinking of voting to affirm this.

And I think these people are using language that they want to underscore. For instance, the fact that there's going to be a tremendous amount of money that goes to Iran that will go directly to the various terrorist organizations. It has, we know that's going to happen, and people are upset about that.

BLITZER: So when you say the secretary of state was bamboozled, what do you mean by that? RISCH: What I mean by that is I thought that at the very beginning

those guys gave away the farm before they ever sat down at the table. Before they ever sat at the table, they should have required that Iran give up the financing of terrorists and give up their ambitions to produce a nuclear weapon. And that means stopping enriching. Both of those were given away before they ever sat down.

And after those things were given away and they sat down, they continued to give and give and give. The U.S. kept moving towards Iran's position. Iran never moved towards the U.S. position. And those of us who watched it thought that it was handled very poorly.

[17:15:11] BLITZER: I know the administration strongly disagrees with you.

RISCH: No question about that.

BLITZER: But they will continue, but we've got to keep it civil as much as we possibly can.

RISCH: I agree.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by, Senator. We have a lot more to discuss.

Much more with Senator Risch when we come back.

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[17:20:04] BLITZER: Following the war against ISIS and their proposal for a so-called safe zone, along Turkey's border with Syria to prevent ISIS terrorist forces from attacking a critical U.S.-NATO ally.

We're back with James Risch, top Republican on the Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committee.

I know you've been briefed, Senator. What does a safe zone means?

RISCH: Well, a safe zone is an area that, in essence, Turkey and the world wants the United States to guard and keep ISIS out of and be able to put what they want there.

BLITZER: So will U.S. forces have to go into that safe zone to prevent ISIS from moving in?

RISCH: I don't think that that -- they know that there is very little appetite on the U.S. part to put boots on the ground there, but airpower is incredibly important in that part of the world.

BLITZER: Is that a no-fly zone? Is that what this is about?

RISCH: That's what they're talking about. They want a no-fly zone. And as you know, the White House and the administration have really pushed back on the no-fly zone for many, many months, but now they've softened up on it and they are talking about. Turkey is --

BLITZER: Well, let me interrupt you, Senator.

RISCH: Sure.

BLITZER: Turkey is a key NATO ally.

RISCH: Yes.

BLITZER: They have a huge military. They have a significant air force. Why can't Turkey do that by itself? Why do they need U.S. airpower, potentially ground forces to help?

RISCH: Well, Turkey probably could do it by themselves, but look, there is no substitute for U.S. airpower anywhere in the world. It is that simple. And we have ways and means available to us that no other country in the world has. We are much more efficient at it. We're better at it. We have experience with it.

It's interesting to see Turkey now also changing its attitude. They have tried their best to stay out of this fray. I was in Turkey once when they were shelling, when Assad's people are shelling, and they did very little to push back on it, but did back them down.

Now, of course, things are blowing up on them. They got ISIS actually crossing in, doing things. The -- interestingly enough, the Kurds have been very effective in creating mostly a buffer zone in Syria, between Syria and Turkey. And --

BLITZER: So how do you feel about the fact that the Turks now not only going to go after ISIS forces in Syria, but are going after Kurdish forces as well?

RISCH: Yes, generally they don't go after the Peshmerga. They are concerned about PKK. The PKK has been a torn on their side for a long, long time. There is a clear difference, I think, at least in our mind, if not in the Turks' mind, between PKK and between the Peshmerga. The Peshmerga are incredibly efficient fighters. They've been very successful where they have fought.

And I think PKK, and this is my judgment, and I suspect probably some in Turkish judgment, the PKK is using the current state of affairs and the turmoil there to take advantage. And they've been fairly quiet over the last 18 to 24 months, but now again, they're stepping forward. Turkey doesn't like that. They're concerned about it and they're now having to take a second look at what's going on in their border and what they're going to have to do and how they're going to engage us and other countries to assist them.

BLITZER: It's potentially a turning point. Let me --

RISCH: It is. That's a good point. That's true.

BLITZER: I want to get -- I want to get your reaction to what the FBI Director James Comey told me last week. He said ISIS is now the major terror threat to the U.S. homeland, even a bigger threat to the U.S. homeland than al Qaeda. Do you agree with him? RISCH: I agree with him 100 percent. Al Qaeda has always looked for

the great big iconic kind of things that they could do here to make a statement. ISIS has much lower target than that. They're happy to take these lone wolves that go out and do the -- do these things where they will kill a handful of people or what have you. We are much more vulnerable to that than we are to the big iconic type of attacks.

And as a result -- and on top of that, they work differently than al Qaeda. Al Qaeda was really hung up on command and control and titles and who's in charge. ISIS is much more spread out than that. They're not nearly as hung up on the chain of command and that sort of thing.

BLITZER: Senator Risch, thanks very much for joining us.

RISCH: Wolf, thank you. Glad to be here.

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