John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, spoke with VOA White House bureau chief Patsy Widakuswara on whether President Joe Biden is signaling his support for regime change in Iran, the latest on the Ukraine war, North Korean provocations ahead of Biden’s trip to Asia and whether the president will meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: I’m going to start with what the president said last night on the campaign trail in California. He said, “Don’t worry, we’re going to free Iran. They’re going to free themselves pretty soon.” Is the president signaling his support for regime change in Tehran?
John Kirby: What he was signaling was our solidarity with the protesters in Iran. And he’s been doing that from the outset, Patsy. I mean, right from the well of the U.N., [he] made it clear that we stand in solidarity with these Iranian protesters as they try to fight for their basic human rights, and for what a woman can wear or not wear. The Iranian leadership is dealing with problems of its own making. But ultimately, the future of Iran should belong to the Iranian people.
VOA: So, the first part of that statement, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to free Iran.’ That’s not a change in policy? Did the president misspeak?
Kirby: The president was speaking very plainly, as he has, about how much we stand in solidarity with the Iranian protesters. But as I said, the future of Iran should belong to the Iranian people.
VOA: I’m going to continue with Iran. At this point, what do we know about what else Iran is doing for Russia beyond sending drones? Have they sent surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, short-range ballistic missiles at this point? Are they still training personnel, Russian personnel, in Crimea?
Kirby: I don’t have an update on [the] Iranian presence in Crimea. We know they were there to provide technical assistance and training for some of these drones that they provided the Russian military. We haven’t seen any indication that they’ve transferred any other weapons or technology, for instance, surface-to-surface missiles, but we’re watching as best we can. The mere fact that Iran and Russia are talking about the possibility for additional capabilities, be they UAVs or be they missiles, just shows you how much more isolated both countries are from the rest of the international community. And it shows you how desperate Mr. Putin is becoming with his own defense industrial base — that he has to rely on outside suppliers like Iran and now, potentially, North Korea.
VOA: On North Korea, this was what you said earlier this week: that you have intelligence that Pyongyang is supplying artillery to Russia to —
Kirby: Covertly supplying, yes.
VOA: Yeah. And funneling it through a third country. Can you share what that third —
Kirby: And perhaps more than one “third country.” I don’t have any more detail that I’m willing to share on, on what exact countries we’re talking about. But our information is that they are covertly supplying artillery shells, trying to funnel them through third-party countries, so as to make it look like it’s not a direct transfer into the Russian military ranks.
VOA: And you’re saying third-party countries at this point, so possibly more than one? I just want to clarify …
Kirby: Possibly more than one.
VOA: OK, staying on Iran. Earlier this week, there was a warning of a potential attack on Saudi soil. And the warning was that the attack is imminent, within days. Is that still a credible threat?
Kirby: We’re still watching this threat. We have to take it very, very seriously, Patsy. I don’t have any additional updates for you on the imminence. But we work collaboratively with our Saudi partners here on the intelligence collection side just to see what the threat really is. And again, we took this threat seriously, as we do all threats. I mean, there are 70,000 Americans living in Saudi Arabia, thousands of troops, and we’re still committed to helping Saudi Arabia with its self-defense capabilities. This is a country that comes under frequent attack from Iran-backed rebels in Yemen, the Houthis, and Iran has made no bones about the fact that they’re willing to continue to foment the activities of terrorist groups and groups like the Houthis who are willing to use violence inside Saudi Arabia. So, it’s a legitimate, valid threat. We take it seriously. And we’re going to keep working with the Saudi Arabians to see what we can do to help them defend themselves.
VOA: And the U.S. security support for Saudi does not change, despite the fact of their recent decision with OPEC+ to cut production, as the administration says, siding with Russia?
Kirby: We have a strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia – have for eight decades. We have 70,000 Americans that live and work there, including some of our troops. We have a commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend itself and we’re still staying at that. Now, look, the president does want to take a look at the bilateral relationship given the OPEC decision, but he hasn’t made any decisions one way or another. The team is still producing some options for him. He wants to have discussions with members of Congress when they come back to town after the election. So, we’ll leave that aside for right now. We’re still going to do that. But we’re also going to meet our commitments to help Saudi Arabia defend itself against what are clearly viable threats.
VOA: OK. I want to go back again to North Korea, John. Just this morning, South Korea said that it detected 180 North Korean military flights near its border. We know that North Korea has launched dozens of missiles, including one that landed off the coast of South Korea for the first time. This is all happening right before the president’s trip to the region. Are you bracing for more provocations, including the possibility of North Korea attempting another nuclear test while the president and the vice president are in the region?
Kirby: We’ve said for quite some time that North Korea could conduct a nuclear test and anytime … so we’re watching this as best we can. And obviously, we’re concerned about these provocations, so many of the ones that you just named over the last 24 hours alone. We’ve also said that we’re willing to sit down with Mr. Kim and the regime in Pyongyang, without preconditions, to talk about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That’s still the goal; that hasn’t changed. At the same time, because he’s shown no interest in doing that – quite the contrary, he’s shown a lot of interest in increasing tensions on the peninsula – we have to make sure that we’re militarily ready for all outcomes. As the U.S. troops on the peninsula like to say, they have to be ready to fight tonight, if need be. Now, obviously, nobody wants it to come to that. But that’s why we’re conducting yet another annual, long-planned exercise with the South Koreans. They’ve extended it for an extra day. We have conducted both bilateral exercises with them as well as our Japanese allies, and trilateral exercises between the three of us, because we have to make sure that we’re militarily ready.
VOA: So, what’s the game plan here with North Korea? You’re bolstering the security of Japan and South Korea, you’re offering dialogue, but it seems that this posture of just increased deterrence from both sides just makes it seem like escalation is inevitable.
Kirby: The only side escalating here is the Kim regime. They’re the ones that are popping off these missiles and rockets and conducting these flights.
VOA: But we are increasing our military exercises as well.
Kirby: But our exercises and our treaty commitments to South Korea are defensive in nature, defensive in nature. So, there’s only one side here that’s provoking and that’s increasing tensions and instability on the peninsula. And that’s why we continue to urge that they take us up on our offer to sit down without preconditions to begin a dialogue over denuclearization of the peninsula, because that still remains our goal.
VOA: I want to move on to Ukraine. John, is the U.S. at this point considering sending tanks or other tracked vehicles that would be helpful in the fight, especially heading toward the winter and winter terrain there?
Kirby: Well, I think you’re going to see at the Pentagon, here, very shortly an announcement of some additional funding to help refurbish some T-72 tanks that the Ukrainians know how to use and operate. So, what we’re going to do is we’re going to work to help make sure that they can refurbish some of the T-72 tanks that they already know how to use. But when I tell you we’re working in lockstep with the Ukrainians, almost every day to talk about what their capabilities are, what they need and what we can do to provide them. And right now, the big focus is on air defense. The United States has been providing air defense since the very beginning of this conflict. We are still looking at what we can do with more advanced capabilities to help them knock down these drones and these cruise missiles that the Russians keep firing in civilian infrastructure. We’re also working with allies and partners; some 40 other countries are contributing security assistance to Ukraine – France, Spain, Germany have been real big contributors with respect to providing some additional air defense capabilities, so we are working —
VOA: Any update on the Patriot missile defense?
Kirby: I don’t have any updates with respect to Patriots. We’re going to work to see what we can do to help Ukraine with their air defense capabilities. And if it’s not something that we can provide, then we’re going to make sure that we can work with allies and partners who have these capabilities, who might be willing to provide them as well. And I think you’re going to see in [the] coming days some additional announcements out of the Pentagon about more creative ways we can do that.
VOA: We do see at this point that Moscow does seem to be softening its rhetoric, saying that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” They also returned to the Black Sea grain deal. Do you see this as the beginning signs of a detente and what do you credit that to?
Kirby: I think it’s encouraging to hear that the Russians are saying they’re not interested in a nuclear exchange. We hope that they actually mean that, because we agree with them. A nuclear war should never be fought, and it certainly can’t be won. And there’s no reason to escalate the tensions, the war inside Ukraine, any more than they already are. Too many Ukrainian people have been killed, too many have been injured, too many have been flung from their homes and are now finding refuge in other countries outside their own home country. The war needs to end. It could end today if Mr. Putin would do the right thing.
VOA: Do you see him as softening, though?
Kirby: I think we have to look at what’s actually happening on the ground. And what’s happening on the ground is that the Russians continue to try to hold and occupy Ukrainian land in the Donbas and in the south. The Russians continue to flow in reservists now, calling up 300,000 reservists. They conducted a sham referendum to try to politically annex ground they couldn’t occupy militarily and then try to put martial law in place. They’re going to countries like Iran and North Korea for additional capabilities. This is — we’re judging them by what they’re doing, not by what they’re saying. What they’re doing is showing every indication of continuing to want to prosecute this war and kill innocent Ukrainian people. And so, we have to do everything we can, and we are, to help the Ukrainians defend themselves against those threats. Now again, look, if they mean what they say about the dangers of nuclear war, then that’s a welcome sign. But we have seen the Russians say things and then do the complete opposite in the future, which is why we’re going to continue to monitor this as best we can.
VOA: So, we are seeing increased strategic competition with China. We just discussed a whole bunch of threats coming from North Korea, from Iran and also the war in Ukraine. We are seeing a partisan divide at home, increased economic pressures, we’re seeing political violence at home. So overall, it just doesn’t feel like it’s a safe time under the Biden administration. Is that a fair characterization?
Kirby: President Biden takes nothing more seriously than his role as commander in chief and his duty to secure our national interests, abroad and at home. And I think you can see that virtually everything he’s done throughout the first 18 months here of his administration, working to shore up alliances and partnerships around the world. Relationships that were strained under the previous administration. Trying to restore some trust and confidence. You’ve heard the president say America’s back. Well, now, when he heads off to the G-20 next week, he cannot only reaffirm that America’s back, but he can talk about how America is leading. We are putting our money where our mouth is; we’ve now contributed an extra 20,000 troops to Europe alone. There’s now 100,000 soldiers and troops in Europe, contributing to the security of the eastern flank of NATO. And now we’re going to have two extra members of NATO. Because again, we have shown some leadership and are willing to put our skin in the game in terms of securing our national interests around the world.
VOA: Speaking about the president’s trip to the region. He’s going to Phnom Penh; he’s going to Bali. President Xi Jinping will also be in the region. We don’t know whether President Vladimir Putin will attend in person. What is top of mind for the president for his trip in Asia? What would he consider a successful trip?
Kirby: The president’s looking forward to this, again, because it’s an opportunity to engage with foreign leaders about so many shared challenges that affect all of us. And it’s certainly, I would expect, an opportunity for the president to talk with foreign leaders, too, about the instability in the European continent, thanks to Mr. Putin’s unprovoked war, and the instability that exists now certainly in Northeast Asia with what Kim Jong Un is doing with these provocations, and a chance to get the perspectives of foreign leaders about what collectively the international community can do to try to ease these tensions and to help end this war in Ukraine. So there’s a lot of very practical reasons to go on this trip and to have these conversations, but he’s also looking at an opportunity to talk about shared challenges that all these nations face, whether we agree with them or not on the issues, or even some of the things that are shared, but climate change, pandemics, the, you know, what, when the next one’s going to be and what that’s going to look like and how do we continue to work together to get through COVID, transnational terrorism, food security, that’ll be on the agenda, and that is too a global problem. So, there’s an awful lot on the president’s agenda as he heads into this trip and he’s very much looking forward to it. I’ll end by just saying: It’s also, again, another opportunity to make sure that international partners understand how committed the United States is to our leadership role in the world and how that leadership can actually contribute to everybody’s better security, not just the United States.
VOA: Can you confirm at this point the Biden-and-Xi meeting there?
Kirby: I cannot. There are working-level discussions right now about the potential for a bilateral meeting, but I don’t have anything to report at this time.
VOA: Thank you very much, John Kirby. I’ll see you in the region.
Kirby: I look forward to it. Thank you.