Video: Exclusive: Vieira interviews Bill Clinton

msnbc.com news services
updated 9/21/2006 10:07:55 AM ET 2006-09-21T14:07:55

Former President Clinton said Thursday the U.S. should try talking to Iran about its nuclear weapons ambitions without imposing a lot of conditions. Separately, he weighed in on U.S. policy on the treatment of terrorism suspects and said torture was wrong.

“If you think you might have trouble with somebody, and God forbid if you think it could lead to a military confrontation, then there needs to be the maximum amount of contact beforehand,” Clinton said, referring to Iran, in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show.

The Bush administration has refused to hold direct talks with Iran until it agrees to suspend enrichment of uranium, which the U.S. fears will be used to build nuclear weapons.

“The United States should not be afraid to talk to anyone. They should not be reluctant and shouldn’t have too many conditions,” said Clinton, who said his own offer to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s predecessor had been rebuffed.

The U.S. and allies have offered Iran a package of incentives in return for its agreement to stop uranium enrichment. But Iran has given no definitive response and missed an Aug. 31 U.N. Security Council deadline to halt uranium enrichment, which Iran says is for generating electricity.

Iran and the United States have had no direct diplomatic relations since 1979. That’s when Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held its occupants hostage for 444 days to protest Washington’s refusal to hand over the toppled shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

President Bush and Ahmadinejad used separate appearances at the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week to spar over Tehran’s nuclear program, but they avoided any personal contact.

In May, Ahmadinejad sent a letter seeking a debate with Bush, but it was laced with old grievances against America and included a long list of Iranian demands.

Clinton said although he would like to see more negotiation with Iran, Bush’s reluctance to personally meet with Ahmadinejad was understandable.

“I think we should have some contacts with them,” Clinton said. “I’m not sure the president is the place to start.”

Warnings about torture
In a separate interview, Clinton joined a chorus of critics of Bush administration proposals for treating suspected terrorists, saying it would be unnecessary and wrong to give broad approval to torture.

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“You don’t need blanket advance approval for blanket torture,” Clinton told National Public Radio in an interview aired Thursday. He added that any decision to use harsh treatment in interrogating suspects should be subject to court review.

Clinton was president during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and on the USS Cole, all linked to al-Qaida. Critics accused him of doing too little to contain a growing threat of terrorism.

Bush, for his part, wants Congress to narrowly define prisoner protections under the Geneva Conventions and allow a program of CIA interrogations and detentions that critics have said amount to torture.

The White House denies the program involves torture. The U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down Bush’s original plan.

‘How far the CIA can go’
Clinton warned against circumventing international standards on prisoner treatment, citing U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, criticism of treatment at the Guantanamo Bay prison for suspected terrorists and a secret CIA prison system outside the United States.

“The president says he’s just trying to get the rules clear about how far the CIA can go when they’re when they whacking these people around in these secret prisons,” Clinton said in NPR’s “Morning Edition” interview, recorded Wednesday.

“If you go around passing laws that legitimize a violation of the Geneva Convention and institutionalize what happened at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, we’re going to be in real trouble,” he said.

Like other critics, he said information obtained with harsh treatment may be unreliable and adopting abusive practices could lead to captured U.S. troops being subjected to the same.

Even if there were circumstances where such treatment is necessary to prevent an imminent attacks, Clinton said: “You don’t make laws based on that. You don’t sit there and say in general torture’s fine if you’re a terrorist suspect. For one thing, we know we have erred in who was a real suspect.”

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