Following is a rush transcript of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on tonight's "Hardball with Chris Matthews." Sen. Kerry discusses the protests in Iran and President Obama's stance on them, saying "this is an Iranian moment, not an American moment, and we need to have the discipline, the restraint, the maturity to stand back from this as the Iranians proceed."
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: Senator Kerry, John McCain, your colleague, has been critical of the president for not speaking out and joining the protests in the streets of Tehran. What's your view?
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: My view is that the president has clearly spoken out. He spoke in Cairo as clearly as any president ever has about the prospects for democracy, for the possibilities of a different future. And I think he's been very, very clear. But for the president to step into the middle of what the Iranians appear to be handling for themselves would be a mistake, because it would give to the hardliners the ability to be able to use the president and the West as an excuse.
We've seen what hard-line rhetoric has gotten us over the last eight years, Chris. It's created an Iran that's more powerful in the region, an Iran that's been more reluctant to engage with the rest of the world. The president has opened up new possibilities. I think even the elections in Lebanon a week ago showed the results that come from a different kind of diplomacy. And we need to let the president pursue that.
MATTHEWS: Do you think we're kidding anyone, though -- don't they know, on the Ahmadinejad side over there, the government side and the ayatollahs' side -- that we're rooting for the opposition? Don't they...
KERRY: They don't have any...
MATTHEWS: Don't they...
KERRY: They don't have any illusions about it, but that's very different from overt activities that they can then turn around. Just the other day, the foreign ministry attacked the United States in trying to allege that it's U.S. meddling that is part of what has created this election uproar. We want the Iranians to carry this. This is an Iranian moment, not an American moment, and we need to have the discipline, the restraint, the maturity to stand back from this as the Iranians proceed.
We, obviously, can express our support for their efforts in personal ways and in other ways. The president has already questioned the election. There's no doubt in anybody's mind about where our sympathies lie. But we need to allow the Iranians to really -- to take a hold of this. And that's part of what's giving it all the extra power that it has on a global basis.
MATTHEWS: Are those people in the streets -- they seem highly educated. They seem sophisticated. Are they on our side or where are they in this fight...
KERRY: I don't think...
MATTHEWS: ...between Iraq -- Iran and us?
KERRY: I don't think anybody can accurately say that. I mean, some are. Some aren't. What they are for is -- is an accountable process in their own country and one that begins to take them in a different direction. I don't think anybody can say with certainty where that is. Most polls have shown that Iranians are overwhelmingly supportive of the nationalistic sort of right that is expressed in their nuclear program.
So how this translates, ultimately, I don't think anybody can say. What is important is that Ahmadinejad and the current regime have really oppressed people in a way that has restrained their ability to live their lives in a way that I think they want to. And I think that's a lot of what is being expressed in the current ferment in the streets in -- in Iran.
MATTHEWS: Well, the president said there's really very little difference between the two sides in that fight over there. Do you think there's no difference?
KERRY: No, I don't completely agree with the president on that part of it. I do think there's a difference. There's already some clear stated differences between Mr. Moussavi and where he wants to go. There's not -- I think what the president is really talking about, though, is not a clarity as to where they might be with respect to the nuclear program and some of the Iranian foreign policy issues. On that, he may be closer to correct than -- than not.
MATTHEWS: Do you think there's something happening over there that surprises us? It sort of surprises me watching it. You're the expert. Are you surprised at this tremendous out -- outburst of demand for real democracy in Iran?
KERRY: I am a little bit surprised by the extent of it. We've all known that there was a level of it there. But the degree to which they have now openly and courageously, notwithstanding some people being shot to death -- and I understand the possibility that the numbers are even greater than we know. And notwithstanding the risks of what they know is a very oppressive capacity within the military, ultimately, the Republican Guard, they're taking great risks.
And it's really an act of enormous courage and I think that's part of what is engaging the world in watching what is happening with such intensity. This -- these are big stakes and it's much bigger in response than anybody might have anticipated.
MATTHEWS: Do you think we should open up some kind of dialogue with Mr. Moussavi himself, no matter what happens in this election?
KERRY: Not at this moment. I don't think it's possible at this moment, anyway. But the answer is no. I think at this particular moment, we have expressed our desire to engage with Iran. The Iranian leadership knows this firsthand. There was a lot of hope that once the election was over, that engagement was going to begin almost as a matter of course.
Now, obviously, there are big question marks hanging over all of that. And the number one security issue in front of the United States and the president is the nuclear program. That is central to resolving the issues of the Middle East, central to Israel's security, central to keeping Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait from engaging in an arms race. So those are the highest stakes here. And I think the president is rightly keeping his eye on those stakes and not diverting into something that the Iranian people seem to be indicating they have the capacity to manage for themselves.
MATTHEWS: OK, thank...
KERRY: So I think the president has struck the right note here.
MATTHEWS: OK. Thank you very much.