Jake Tapper’s Exclusive Interview with Secretary of State John Kerry
JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: Good to be with you.
TAPPER: So you’ve been secretary of State for a year.
What’s been the most surprising thing about the job?
KERRY: I — I think just the sheer intensity of the number of issues coming at us all at one time on a global basis. A lot of transformation, a lot of challenge in the world, a lot of upheaval. And all of it affects our interests, you know.
TAPPER: So let’s start with one of them…
TAPPER: The director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said that Bashar al-Assad in Syria has been strengthened since the chemical weapons deal. The United Nations says that Assad’s regime is torturing children. He seems to be — Assad seems to be slow-walking the chemical weapons process and those are only the weapons that he’s acknowledged he has, not other ones that he might be stockpiling, according to other reports.
Hasn’t the policy in Syria failed?
KERRY: No, the policy in Syria is just very challenging and very difficult. And we know that.
TAPPER: How (INAUDIBLE)?
KERRY: Well, let me — let me lead you into that, Jake, because it’s an important question and an important policy.
First of all, the chemical weapons agreement is, in and of itself, a significant milestone. And it is progressing. Yes, it’s been slowed down a little bit in the last month, but we have been raising that profile of questions about it and I think it’s now speeding up again.
We’re now getting indications that there will be a target date, specifically, to meet it, that they’re accelerating, that they understand the world is really watching this.
So our pressure has helped to guarantee that.
But more importantly, what Jim Clapper is saying and what everybody would acknowledge, is that a lot has happened since the time of the potential strikes. The president of the United States made his decision to strike. He announced it publicly. That is, in fact, a significant point of leverage that helped to bring about the agreement to get the chemical weapons out.
Now, before we got that agreement, Assad was using those weapons against his people. Now he’s not and he can’t.
So we have eliminated a critical, grotesque tool that this man was willing to use ruthlessly against his own people. And we’re moving it out.
Secondly, what else happened that has had an impact is that, number one, you had a rise in terrorists coming to the country. You had fighting between the opposition, which detracted from their efforts to go after Assad. And you had an increase in Hezbollah and IRGC from Iran.
It’s principally Hera — Hezbollah and IRGC that have made the greatest difference for Assad.
Now, I would describe the situation simply that Assad is not winning, but he’s also not losing. It’s sort of a stalemate at this moment. And there is increased capacity in some of the opposition. There is continued fighting among some other of the opposition.
TAPPER: So you disagreed with Clapper when he said that?
KERRY: Well, that’s not — no, he didn’t say because of the deal, he said…
TAPPER: No, since the deal.
KERRY: — since the deal. No, I agree, since the deal, there has been a, um, because of the IRGC, Hezbollah principally, because of some of the fighting between — the infighting between the opposition, it’s fair to say that Assad has improved his position a little bit, yes.
But he’s still not winning. This is a stalemate. And there is no military solution. Everybody who has anything to do with this agrees there is no military solution.
So what have we been doing?
We pulled together at our initiation together with the Russians, a conference that took place in Geneva that is still ongoing.
In the first round, 40 nations came together, more than 40 nations, all but one of whom said Assad is going to have to leave because you can’t govern Syria with Assad there.
Secondly, you had the opposition sitting opposite the regime for the first time ever.
Thirdly, you had the opposition actually behaving much more effectively and more statesmanlike than the regime. I think the Russians were even embarrassed by the Syrian presentation there.
And now, there is a renewed focus on what the purpose of that meeting was, which is the implementation of a transition government under Geneva 1.
They will come back in a few days to Geneva, resume the conversation, not just, you know, I — I don’t want to make any excuse whatsoever. We want this to move faster. We want it to do better.
But I remember talks around Vietnam, where it took Henry Kissinger a year to get the size and shape of the table decided. It took another several years before they even came to some kind of an agreement.
I don’t want it to be years. We don’t have years in Syria. But the point I’m making is that diplomacy is tough, slogging, slow work and hard work. But we’re beginning to see the — the shaping of how you might potentially get somewhere. And we are always in the process of reevaluating whether there’s more we can do, should do.
We’ll work with Congress. We’re working internally to figure out if we should, if there’s a way to get more response from the Russians, more response from Assad.
TAPPER: Let’s talk about recalibrating and figuring out if there’s more that — that can be done to — to encourage Assad to actually abide by the agreement and to stop slaughtering and torturing children.
You, it’s no secret, were advocating for — for want of a better term, a — a more muscular way of dealing with this, providing different kinds of aid to the rebels, providing weapons, in some cases, to the rebels. And your advocacy, ultimately was not what President Obama decided to do.
KERRY: No, I…
TAPPER: You disagree with this?
KERRY: (INAUDIBLE). Yes, I do. I — I — I don’t want to go into details. I’m not free to go into all the details. But I will say to you that the president has taken an aggressive position. There are things the United States is — is doing right now and everybody knows we are providing non-lethal assistance to the opposition in significant amounts. We are the largest single donor with respect to the humanitarian crisis on the ground. We have taken the leadership with respect to bringing our allies together in efforts to be able to coordinate the operations that are taking place there.
And as I said to you, the president is always reevaluating this. And he is looking now, increasingly, at everybody’s growing concerns about the number of outside, foreign fighters, terrorists, who are entering into Syria, some of whom are now even threatening the United States of America.
So this is an ongoing process, Jake. And I think it’s unfair. The president is extremely focused on it and we are constantly in a discussion in the national security team about next steps, additional steps, what we can do.
But I assure you, the United States is doing a great deal and is directly involved with our allies, the Saudis, the Emiratis, the Turks, the Qataris, the Jordanians in thinking about and implementing measures to have an impact.
TAPPER: I understand you’re the nation’s top diplomat and so you’re being diplomatic and that’s not a surprise. But — but it’s not a secret that you have told members of Congress behind closed doors that you have grave concerns that maybe more needs to be done.
KERRY: Well, I — but…
KERRY: — that’s — you know, the president has said the same thing. I mean this is not a divergence. And we have testified, the administration has testified on the Hill to that effect. There’s no secret that we’re looking for ways to continue to have a — a decisive impact on Assad’s thinking about what his future is and also on other people’s thinking about how they can contribute, particularly the Russians and Iranians.
TAPPER: Let’s talk about the Iranians. The Iranians are telling their public that this deal is not that big a deal, what they’ve agreed to do, that they could undo it within a day.
Rouhani went to Davos and basically said, we’re open for business in Iran. The French, the Turks, they have been sending — it’s not trade missions, but they have almost been sending trade missions looking to do more business.
Have we been played?
KERRY: Not in the least. Not even by a close margin. In fact, I — you know, look, I think the Iranians naturally are going to go home and say what you’ve just said.
TAPPER: Sure, but to the world and the Turks and the French?
KERRY: No. They — Iran is not open for business. And Iran knows it’s not open for business. We have announced increased sanctions against particular companies since this agreement was reached. We have told the Iranians that we will continue to apply the — the sanctions. And we have made it clear to every other country that the sanctions regime remains in place.
So while the French may send some businesspeople over there, they’re not able to contravene the sanctions. They will be sanctioned if they do and they know it. And we’ve put them on notice.
But there are countries that are allowed to do certain kinds of business. There’s a list of items where you can’t do business, but there are some places where you can do business.
So that’s not going to stop. People are going to continue to do what they’re allowed to do. But nobody should doubt for an instant that the United States is prepared to enforce V.A. the sanctions that exist. And all of our allies are in agreement that those sanctions are staying in place until or unless there is a deal.
TAPPER: Do you trust Rouhani?
KERRY: It’s not a matter of trust. There’s nothing that we’re doing that is based on trust. Everything that we’re doing is based on verification, on specific steps.
Let me — let me give you an — I mean let me be very specific to the American people and the world, who listen to CNN, about what this agreement does.
This agreement takes Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent uranium and they have to reduce it to zero. They have to get rid of it. They’re not allowed to grow their 3.5 percent stockpile of uranium, not at all. They cannot do anything except replace an existing centrifuge. They can’t put in new centrifuges. They have to literally stop the construction of their heavy water reactor.
They have to allow inspection of the Fordow underground facility and of the Natanz nuclear plant. They didn’t have to do that before.
Now, we have people in there every single day. We — we — we’ve actually frozen their program in place and have rolled it back to the degree that they’re destroying some of their stockpile.
So I can absolutely sit here and look you in the eye and I’ve looked Prime Minister Netanyahu in the eye and said, I believe Israel and the region are safer today then they were before we made this agreement because the program is stopped and rolled back and we have greater insight and accountability into the program.
Now, that’s for the next six months only. If — if — if there isn’t an agreement, we have the right to extend, if we thought we were making progress. But if there isn’t an agreement, every option, including increased sanctions or anything else is available to the president of the United States.
So we have given up absolutely nothing here. The sanctions regime is still sequestering billions of dollars that could have gone to the Iranians that is not going to them, that will sit in banks, held unavailable to the Iranians, even while we are negotiating this program.
So I — you know, I think that it’s very clear, we’ve done what’s appropriate. Now, we’re not trying to — you know, we’re trying to get an agreement. We’re not trying to do something here at this point in time that ends the possibility of getting that.
And so, of course, there’s a little bit of give and there was some relaxation of a little bit of the money in order to show good faith that we’re prepared to negotiate this.
TAPPER: You’re a former senator. All of your colleagues — and I’m not just talking about the Republicans — the Democrats, too. And I’m not just talking about conservative Democrats, I’m talking about people such as Senator Menendez, who holds the position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that you used to hold…
TAPPER: — the chairmanship.
TAPPER: Are very skeptical of this deal. They want more sanctions on Iran.
TAPPER: Are they just wrong?
KERRY: I believe it’s a mistake now to break faith with a negotiating process when you’re in the middle of the process. The United States of America agreed, together with our P5-plus-1 allies, with Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Germany, all of them agreed that during the time we’re negotiating, we would not increase sanctions.
Now, our word has to mean something, too. If we’re going to negotiate, we don’t want to be responsible for now creating a dynamic where we destroy the negotiations…
KERRY: — so they can blame us for not getting there.
TAPPER: Let me just…
KERRY: For Jake. The — the bottom line is, we’re not losing anything here. If the Iranians do not produce the agreement necessary, then we can put sanctions in in 12 hours, five hours. Congress will pass it like that. We can have new sanctions.
But we don’t want to break our word in the middle of the negotiations.
We also have other alternatives available to us. We’ve lost nothing off the table but we want to give diplomacy a chance. And we think that’s worthwhile.
TAPPER: You mentioned Israel before. You’ve devoted a great deal of your time toward the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. You recently made a comment in which you said if the peace process did not go forward, you thought that efforts like the boycott against Israel would intensify.
A lot of very harsh, very personal attacks on you from Israel, from Israeli politicians about that remark.
I’m wondering, A, if you could clarify what you meant about the Israeli boycott, if you support in all — at all a divestment and boycott of Israel.
And, B, what’s your response to these very harsh attacks from our allies, the Israelis?
KERRY: Well, Jake, first of all my comments need to be properly represented, not distorted. I did not do anything except cite what other people are talking about as a problem, but I also have always opposed boycotts. I have — in fact, I even traveled to Vilnius recent — in — in the last months, to meet with 28 foreign ministers of the European Union to argue with them against taking any measures against Israel in order to give us the space to be able to negotiate.
So I have been crystal clear for all of my Senate record. I have a 100 percent voting record in support of Israel for 29 years in the United States Senate.
Unfortunately, there are some people in Israel and in Palestine and in the Arab world and around the world who don’t support the peace process. There are specifically some people who don’t support two states. There are some people who don’t want any restraint on settlements whatsoever.
There are different people here. And I don’t want to get into — I think what’s important is to look at the positive side of this, which is the majority of the people in Israel, the majority of the Palestinians, the majority of the people in the region believe in peace and want peace and believe peace will strengthen everybody.
The United States of America, through President Obama and his direction and his policy, is absolutely committed, ironclad, to the security of Israel. And Israel needs to understand, we will always stand by its security needs.
But no one should distort what we’re doing or saying because they’re opposed to the peace process or don’t like two states or whatever. And, you know, words — I — I have to tell you, my friend, I — I’ve been, quote, “attacked” before by people using real bullets, not words. And I am going to be intimidated. I am not going to stand down with respect to President Obama’s commitment to try to find peace in the Middle East.
And we will always stand by Israel’s security and we will always try to be fair in our efforts to achieve a balanced final status agreement between the parties.
It’s between the parties, not us. They’re the ones who have to negotiate. And we’re doing everything in our power to encourage them to stay at the table, negotiate these difficult issues and — and try and change this dynamic that has plagued the region for too many years and has left Israelis dying and under siege from Gaza and other places.
We want that to change. And that’s what we’re working at.
TAPPER: First of all, I — I — we’ve gotten a very mixed response from lawmakers and even from the president when it comes to the safety and security at Sochi. I asked the president last week, would he be willing to recommend to friends of his daughter’s if they wanted to go. He said that he would never discourage anybody, but there’s risk at an event and he recommended that people check in with the State Department.
Other lawmakers have said they wouldn’t send their children at all.
But since President Obama said check in with the State Department before you go to Sochi, let me check in with you.
Is it safe to go?
And what should people do who are going to — to be extra safe?
KERRY: Well, I believe that anybody who wants to go to the Olympics, which are just a great event, should go. And we’re not telling people not to go. I think it will be as safe as you can make any large public event, in a place where, obviously, we all know there — there have been some threats of late.
But there are — we have cooperated enormously. Our diplomatic security people are on the ground there. We’ve been there for some period of time. We’ve been working on this, leading up to it, for a long period of time. We have 140 personnel, government personnel, representing FBI, Department of Homeland Security, diplomatic security, consular affairs, embassy, military, all working under the same roof in a coordinated way with the Russians.
We’re evaluating everything very, very carefully. We have all kinds of security measures in place. Our people have been accredited appropriately by the Russians and the Olympic Committee.
We feel that everything has been done that can be done to try to guarantee people’s safety and security. And we ask people, we simply alert them that — that as we would anywhere where they’re in a large public space where there are threats that people make that, you know, are sort of out there floating around, just take precautions. Be careful. Think about where you are, just as we did, always, in America post-9/11. We’ve got a new consciousness about this.
But we are looking forward to a good Olympics. We wish the Russians well and the world well with what is an international global event of enormous importance to a lot of people and we believe if anybody wants to go, they should go.
There’s a way they can sign in with the State Department. We have a program, the Step Program, where they sign in. They can get any kind of notices or be in touch with us in the event of any kind of emergency. And we welcome people contacting the State Department Web site and I’m confident that anybody who travels there, we hope they’re going to have a great experience.
And we obviously hope that the security measures that have been taken are up to the task.
TAPPER: There’s a lot of talk about two of your colleagues, your predecessor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Joe Biden, possibly running for president in 2016.
TAPPER: Is that something you would ever consider doing again?
KERRY: One of — one of the joys of this job is I’m out of politics.
KERRY: I’m out of politics. I have no plans whatsoever. This is my last stop. I’m going to serve the country in the extraordinarily privileged position the president has given me, the great challenges that I have and move on. And I don’t have to comment and won’t comment on anybody contemplating a run for office anywhere.
TAPPER: I would like you to comment on how Teresa is doing, since she had a stroke…
KERRY: She’s doing better, thanks for asking. She’s working at you know, getting her stamina back and — and her strength. And she’s doing well.
Thanks for asking.
TAPPER: It may come that the Italians come to you and say, we really would like Amanda Knox to come back to this country to serve a sentence. It certainly looks like the justice system is going in that direction.
Would you entertain that request?
KERRY: Well, we’ll see Jake, what happens. It’s an ongoing legal process. There’s nothing in front of us now and I don’t have to comment on it now and I’m not going to.
We’ll let the legal process work out. And if and when the time comes that there is a reason that I have to comment, I’ll do my duty.
TAPPER: Appreciate it.
Thank you so much.
KERRY: Thank you.