Interview With Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes

John Kerry
Secretary of State
New York City
September 26, 2013

As aired:

NARRATOR: We've just seen breakthroughs in two crises that threaten to drag America into combat. There's a deal to avert a U.S. airstrike on Syria, and there are talks now between the United States and Iran over the Iranian nuclear program. Both happened at the annual United Nations General Assembly and the leader of the American team was Secretary of State John Kerry. He spent last week at the UN and we were with him as war and peace hung in the balance.

On Syria, the U.S. and Russia finally agreed on a UN Security Council resolution to force the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to give up his chemical weapons. Tonight, there are still many questions: Is the Iranian opening real? How did the U.S. make a deal with the Russians? And, what if Assad reneges on turning over his arsenal?

SECRETARY KERRY: (In progress.) Assad has to always know that if he plays games or if he varies from this or if he doesn’t comply, and if ultimately the Security Council gets stuck again and refuses to enforce, then the United States always reserves its prerogatives with respect to its national security interests.

QUESTION: But is this idea of the use of force credible anymore after the enormous opposition you saw from the Congress and from the American people? No one believes that the President would go ahead and use force in Syria.

SECRETARY KERRY: I can assure you this President of the United States is not going to take off the table unilaterally any prerogative that a Commander in Chief has and no one should doubt that.

NARRATOR: The president wants to punish Syria for August 21 when the U.S. says Assad's forces used nerve gas to kill 1,400 citizens – part of a civil war that has killed 100,000 and left 4 million homeless.

SECRETARY KERRY: I believe Assad has lost all moral authority by which any person governs a nation. How can you gas your own people? How can you lob missiles for two years into universities and hospitals and kill innocent women and children, and then turn around and say, “I’m the guy who ought to govern you”?

QUESTION: But this is the man you’re trying to make a deal with on the chemical weapons. If you get that deal, you need him to stay in power.

SECRETARY KERRY: There are two fundamental reasons why Assad made this deal. One is the threat of force by President Obama. There’s no question in my mind that without President Obama’s willingness to take a strike, Assad would never have taken seriously the notion that he was threatened. And number two, the Russians. The Russians made a huge difference here. We thank them and congratulate them. The Russians actually weighed in heavily with Assad, and he knew that one of his principal patrons was saying, “You’ve got to do this.”

QUESTION: The development of the Syria policy has confused a lot of people. On August 30th, you came out and made a full-throated argument for a military strike.

Secretary Kerry: My friends, it matters here if nothing is done.

QUESTION: The next day, the President said, well, wait a minute, I’m going to ask Congress for its authorization. It seemed in that moment that the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.

SECRETARY KERRY: Not in the least. Not in the least. The President came out and announced to the American people, I’ve made a decision. That’s leadership. He said, I believe we need to have a strike.

But he also, exercising his judgment about how the nation ought to make this kind of decision, felt it was the right thing to do to include the Congress after many Congress people in our consultations said, hey, you ought to come to us, you ought to make sure you consult us. So the President did that, and I think that was the appropriate decision.

QUESTION: Was there no tension between the two of you? You had gone and spoken around the world about how the United States had to take military action, and then the President, it appeared, left you twisting in the wind.

SECRETARY KERRY: Scott, let me – that’s mythology and – I mean, believe me: There was not an ounce of tension in this. I thought the President made a courageous decision – not necessarily the easiest way to get to the goal that he was achieving – but a courageous decision, and one in keeping with the Constitution of the United States. And yes, tough debate in the Congress because we’re living through an enormous Iraq hangover. The American people felt betrayed by what happened in Iraq. The evidence wasn’t there. Weapons of mass destruction weren’t there.

So we approached this, learning that lesson, and all of us – the intelligence community, the President, the entire White House staff, State Department – bent over backwards to make sure we were building a case that could not be punctured.

NARRATOR: Despite the case, the president faced opposition. He seemed damned if he did, damned if he didn't, until something unexpected.

QUESTION: The apparent breakthrough on Syria came during a news conference when the CBS News State Department correspondent Margaret Brennan asked you a question.

Margaret Brennan: Is there anything at this point that his government could do or offer that would stop an attack?

Secretary Kerry: Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it.

QUESTION: Was the answer to that question as seat-of-the-pants as it appeared --


QUESTION: -- or did you walk into the room intending to say something like that?

SECRETARY KERRY: I didn’t walk into the room intending to say it because I didn’t know what question I was going to be asked, but I certainly answered it purposefully and intentionally, and Margaret Brennan asked a terrific question. It was a good question. It deserved an honest answer.

NARRATOR: The answer exposed what had been a private Russian proposal. Vladimir Putin, Syria's ally, told President Obama Syria might surrender its chemical arsenal. Kerry went to Geneva to work on details with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

QUESTION: In Geneva, you were supposed to be going into a formal meeting with your counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov, but instead you surprised him at the swimming pool at the hotel.


QUESTION: What was that all about? Why did you make that choice and what did you get out of that?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we got an agreement out of that. I just thought that it was a moment for a little different kind of diplomacy and to be a little more personal and human about it. And he was out there and I took advantage of it, and we just had a relaxed conversation by the pool. Sometimes those things just work better than getting everybody in the room and getting into formal mode and –

QUESTION: And you sat down there by the pool and said, “Now, look –”


QUESTION: “Let’s do this deal.”

SECRETARY KERRY: Let’s get at it. Well, in between each of us fighting for a word, yeah. (Laughter.)

NARRATOR: We noticed his informal side in Geneva when Kerry couldn't hear the translation of a Lavrov statement.

Secretary Kerry: Can you give me the last part of the translation please?

Foreign Minister Lavrov: It was, OK, John, don't worry.

NARRATOR: He said, “It was OK, John, don’t worry.”

Secretary Kerry: You want me to take your word for it? It's a little early for that!

NARRATOR: Kerry's next challenge is to start general peace talks to end the Syrian civil war.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, 100,000 people are dead, the rebels are killing each other because there’s so much disagreement among the rebel groups. How could you possibly get all of those people around a peace table and come up with the kind of compromise that you envision?

SECRETARY KERRY: By having Assad make the decision, if he really cares about his country, that he will not run again. If he were to make that decision, the entire ingredients of Syria would change overnight.

I mean, look, this isn’t easy. I wish there were a better way. Could I snap my fingers and say, “So-and-so won’t be fighting so-and-so”? That would be wonderful, but it doesn’t happen that way.

I agree with you, 100,000 people is – it’s beyond a human tragedy. There will be more. There will be another 100,000 if we don’t work to bring people to the table and try to get a peaceful resolution.

NARRATOR: As we followed Kerry over two weeks we found him a "hands on" diplomat, literally. During the General Assembly the State Department sets up its headquarters in the Waldorf Astoria hotel. And in a hall, we saw a sign of the secretary's crushing schedule. They carry, in alphabetical order, the flags to be set up with each foreign dignitary he meets. There were 59 meetings in five days.

Likely the most important meeting of them all was this: Kerry next to the Iranian foreign minister – the highest level face-to-face talks since the hostage crisis 33 years ago. Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, said last week he will open his nuclear program to inspection if the UN will lift crippling economic sanctions.

SECRETARY KERRY: Iran needs to take rapid steps, clear and convincing steps to live up to the international community’s requirements regarding nuclear programs, peaceful nuclear programs.

QUESTION: Give me an example, one concrete step, one thing that they can do to assure the world that they’re giving up their ambitions.

SECRETARY KERRY: They could immediately open up inspection of the Fordow facility, a secret facility underground in the mountains. They could immediately sign the protocols, the Additional Protocols of the international community regarding inspections. They could offer to cease voluntarily to take enrichment above a certain level because there’s no need to have it at a higher level for a peaceful program.

QUESTION: Enrichment of uranium, which is what happens at Fordow?


QUESTION: Throw the doors open to that place?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that among other things. Look, I believe that we have hopes. President Obama clearly welcomes President Rouhani’s overtures, but words are not going to replace actions. What we need are actions that prove that we and our allies, our friends in the region, can never be threatened by this program.

QUESTION: But the United States would look favorably on relaxing or eliminating the sanctions if the Iranians were serious about abandoning their nuclear weapon?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the United States is not going to lift the sanctions until it is clear that a very verifiable, accountable, transparent process is in place whereby we know exactly what Iran is going to be doing with its program. And if it does, of course.

QUESTION: Rouhani said he’d like to have a deal in three to six months. Is that possible?

SECRETARY KERRY: Sure it’s possible. It’s possible to have a deal sooner than that, depending on how forthcoming and clear Iran is prepared to be. We need to have a good deal here, and a good deal means that it is absolutely accountable, failsafe in its measures to make certain this is a peaceful program. If it is a peaceful program and we can all see that, the whole world sees that, the relationship with Iran can change dramatically for the better and it can change fast.

NARRATOR: A month ago, both diplomatic breakthroughs would have seemed impossible. But now the hard part begins. Will Iran truly open its program? Will Syria stick to the deal? And with a nation weary of war how far is the U.S. willing to go?

QUESTION: The entire world watched this debate in the United States about whether we would attack Syria, and saw the opposition to that idea. For our friends and foes around the world who now believe that the U.S. military is sidelined, you would say what?

SECRETARY KERRY: The United States military is far from sidelined. We will continue to stand up for our interests in every part of the world where we have articulated them. And I’ll give you an example. The President of the United States has made it crystal clear: Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.

Now, we want to solve that problem peacefully. We are grateful to President Rouhani and to the Supreme Leader for their expression that they too want to resolve this. And by far, that is the preferential way to proceed. But no one in the world should misinterpret this President’s preparedness or any willingness of the Congress of the United States to protect the security interests of the United States.

PRN: 2013/1218