Interview With David Gregory of Meet the Press

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Geneva, Switzerland
November 10, 2013

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, welcome back to Meet the Press.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Good to be with you, David.

QUESTION: The bottom-line goal here is to prevent Iran from producing or acquiring a nuclear bomb. You have said that in the interim, you want a complete halt on their weapons program. Clearly, there’s not a deal yet; they are not in a position to give in to that demand. Is that a fair statement?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. I think it’s a question, David, of working out the modalities by which it will be done, by which it can be verified, the ways in which you have a set of guarantees that make absolutely certain that the goal of the President – to make certain that Iran never has a nuclear weapon – can be achieved.

The first effort is to try to achieve it, obviously, peacefully. And you try to use and exhaust diplomacy in order to do that, but the President has taken no option off the table in the matter.

QUESTION: But it sounds like something broke down here because there was such anticipation that you were very close to a deal. The reporting is that the French thought it wasn’t tough enough on the Iranians. And you know the history – as the Israeli Prime Minister called Rouhani as a wolf in sheep’s clothing – that this is what they do. They double play; they play for time; while they keep producing, they try to win the confidence of the West, and they can play games. Is that what there is fear around the table that they’re doing now?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, no, that is not the fear around the table. And I’d say a number of nations – not just the French, but ourselves and others – wanted to make sure that we had the tough language necessary, the clarity in the language necessary, to be absolutely certain that we were doing the job and not granting more or doing something sloppily that could wind up with a mistake. This is serious business, and I think every country came there – this is the first time that the P5[1] had come together with this kind of a serious set of possible options in front of it, with a new Iranian government. Remember that the – that this has changed since the election. This is a new overture, and it has to be put to the test very, very carefully.

QUESTION: So – but here’s my bottom-line question --

SECRETARY KERRY: So I think there was unity there, David, with respect to getting it right. And we always said – President Obama has been crystal clear – don’t rush, we’re not in a rush, we need to get the right deal, no deal is better than a bad deal. And we are certainly adhering to that concept.

QUESTION: Let me play you a comment that I think gets to the ultimate question of what does it mean to get it right. What is the bottom-line demand of the United States? The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been outspoken about this this week. He was on this program late last month and this is what he said about the prospect of a deal with Iran. I want you to listen and I’ll get your reaction on the other side.

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: I think the pressure has to be maintained on Iran, even increased on Iran, until it actually stops the nuclear program – that is, dismantles it. I think that any partial deal could end up in dissolving the sanctions. There are a lot of countries that are waiting for a signal – just waiting for a signal – to get rid of their sanctions regime.

QUESTION: So a couple of points there. You want them to stop their weapons program. Others, like the Israeli Prime Minister, are saying no, they’ve got to dismantle their infrastructure before they get the kind of economic relief that is part of this deal.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not sure that the Prime Minister, who I have great respect for, knows exactly what the amount or the terms are going to be, because we haven’t arrived at them all yet. That’s what we’re negotiating.

And it is not a partial deal. Let me make that crystal clear, as I have to the Prime Minister directly. It is a first step in an effort that will lock the program in where it is today – in fact, set it back – while one negotiates the full deal. And there will not be a relaxation of the pressure. There will – nobody has talked about getting rid of the current architecture of sanctions. The pressure will remain. There will be – hopefully, if this is arrived at – a means of absolutely guaranteeing that while the negotiation on the real endgame takes place, Iran’s program is not going to continue, is not going to grow. It seems to me that Israel is far safer if you make certain that Iran cannot continue the program. Now, every day that we don’t have it, they’re continuing it.

So I think the American people and most people in the world want the President of the United States, with the awesome power that we have, to exhaust all the diplomatic remedies before we resort to the use of military force if we had to.

QUESTION: And nothing is off the table?

SECRETARY KERRY: That option is not off the table. Nothing is off the table, David.

QUESTION: But here’s the question.


QUESTION: If the only reason they’re coming to the table now is because they feel the economic pain of sanctions --


QUESTION: -- it’s not just the Israelis, it’s the Saudis, it’s Republicans in Congress who have said --


QUESTION: -- if that’s the only reason they’re coming to the table, what’s the rush? Why not increase that economic pressure so you get not just a halt, but actually get a dismantlement of the architecture, which is the goal the President seeks?

SECRETARY KERRY: Because the President believes, as I do, that the pressure exists today, which is why they’re willing to negotiate. I mean, look, I was there and I voted for these sanctions. We voted for these sanctions in order to bring Iran to the negotiating table. Now that they’re there, you have to act in some good faith in an effort to be able to move towards the goal you want to achieve. If, as their act of good faith, they freeze their program and allow us absolutely unprecedented access to inspection and to other things – I’m not going to go into the list – but if they do the things that we believe is necessary so that we can guarantee we know what is happening and we can move it back, while we negotiate the endgame, it seems to me you’ve got to do something that indicates your good faith.

Now, we’re not – the President has made it clear – he will not reduce or change the overall core architecture of the oil sanctions, banking sanctions. Iran will still be under enormous pressure, precisely to complete the task. So I think there’s a lot of hype and an awful lot of speculation about what is going on here when all that is happening is an effort through the sanctions Congress put in place to get negotiations, when those negotiations hopefully produce an actual result. That’s what we want to have happen.

QUESTION: But as America’s chief diplomat, are you being skeptical enough about a man who has been called a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who wrote a book in which he talked about how they can continue work on their nuclear program while they gain confidence of the West – basically played games with the West? Are you being skeptical enough?

SECRETARY KERRY: David, some of the most serious and capable, expert people in our government, who have spent a lifetime dealing both with Iran as well as with nuclear weapons and nuclear armament and proliferation, are engaged in our negotiation. We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid. I think we have a pretty strong sense of how to measure whether or not we are acting in the interests of our country and of the globe, and particularly of our allies like Israel and Gulf states and others in the region.

We are absolutely determined that this would be a good deal or there’ll be no deal. Now, that’s why it’s hard. That’s why we didn’t close the deal here in the last couple days, because we are together unified, pushing for things that we believe provide the guarantees that Israel and the rest of the world demand here.

But one thing is clear, is that we’re not going into a full deal and giving away something. We’re talking about stopping their program where it is, with enough guarantees to know that it is in fact stopped where it is, while we then negotiate the full measure of the deal with our allies, with our friends, with all of the interested parties, advising at the table, consulting, and their interests well represented.

QUESTION: There is a broader criticism that goes beyond this that no doubt you’ve confronted in your extensive travels throughout that region. And let me sum it up this way. It amounts to this criticism that the President appears reluctant to exercise power on the world stage. It’s not just Israel. It’s Egypt. It’s Saudi Arabia. There’s a feeling that the U.S. has abandoned critical friends in that region, in part because you’re moving toward a deal with Iran which could provide them tremendous economic relief when, at the same time, critics would say their major client, Syria, has gotten a pass to murder their own people as long as they don’t use chemical weapons, so that all of this is amounting to this reluctance to really exercise U.S. power. That is my description of that criticism, and please respond to it.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me respond very directly to it, David. I couldn’t disagree with it more. The President of the United States made his decision. He decided to use military force in Syria. He also made a decision to respect the requests of many members of Congress to come to them. And guess what? When he did, it was the members of Congress, as you know better than anybody, who balked very significantly, with the exception of the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate, which took the lead. But the House clearly indicated a very, very strong reluctance to be engaged. The President, before he had to make a decision of whether or not he would use force anyway, succeeded in getting an arrangement with Russia to remove the chemical weapons altogether. That would never have happened – that deal would never have come about if the President had not made his decision to use force.

The President used force in Libya. The President has been willing and made it clear that he is prepared to use force with respect to Iran’s weapon, and he has deployed the forces and the weapons necessary to achieve that goal if it has to be achieved.

QUESTION: And yet there’s an AP headline tonight --

SECRETARY KERRY: And the President – let me just finish.


SECRETARY KERRY: The President has continued in Afghanistan. He has sought a security agreement in Afghanistan that is in the throes of being agreed on, that will continue American presence to complete the task in Afghanistan.

I just think that we can’t let mythology and politics start to cloud reality here. This President has made it clear. And he’s also the President who has prosecuted al-Qaida with an intensity, and terrorists generally with an intensity unprecedented and way beyond the last administration.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, a final question before you go. You gave some comments in light of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy to NBC News that have now been widely broadcast and reported on. And in those comments, you said this: “To this day, I have serious doubts that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.” That certainly would be surprising to a lot of people that those are your views. Would you care to elaborate?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. (Laughter.) I just have a point of view. And I’m not going to get into that. It’s not something that I think needs to be commented on, and certainly not at this time.

QUESTION: Do you think that conspiracy theories – his involvement with Russia, motivation from the Soviet Union or Cuba – are valid at some level?

SECRETARY KERRY: David, I’m not going to go into it. It’s just inappropriate and I’m not going to do more than say that it’s a point of view that I have. But it’s not ripe or worthy or appropriate for me to comment further.

QUESTION: All right. Mr. Secretary, we thank you for your time very much.




[1] P5+1

PRN: 2013/T17-20