Interview With Kim Ghattas of the BBC

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
November 11, 2013

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for speaking to the BBC. You’ve just come from Geneva where you had talks about Iran’s nuclear program. How close did you get to a deal? Was it just a few words? Was it just one more day?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we were very, very close, actually, extremely close. I think we were separated by four or five different formulations of a particular concept. But none so terribly that I don’t think it’s possible to reach be able to reach agreement.

QUESTION: You’ve just said that there are reports in the media that make it sound as though it was the French who raised all the objections and that’s what got the negotiations in trouble. But isn’t it fair to say that when you arrived in Geneva on Friday there was more agreement around the draft, and that the Iranians were also more or less on board, and then the French injected some objections which then meant that the Iranians had to go back to Tehran to consult back with the capital?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, we had bracketed language. In fairness, in honesty, we had bracketed language which we arrived at. The Iranians had objections to certain parts of the language themselves which we had to work out and we had to negotiate. So there was still open negotiating beyond whatever the British or the French or the Germans or anybody else brought to the table. Obviously, the French have been more vocal about one thing or another, but the fact is that we had a unity on Saturday in a proposal put in front of the Iranians. But because of some the changes they felt they had to go back and change it.

So we achieved unity. And we achieved, I think, a reasonable proposal that protected the interests that we’re seeking to protect, while recognizing this was a first step, not an agreement. The hardest part of this comes after the first step. But I was pleased with the amount of work done and we will just continue to work. That’s the nature of diplomacy.

QUESTION: Did your Iranian counterparts feel disappointed that it didn’t reach agreement by the end? It felt as though the Iranians were keen to rush to the finish line, at least for this interim agreement.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think they’re anxious to reach an agreement in the sense that their sanctions are very, very difficult and it’s creating difficulties at home. They have some priorities. I don’t want to speculate about their negotiating strategy or anything; I think they have a right to define that for themselves.

What’s important is that we had unity about a way to proceed forward. We presented it. They need to contemplate it, look at it, evaluate it. Our teams need to continue to work, and hopefully the world will be served. I mean, this is not something we’re doing because it’s nice. This is something we’re doing because the world wants to know that we’re not going to have another country with nuclear weapons, that they’re not going to threaten the region.

We obviously want to protect the interests of the near neighbors: Israel, Jordan, Turkey, the other countries that do not want to see an Iranian nuclear weapon.

QUESTION: No nuclear weapon for Iran of course – everybody agrees on that – but also, almost everybody agrees, except perhaps for Israel, that Iran will eventually have the ability, the right, to enrich uranium at a low level. Are you already willing to put that as part of the agreement, the end goal with the Iranians?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that’s their goal obviously, and we’re not pre-negotiating what the outcome is going to be in terms of what happens. First of all, there is no right that is specific within the NPT about enrichment. You just heard here Prince Abdallah made it clear that they’ve chosen to have nuclear but not enrich. Others do. Some countries do enrich for various reasons.

What’s critical is you cannot have a nuclear weapons program. It has to be absolutely clear and certain to the world that it is not a nuclear weapons program and that you don’t have the ability to suddenly break out of it and have that kind of a weapon without people knowing it. So there are a whole series of standards that have to be met here. The Iranians know what they are. They’re very, very intelligent and thoughtful about this. And we’re clear that we also understand nuclear technology and what is needed in order to create guarantees.

So we will continue to fight for absolute clarity, absolute transparency, absolute accountability and that will be hard. It will be even harder when you get into negotiating some kind of final status agreement.

QUESTION: But to get to that final status and to keep the Iranians on board in the negotiations at this stage, they need to see that in the end goal they will have the ability and the right, if that’s the right word, to enrich.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, no, "right" is the wrong word. What they have to see is that they – there is a standard by which they might be able to do something, providing they meet certain standards in order to do it. And that’s what you negotiate about.

QUESTION: Are we going to Tehran together in a year from now?

SECRETARY KERRY: I have no idea where I’m going next week, let alone – or two weeks from now – let alone a year from now. Our hope for the long-term future is, obviously, to have a region that is peaceful and stable. It will take time to work through differences that have been very difficult. Look, we haven’t been speaking for 35 years. We just talked more in 30 hours than he have in those prior 30 years.

So this is a beginning of a process --

QUESTION: And it’s only the second round.

SECRETARY KERRY: And this is – that’s correct. So we’re really just getting at it, but we made a lot of progress about a first step. Not a partial agreement, a first step. And we go from there if we get there.

QUESTION: You’re very focused now on the details of the nuclear discussion, but those talks also have the potential of transforming the relationship between the U.S. and Iran, and there’s a lot more at stake than just Iran’s nuclear program. There is geopolitics --


QUESTION: -- a rivalry in the region.


QUESTION: How do you deal with something like Hezbollah, for example, which sounds to me as though it could be one of the sticking points in the larger discussion with Iran?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re not there. We’re not in a larger discussion. We’re not having a geopolitical conversation right now. Obviously, there are a lot of issues. We view Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. It is a client, if you will, of Iran. It’s a real problem. Hezbollah is a serious problem. But those are issues wrapped up in other geopolitical considerations of the region. Obviously, we’re dealing with the Middle East peace process, other things. Right now, the focus with Iran is Iran’s nuclear plan.

And I’ll tell you again -- because I think it’s important for people in the region to know -- whatever arrangement we arrive at, it’s not going to change our fundamentals, our alliances, our friendships. It’s not going to come at the expense of a relationship with the Arab Emirates or with Saudi Arabia or other countries. We know where we stand with those nations. We’ve been working together for a long time. We are friends. And they don’t have to fear that our discussion with Iran is somehow going to upset the strength of those relationships.

QUESTION: But does Hezbollah – does the conflict in Syria come up with Mr. Zarif when you’re sitting there for 30 hours in Geneva?

SECRETARY KERRY: We have not discussed – I think we spent 30 seconds on Syria, both agreeing it’s a very serious issue, it needs to be resolved, and that’s it. No geopolitical discussions have taken place because we are focused really intensely and exclusively on the nuclear program.

QUESTION: But if you make progress with Iran on the nuclear file, how do you think that impacts your efforts to bring a resolution to the conflict in Syria?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don't know. I mean, honestly, I don’t think anybody has any idea. That would depend on a lot of different things. One step at a time here.

Iran certainly has a huge ability to play an impact on Syria. Iran could be – make a very significant statement about its real intentions for the future if it were to sort of change its tune and help find a solution. That would be a very significant contribution. Again, it doesn’t at the expense of other relationships, but I think everybody would love to see Iran rejoin the community of nations and be a constructive contributor to things, but not at the expense of other relationships and of other people’s interests and values.

QUESTION: Staying with Syria, most people in the region believe that President Assad will only leave power if there is credible threat of use of force against him. You kind of missed that opportunity in September.

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I just don’t agree with that at all. The strike that the President was contemplating and we made very clear at the time, was not a regime-change strike. It was calculated to affect his judgment and – about chemical weapons, to degrade his ability to use them, and his willingness to use them. In effect, we succeeded in getting all of – or we’re getting all of those weapons out. We’re working to do that so we have an even better outcome than you might have had with that particular strike.

But the President is committed and there are major efforts taking place with support to the opposition now to see that Assad goes, that Assad is not part of the future governance of Syria, because – not – because Assad cannot possibly govern the country. He can’t end the war. If Assad is there, the people who oppose him will continue to fight. And so it’s reached a point where, if you want peace and you want stability, you have to find a way to get to Geneva 1, which is the transition government. And there’s no way, since it is a transition government arrived at by mutual consent, there’s no way people are going to consent to Assad being in the transition government.

Now, this has to be handled in the context of a negotiation. They’re not demanding that he go first, which they had previously. They’re coming to the conversation, but with the understanding that it is a conversation about implementing a transition government per the agreement that the Russians, the United States, the European community, others in the Arab world all signed on to, which is the peaceful resolution of Syria. That’s what Geneva 2 is about, and we have to go there with hopes that it could conceivably be implemented.

QUESTION: And very quickly, one last question about a very different topic. In light of all the revelations about the NSA activities, what’s your interaction been like with your foreign counterparts, specifically with your European counterparts? You just sat with them for hours.

SECRETARY KERRY: Very respectful and very understanding that we’re all trying to find a way forward that respects privacy, respects rights, that we’re all engaged in a fight against terrorism, that we need to find a way to do that in a way that doesn’t interfere with people. Everybody has a common goal here and we’re going to work towards it. The President has ordered a full review of what we’re doing. People understand that the President didn’t order all these things. This is not – this happened over a long period of time. It’s been an evolutionary process, and we now need to define it more effectively, and that’s what the President’s setting out to do.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

PRN: 2013/T17-22