Roundtable Discussion With Press in Paris

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Chief of Mission Residence
Paris, France
September 15, 2014

SECRETARY KERRY: All right. I want to make – I know we get crunched a little bit, but I really want to lay out some things that I think are very important and then you guys can ask some questions.

Let me begin by saying that I sat in that room today with – how many nations were there? Thirty?

MS. PSAKI: Twenty-six.

SECRETARY KERRY: Twenty-six total?

STAFF: Thirty delegations.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thirty delegations, twenty-six countries. And I looked over across the table and saw the Shia foreign minister – not to be sectarian, but in view of what has happened there – sitting next to the – Barzani chief of staff representing Kurds with a new president of Iraq, with all of these countries assembled in order to focus on ISIL. And I have to tell you, two months ago none of you – most people would not have predicted that was possible. This is an incredible transformation that has taken place through diplomacy over the course of the last two months.

And the – as I said to President Masum today, it was – I pressed on him how we had said look, if you guys can pull this together, if you get the government done, and we kept urging and pushing and working throughout the region. We talked to leaders in every country urging them to urge them to make these decisions. And it’s really the combination of the impact of ISIL in a negative way, the sense everybody has of urgency to move on ISIL and also this moment of opportunity people had to try to solve the problems of Iraq for real and the exhaustion of the divisions of the last few years and the inability to get an oil law and get a fair representation process.

That transformed, folks. This is a huge transformation. And people are so focused on who’s going to strike versus the magnitude of the totality of what is happening here. They formed a government. They witnessed a peaceful transition of power that people said was impossible. They announced a national plan and began implementation that doesn’t just include a national guard force, which in and of itself is significant, but it has other key reforms that are focused on bringing the country together. And already they have begun to try to reintegrate into the Arab community. They weren’t just invited; they were welcomed by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia announced after years of a wall and a level of suspicion that led to just no communication of any real kind, they announced they’re going to open an embassy in Baghdad, right there in Jeddah.

And so the steps that were taken this week by Iraq are – I don’t want to be – I’m not going to be predicting that everything automatically comes together, but this moment, this event, these people coming together both through Jeddah and Paris and the formation of the government and – is very significant in the possibilities it presents. Nothing is done, nothing is fait accompli. But it is a harbinger of possibilities that ought to be getting a little more focus rather than just sort of who’s going to sign on to strike.

Now, let me make it clear: There is much more to this than just a strike, as I said on Face the Nation yesterday. We have ample countries who have offered to be part of a strike, if you need to have a strike, if that’s the decision. And they range from Europe to outside of Europe and outside of the region to the region itself. And while General Allen and the military, the Pentagon, put together an operational plan, I’m – I don’t even know which one is going to be needed and who’s going to do what. I know this: We have the capacity and we have the people prepared to do it.

Now, as I said today – you guys weren’t in there, but I said it in this meeting – the military piece is one piece. It’s one component of this. It’s a critical component, but it’s only one component. And the truth is, equally – probably far more important than the military in the end is going to be what countries are able to do to help Iraq to be able to step up and other places, by the way, to step up and start drying up this pool of jihadis who get seduced into believing there’s some virtue in crossing into Syria to fight or to join ISIL. And a young nine-year-old kid who goes with his father and his mother and holds up the severed head of someone. I mean, that’s just beyond imagination. And what this effort has to do is literally dry up the money, dry up the foreign fighters, prevent the foreign fighters from going home back to various places to do harm. It has to start major efforts to delegitimize ISIS’s claim to some religious foundation for what it’s doing and begin to put real Islam out there and draw lines throughout the region.

And I think this is a wake-up call with respect to that because every Arab leader there today was talking about this, about real Islam and how important the Friday sermons are and where they need to go. Those are critical components of this strategy. Getting logistics, airlift, putting humanitarian assistance in, flying it in, ammunition, equipment, training, advisers – all of these roles are the totality and you have to be able to describe this in a logistic way – in a holistic way.

So this is not the Gulf War of 1991; that’s just not what it is. And it’s not the Iraq War of 2003. For a range of reasons we’re not sending in combat troops. The Iraqis are doing the fighting on the ground. We have the full support and the partnership of the Iraqi Government. That’s a huge difference. We’re not building a military coalition for an invasion. We’re building a military coalition together with all the other pieces for a transformation, as well as for the elimination of ISIL itself. And we are fighting an ideology, not a regime. And we’re fighting this ideology beyond just the bounds of ISIS.

So it’s very, very important in our judgment to sort of broaden the lens as you look at this in terms of coalition support. We’re not asking every country to play a military role. We don’t want every country to play a military role. It’s unmanageable. And we will not be successful with this campaign of kinetic on its own as I’ve said to all of you. So there are multiple lines of effort, and something as simple as preventing somebody from signing up and going is a better mechanism than having to go chase them down in the battlefield.

So these are all the things that we’re going to explore. The team is working overtime right now to try to put all of these things together, and – but I repeat: I have no doubt we will have the capability and the contributions that we need to succeed. Arab countries, European countries, countries in Asia – we had Japan there today; we had China there today; we’ve had other offers, the – and as we get into next week we’ll sort of be laying out for you more sort of who’s there and kind of things that everybody’s going to be doing.

So the President laid out a game plan, obviously, last week in his comments to Congress, and we’re building the team right now at this point in time, and we’re in the phase of determining what each country’s going to do and exactly what the strategy is going to be. John Allen will be – is that known? Can I say that?

MS. PSAKI: Meeting with the President.

SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah. John Allen’s meeting with the President tomorrow morning. Brett McGurk flew back this afternoon to join him. And on Wednesday and Thursday I’ll be testifying before Congress. On Friday we’ll be in New York for the UN Security Council. Next week we have two more meetings on it; one with the President, one with our counterterrorism task force. So it’s an ongoing process and the Jeddah communique which you – which everybody referred to today in their – in the interventions. Everybody referred – thanked Saudi Arabia for its leadership. That represents a document – a fundamental building structure for this across five lines of effort. And then our stops in Baghdad, Cairo, and Ankara all advanced that process, and now today in Paris we had a reaffirmation with even more countries indicating what they’re prepared to do. And I’ve been quite struck by it. The Netherlands, Denmark – I mean, people who were here today had very important contributions to make. So --

MS. PSAKI: Want to take questions?

SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah. That’s basically what I wanted to say, is that I am gratified by the degree to which the Iraqis themselves – I mean, this is a significant part of the story, in my judgment – where decision-making has been hard to find. And Michael, you know the country as well as anybody. You know how confounded and conflicted it has been to try to get decisions on these issues.

Now, they haven’t decided some of the things yet. Those are going to – and I said to President Masum this afternoon – I said, look, I don’t want to be a broken record, but what you do on the oil revenue issue in the next weeks, what you do to implement the national guard, what you do to deal with the constitutional issues and devolution of power – these are really going to define, in the end, what we can do with ISIL. And the strength of this is going to depend not on the strength of the coalition per se; it’s going to depend on the strength of the Iraqi Government. And it’s going to depend on the ability of the Iraqi Government to make these choices in the next weeks to really close the deal, so to speak.

That’s why I said this is a harbinger of possibilities. I am not promising an outcome with respect to that, but I’m promising you we are in a different place than we have been with a very distinct opportunity for further transformation. And the Iraqis have got to work to make that happen.

So let me throw it open. Yes, Michael.

QUESTION: Yes, sir. Apropos Iraq, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said today in a series of statements and tweets that Iran had rejected an Obama Administration proposal to cooperate on security in Iraq and on ISIS, and in fact, he wrote – he said, “Mr. Zarif rejected U.S. Secretary of State offer too.” That’s a direct quote from what he said. What is the nature of the dialogue or proposal that you’ve made to Iran? Have they rejected it? And if they’ve rejected it, why is your spokesman holding open the possibility of discussing this at the upcoming – in the margins of the P5+1 talks?

SECRETARY KERRY: Because we’ve always been open to having a discussion on the side of the P5+1, and we’ve had several discussions. I’m not going to get into a back-and-forth. I don’t want to do that. I don’t think it’s going to be – I don’t think it’s constructive, frankly. But we have had conversations on the sides of the P5+1. It’s not Foreign Minister Zarif’s file, which I think I said previously to all of you. So I’m just going to hold open the possibility always of having a discussion that had the possibility of being constructive, but I’m not going to make any other – I’m not going to get into a back-and-forth.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that just very briefly on the P5 thing? We’re going into UNGA. What’s your level of optimism at this point that you’re actually going to be able to move forward either at UNGA or shortly --

SECRETARY KERRY: Move forward with what?

QUESTION: On P5. I mean, you’ve got the November --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we have a November date. I’m not – I don’t express levels of optimism on it. I’m hopeful that it will be possible to find a way to reach an agreement that’s important to the world, but there’s some very difficult issues. There still needs to be some movement on them. And I hope Iran will do everything in its power to be creative and thoughtful and helpful in the process. That’s what we both need to be.

QUESTION: Can I just get one clarification?

QUESTION: Can I ask on – just a follow-up on --

MS. PSAKI: Do you want to finish this on – is this on this?

QUESTION: It’s on the Iran issue.


MS. PSAKI: Okay. Lara, then Jason. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. So if there’s no prospect of having any kind of military coordination with the Iranians, what kind of things are in the realm of possibility to work with them or to engage with them on the ISIS? And then also, you had said in your interview with CBS that there would be – I think you said there would be some de-conflicting with the Syrians. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Is there going to be some kind of communication between Washington and Damascus?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re not going to coordinate with the Syrians. We’ve made that very, very clear. But there are all kinds of ways of communicating to avoid mistakes or disasters and not – strike the word “disasters” – there are all kinds of ways of avoiding bad things. And I’m not going to go into them, but we’re not going to coordinate. We’re not coordinating with them, no.

QUESTION: Would that be a direct Washington-Damascus discussion?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to – just there are all kinds of ways.

QUESTION: Okay. And then – and to what extent or how do you envision any kind of discussion with Iran? What could there be some coordination on?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re not coordinating with Iran either, but --

QUESTION: On anything? You said militarily, but not on anything?

SECRETARY KERRY: We’re not coordinating with Iran, but as I said, we’re open to have a conversation at some point in time if there’s a way to find something constructive.

QUESTION: What would that be?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I have no way to know until they are willing to have a discussion. Right now, I can’t – I don’t know, but I’m just – I’m never going to shut a door to something that could solve a problem if there’s a way to do it.

MS. PSAKI: Jason.

QUESTION: Sure. I mean, I know you don’t want to get into what was any kind of back-and-forth on this, but just as a point of clarification, it’s – in the IRNA’s item today, they said the American ambassador in Iraq asked our ambassador in Iraq for a session to discuss coordinating a fight against Daesh. I mean, are they lying there? I mean --

SECRETARY KERRY: I have no idea what interpretation they drew from any discussion that may or may not have taken place. We are not coordinating with Iran, period.

MS. PSAKI: We’re at about 18, just so you know. Go ahead.

QUESTION: I’ll ask – let me ask about – did you have good chat with Minister Lavrov? What did you say? How did it go? And what do you see as – do you see the sanctions having any meaningful effect at this point on the – for the Putin (inaudible)?

SECRETARY KERRY: I had a constructive conversation with Minister Lavrov, and we – both of us talked about the need – not the need – talked about the possibility of meeting at some point in time to see if there’s a way to constructively talk about some of the differences and problems that exist right now. And we both agreed to talk at UNGA to try to set a time to do that at some time in the future. It was constructive but nothing concrete. There’s no proffers, offers, decisions – nothing except an acknowledgement that it would be better to try to find some ways to solve some problems.

QUESTION: And in terms of whether the economic sanctions are having an --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we didn’t discuss the sanctions --

QUESTION: Well, what do you think at this point? What do you see or how do you assess that?

SECRETARY KERRY: Our assessment is that the financial sanctions, particularly, are serious and have impact. Our preference is not to be in a position of sanctions; it is to be in a constructive roadmap heading forward to solve the problems: to resolve the challenge of Ukraine; to deal with the customs union, Europe, the trade rules; to, as I’ve said many times, have a Ukraine that is free and independent, sovereign, with an ability to be a portal to East and West and a bridge between them. That’s what we’ve always described. And maybe there’s a way to get there in the course of the next weeks and months, who knows.

MS. PSAKI: Nicolas or Michael, do you want to --


MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.

QUESTION: I would like – after you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. PSAKI: We have time. Don’t worry.

QUESTION: Sir, I don’t want to focus only on military strikes, but there was no mention of the word “Syria” in the final communique in Paris. I think just President Hollande mentioned Syria. So what – did you get any commitment from your allies, and especially the British and the French, if you decide to strike in Syria?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, again, I told you earlier I’m not going to give you specific commitments of one country or another as to what may or may not happen. But the President has made it crystal clear that he will not – he will hunt down ISIL wherever they may be, and that includes Syria, and he said that specifically. And nothing has changed in that judgment. And many of the people at the conference today came up to me and said voluntarily it is impossible to defeat ISIL without going into – without getting at ISIL in Syria. And so there were several discussions with foreign ministers about how you do that and how one might do that.

MS. PSAKI: Michael.

QUESTION: You talked – you’ve emphasized how important the Saudi role is in this counter extremism component. There are a lot of people who believe that the Saudi Government is responsible for the spread of radical Sunni ideology throughout the region. Do you feel that that’s – is that still the case? (Inaudible.)

SECRETARY KERRY: What I feel unquestionably is that there is no constructive purpose whatsoever served by going backwards. What is served here is by going forwards with a unified front, people operating and working together. And the Saudis have been very forward-leaning and very key to convening people, encouraging people to take action, and to helping the government to be formed, as well as helping this coalition to define its responsibilities. And so I – there are lots of question marks that people can dig into for history about mistakes that were made or differences of opinion or whatever in the past, by whomever. Nothing is served right now by chewing that over. What we need is a clear strategy, unified effort, and that’s what we’re working for.

QUESTION: If I may just follow up, do you mean to suggest that you think policies of the Kingdom have fundamentally changed?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not making any judgments about that at all. I’m just saying that Saudi Arabia has been enormously forward-leaning and supportive in the effort to deal with terrorism, extremism, and very much a leader in this effort to help position us to be effective.

QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit more about your brief pull-aside with Foreign Minister Lavrov, to the extent that – I’m assuming the United States and other allies think that Russia could help with the government in Damascus and helping fight ISIS.

SECRETARY KERRY: We’ve always believed that.

QUESTION: So to what extent? What did you all talk about today, and what can Russia do --

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not – I don’t want to go into a private conversation with Mr. Lavrov that’s very important to our – to any possibility of expanding on it from today, and I think it’s better just left between us and defined by whatever may or may not come in terms of a meeting in the future.

QUESTION: Sir, can I just ask you – you opposed, when we were in Ankara, a role for Iran – in this meeting here today.


QUESTION: You opposed then very strenuously a role for Iran in Geneva II when that was held earlier this year. Yet you remain open to having confidential discussions with Iran on the margins of the P5+1. Do you see a contradiction in these two approaches?

SECRETARY KERRY: None whatsoever.

QUESTION: Have you seen any sign that your confidential discussions have yielded any change in Iranian behavior?

SECRETARY KERRY: No to the last. The confidential discussions never got to that kind of – they just never got to that sort of substance, Mike.

But with respect to the other piece, I see no – zero contradiction at all, and here’s why: Geneva was predicated on a formula that was created in 2012, signed on to by all countries – including Russia – which laid out a specific mechanism by which a transition would be effected. And it –– the predicate of going to Geneva was to implement that communique. You’re not going to invite somebody to be part of that who hadn’t signed it unless they were then about to sign on to it and agree to it, and they did not and they would not.

With respect to the meeting today, my statement of opposition was really based on the lack of groundwork having been laid in many different ways for that kind of an invitation to be issued, including, most assuredly, the fact that King Abdullah had just before that informed me, as had Saud, that if they came, the Saudis wouldn’t. And the Emiratis had informed me previously that if they came, they would not. So if you were going to have a coalition of the willing to come without any definition of what they were prepared to do, it didn’t make sense.

That doesn’t mean that we are opposed to the idea of communicating to find out if they will come on board or under what circumstances, or whether there is the possibility of a change. And I believe very deeply that one of the principle facets of my job as Secretary of State is to always – to try to, where reasonable, where not stepping over a line of our values, where it doesn’t violate some precept of policy – to try to leave an avenue open to be able to solve a problem if you can. That’s what we’re – that’s what we do in the State Department: try to find a diplomatic way of solving problems. War is the failure of diplomacy, and so we try to leave the doors open – but again, without violating our fundamental policy or precepts. And I think having a channel of communication with people we’re already negotiating with on one of the biggest subjects in the world today is common sense.

MS. PSAKI: We have time for only one or two more here. Go ahead.

QUESTION: On Scotland, quickly. Obviously, it’s up to the Scots to decide their own future. But I wondered, do you have any thoughts about what the implications of an independent vote would be broadly on Europe?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, no. Honestly, I – anything I would say to that effect would be – become part of the campaign, and it’d be inappropriate for me to say anything at this point.

QUESTION: Just one question on oil --

SECRETARY KERRY: I will say this: that we’ve – just that the President has said – I think the President said in the past at various locations the strong and united and proactive United Kingdom has been an important player and an important contributor. But he and I and no one in our government are commenting on this vote.

QUESTION: Just one question on --

MS. PSAKI: Last one, it’s got to be.

QUESTION: Sure. Just one question on oil. I was wondering if the subject of oil had come up in your discussions in the Gulf States in the – when you’re in the Gulf with Arab leaders on foreign --

SECRETARY KERRY: Not in this round, but it has previously.

QUESTION: Okay. Because, I mean, it – Russia needs, obviously, $100 a barrel --

SECRETARY KERRY: It has previously, and they’re very, very well aware of their ability to have an impact on global oil prices.

QUESTION: And the Saudis?


MS. PSAKI: All right, we’ve got to go. Thanks, guys.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. PSAKI: We’ll have a transcript, but as you know, it sometimes takes long.