Interview With Margaret Brennan of CBS

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt
March 15, 2015

MR. SCHIEFFER: Good morning. We begin with Margaret Brennan’s interview with Secretary Kerry as he prepared to leave Egypt and fly to Switzerland for the talks. She asked him flatly: Had the Cotton letter put the talks in jeopardy?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t know yet. When I negotiate for the first time on Sunday night with Foreign Minister Zarif, I’ll have a better sense of where we are. But what I do know is that this letter was absolutely calculated directly to interfere with these negotiations. It specifically inserts itself directly to the leader of another country, saying don’t negotiate with these guys because we’re going to change this, which, by the way, is not only contrary to the Constitution with respect to the executive’s right to negotiate, but it is incorrect, because they cannot change an executive agreement. So it’s false information and directly calculated to interfere and basically say don’t negotiate with them, you got to negotiate with 535 members of Congress.

QUESTION: But they --

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s unprecedented – unprecedented.

QUESTION: And they have to negotiate with you. You’re the one who has to sit at that table.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’ve said that it’s unprecedented. I’ve never seen anything like this. Now in fairness, look, I don’t know how many people really focused completely on it. But I do know that the effect and the intent of the author was to basically say don’t do this deal. And by the way, that’s – to say that before there was – even is a deal. I mean, it’s like giving people a grade on a test before the test is even written, let alone given. It’s wrong. It’s unprecedented. And I hope it hasn’t made it very difficult here.

And by the way, we’re not – this is not just the United States of America negotiating. This is China, Russia, Germany, France, Great Britain.

QUESTION: So how do you clear the air? Are you going to apologize for this letter?

SECRETARY KERRY: Not on your life. I’m not going to apologize for the – for an unconstitutional and un-thought-out action by somebody who’s been in the United States Senate for 60 some days. That’s just inappropriate. I will explain very clearly that Congress does not have the right to change an executive agreement. Another president may have a different view about it, but if we do our job correctly, all of these nations – they all have an interest in making sure this is, in fact, a proven peaceful program. And it would be derelict if we allow some gaping hole in this program that doesn’t do so. But let’s see what it is first. And I think this applies to everybody, incidentally, who’s been trying to judge this before, in fact, the deal – if it can be sealed – is sealed.

QUESTION: You’ve made the point this is an international agreement; this isn’t just the U.S. and Iran. But Senator Corker, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the decision to bypass Congress and instead go to the UN and allow them to vote on some of this deal is a direct affront to the American people. How do you respond to that?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, with all due respect – look, I do really disagree with that judgment, and I talked to him about it the other day and made it clear we are negotiating under the auspices, to some degree, of the United Nations. So just as Congress has to vote to lift sanctions – so Congress does have a vote – so does the United Nations have to lift some sanctions at some point in time.

QUESTION: Well, that’s on sanctions. But to authorize this deal, do you see Congress having a role?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, sanctions – Congress has a role. We have had over 205 briefings, phone calls, discussions with Congress; 119 of them have taken place since January of this year. We have been in full discussion with Congress on this. We’ve been in full discussion with allies in the region. We have had our team go to Israel or meet with Israelis in Washington or elsewhere to brief them regularly in this process. This isn’t a complete mystery. And the fact is that – but we also have been operating under a rule that everybody understands: Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. And so we have to finish our negotiation, and we deserve the right to do so, frankly, knowing we have to submit it to the world to judge. We ought to be able to find out unimpeded and un-interfered-with in an unconstitutional way, in violation of 200-plus years of tradition.

QUESTION: The President wants a deal by the end of March. If you can’t meet that timetable, what happens?

SECRETARY KERRY: Margaret, we are trying to get a deal by the end of March. The President’s view --

QUESTION: Would there be an extension?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the President’s view – and I share this view completely – is that we’ve been at this for over two years now and Iran has said its program is peaceful. In the time that we’ve had, the fundamental framework of decisions necessary to prove your program is peaceful should be possible. So we believe very much that there’s not anything that’s going to change in April or May or June that suggests that at that time a decision you can’t make now will be made then. If it’s peaceful, let’s get it done. And my hope is that in the next days that will be possible.

QUESTION: But if these talks fail, do you think there is a risk that Iran will make the choice to build a bomb?

SECRETARY KERRY: Of course there’s that risk. Obviously --

QUESTION: Is that really what’s at stake?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, look, if they moved along the road to decide suddenly to break out and rush to try to have enough fissile material to build a bomb, we have a number of options available to us. President Obama has said they are all on the table. And he has also pledged, very publicly and very clearly on a number of occasions, Iran will not be allowed to get a nuclear weapon.

MR. SCHIEFFER: Secretary Kerry also addressed the situation in Syria. We’ll have that in our next half hour.


MR. SCHIEFFER: One of the things that Secretary Kerry also talked about in addition to this when he talked to our Margaret Brennan last night was Syria and the whole situation there. And I want to just play a portion of what he said on that.

SECRETARY KERRY: We are working very hard with other interested parties to see if we can reignite a diplomatic outcome. Why? Because everybody agrees there is no military solution. There is only a political solution. But to get the Assad regime to negotiate, we’re going to have to make it clear to him that there is a determination by everybody to seek that political outcome and change his calculation about negotiating. That’s underway right now. And I am convinced that with the efforts of our allies and others, there will be increased pressure on Assad.

QUESTION: And you’d be willing to negotiate with him?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we have to negotiate in the end.

MR. SCHIEFFER: So there you hear the Secretary of State saying we may have to negotiate with Assad.