Interview With Andrea Mitchell of NBC News
Secretary of State
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, the foreign minister today talked about the United States’ nefarious hold on the hemisphere because of the occupation of Guantanamo Bay, the naval base, because of the trade embargo. As long as those two issues and others stay in the way, how far can you go toward normalizing relations?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, obviously, those are key issues in the normalization process, and we both said today that it will be long and complex. President Obama wants to lift the embargo, thinks we should. I agree, I think we should. I think that the measure of progress and success is really going to come from what happens in the next months as we go through this early diplomatic rekindling of a relationship. My suspicion is that there’s a possibility it could move faster than people think, simply because I think the Cuban people want it. And as we are there doing diplomacy, more present, able to engage, we actually can work at these kinds of issues more effectively than we’ve been able to for the last 50, 60 years.
QUESTION: I know that’s the agreement that American diplomats can move around, can talk to people, can talk to dissidents, but from the tone today it certainly seemed as though they do not want any interference on the human rights issue with their sovereignty.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, no nation does, obviously, and they’re no exception. And no, they don’t want interference, but they know we’re not going to stop raising human rights issues. We made that very clear. We could not have been clearer in the course of conversations that no – we’re not giving up the DNA of the United States of America, which is a deep commitment to human rights, to the values of democracy, freedom of speech, and so forth. So those will be on the topic and those will be on the agenda.
But on the other hand, the great step forward here is that neither of us are taking one of our issues of contention and making it a showstopper. We want to engage, and when you get to that point, that’s what begins to break down the barriers.
QUESTION: Do you sense any give at all on human rights, on free elections, on freedom of speech?
SECRETARY KERRY: There’s been a little bit of give, obviously, with respect to some agreement on human rights. And I think that over time the elections discussion and the more pointed human rights issues are going to be very much part of the discussion. They are in every country where we have an embassy and an ambassador. We are fearless in our determination to walk in and talk to the authorities and give them a shared our sense of the problems that exist.
QUESTION: The critics in Congress say they are going to deny the new embassy in Havana money, appropriations, and also, of course, not confirm an ambassador. Does that matter?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it always matters when Congress is sort of stepping in the way of something being able to really be fully effected, sure. But it’s really – why are they going to do that? Are they going to do that because the policy has been so successful? Are they going to do that because they can show so much change that’s taken place in the last 60 years that this is a crazy path? I mean, it just doesn’t make sense to prevent our diplomats from carrying the very message you and I were just talking about. To not be able to meet with more people in Cuba to know what is going on is a huge cutoff of opportunity. So I just think it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face and it’s a shame.
QUESTION: What do you want to see from Cuban now, from the government there? What steps do you want to see?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think we all want to see, first of all, a true, deep engagement, a willingness to work through these issues. There’s so much that we can cooperate on right now. We want to cooperate on law enforcement. There are a lot of issues of concern. We want to cooperate on the environment. We want to cooperate on our visas. We want to cooperate on health, education, the rights of people. We want to cooperate on hemispheric issues and interests like the war in Colombia or the relationship with Venezuela. I mean, there are many, many things where we think we can find the capacity to cooperate, and there are obviously places where we are going to agree to disagree. That is true in lots of countries – in China and Russia and various countries where we have relationships to this day – but we don’t stop those relationships, we don’t pull our ambassador out except in the most egregious circumstances, because we know there’s a value to having an ambassador there. And that’s why we think this is a major step forward.
QUESTION: What was the sense as you met with the Cuban foreign minister? The first time since 1958, the Cuban foreign minister was here in this building. The flag went up at 4 o’clock this morning. Did you have a sense of history? Did he?
SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely, we both had a sense of history, and we shared it and we both understand this is an historic moment. I would be the first secretary of state to visit Cuba, I think, since 1945 or something. I mean, it’s an extraordinary period of time. So this has been too long in the happening, Andrea, and I think we both understand the importance of it to our countries and to the region.
QUESTION: And what do you think the United States can bring to Cuba in terms of change with this opening?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, if they’re willing to embrace it, we can bring them a tremendous leap in their economy. We could bring a better standard of living to their people. We can bring technology. We can bring various modern instruments of education, of health delivery, of communications. I mean, there are a lot of things that I think the people of Cuba, knowing they live only 90 miles from Florida and seeing so many family members who come home and tell them what life is like, they’d like to share in that better life. And I believe that over time things will change as – at a pace that will be acceptable and, frankly, helpful to Cuba.
QUESTION: Can you understand their caution in that they are a small country and we are enormous? This trade embargo is not matched by anything else anywhere in the world.
SECRETARY KERRY: No.
QUESTION: And it could easily be reversed. The executive steps could be reversed by the next president of the United States.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it depends who, obviously, the next president is, and we don’t know that now. So you can’t bet on it that way. You have to do what you think is right. You have to do what’s appropriate and make the difference. Nobody can guard against every eventuality of the future. But I believe the President has taken an irreversible step. I do not believe a next president, Republican or Democrat, will change it.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about Iran because the UN Security Council has now voted. The resolution is passed. Yet congressional critics say that you’re trying to preempt their prerogatives by moving ahead at the UN before Congress has been able to even see the documents and study the classified annexes.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, not at all, Andrea. That’s just not reality here. In fact, I mentioned earlier today two instances in which other administrations went to the UN before they came to Congress to authorize to go to war. So there is a precedent, number one. Number two, we were negotiating under the UN auspices within a multilateral framework. These are sovereign nations. I mean, if the parliament in England stood up and said we’re going to do this or that, and we didn’t agree with it, do you think we’d sit there and do what they tell us to? Of course not. And people here would be railing against the notion that our country, the United States, should be curtailed by the parliament of England or the parliament of France. No.
So likewise, these countries, frankly, don’t feel terrific when our Congress is setting the rules without consulting them, without talking to them, when they’re the parties at the negotiating table. So we worked out a compromise. We honored their sovereignty and participation in this multilateral effort. We went to the United Nations, as appropriate. But we put into the measure in the UN that it doesn’t take effect for 90 days so that the Congress has no pressure, ample opportunity to take a look at this and to make its judgment. And so I don’t – I really think the complaint is without merit.
QUESTION: Opponents say that they are going to spend $20 million – one group in particular – $20 million saturating the airwaves with commercials against this. How can you combat that?
SECRETARY KERRY: With common sense. With the truth. So much of what I’ve already seen is not factual. And I think one of the virtues of this time period for engagement with Congress is Congress will learn what the facts are. We will have an opportunity starting this week, we’ll have a team on the Hill – I’ll be part of it – briefing senators and congressmen. We’ll have a chance to do a hearing. They’ll ask us, obviously, lots of questions. And I think the facts speak for themselves here. I mean, the simple reality that you won’t hear in any of these advertisements is they really don’t have an alternative. They just want to kill it. But they don’t have an alternative, and the status quo is unacceptable because in the status quo, Iran was marching full-square towards having a bomb.
So these people who worry about confronting this in 10 or 15 years or whenever it is actually are setting it up with – unwittingly they’re going to confront it right away. And the fact is that may mean war. Because it’s not going to be done through a negotiation right away. There is no way the ayatollah is going to come back to the table and negotiate again. There is no way our colleagues are going to keep sanctions in place. So this is actually a very potentially destructive process that runs counter to common sense, and I think over time people will see that.
QUESTION: Senior Israeli leaders at the highest level say that one of the flaws is that their intelligence and our intelligence just aren’t good enough. We didn’t know about the nuclear reactor in Syria until it was already built. We didn’t know about Iranian activity underground until it was already taking place.
SECRETARY KERRY: And that’s an argument for doing this deal – because we will have inspectors all over the place; because we and the Chinese will be involved in one of the reactors; because we will have the IAEA able to go where it hasn’t been able to go before. If you don’t have a deal, Andrea, you don’t have inspectors, you don’t have people on the ground, you will not know what they are doing. And believe me, if we walk away from this deal, they’ll say, “Look, they’ve given us a reason to have a bomb” because they will fear the military attack. This is the best opportunity to avoid the conflict and know what their program is doing. And if, at the end, all those inspectors and all the rest of our knowledge of their program shows us that they are trying to step outside it, we have every option available to us then that we have today. We lose nothing.
QUESTION: Has --
SECRETARY KERRY: And by the way, one other important thing here: People point to the fact and say, well, they’ll develop a nuclear weapon in the future. What they’re ignoring completely is the fact that back in the years 2003 or so, during the last administration, they actually gained more centrifuges. They gained more fissile material. They had enough fissile material for 10-12 bombs. They had the knowledge of the fuel cycle, the ability to do the fuel cycle. There’s nothing they didn’t have at that point in time except the desire to build a bomb, because they didn’t do it. So those who say they’ll have it in 15 years are ignoring the fact they’ve got it now. And if you turn around and don’t have this agreement, you’re doing nothing to roll it back and nothing to stop it.
I would remind you and them that Prime Minister Netanyahu called the interim agreement one of the biggest mistakes in the world. He then called Lausanne a huge mistake, but then he wanted the interim agreement to be continued rather than go down this other road. So he’s been mistaken previously, and we believe that, in fact, he is not looking at this situation for the way in which it will provide us the greatest way to protect Israel. We believe what we’ve done actually protects Israel more than getting rid of this deal.
QUESTION: You mentioned today in talking about normalization with Cuba the analogy of the years you spent with John McCain normalizing relations with Vietnam and now how far that has progressed, which brings to mind your defense of John McCain in a written statement against what Donald Trump said about his courage, his heroism, and his service, and his relationship with veterans. Can you speak to what Donald Trump said about John?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think, Andrea – I mean, I think everybody has spoken to it now. I think it’s kind of clear to everybody in the world that it was a terrible mistake to think that a man who makes the decision to go and fight for his country, is flying a very dangerous mission over Hanoi, happens to be shot down, and then spends a terrible time period being tortured in prison, and when he’s offered the opportunity to go home because his father’s an admiral he says no and he lives by the code of military conduct and refuses – I mean, that is the definition of heroism, and to not understand that is to neither understand what it meant to serve, what it means to serve, or what heroism really is. And I think the situation just screams for itself.
QUESTION: Donald Trump is not apologizing. He’s doubling down.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to get in. I don’t – one of the virtues of being where I am now – I defended John McCain and I did it, I think, without getting into the politics of this, and I don’t want to. I want to be able to talk to both sides of the aisle.
QUESTION: Does it raise questions about his ability to be commander-in-chief?
SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to get into all that, Andrea. That’s for others to decide. I’m just not going to get into that.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Appreciate it. Good to be with you.
QUESTION: Good to be with you. Good to be home.