Interview With Nadia Bilbassy-Charters of Al-Arabiya
Secretary of State
QUESTION: (In Arabic.)
Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for your time.
SECRETARY KERRY: My pleasure. Thank you.
QUESTION: You are about to meet your GCC counterparts. What are you going to tell them that they have not heard from you before about the agreement?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I am going to go through in great detail all of the ways in which this agreement, in fact, makes the Gulf states and the region safer. I will also discuss with them at great length the things that the United States of America is going to do, working with them, in order to push back against the terror and counterterrorism efforts and other activities in the region that are very alarming to them.
So I think it will be very reassuring. I think it will be specific and detailed. But most importantly, it's a chance for them to ask me any misgivings they have or any questions they have about the agreement itself.
QUESTION: I mean, to be blunt, sir, many people in the region, especially your allies, they worry about asymmetrical war with Iran through the proxies than how many centrifuges you have dismantled. Can the United States stop the nefarious activities of Iran in four Arab capitals?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me ask you a question.
SECRETARY KERRY: Is it better to push back against those activities against an Iran with a nuclear weapon or an Iran without one? Obviously, without one. So you have to begin somewhere.
We have begun at the most critical place vis-a-vis Israel, the region, and the potential of the nuclear arms race with a nuclear weapon. But we have not for an instant stopped focusing on counterterrorism, on the nefarious activities, particularly proxies. And we think there is a great deal more that the region can do to deal with proxies. And that’s a lot of conversation that we’re going to be having in some detail, not just in my meeting, but over a period of time.
QUESTION: So what – how are you going to help them? I mean, some will say Iran with cash, $100 billion that's going to go – part of it to the Revolutionary Guard, it's going to go to Soleimani, and it's going to fund Hizballah and Houthis and Assad regime. So I mean, you understand this point. So what exactly --
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I do understand it. But let me ask you something.
QUESTION: What are you going to offer them?
SECRETARY KERRY: Let me ask you a simple question: Who has more cash? Saudi Arabia and the Emirates and Qatar, or Iran?
QUESTION: Yeah, but --
SECRETARY KERRY: I think we know.
QUESTION: -- they don't fund activities in the region. That's the difference.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, maybe they need to become more proactive in pushing back against activities so people understand they don't have a free playing field on which to deal.
The point I'm making is that $100 billion is nothing compared to what gets spent every year in the region. Iran's military budget is $15 billion. The Gulf states' military budget is $130 billion. So I am saying – we are saying in the United States we think things can be done far more effectively to push back against proxy activities. And most importantly, we would like to encourage people to find an alternative to any of these activities, and we believe there are ways to try to bring about a different set of relationships and, ultimately, absolutely protect the region's security and interests.
QUESTION: So you don't think that Iran can pose a threat to the Gulf allies through conventional weapons now?
SECRETARY KERRY: Obviously, there are a lot of conventional weapons in the region. But my belief, and I think President Obama's belief and our military assessments, our intelligence assessments are that if they organize themselves correctly, all of the Arab States have an untapped potential that is very, very significant to be able to push back against any of these activities. And I am convinced that, with the right kind of effort, we can find a very different set of arrangements that begin to give people comfort that they really don't need to fear that the agreement itself is going to change anything.
The agreement gets rid of the nuclear weapon potential. But if we do the right things in all of these other sectors, then I believe the Gulf states and the region can feel much more secure than they do today. Obviously, we have to end all of these proxy initiatives, and there are ways to do that.
QUESTION: Now, since you have this agreement, you have political capital. Can you exercise some kind of pressure or exert some kind of pressure on Iran, who has immense influence over the Assad regime, to try to have some kind of a political process where Assad is not part of it? Do you think you will be able to do that? Are we going to see during the three --
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I can't speak to Iran because we --
QUESTION: But you can have – put some pressure on them.
SECRETARY KERRY: We negotiated with Iran on the nuclear, not on all these other issues.
SECRETARY KERRY: But President Rouhani indicated in his comments welcoming the agreement that he would be interested in seeing a different set of relationships in the region. And I have been working very closely with our friends in Saudi Arabia, with former Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal – God rest his soul – and with the current foreign minister and with the crown princes. We’ve been talking about ways in which we might try to approach Syria and we’ve been talking with the Russians. And I had several conversations – one with President Putin, several with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov – about how we might try to deal more effectively with Syria.
So my hope is that something could change with Syria if we could all begin to coordinate and bring our best thoughts to the table.
QUESTION: Without President Assad, of course? You said that.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t see – yes, without President – and ultimately, ultimately, without him, because I don’t see how the violence stops or the foreign fighters stop pouring with President Assad there. It’s very hard to see how the war stops as long as President Assad remains the magnet who is attracting all of these foreign fighters.
QUESTION: The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said – made a statement. They were very negative. And he basically is saying that he want to stay at war with the United States, et cetera, and he will still support the proxies. How do you read his statements?
SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t know how to interpret it at this point in time, except to take it at face value, that that’s his policy. But I do know that often comments are made publicly and things can evolve that are different. If it is the policy, it’s very disturbing, it’s very troubling, and we’ll have to wait and see. But that’s one of the reasons for my meeting with all of the Gulf States; it’s one of the reasons for our being very attentive to guaranteeing the security of the region. And we are not kidding when we talk about the importance of pushing back against extremism, against support for terrorism and proxies who are destabilizing other countries. It’s unacceptable.
QUESTION: So in this case, do you trust that President Rouhani is able to implement the agreement?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I – none of this agreement is based on trust. It’s based on specific steps that have to be implemented, specific timetables. And we will measure this agreement by its implementation. So it’s not a question of trust. It’s a question of when we reach a certain point in time, certain things have to happen. Obviously, Congress has to review this over 60 days and nothing begins to be implemented until that process is over.
QUESTION: Right. So that would be the road map, we’re waiting for Congress. What if they rejected it? Would the President veto, as he said?
SECRETARY KERRY: Absolutely.
QUESTION: And when you take it back, this is the people representative that they vetoing a very important --
SECRETARY KERRY: That’s our constitutional system. For some of them, it’s a vote they can take knowing the President will veto, so we’ll see what happens.
QUESTION: Right. Do you think that, after 15 years, that Iran might pursue a military nuclear ambition in this domain?
SECRETARY KERRY: I think this: Iran has said it won’t, but again, it’s not words that matter, it’s not a statement; it’s acts, it’s actions that you have to measure. And what I do know is that there are very specific inspection and accountability measures that are part of the agreement forever – not for 15 years or 20 years, but forever. Iran has to live by what’s called the Additional Protocol, which provides additional access. Iran has to live by agreements it made with us in this agreement that go to 25 years and for lifetime. So I believe that whatever Iran does, that these years of transformation of their program are going to provide insight to the program and accountability over that program, and we will know what Iran is doing. Iran is limited in its stockpile, in its enrichment, and many other things.
So, what our intelligence community tells us is this is not based on a wish or based on a hope or a prayer; this is based on the structure of the agreement which will allow inspections, which will allow us to know what is happening well after 15 years.
QUESTION: Do you think they will cheat?
SECRETARY KERRY: I have no idea. I’m not going to accuse somebody of cheating before somebody does, but I will tell you that this agreement is built so that you’re not surprised, so that you know you have the mechanisms in place to prevent it.
QUESTION: My time is running out. I have one final question about Yemen. How long does the military campaign can go the way it is before both the Houthis and President Hadi can sit down the negotiate a political --
SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t know. You have to ask them. I mean, we’re urging the Hadi government and we’ve urged the Houthis, through some of their friends, to try to sit down as soon as possible. We think that this is only subject to come kind of political resolution, and we’re urging all of the backers behind the different parties, whether it’s Iranian or Saudi or Emirati or whoever, we urge them to try to engage with the United Nations because the people, broadly, of Yemen are obviously suffering enormously at what is happening there.
But last time we tried to have a pause, the Houthis didn’t keep the pause. They moved people, they attacked, they did different things, so they’ve given people a lot of reason to be suspect of their intentions. Obviously, it would be better to have a political resolution, but you have to have people willing to sit down and negotiate.
QUESTION: Great. Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY KERRY: My pleasure. Thank you so much.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you.