Interview With Christiane Amanpour of CNN International

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
September 2, 2015

QUESTION: Robyn, thank you so much. And of course, since the Iran nuclear deal was signed in July amongst the United States, Iran, and the other world powers, it has been subject to some quite divisive debate, most especially in the United States. And to that end, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is today in Pennsylvania, where he’s going to be giving a major address to the American people about the benefits of this deal as Congress shortly returns to start debating it and then there will be a vote on it. So let us go straight now to Philadelphia and the National Constitutional Center there and join Secretary Kerry.

Secretary Kerry, I want to start by saying thank you very much for giving us this interview ahead of this major address, and obviously, the stakes are incredibly high. Tell us what you hope to accomplish in the hour that you have to speak to the American people.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I hope to make it clear, Christiane – first of all, thank you for having a moment here – I hope to make it clear that this agreement, which has been entered into by the P5+1 – six nations coming together – and Iran, is an agreement that will set out very strict requirements that Iran needs to adhere to, which they have accepted, and will in fact close off and provide assurance to the world that the pathways are closed off to a nuclear weapon. Iran has declared they never want to seek one, that they will not seek one, but that has to be put into a structure where it is affirmed by specific actions that are verifiable. That’s what this agreement does. And I will deal with a number of the myths that are out there that somehow this agreement legitimizes a path to a nuclear weapon or that it’s not able to be verified and so forth. I think all of that is what I will talk about today.

In the end, I hope to make it clear this agreement makes Israel, the Gulf states, the region, safer. It makes the world safer, because Iran has agreed to operate in a way that proves that they will not seek a nuclear weapon. And if they don’t do that, and there were an effort to go around it, we will know it and we will be able to take appropriate action as a result.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, this whole debate has been described as one of the most divisive in the United States in modern history. It involves American security, Israeli security, concerns in the region of the Middle East, and the American people seem to have succumbed to the very divisive debate and the coverage of it. A recent CNN poll, the latest we’ve taken, just about a week or so ago, shows that 56 percent of the people who you hope to convince today say that Congress should not approve it.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the latest poll I saw said that 52 percent of Americans support the agreement. But it is correct for you to say that it’s been divisive, and I regret that it’s been divisive. But some have chosen to spend huge amounts of money and, frankly, have not been presenting the reality of what this agreement really does. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here today. It is to dispel the myths and lay out specifically and factually what this agreement does and doesn’t do, and I hope – and I think we’re seeing this, incidentally, as senators are looking at this, very, very closely examining it. We had another senator announce today her support for the agreement – Senator Mikulski. So there’s an increasing march of people who are looking at it closely, judging it by its facts, and then deciding that they do support it. And we hope that as more Americans learn more about it that will also be true of the country as a whole.

QUESTION: You just mentioned Senator Mikulski and that now brings you to 34 votes, apparently, for approval of this deal. What does that mean in terms of whether it sinks or swims?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it – obviously, 34 votes are enough votes for the President’s veto to be able to be upheld, but we’re not – that’s not the way we’re approaching this. We want anybody and everybody, hopefully, to be able to vote for it. We’re going to continue to try to persuade people up until the last moment, and our hope is that that number will grow, obviously. But it is enough to sustain the President’s veto. But that’s not satisfactory for us. We do want to try to go further and we’ll continue to persuade.

But what’s really important here, Christiane, is not to get caught up in the process; it’s to really look at this agreement. If this agreement were to be denied suddenly by the Congress unilaterally after we have led the effort to negotiate it, and we’ve joined in good faith with France, Germany, Britain, China, Russia, and Iran has signed up to this agreement – if the United States were to sort of unilaterally move away and say, “Oh sorry, we’re not going to do this,” it would have profound implications that are very negative, I would judge, for our country and for the national security of the nation, but also for the security of the region. Iran would then be free to go do what it wants to do, having showed up in good faith to make an agreement and it’s the United States that somehow says no, we’re not going to live by this. I think it would be extraordinarily damaging, but the politics are obviously intense and there are fears that people have about Iran’s compliance because of past events.

What we’re trying to point out clearly today – what I will say – is that this agreement is not based on hope or trust. This agreement is based on verification and on very specific steps that Iran has to take. For instance, you were just having somebody interviewed about business in Iran. Business in Iran will not be able to take off until Iran has done all of the things that it has to do in order to expand the breakout time and live up to this agreement. That could take six months to a year. And so, again, nothing in this agreement is based on hope or on a signature. It is based on very specific things that have to be verified for the lifetime of this agreement. There is no sunset to this agreement. It is the lifetime of the agreement that must be lived up to.

QUESTION: And Secretary Kerry, as we continue, I want to also welcome our viewers in the United States. This interview is being broadcast live around the world and in the U.S.A. So let me just ask you again: You said you wanted to dispel the myths, as you call it, around this deal. One of them – and you’ve addressed quite a lot right now – one of them even those supporters in Congress say they have a heavy heart about is what about all the billions of dollars that will be freed under sanctions relief that many fear, not just in the U.S. but in the region, will go towards Iran funding the kind of terrorism that it’s been accused of funding in the past?

SECRETARY KERRY: Right. Well, to give you an example of the level of distortion and the mythology, I keep hearing people talk about hundreds of billions of dollars that will be released. That is not what will happen. The money that has been held back in escrow is money actually that belongs to Iran, but it has not been delivered to Iran under the sanctions regime. It – the real amount is somewhere in the vicinity of $50 to $55 billion. Much of that money is already spoken for in Iran because of contracts with China, because of bad loans, because of balance of debt payments, because of infrastructure projects. And for Iran to bring its oil industry back to where it was just five years ago, they would have to invest several hundred billion dollars.

So yes, it is probably fair to say something may find its way to some bad or nefarious activity, but the activities that we have objected to that Iran has engaged in are not fueled primarily by money. And much of the terrorism that has been supported in the region is done on the cheap, not because of money. So I do not believe, nor does our intelligence community, that the money released by this, which is not hundreds of billions but about 50 to 55 billion, that that money is going to be determinative in any way regarding the security of the region.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, a lot of attention was paid to the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard this week saying that the United States remains and is the great Satan no matter whether this deal is approved or not. But just afterwards I spoke to the powerful head of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, and he said that that was referring to America’s past actions and that there may be a more friendly future. Just take a listen if you would to what he told me about possible better relations with the United States going forward.

MR LARIJANI: (Via interpreter) And as I said, if the U.S. chooses to adopt a more realistic approach and attitude towards Iran, then those habits and those terms will naturally change. But I think this agreement can be a beginning for a better understanding on different issues.

QUESTION: So Mr. Secretary, do you think that this is an agreement that will do that – have a better understanding and more cooperation on different issues? For instance, on the Syria war.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me emphasize, Christiane, the agreement is not based on that. There is no expectation nor is the agreement promising that that is what will happen. But obviously the United States of America would welcome an Iran that wants to join the community of nations in more ways than just living up to its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. We would like to be able to find a way forward to deal with ISIL, with Daesh. We would like to see a resolution of the conflict in Syria. And there are other issues, but it will be up to Iran to clearly make choices that indicate its readiness to move in that direction. And in the meantime, this agreement is a nuclear agreement. It is focused on the nuclear challenge, and we are not sitting around counting on some other transformation. We can – it would be welcome, but this agreement is completely separate and focused exclusively on how do we guarantee that there will not be a proliferation of nuclear weapons, either through Iran or otherwise.

QUESTION: Let me just ask you, as I must, the terrible crisis engulfing Europe right now – the flood of refugees; the biggest movement of people since the end of World War II. And the war in Syria is sparking that to a great extent. We’ve seen how Germany is being generous to these refugees. We’ve seen how Hungary and even here in the UK governments are not being generous. What would you say to your counterparts in Europe right now?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I just met with a group of my counterparts from Europe and I listened very carefully to them at a conference that we had in Alaska regarding climate change, and we had seven foreign ministers who had come together, six of them from Europe. And they really were seized by this challenge of the migration that is taking place. It’s an enormous challenge. It’s a very serious issue for all of us. And we in the State Department are trying to think through various ways to try to make a contribution to solving it.

But one of the key things is resolving Syria, obviously. And resolving Syria requires cooperation with Russia, with Saudi Arabia. We’ve come together. We had a meeting a few days ago, a trilateral meeting between Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States. We are looking at ways to see if we can find a diplomatic path, a political solution that will have an impact. But the most critical thing is Assad himself has got to contribute to that, and he cannot contribute to it by sitting there and viewing this as a choice about his future and his longevity as the leader of Syria, and there is no way to find a peaceful track if that is the focus. He is going to have to contribute to the transition that was envisioned in the Geneva process, and that’s what we’re working towards with other countries at this moment.

QUESTION: And Mr. Secretary, ISIS, as we’ve seen, has just destroyed a 2,000-year edifice in Palmyra and it continues its rampage against human life as well. A huge and important strategy session in Aspen in Colorado recently concluded that the only way to defeat ISIS is through a ground force. Is there any indication that the United States is moving any closer to gathering some kind of coalition – Western, regional, or both – to defeat ISIS, as you have said it needs to be defeated?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it does need to be defeated and it has made that more clear, putting its exclamation point on that reality, which we all knew anyway. But in the last days with the beheading of the professor who guarded the antiquities as well as with the destruction of the antiquities and its own threats and movements within the region, this is a very dangerous group and we need to – we need to increase the pressure on them. And we are talking about very specific ways to do that with other countries in the region.

You are correct; there will need to be people on the ground. I am convinced there will be at the appropriate moment, and I believe that that pressure will increase and is increasing even as we’re talking in many different ways.

QUESTION: Well, you just raised the idea of a ground force. I’ve got to ask you – you’re talking about the pressure, you say it will happen, you’re convinced. Who will take part? The United States?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think – no, the President has said that at least for the time being, the President has made it very clear that American troops are not part of that equation, and I don’t think he has any plans to change that. But I do know that there are others who are talking about it. There are people in the region who are capable of that, and I believe that everybody understands – there are also people in Syria, by the way, already who are capable of that and there are Syrian oppositionists of the regime who are also capable.

So I believe that over the next months with our meetings in New York coming up at the United Nations General Assembly and otherwise, this will be very much a topic of conversation. It already is a topic of conversation, and there will be increased focus on ramping up the effort with respect to ISIL.

QUESTION: Secretary of State John Kerry, thank you so much for joining us at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia --


QUESTION: -- just ahead of your big speech to the American people on this Iran deal. Thanks for joining us.