Interview With Sam Stein of the Huffington Post

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
September 3, 2015

QUESTION: Thank you, first of all, for joining us. Appreciate it.

SECRETARY KERRY: Glad to be with you.

QUESTION: All right. So we now know that the Iran deal will survive Congress, but roughly half the country is opposed to it and virtually every Republican presidential candidate says they’re going to rip it up when they enter office. So how secure is the deal, really?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, first of all, enormous amounts of money – there’s been a huge bombardment of distortions and outright just untruths, I guess is the word I will use, about what this deal does and how it does it. So I’m not surprised that some polls show an imbalance, but the fact is a lot of polls show that the country actually supports it and there’s a fairly even divide. I think that’s pretty good considering the amount of money that’s been spent with myths being promulgated.

With respect to the presidential candidates and what they say today, look, if Iran destroys its Arak plutonium reactor core, filling it with cement and it exists no longer; and Arak dismantles two-thirds of their centrifuges and is no longer enriching; and it lowers its stockpile to 300 kilograms and is only enriching to 3.67 percent; and it has done everything it said it would do to live up to the agreement – if a new president came in and said, “I’m going to” – this would be absurd. The country will be 90 percent supportive by that point in time because they will see that it is, in fact, working and it has eliminated the threat of a nuclear weapon in the Middle East.

QUESTION: So you think this is largely bluster?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I think there are very legitimate questions being asked, Sam.

QUESTION: I’m talking specifically about the candidates saying they’d rip it up. You think it’s --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, look, I’m not going to characterize what it is or isn’t. I’m just giving you my take on what the reality will be when a new president is there. I cannot see a president willfully taking the United Nations, five other nations who supported us in this negotiation, and saying, “Sorry, we’re just going to walk away from this,” and create a more dangerous situation in the Middle East. I just don’t see that happening.

QUESTION: One of the more persuasive criticisms, I think, of the deal is that sort of in the out-relief, after Iran has benefited from sanctions relief, our hands are sort of tied here. And by that I mean we won’t be able to further crack down on their regional instability, the funding of terrorism, because they’ll turn around and they’ll say, “Well, that’s violating the spirit of the deal,” and they might back out. So what do you say to that critic -- criticism?

SECRETARY KERRY: I say to that critic that this deal is very specifically defined. It is laid out paragraph for paragraph. The expectations are written because we didn’t want anything based on trust or based on hope. This agreement is very specific in what it requires people to do. And if Iran – after X number of years there is a transition from some of the more stringent restrictions that we negotiated for a period of time, but that’s to build some element of confidence about what their program is. That’s to get the people in place to be able to inspect. That’s to be able to know that, in fact, there is an efficient implementation process that you can rely on. And that 15-year period when you suddenly – not suddenly, but when you know that you have the size of the stockpile change or something, you still have the total requirement of access for inspection to any site anywhere where we suspect that they may be engaged in some illicit activity.

You also have 20 years of televised tracking of production of their bellows and rotors, which are critical elements of their centrifuges. And you have, very significantly – first time ever in any arms control agreement – 25 years of a tracking of their uranium production from the mine all the way to the grave. So --

QUESTION: But the idea here is that they might not be good-faith actors, that they may take the opportunity of the U.S. clamping down on terrorism funding and say, “You know what? They’re going out and they’re --”

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s their problem. If they were to do that, it’s their problem, because we will hold them accountable to this agreement. And if they break it or in any way give us pause to think that they are pursuing a nuclear weapon, we have every option available to us then that we have today.

QUESTION: All right. So you’re obviously – you’re an architect and you’re probably the most vocal booster of the deal. I’m curious, what is your biggest worry about the implementation of the deal specifically?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think the one concern one would have is that you have some element within Iran that pushes back or refuses to do something, in which case the Iranian Government is going to have to answer for that. So I can see the potential that you may have a hiccup here or there where you’ve got to confront something like that, but I don’t see the government at this point opening itself up to the potential of a snapback of all of the sanctions and the potential, obviously, also of military action if that was the only option available.

QUESTION: Yeah. The Administration has hinted, or said basically, that they want to work with Gulf states and Israel to ramp up their national security and defense mechanisms in light of this. As a practical matter, how does introducing more weapons to the region help stabilize it?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, they’re defensive weapons. They’re weapons that will enable these countries to be able to defend themselves, and that’s a very important ingredient of deterrence. But we would be doing this in many respects anyway regardless of the deal, because Iran’s activities with respect to Hizballah, its transfer of weapons to the Iraqi Shia militia, its transfer of weapons to the Houthi and elsewhere, are deeply disturbing. They are contrary to the embargo, and we should oppose that under any circumstances.

So I think what we will find here is a unique, newly developing security architecture for that region that will see Israel and Arab countries actually in common cause to have a kind of barrier against this kind of Iranian (inaudible).

QUESTION: That would be a unique common cause.

SECRETARY KERRY: It will indeed be unique.

QUESTION: Because it --

SECRETARY KERRY: But that’s in – I think that’s very much in the air right now.

QUESTION: And have the Israelis expressed openness to collaborating with Gulf states that have traditionally not been exactly the warmest to Israel?

SECRETARY KERRY: I think it is fair to say that if you look, for instance, to Egypt – I mean, the answer is it’s happening now.


SECRETARY KERRY: I mean, Jordan and Egypt are already cooperating with Israel with respect to the Sinai, with respect to jihadism in the region, and I would anticipate that that would continue and perhaps even grow.

QUESTION: This is probably an oversimplification, but in some respects it sounds like there’s a tradeoff being made here. We’re risking the possibility of smaller regional conflict to diminish the likelihood of larger cataclysmic conflict.

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t see it that way at all. What we’re trying to do is make it clear to Iran that if it wants to join the community of nations and be a nation in good standing, working towards peace and stability without supporting proxies and surrogates, there is a road to achieve that. But if, on the other hand, Iran wants to continue with its current procedures, we are going to be united in our efforts to not allow that destabilization and to stand up to those kinds of activities.

QUESTION: The President has made the case --

SECRETARY KERRY: And I might add --

QUESTION: Go ahead.

SECRETARY KERRY: There’s a very important, Sam – I’m sure you’re aware of it – with Daesh, ISIL, out there, there’s a unifying factor for many of these countries in the region – by the way, including Iran.

QUESTION: Yeah, I want to get to that.

SECRETARY KERRY: Because Iran is significantly opposed to their activity.

QUESTION: I want to get to that, yeah. Before we get to that, the President has made the case that the same people who voted for the Iraq War are essentially inviting a war with Iran by opposing this deal. You voted for the Iraq War. I’m wondering how that vote has affected your thinking about this deal, this agreement.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me make it clear: If you read my speech, which I invite you to do, that I gave on the floor when I described the vote, I did not vote to rush to war. I voted to give the President a tool to enable him to exhaust the remedies available to him in order to be able to leverage the behavior we wanted from Saddam Hussein.

QUESTION: Let me rephrase --

SECRETARY KERRY: But that didn’t happen.


SECRETARY KERRY: And I regret that. And I’ve regretted that vote as a result because I thought it was abused. I thought there was a rush to war contrary to what had been promised in terms of exhausting the remedies. So it was a bad vote, and that’s the way it is.

But that’s very different from what we’re looking at today, because I think that in the case of Iran everybody is united in not wanting Iran to get a nuclear weapon. The only question is: What is the best means of doing that? We believe that having this agreement with the 10-year requirement, the 15-year requirement, the 20-year requirement, the 25-year requirement, the lifetime requirement that they have to live by the Additional Protocol and allow access for inspections – that is far more valuable and important to hold onto than voting no and having nothing – no restrictions, no inspections, no sanctions – and losing our currently hard-won unity of the P5+1 and the rest of --

QUESTION: So there wasn’t anything redemptive about this that we wanted to pursue diplomacy even further than 2002 when we rushed to war?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, on the contrary, I believe deeply and I’ve always believed – and that was at the heart of – that’s why I say go read what I said on the Senate floor.


SECRETARY KERRY: I believe you have to exhaust the remedies. And we did not, in fact, want to give license to go just – let’s go do a war of choice.


SECRETARY KERRY: War should be not a war of choice; it should be a war of necessity and it should be a last resort. That has always driven me. And I believe that in this case we had an obligation to exhaust the possibility of a diplomatic solution with Iran before we start heading down a road towards inevitable conflict.

QUESTION: Now, you told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif said he would “be empowered to work with and talk to you about regional issues once this deal was done.” Have you had any discussions?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, we haven’t yet.


SECRETARY KERRY: The deal’s not done.

QUESTION: What do you envision – that’s a good point. I guess the 34th vote is not the final element here. But what do you envision those discussions to be about?

SECRETARY KERRY: About the region.

QUESTION: Okay. Anything specific?

SECRETARY KERRY: About what’s happening in Syria particularly. Well, Syria particularly. I think – I mean, the killing that is taking place in Syria is an insult to everybody, to any nation that is seeking decency and rule of law. It is a strategic catastrophe for the region, for all of us. It puts greater pressure on Jordan, greater pressure on Lebanon, greater pressure on Turkey. There are now some 8 million people displaced within the country, 4 million refugees outside. We are the largest donor, I’m proud to say, to the refugee crisis. But I want to stop donating to a refugee crisis and start seeing those people being able to move back home.

QUESTION: Do you think Iran – do you think there’s enough element of potential collaboration with the Iranian leadership to get in that position?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I know that we haven’t yet and we haven’t explored that yet, Sam, obviously.


SECRETARY KERRY: But Iran hates ISIL and so do we. ISIL is a danger. It is a – it’s such a stunning contradiction in the 21st century, after all that we have been through, to see a group out there destroying temples and beheading people who try to protect them and making rape an instrument of war and empowerment of their people in the most disgraceful way. We have to do something about this – more, frankly – and I think the world with the migration crisis in Europe is starting to wake up to the fact that more should be done.

QUESTION: Well, let’s talk about the migration crisis. I mean, it’s becoming an increasingly urgent problem here, this refugee crisis.


QUESTION: Can we be doing more to help Europe handle this or help the Gulf states handle this? What can we be doing to make people --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think what it underscores is the need to deal with the source. I think you have to prevent this kind of massive exodus of human beings.

QUESTION: Absent though – absent solving the civil war in Syria, which is not going to happen tomorrow, what can we do to --

SECRETARY KERRY: No, but we can do – we could do a lot more to protect those people. Well, obviously, you have to create a structure so those people aren’t so desperate. They have to be provided with temporary housing and capacity to be fed.

QUESTION: Could we take more? I mean, Germany is taking 800,000.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not talking about taking on a permanent basis.

QUESTION: Sure. Yeah.

SECRETARY KERRY: We have huge refugee camps in Jordan. In Lebanon they’re spread more in the population. In Turkey we have refugee camps. And it may be that we have to set up some sort of a refugee camp structure for the time being in order to deal with it. But I believe – I believe – I hope this will be more of a call to a lot of countries that there has to be more focus on the underlying --

QUESTION: Did you see that picture of the three-year-old Syrian boy this morning by chance?

SECRETARY KERRY: Of course. Of course.

QUESTION: What were your thoughts?

SECRETARY KERRY: I mean, it’s – I mean, it’s such a disturbing and provocative picture in so many ways. I mean, it’s – I have a little grandchild that age, and that’s what you think about.

QUESTION: Yeah. So we’re coming upon the year anniversary of the President declaring war on the Islamic State. There were recent reports that military intelligence reports were being essentially doctored or rosied up to, I don’t know, maybe influence policy makers or hide the truths about the state of the Islamic State campaign. Have you seen these --

SECRETARY KERRY: Military reports in --

QUESTION: There are reports that – I believe the Pentagon Inspector General is looking into reports that these intelligence reports about the state of the Islamic State campaign that we’re waging is going better than it actually is. Have you seen this?

SECRETARY KERRY: I have not seen this, no. That’s news to me. But I mean, I don’t think anybody’s gilded the lily in any report to me.


SECRETARY KERRY: We know this is a big challenge. I think certain parts of it are going well in certain places, and there are other parts where it’s not. But it’s clear that more has to be done in order to destroy ISIL. No question about it.

QUESTION: And how would you categorize our progress a year in?

SECRETARY KERRY: I think we’ve made progress in certain places. We had 100,000 people return in Tikrit. Sunni were able to go back to their homes that had been taken over by ISIL. We’ve seen the Ramadi effort, campaign begin and begin to make some progress. Indeed, the Sunni tribes are joining and beginning to pick up the fight, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done. Mosul remains under their control. In the current component of the country, we’ve seen a significant pushback, a more competent, frankly, pushback against ISIL. I think in the northern part of Syria some progress has been made of late. But there are still too many people who are able to slip through, come in, too many recruits, too much sustainability to something that shouldn’t be sustainable at all.

QUESTION: Looking forward a little bit: So you’ve got the Iran deal done, you got Cuba done. What’s next on your bucket list in your time in this office?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’ve got to try to see if we can get an agreement on climate change in Paris. This is a very, very important priority for us. We’re working on it very hard. That is why I went to Alaska and we had the meetings with our fellow foreign ministers there. My hope is that – this began when I went to China two years ago and we began to open up participation with China in an historic agreement with China.

QUESTION: Big deal.

SECRETARY KERRY: And hopefully that comes together to produce something in Paris. I mean, that’s really critical.

QUESTION: Well, let me ask you about that. I mean, the big debate right now is that your first speech in the Arctic Council talked about the prospects of clean energy sources in the Arctic. The first action as U.S. as chair of the Arctic Council was to essentially allow Shell to do exploratory drilling off the coast of Alaska. Isn’t there a bit of a mixed message there?

SECRETARY KERRY: Not really, because they’re – these are leases that were granted some time ago prior to President Obama becoming President, so the leases existed. And Shell and other companies are going to be drilling somewhere over the course of these next years because we’re not going to suddenly be weaned from oil. And it’s a cleaner oil than others, and I think in terms of our efforts to begin to move to a decarbonized economy it’s going to take 20, 30, 40 years. So there’s going to be some element of that.

QUESTION: It’s not like you could just cut it off cold turkey.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s not just that. I mean, I’d rather have our supply come from an American-controlled source in that respect than from somewhere else. But I think in the long run we have to wean ourselves from a carbon-based economy. We absolutely have to. We have to do it much faster than we are right now. I think the President understands that; I understand that. We’re advocating as powerfully as we can. The President, unfortunately, because of the reluctance of some members of Congress to even believe it’s happening, has to move by administrative order.

QUESTION: They take snowballs onto the Senate floor, you know?

SECRETARY KERRY: Has to move by administrative order, and that makes it very difficult.

QUESTION: We’ve reached the domestic politics portion of this program, I think. So just to --


QUESTION: Oh, yes we have.

SECRETARY KERRY: I didn’t know we were circling around to that. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: A few – just a few questions. The government – government employees, whistleblowers, are in jail today for mishandling classified information, sometimes unintentionally. But we’re only hearing Democrats and other people talk about over-classification as an issue now that Secretary – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has had her email issues. Is there not a double standard going on here, that we care – we don’t care --

SECRETARY KERRY: No, and here’s the difference, Sam, and I think there is a real difference here, and I think people need to focus in very carefully on it. I have -- first of all, I’m not commenting on the merits of this generally speaking because there’s an investigation taking place. My responsibility is to get the emails out of here as rapidly as possible so people can make judgments about them. But one of the judgments that can be made to date is that there is no evidence that something was transmitted that was classified at the time. That’s what you’re talking about. Whistleblowing on that is about classified information. But if information came into somebody’s BlackBerry or somebody’s email that wasn’t classified and then was later classified in the system, that’s a whole different ballgame.

QUESTION: Sure. Now, you’ve been on both sides of this – Legislative Branch, Executive Branch. As a general matter, do you think we over-classify?


QUESTION: What should we do about this?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s very tricky, because – I mean, there’s a massive amount of over-classification. People just stamp it on quickly because it’s a way to sort of be correct if anybody had a judgment that somehow they’d been wrong about whether it should be classified or not. So the easy thing is classify it and put it away. But --

QUESTION: There’s an acronym for that. It’s CYA. Probably not good for the cameras – “cover your ass.”

SECRETARY KERRY: Sure. But we are – I have initiated a review within this department, and I wrote personally to the inspector general, and I invited the inspector general to review the process so that we have as much accountability and insight in our own system as we can have. And we’re prepared – this whole phenomenon of email, obviously, is something that’s developed in the last few years. And the system needs to catch up to how do you manage it properly, how do you handle so much volume.

QUESTION: Last two quick questions. Just between us and these cameras, you’re running, right? (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s a very small world, right?

QUESTION: Small world, right? Are you in?

SECRETARY KERRY: I mean, I know you’ll keep a secret no matter what.

QUESTION: Obviously. No one’s going to hear this, right? Are you thinking – would you be interested in running for president?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not running.

QUESTION: Why not?

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s just not on the table right now. I like the job I’m doing. I have great challenges in this job. I have an agenda that I want to pursue over the course of the next months. And it’s a very – like Paris. And I’ve been working on the climate change issue for years, since I was in the Senate, since --

QUESTION: It’s funner to do that than run for president?

SECRETARY KERRY: Not necessarily, but it’s getting something done, and I think that that’s what’s important right now.

QUESTION: All right. And then I’m going to ask you a question that’s a lot more controversial than a presidential run: Tom Brady. He’s a free man, can play in the first football game. Is this justice served or justice denied? (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: You want me to comment on that?

QUESTION: I want you to comment on this.

SECRETARY KERRY: I can’t believe that. You, a good Red Sox fan, are asking me --

QUESTION: I’m a Red Sox – but I’m a Giants fan. I’m in that Connecticut divide.

SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, that’s a huge mistake. I mean, that shows --

QUESTION: I’m in the Connecticut divide.

SECRETARY KERRY: That shows an inexplicable ambivalence; it really does.

QUESTION: I know, I know. I’ve heard this before from other members of our office. Are you happy that the suspension has been lifted?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m delighted. (Laughter.) I’m thrilled, and I’m looking forward to seeing Tom Brady and the Patriots against Pittsburgh on the 10th.

QUESTION: All right. You’ve got a Dunkin Donuts in this building now, which is great for a New Englander like yourself.

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s fantastic.


SECRETARY KERRY: Long overdue.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. I appreciate it.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thanks, Sam. Appreciate it. Good to see you. Thank you.