Interview on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert

John Kerry
Secretary of State
New York City
October 1, 2015

QUESTION: How are you doing?

SECRETARY KERRY: Tyler’s not going to jump in my lap, is he? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: If you give him some cash, he will. (Laughter.) How much – by the way, how much do you miss fundraising?

SECRETARY KERRY: Zero. (Laughter.) It’s the worst thing in the world. I’m so happy. It’s one of the great things about this job.

QUESTION: You don’t have to ask anybody for money, just not end the world?

SECRETARY KERRY: Right. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Let’s talk about saving the world for a second.


QUESTION: Congratulations on the Iran deal. This can not --

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. (Applause.)

QUESTION: Congratulations, congratulations, I assume. I don’t know. Some people say you’ve saved us, some people say you’ve killed us. Which do you think it is? (Laughter.) I assume you think it’s a good thing. Tell me why, if I’m someone who thinks that you’ve capitulated like Neville Chamberlain, why that’s wrong. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, for the simple reason that Neville Chamberlain relied on words. There was no agreement. He simply listened to what Hitler said.

QUESTION: He held up a piece of paper and said it would bring us peace in our time.

SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, yeah, but that’s – there was no verification, nothing certain. We have 159 pages that we negotiated over two and a half years that lays out, Stephen, every single requirement the Iranians have to perform. They don’t get any relief from the sanctions until they’ve knocked their stockpile of enriched fissile material down, until they have destroyed many of their centrifuges, till they’ve stopped fissionable material, till they – I mean there are a series of things they have to do before they get any help. So then we have a verification system with 24/7/365 watching what they’re doing, knowing exactly where the program is going, and that goes on for 15, 20 – there are different grades of what’s required, 25 years, we track every single bit of uranium that is produced in their mines and goes all the way through the entire nuclear fuel cycle. And for a lifetime, forever, they have to submit to this thing called the Additional Protocol, which requires inspections.

QUESTION: For a long time. That is a long time.


QUESTION: And aren’t we kicking the nuclear can down the road 15 years and letting somebody else who’s Secretary of State – Secretary of State Taylor Swift – letting her deal with this 15 years from now?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that’s better than Gary Busey. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I don’t know. I would not want to – I would not want to negotiate with Gary Busey. You don’t know what that guy is gonna do. (Laughter.) The Iranians – like the ayatollahs --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I would like to negotiate with Taylor Swift. That would be interesting. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: That would be very pleasant. You could be part of the girl squad. (Laughter.)


QUESTION: But the Iranian – the ayatollahs, the Supreme Leader, still call the United States the Great Satan. How can we trust them if they believe we’re the ultimate evil? Why wouldn’t they lie to us in order just to get what they want because they don’t owe us anything because we’re evil?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, they might, Stephen. And they do call us the Great Satan. But this deal was not ever intended to solve all of our problems with Iran. President Obama made a fundamental decision: Iran cannot get a nuclear weapon. Why? Because an Iran with a nuclear weapon is obviously a lot harder to deal with than an Iran without one, and because we don’t want nuclear weapons spreading throughout the region, or anywhere for that matter.

So the first objective was to deal with the nuclear weapon. And we had a very targeted, disciplined effort here where we did not get sidetracked into other issues. Some people think we should have, and there is some criticism of us for that.

QUESTION: Did you – were you ever tempted, or you – and obviously the President and the Administration – tempted to walk away?


QUESTION: What was the moment – what was the most crucial moment for you?

SECRETARY KERRY: There were several. There were a number. In fact, a week out there was a moment in the evening when we really thought this wasn’t going to happen. And I sat down with my fellow foreign ministers from Germany, France, China, Britain, Russia, and we talked about how do we deal with this possibility that it may not happen, and therefore where will things go in the Middle East as a result of that.

Then the next day I had a personal conversation with my counterpart from Iran, and we really kind of talked about the stakes for the world, for the region, for all of us, and I said, “Look, if you’re not serious, we’re ready to go home. You make up your mind.” And they came back and somehow we managed to get back on track, and obviously, about a week later we closed the agreement.

QUESTION: You related your experience in Vietnam to your determination to get this deal. What is the connection between the two of those?

SECRETARY KERRY: War. I mean, if we didn’t get an agreement with Iran, the pressures that would have mounted because Iran would have been pursuing its program.

QUESTION: So it was war or the deal, essentially?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, our perception was it wouldn’t have been war day one or immediately; but if Iran continued to enrich and Israel and other countries in the region saw them doing that, then the pressure was going to mount inexorably to have to do something about it. And if you’ve tried negotiation and have failed, or you can’t negotiate, you then wind up being pressured towards conflict. And what I learned in Vietnam was pretty simple, that it was a war in which too many of my friends died and died, I believed, under circumstances that might have been averted had different choices been made by people in positions of responsibility. And I vowed that if I was ever one of those people in a position of responsibility, I would do everything in my power to make sure that young men and women in America were never sent to war unless it was a last resort. (Applause.)

QUESTION: We’ve got to take a little break. If you can stick around, I’d like to talk a little bit more, because it turns out there are other things happening in the Middle East as well that are worth talking about. When we return, we’ll continue speaking with Secretary of State John Kerry.


QUESTION: We’re back with Secretary of State John Kerry. Mr. Secretary, thanks for sticking around. Now, you look pretty rested for a man who must have a lot on his mind, because the Russians have started bombing in Syria. And they said they were going to bomb ISIS targets, but now y’all are saying they’re bombing people that we’ve trained to fight Assad. I don’t want to go out on a limb here; I’m beginning to think I can’t trust this Putin guy. (Laughter.) What is actually happening over there?

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s pretty good judgment.

QUESTION: Yeah. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: What’s happening is a catastrophe for everybody in Syria and in the region, a human catastrophe unparalleled really in modern times right now. More refugees than we’ve ever seen. We see them inundating Europe. Two million in Turkey, a million and a half to close to two now in Jordan, and about a million plus in Lebanon, and the others are just displaced. I mean, the Russians talk about how Assad is the only guy who can save Syria, but there’s no Syria to save other than the area that he has. There’s a Syria to save.

QUESTION: He also barrel bombed his own people and gassed them.

SECRETARY KERRY: Gassed his own people, barrel bombed his own people, starved his own people, tortured his own people. There are tens of thousands of photographs of people who were most brutally tortured. And --

QUESTION: Well, what’s the plan in Syria? And as a follow-up question, is there a plan in Syria? (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: Both questions are fair. Yes, and yes. The plan is that we are going to continue to put pressure on ISIL. We’ve made it clear to Russia we will continue to fly, we will continue to do what we’ve been doing for a year.

QUESTION: So they’re flying and we’re flying --

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, but we had a meeting --

QUESTION: The two great superpowers in the world flying over a war-torn country. What could possibly go wrong, sir? (Laughter.) Does that make you nervous at all?

SECRETARY KERRY: Sure. And that’s precisely why we had a meeting today with the Russians, which will be followed up with another one very quickly, as we do what’s called de-conflicting, which is if they’re there to fight ISIL --

QUESTION: De-conflicting?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re going to make sure that our airplanes --

QUESTION: That’s a new one for me.

SECRETARY KERRY: We need – we need to make certain – it’s a lousy word, but it’s – (laughter).

QUESTION: Yes, I’m sure it’s a good goal.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. I accept that. (Laughter.) It is a way of making sure that planes aren’t going to be shooting each other and we start something worse, and it’s very serious. So we’re trying to define who will do what where, and this will test whether or not they’re really going after ISIL or whether they’re there to support the Assad regime.

If they’re there to support the Assad regime, Russia has made a catastrophic mistake, because they will be siding with Assad, with Iran, and with Hizballah, against the entire rest of the community in that part of the world, against Sunnis. And it runs the risk of really inviting even more jihadists to come into Syria. Russia will then become the target of some of that. So we hope they will see the common sense in the next days.

But no matter what, we are going to continue our policy – and it is our policy – of destroying ISIL. We’ve done an enormous amount over the last year. We’ve flown more than 3,000 airstrikes. We’ve saved whole communities. We have 100,000 people who’ve returned to Tikrit in Iraq. We’ve been able to save Kobani in Syria. We moved down the border of northern Syria. So ISIL is increasingly under pressure, still able to operate, but that pressure is going to grow. And if we can have Russia actually focused on ISIL, then we have a chance of destroying them sooner. If they don’t, we will stay focused on them with our coalition of more than 60 countries which we’ve put together.

QUESTION: But who are we helping? Who are the people – there was talk about sort of the moderate rebels in Syria. Who are we helping? Who are the good guys, or are there any good guys? Have all the good guys – the people who have left, the refugees are the good guys?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the really good guys are.


SECRETARY KERRY: The really good guys are these millions of people who have been displaced and who object to what Assad is doing. But there are – there is a solid group of opposition who are fighting on the ground who are not extremists but who want a Syria that is democratic and secular and unified and opportunity for all of the citizens. We are working very hard on a political track to see and test whether Russia is indeed serious about solving this problem. But the only way in the end that it will be solved is for Assad to transition out over a period of time and in a structured, managed way --

QUESTION: How do you get him to --

SECRETARY KERRY: -- so the country --

QUESTION: How do you get him to leave? He has done such terrible things that where do you allow him to go? Do you allow him to go to Russia, get a nice dacha somewhere in the mountains or something like that?

SECRETARY KERRY: There – there are --

QUESTION: Tease him out with a piece of cheese at the border? How do you get him – (laughter). Seriously, how do you get someone like that to ever leave once they’ve really crossed the Rubicon?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s happened in other countries that people have left. The 30-year dictator in Tunisia left and is living south of there now. There’s – there are ways to do it. And if Russia is serious about wanting a solution and wanting to save Syria, then they can join us in the effort of persuading Assad to be the savior of his country, not the killer of his country. And there is a way for us to be able to do that. That’s what we’re working on. I hope that they will see the better wisdom in not being aligned with Assad, aligned with Iran, aligned with Hizballah, and against all of the other countries in the region who are trying to fight ISIL and save Syria at the same time.

QUESTION: Well, many years ago I had the good fortune to get to know Richard Holbrooke.


QUESTION: And I was having a conversation with him once with him, Willie Nelson, and me – believe it or not. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: I do believe it. No, I’m sure you did.

QUESTION: It was a fun party. (Laughter.) And Willie was asking him about Dennis Kucinich’s idea of creating a department of peace. We have a defense department, why not a peace department? And Richard Holbrooke said to Willie, “Willie, we have one. It’s called the State Department.”

SECRETARY KERRY: “We have one. The State Department.” (Applause.)

QUESTION: So thank you for your diligence of making that a reality around the world. Thank you so much.