Interview With Bahman Kalbasi of BBC Persia

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Palace Hotel
New York City
October 2, 2015

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, thank you very much for sitting down with the BBC.

SECRETARY KERRY: Very happy to sit with you, thank you.

QUESTION: And based on the latest updates you have on Russia’s military operation in Syria and the reports that now they have targeted ISIS, they – next to confirmation or not – unconfirmed reports that Iran is boosting its presence in Syria, do you – is it your analysis at this point that these developments will diminish greatly the chance of putting together a contact group of countries to work on Syria and find a diplomatic solution? Or actually it will help and provide an opening given that --


QUESTION: -- many say this could be all for leverage?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it depends entirely on what their purpose is. If their purpose is to bring about a political settlement, we could have a political settlement very, very quickly. But it depends on the willingness to enter genuinely into a real transitional process with respect to the Assad regime according to the terms of the Geneva process. Now, if they’re prepared to support a genuine transition, then there is a possibility. If they are just there to support Assad, the war will get worse and Syria may, in fact, be utterly destroyed. Because by merely supporting Assad, they will attract more jihadis, more Daesh, and the region will become more dangerous.

QUESTION: So your conversations with them in the last week and the last few days, which one is your guess? What’s --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we don’t know yet. We don’t know until it’s tested. I mean, we need to find out, is Russia really there to go after ISIL? Well, the first few days indicated definitively otherwise. They were bombing not ISIL, and they were bombing in places that weren’t even where ISIL was. So it is critical that this be focused on Daesh, and as long as it is focused on Daesh, there is room for cooperation to get rid of Daesh.

But we need a political settlement. That is the only way to prevent these millions of people who have been displaced, millions of people who are moving to other countries, putting an enormous burden on Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, the – Germany, Austria. And so I hope that the Iranians and the Russians will see this as a moment where one needs to really put the geostrategic interests and games aside and look to the common humanity that is at risk in this particular conflict and help to bring about a resolution.

We are not seeking any bases in Syria – evidently, Russia, may be. We are not seeking to have our foreign troops in Syria, but others are. There is IRGC there, Hizballah is there, and that is extremely dangerous with respect to the boil of sectarian, religious extremism that is threatening to create even a wider and more dangerous conflict.

QUESTION: And what do you say to the many that say your ally, Saudi Arabia, is also playing a negative role by supporting many of these group, especially al-Nusrah? And what about the format? If there was going to be a format – Iran wasn’t invited to Geneva talks. But can you come up with a format maybe like the P5+1 that brings --

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, of course we can. We can find the format. Where you need to resolve a war, there’s always a way for people to find a way to weigh in and have their impact felt. But the Saudis are supporting the moderate opposition. Everybody has been very strict about where that support is coming from and going now. And we are opposed to Nusrah, we’re opposed to these other groups. There is only one group that we feel is appropriate to have at the table, and that is the legitimate Syrian opposition represented through the SOC and through the Free Syrian Army.

QUESTION: Going forward to the nuclear issue, I want to read you a quote that you – right after the interim deal and on November 24th. You said, “In 2003, when the Iranians made an offer to a former administration with respect to their nuclear program, there were 164 centrifuges. That offer was not taken. Subsequently, sanctions came in, and today we have 19,000.”

What do you say to millions of Iranians who look back at that time and say there was a missed opportunity and we paid a high price for it, and it wasn’t just Ahmadinejad; it was the Bush Administration didn’t take that offer, and consequently, we suffered 10 years of crippling sanctions? They – their lives was affected, their pockets were affected. True, that was a different administration, but can they look at America as a whole and say, you were also responsible for what happened in the last 10 years; this could all have been avoided?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the – yes, it was a missed opportunity. I mean, it was a missed opportunity. Obviously, it didn’t happen. But the fact is that I don’t think it was pursued particularly. I don’t think there was a lot of discussion at the time other than the sort of – it was a time of great tension, obviously. It was after 9/11, there were a lot of different currents in the air then.

So I’m not going to go backwards. I don’t think it serves us any great purpose at this point. We reached an agreement, the agreement is historic. It’s a landmark agreement that has the potential to guarantee that there will not be a movement towards weaponization and Iran’s program will be, in fact, completely peaceful. And if it is, so much the better for everybody in the world, and Iran will have an opportunity to prove that over these next months and years, and we – that’s what we wanted to welcome.

We also hoped that it might possibly be able to lead to a greater engagement within the region and elsewhere so that we can address some of these grave concerns like the destruction of Syria or what’s happening in Yemen or other places. The last thing the world needs is a larger sectarian confrontation, and I think it’s absolutely essential that we all work together to try to bring about peace and stability in the region.

QUESTION: So going forward, a lot of people in Iran especially wonder or hope at whether this will be – nuclear deal will be the end – will not be the end of this conversation; will be beginning a building on something bigger in terms of U.S.-Iran relations. What do you think both side, not just the Iranians, should do to bring about that possibility of changing the dynamic?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think everybody can start by lowering the rhetoric, number one. “Death to America, death to Israel,” a huge book laying out the destruction of Israel is not helpful in this process. Secondly, they can help by pulling back from under-the-table hidden arms transfers from Iran through Syria to Lebanon that are going to threaten Israel. They can stop sending weapons to other people who are unwilling to play by the international rules and norms and standards, and who are non-state actors who want to destabilize countries.

Look at what has happened in Yemen. Former President Saleh has played an extremely destructive role. There was a government there, they were trying to negotiate, and the Houthi just took over. Who are the Houthis supported by? Iran. And that resulted in enormous threat to others in the region, and now we see the country under bombing and enormous number of civilian casualties.

These kinds of intrusions into other people’s lives would be better played out on the diplomatic stage. If there’s an agenda, if there are rights that are being wronged, if there are issues to be addressed, let’s address them in the United Nations. Let’s address them in our bilateral relationships. I think one of the things that Iran and the United States proved in the last two and a half years is we are able to sit down. We were able to work through very, very difficult issues. And I’m confident that with a little bit of effort, we could do so on some other critical issues now.

QUESTION: And on these sanctions, now there’s almost like a gold rush – EU, Asian companies waiting to go in. And oddly, the only country’s companies that were staying out are America’s. Many in Iran would like to see American companies go in and be part of the competition.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, American companies are obviously prepared to compete in fair ways for business, but it hasn’t --

QUESTION: Well, wouldn’t that be your signal to say, like with Cuba, yes, there are still sanctions against American companies going in – but a political will to say go in, you will not be punished, do you think --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’ve told – we’ve told country – we’ve told companies. Nobody’s restricting companies from going, but they haven’t yet seen the Majlis approve of the deal. They haven’t yet seen the deal be implemented. And so they’re nervous about investing until they see the certainty of this agreement being fully implemented, and I think that will help enormously.

QUESTION: The last question being the – people watching the presidential candidates on the Republican side and seeing that they’re promising to walk away from a deal. Actually, even people listening to Secretary – former Secretary Clinton don’t see a very positive view for engagement even though she supported the deal. Do you think that this might happen? That in fact – how are you assuring the Iranians --

SECRETARY KERRY: No, no. This deal will not be torn up unless Iran violates the deal, which I think Iran has every reason not to, certainly, in the earliest stages and I think throughout because of our inspections and our ability to know what Iran is going to do. That’s part of the exchange.

But by not – by living up to the agreement, Iran will be inviting countries to become involved. The economy can improve. People’s lives in Iran can improve and will improve, and we want that. We have never wanted the people of Iran feeling the pain of decisions made by the government, and that’s why we pushed hard to move in this direction, because we want to be able to see Iran join the community of nations, provided they’re prepared to live up to the international norms and standards that are expected.

QUESTION: Do you see a U.S. embassy opening in Tehran in 10 – next 10 years? Would you --

SECRETARY KERRY: I can’t – I really can’t predict, and I’m not going to get into that kind of speculation. But obviously, we would like to see the issues that are acting as a barrier between our countries be resolved and resolved in an affirmative way. But when you see a country’s leader declaring that his intention is to destroy a country and a close ally of the United States, it makes it very difficult to see how that will happen in the near term.

QUESTION: And on a prisoner exchange, do you think that’s an idea that can be --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to comment on what may or may not happen. I think we would like to see our citizens returned to the United States, and I can well understand why Iran would have similar desires with respect to some of their citizens.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, thank you for sitting down with the BBC.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much. Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thanks. Good to be with you.