Interview With CNN's New Day

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
January 18, 2016

QUESTION: Huge diplomatic events this weekend: five American citizens detained in Iran released, nuclear sanctions against Iran lifted. The man in the middle of it all, Secretary of State John Kerry, joins us on New Day this morning. Mr. Secretary, we know how busy you’ve been, so we appreciate you taking the time to be here. Let me start at the end, Mr. Secretary, if I can. After 14 months of negotiations over these 5 prisoners, 14 months of ups and downs, after the Iranians on Saturday announced that they were being released, it all hit a snag. The plane was held up on the tarmac. What happened and how was it resolved?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it did hit a snag because word somehow had not been communicated with respect to the manifest on the plane that Jason Rezaian’s wife would be coming with him, and so we had to locate her. And frankly, Foreign Minister Zarif and others, the president, they immediately understood that the terms of the agreement included his wife and it needed to be done. So we went through a period of time while they were located and then ultimately reunited with Jason, and now all is well that ends well.

QUESTION: You mentioned Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. You developed quite a relationship with him over the last couple of years. Do you consider him a friend?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’ve worked very, very closely together and what we have is what you call a professional relationship in which we listened to each other carefully. We have different points of view, obviously. He is a fierce defender of Iran and some of the things that Iran believes have been done to it unjustly. For instance, he points out that when Iran was at war with Iraq, the United States sided with Iraq, and when people were gassed by Saddam Hussein, the world said nothing. And these things sort of linger. They are part of the history of the relationship that one needs to work through. But he and I always knew that what we needed to do was work to find the way to thread a needle, to protect interests. I had to protect the interests of the United States, the interests of our allies and friends and of the region particularly, and he, obviously, was defending his.

But in the end, what we did was I think find the ground where we did what was needed, which is find a way to allow Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program within the context of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but also to guarantee to us and to the rest of the world that it was going to be peaceful, that we would have the verification means of knowing that there was no covert path, there was no uranium path, there was no plutonium path, that the paths to a bomb were closed. That was always difficult because certain people had great stakes in that program or great pride of creation and didn’t want to see it rolled back. This was difficult. This was as complex, and I might add, yesterday, or two days ago now I guess it is, was as complex a day as I’ve been through because there were so many moving parts and so much need for simultaneity to build confidence. But Foreign Minister Zarif acted professionally, and when he gave his word he kept his word, and I think that’s important in terms of our relationship going forward.

QUESTION: And you trust him?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we don’t build these relationships based on trust at the earliest stages. You remember what Ronald Reagan said, trust, but verify. Obama – President Obama has said don’t trust, but verify. So we approached these issues with a view towards building the trust over time. It doesn’t happen in a – in one or two days or one or two years, but we can build trust if we see that this program indeed is adhered to thoroughly and also if Iran will begin to join with us to bring peace to Syria, deal with Yemen, reduce its activities in other countries. There are a number of things that we need to work at.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you brought up the simultaneity of everything that’s happened this weekend, a really remarkable confluence of events: nuclear sanctions lifted, five prisoners released. The timing suggests that perhaps there was some linkage. Was there?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, there really wasn’t. This – the issue of the foreign military sales money, which held Iran’s money – this is Iran’s money and it’s been held for 30 years – 35 years, ever since 1979. In 1981, there was a meeting in Algeria, the Algiers Accord, which created a claims tribunal to resolve the claims between the United States and Iran. We had a lot of claims and a lot of our claims have been settled over those years – almost all of them as a matter of fact. I think all of them but about one. But Iran still had this claim outstanding and it became clear that this was a moment where we might be able to solve what had been decades of negotiation with respect to that.

QUESTION: If the sanctions had not been lifted, do you think the prisoners would have been released?

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes. I think we had a separate track going on that, and we were clear that given the right equation, that was not tied to implementation day. It happened to come together at that moment. I think everybody saw that that would be propitious, but it was not directly linked, believe me.

QUESTION: There was another – there was --

SECRETARY KERRY: I had hoped it would have happened a couple of months ago, actually, and then it hit a snag and we continued to negotiate.

QUESTION: So there was another potential snag to all of this that emerged last week. The Iranians captured 10 U.S. sailors. You said their release was a sign of the diplomatic success, this new relationship, that three or four years ago they never would have been released as quickly as they were. Mr. Secretary, you served on a naval vessel not too different than the ones that were captured in the Gulf there. What was your reaction when you saw the photo of those sailors on their knees with their hands behind their heads?

SECRETARY KERRY: I was very angry. I was very, very frustrated and angry that that was released. I raised it immediately with the Iranians. It was not put out by the ministry of foreign affairs or the government directly. It was put out, I think, through the military over there and the IRGC, who had been opposed to what we are doing.

QUESTION: So you --

SECRETARY KERRY: They’re opposed to – but I’m not excusing it. There’s no excuse for it. Our sailors, regrettably, inadvertently went into Iranian waters. The challenge is that three or four years ago, you mentioned, we wouldn’t have known who to call. We would have probably had to call the Swiss or maybe we would have called the British. There would have been no direct communication, and it could have grown into a major kind of hostage confrontation the way it had previously. And there were people, by the way, in Iran now who certainly would have argued to hold onto them longer. But it was because we built a relationship, because we are working at this nuclear effort, because we are trying to turn a corner, as President Rouhani said, and Iran has joined into the Syria talks and Iran agreed to a formula for a ceasefire, for a unity government, for a constitutional reform, and for an election in Syria. That could not have happened were we not building on this path with respect to the nuclear program.

QUESTION: Did you send a message essentially that said if you don’t release these sailors then all bets are off with the implementation of the nuclear deal?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to discuss what I said or didn’t say, but suffice it to say that I made it crystal clear how serious this was. It was imperative to get it resolved. I think they believed that and knew that instinctively. And within a matter of hours, we had an agreement that this was going to be resolved.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary of State John Kerry, again, you’ve been very busy over the last few days. Thanks so much for taking the time to be with us. Appreciate it, sir.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Thanks a lot.