Interview With CNN's Wolf Blitzer

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

QUESTION: And joining us now, the Secretary of State John Kerry. Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for joining us here in our Situation Room. I know you’ve spent a lot of time in another Situation Room in town as well.

SECRETARY KERRY: Happy to be here.

QUESTION: You have said the prisoner release, in your word, was accelerated by the nuclear talks, the nuclear deal. Were these prisoners pawns, part of that deal?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, no. We really almost had an agreement – I thought we did have an agreement – well before implementation day, and it got caught up in a snag on interpretation and we had to work it through. And then it simply dovetailed in and it dovetailed in fairly easily, but it was not linked distinctly.

QUESTION: But no one really believes it was a coincidence that on the day the implementation of the nuclear deal goes forward, finally the Americans are released from Iran.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it became – as I say, it became convenient. It was not linked. And in the last weeks, it just sort of became almost automatic that this was all going to happen in one fell swoop, but it was not linked. For a year and a half – well, I guess it was what, 15 months we had a series of meetings. I thought we had arrived at an agreement.

QUESTION: I covered this story for a long time. I never really thought these Americans would be released until that implementation deal would go through and the Iranians would get the money, the sanctions that would be released, the billions and billions of dollars. That’s what I always assumed.


QUESTION: Finally, as part of that deal, they would let the Americans leave.

SECRETARY KERRY: I honestly didn’t believe that, though, as I said. But it’s moot now. It doesn’t matter.

QUESTION: All right, let --

SECRETARY KERRY: What’s important, though, and let me just clarify one thing, because you raised billions of dollars. I keep hearing on television and elsewhere this $100 million, $100 billion, $150 billion. It is not. It’s not 150, it’s not 100. There is about $55 billion that over time will go to the Iranians. But there’s a massive amount, billions of dollars, that the Iranians have tied up in debt to the Chinese, debt to other countries, India and so forth, and so there’s much less – now, that’s still a lot of money and I’m not disavowing that. But they have needs somewhere in the vicinity well upwards of $500 billion to begin to renew their oil extraction capacity, to do other things on infrastructure. They have a massive amount of needs.

QUESTION: Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini – were they tortured?

SECRETARY KERRY: I haven’t had the debrief yet. I honestly don’t know the answer to that. They’re being evaluated at the hospital at Landstuhl, and then they’ll return and we’ll have the full story.

QUESTION: The – I guess there’s a lot of suggestions that after the Iranians, according to the UN Security Council, illegally tested ballistic missiles, the U.S. was ready to impose fresh sanctions against Iran, but you delayed that out of fear that it could jeopardize the release of the Americans. Is that true?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think it’s fair to say that we wanted to respect the sensitivity of everything that we were doing, but we made it clear we were going to do it. We made it clear weeks ago. We notified Congress and we made it clear this was going to happen. We also made it clear at the time.

QUESTION: So they violated a UN Security Council resolution by testing these ballistic missiles. The Obama Administration said they will be penalized, they will be sanctioned for that --

SECRETARY KERRY: And they have --

QUESTION: -- but you delayed that until the Americans were released?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the President always has the prerogative to choose the timing of what he does, but he made it clear he would enforce those sanctions, and he did.

QUESTION: It does raise the question, though, that even as you’re trying to improve relations with Iran, they’re breaking what the U.S. regards as commitments from the UN Security Council. This is a country that still supports terrorism. They’re on the State Department list of countries that support terrorism, but you’re willing to negotiate with them. Why?

SECRETARY KERRY: Because the alternative is far more dangerous for our country and for the region. It is imperative as a matter of fundamental principles of diplomacy, of multilateral relations, and frankly, of wielding the great power of potentially going to war, that you exhaust all the diplomatic possibilities before you ask young men and women, Americans and others perhaps, to put their lives on the line. That’s fundamental, Wolf. And the President has been courageous and steadfast in making it clear that he would pursue diplomacy first.

QUESTION: Has the Iranian mindset changed? Have they abandoned their ambition to have a nuclear bomb?

SECRETARY KERRY: The supreme leader agreed in the Iran agreement – it is firmly embraced within the agreement – that Iran will never seek a nuclear weapon. And they have embraced a set of verification measures which give us the ability way – I mean, as long as the agreement is in existence – to be able to access sites that are questionable and to be able to enforce this through the IAEA. So we have lost nothing here. We have gained. We have gained --

QUESTION: Have they abandoned their nuclear ambition?

SECRETARY KERRY: They say they have.

QUESTION: Do you believe it?

SECRETARY KERRY: That’s why we have verification in this agreement.

QUESTION: So do you believe that they have abandoned that nuclear weapon ambition?

SECRETARY KERRY: It is to be proven by the process going forward and the verification of this agreement. As President Obama has said, it’s not built on trust. I’ve said that hundreds of times. This is not built on trust, Wolf. This is built on a meticulously negotiated set of verification requirements. And so --

QUESTION: If the U.S. intelligence community or anybody else has suspicions that something is going on that you don’t know about, you notify the Iranians you want to inspect that facility. How many days do they have to potentially clean it up?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there’s a 24-hour period before they have to respond.

QUESTION: A 24-hour period?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, before they have to respond to the request for access. There’s then a period of days, 21 – 14 days initially – and then it’s reported to the joint commission, which is us, Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia, and we would decide whether or not we want to take action, go to the UN Security Council. But our belief is that that is the kind of accountability that is going to allow us to continue to move forward with the implementation of this agreement.

QUESTION: Hold your thought for a moment.


QUESTION: We’re going to take a quick break. There’s a lot more to discuss, a lot of interest, obviously, that relates to these Americans, this nuclear deal. Much more with the Secretary of State right after this.


QUESTION: We’re back with the Secretary of State John Kerry. Mr. Secretary, you’re a sailor. You were in the Navy. When you saw those 10 American sailors with their hands over their heads on their knees, was that enough for you – did you threaten the Iranians, Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, the U.S. was going to walk away from this deal unless they were immediately released?

SECRETARY KERRY: Suffice it to say I don’t want to get into precise language. I think that’s inappropriate. But let me make it clear: I was extremely upset, frustrated. It was inappropriate, and I made it very, very clear to the Iranians that we needed those people back and we needed them right away.

QUESTION: What would have happened if they wouldn’t have returned them?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to – I don’t think it does any purpose. I want to – my counterpart, Foreign Minister Zarif, responded promptly. He could not have been more serious. He understood the gravity of the situation. President Rouhani, others, engaged. And within a matter of very few hours, we did what could not have been done a year ago, two years ago, three years ago. We wouldn’t have known who to call three years ago – maybe the Swiss, maybe the British. That could have become a major hostage situation. It could have been very, very dangerous. But because we have a channel of communication, because we have worked on this nuclear agreement, we were able to resolve this. That is very important.

QUESTION: If things start moving in the right direction, could you see normalization of relations with Iran, reopening of embassies, as you did last year with Cuba?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, again, I mean, can I see it somewhere in time. I can’t speculate --

QUESTION: While you’re still Secretary of State.

SECRETARY KERRY: I can’t speculate on that. I know --

QUESTION: Do you think that’s realistic over the next year?

SECRETARY KERRY: I have no sense of timing and we haven’t had those discussions at this point in time. We need to work through some very serious issues before that’s on the table. But obviously, the world would be better off if we could move down a different road, and particularly if we can reduce the tensions between the Gulf states and Iran because Iran’s behavior actually changes. That’s critical.

QUESTION: Well, on Syria --

SECRETARY KERRY: And needless to say --

QUESTION: On Syria, do you think that Iran will abandon Bashar al-Assad?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’ve never said that.

QUESTION: Do you believe they could?

SECRETARY KERRY: Here’s what I know. That Syria – that the Iranians have agreed to come to the table. They have sat at that table with Saudi Arabia and other countries. Nobody could have imagined that a year or so ago or even months ago. They – both the Saudis and the Iranians have agreed that they will not let their differences at this moment get in the way of a process of trying to work on Syria. And the Iranians have put forward their plan for Syria, which involves a ceasefire, a negotiation of a – reform with respect to the constitution of Syria, a rewriting of that constitution, a unity government, and an election. That is very close to what Geneva has been trying to achieve over a period of time.

So this needs to be explored. I’m making no promises. I can’t tell you whether this can or can’t work. I can tell you that if you’re going to have a political settlement, which everybody says is critical, this is the only way to get to it, and we are going to put it to the test.

QUESTION: But you know the Saudis, they’ve severed diplomatic relations --


QUESTION: -- with Iran. After the Iranians ransacked their embassy, Saudis executed a top Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis really – like the UAE, like several of the Sunni moderate Arab states, like the Israelis for that matter – they hate this rapprochement, if you will, this improved relationship with Iran, the billions of dollars that are going to be flowing.

SECRETARY KERRY: No, they don’t. They don’t hate the – what they hate is what Iran is doing in the region and engaged in in their country, they believe, and in Yemen and elsewhere. That’s what they don’t like. They don’t like the --

QUESTION: Because the Saudis are not even ruling out the possibility --

SECRETARY KERRY: They don’t like it any more than we like it. We don’t like the fact that Hizballah and the IRGC are in Syria propping up the dictator who’s killing his people and who is the principal attraction of jihadis. Nobody likes that. So that’s why we are pushing forward on this Syria negotiation in an effort to see if we can come to an agreement where there is a transition government and where the people of Syria can choose the leadership going forward and we can resolve this challenge.

QUESTION: Because the Saudis have not even ruling out the possibility, given their concern about this nuclear deal with Iran, they could go forward and buy some – maybe buy a nuclear bomb, maybe from Pakistan. You’ve heard those concerns.

SECRETARY KERRY: Sure, we’ve heard those things. But you can’t just buy a bomb and transfer it.

QUESTION: Why not? They got a lot of money.

SECRETARY KERRY: There are all – there’s all kinds of NPT consequences. I mean, there are huge implications of that. And Saudi Arabia knows, I believe, that that is not going to make them safer, nor is it going to be easy, because the very things that Iran went through, they would then be subject to with respect to inspection, NPT, and so forth.

QUESTION: Bob Levinson, the American former FBI agent, contractor for the CIA, disappeared during a 2007 business trip to Iran. Is he still alive?

SECRETARY KERRY: Bob Levinson is very, very much a part of our negotiation, very much a part of every conversation we have had with the Iranians. He is, in fact, in the agreement itself specifically by name and process going forward. The Iranians have agreed to continue to help us try to find the whereabouts and whatever may or may not have happened to Bob Levinson. We are going to continue that effort. I feel horrible for the family. I know it’s very difficult for them --

QUESTION: Do you think the Iranians have him?

SECRETARY KERRY: -- to see people coming back. We do not have evidence at this point as to where he is. We have been very clear about that. We are tracing every lead of where --

QUESTION: But you believe he is alive?

SECRETARY KERRY: We don’t – we are trying to find out where he is and what the circumstances are. We are proceeding as if he is. We want him to be. We hope he is. We don’t have capacity at this point to draw any kinds of conclusions. But we are working on it, and the Iranians are cooperating. There are efforts that we have made to actually trace leads, and I know it’s very, very difficult for his family to see these other folks come back and not have answers. We will --

QUESTION: Two other Americans --

SECRETARY KERRY: I just want to make clear we will not stop, we are continuing in every respect to try to follow up to get the answers with respect to Bob Levinson.

QUESTION: Two other Americans are still being held by the Iranians: Siamak Namazi and Nizar Zakka. Why weren’t they part of this deal?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, as you know, this has been a secret negotiation for a long period of time. I know you know that particularly. And we have kept everybody part of our discussions. There’s nobody who is an American who has not been part of these discussions. And I’m not free to go into details about what will happen, but there are people who came out, as you know, separately from the airplane that brought Jason and the others out. And we will make certain that every American is home, and we know pretty much where we’re heading with respect to that process.

QUESTION: Donald Trump – he keeps saying you’re the worst negotiator ever. Do you want to respond to it?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. No, I have no need to, really.

QUESTION: Do you want to say anything? (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I think I’ll let the process take care of itself, Wolf. I’m not involved in politics, I’m not involved in the presidential race, and I really just prefer to keep focused on my job and what I’m doing.

QUESTION: Twenty years from now, how will history judge this deal?

SECRETARY KERRY: Twenty years from now, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon; and if they start to break out anew, the United States of America will have done something about it because we’ll know about it. So I think this deal will stand the test of time.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you’ve been very generous with your time. Thank you very much for joining us.



QUESTION: We’re back with Senator Tom Cotton as we’re digging deeper into the fine print of the newly implemented Iran nuclear deal and the financial implications. Senator, I want to – I’d like you to listen to part of my interview with Secretary of State John Kerry today. I asked him about an agreement for the U.S. to settle a decades-old legal dispute with Iran by paying a very hefty settlement to Iran:

This $1.7 billion that the U.S. is now directly going to provide the Iranians, a claim settlement --

SECRETARY KERRY: Over a period of time.

QUESTION: This is U.S. taxpayer money that the Iranians are going to get, $400 million in arms that they purchased back in the late ’70s that were never delivered, but $1.3 billion the U.S. is going to give the Iranians in interest?

SECRETARY KERRY: Not give. I wish – it’s a legal settlement and it’s money that we would owe in a much greater sum than that. We are liable for about $6 billion or so. And the reason we are liable for that is because in 1979 when the hostage taking took place, we appropriately froze $400 million. That $400 million, under the law, collects interest compounded over the years. So this was a – this is a negotiation, by the way, that is completely separate from what we were doing with respect to the nuclear agreement. It’s been going on for decades.

QUESTION: When I heard that the U.S. was going to give the Iranians $1.7 billion for this claim, I wondered if there was a demand – if the Iranians are going to – are going to offer some compensation to the 52 American diplomats who were held hostage in Iran in 1979 and ’80 --


QUESTION: -- for 444 days. Is Iran going to offer compensation to that?

SECRETARY KERRY: Just as there are claims against us, we have claims against Iran. And there are legal proceedings now involving those particular claims, and that’s the consequences of the – of what happened in 1979. But as I say, a legal process was put in place under the Reagan Administration. In 1981, the claims tribunal went forward. And we have had many of our claims settled where Iran has paid us, and this is one of those claims now.

QUESTION: Did you raise the issue of the 52 American diplomats held hostage?

SECRETARY KERRY: We’ve constantly talked about that and other things.

QUESTION: Are they going to pay any?

SECRETARY KERRY: I can’t tell you what the outcome is going to be because I don’t know. But we have always talked about every difference between us, even in the context of nuclear agreement. But none of us were licensed at that point to do anything except get the nuclear agreement done because we needed to rid the world of the potential threat of a nuclear weapon. And that’s why the President kept it, appropriately, very narrowly focused, Wolf.