Roundtable with Journalists

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Davos, Switzerland
January 21, 2016

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, listen, everybody. Greetings and thank you for your patience while we’re here, obviously. There’s a lot of bilateral diplomacy, trilateral even, that’s going on. I met this morning with Prime Minister Sharif and President Ghani and the Vice President. I also met one-on-one and otherwise with Prime Minister Netanyahu. And last night we met with President – the Vice President and I met with President Poroshenko. And the reason – I mean, I also met with Foreign Minister Zarif quietly yesterday when we got here, right directly when we got here.

And this has a one-stop shopping capacity that you only get otherwise, I think, at the UN, but here it even has a little less intensity so you can get some conversations going that are important and helpful. The key to it, obviously, is basic person-to-person diplomacy working the Syria issue, working Libya, working North Korea, China, and Yemen, among other things. Generically, it’s some of the sort of business things. I’m going to be doing a business thing after this.

There’s a lot of interest in sort of what’s happening in the world economy, whether or not it reflects something more significant than some people have noticed. The answer – my answer to that is no. I think the United States certainly with less than 5 percent unemployment for the first time in a long time and 69 consecutive months of growth, which is the longest streak ever, and nearly 14, about 13.7 million jobs created, we’re very strong and we feel very strong and the basics are very strong. But some adjustment is taking place in other countries like China and elsewhere, and that has an impact. And obviously, the oil – there’s a lot of oil available, and that has an impact. So there are obvious things that are correctable and will be corrected, I’m confident.

So I’m really open to your questions. I just think the – I always find this very valuable because there’s a lot of thinking going on here. I mean, an example; I met with Didier Burkhalter, the former president and foreign minister of Switzerland, who was very helpful with us on the prisoner exchange and we talked about that, but more importantly, we talked about going forward – some things they may be doing in the region to be helpful and so forth. I met with Richard Branson to further our efforts on the Oceans conference we will have this September and also to listen to him regarding some initiatives that he’s involved in, particularly Latin America and South America.

So it’s a great place to get a feel for the pulse of the world, if you will, where business, politics, science, education, entrepreneurial activity, innovation, energy – I mean, all these things come together and the development goals of the UN, AID, U.S. policy.

Oh, I also met with Prime Minister Abadi of Iraq. We had a very constructive meeting – talked about Mosul, Ramadi, repatriation of people to certain communities, the politics of the country, the issues of militia. We talked about the missing people and the three contractors and also the Qataris and the challenges of the region and some of their neighbors. So all in all, it’s – I’d call it valuable. And that’s why I started coming here as a young senator way back in 1980-something and I’ve come many times since.

QUESTION: Can I just start by – this is two very, very brief though, I promise. In the – on CNBC a few minutes ago, a couple hours ago --

SECRETARY KERRY: Beg your pardon?

QUESTION: On CNBC a couple hours ago.


QUESTION: You said that it’s likely or that you thought that at least some of the sanctions relief that Iran is getting under the nuclear deal will end up going to the IRGC or groups that Iran has supported in the past that you – are deemed to be terrorists. Obviously, there is a calculation the Administration made that the result of the deal was more than offset by what this would be a negative thing.


QUESTION: So I’m just wondering, can you explain the calculus?

SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, I can. It’s more than that. That’s not the whole calculus. The calculation is that the demands of Iran and of the Rouhani administration and of the supreme leader for development in their country is such that there is no way they can succeed in doing what they want to do if they’re very busy funding a lot of terrorism and if they’re putting money into that enterprise and not into things they need to do to move their economy.

Now, if we catch them funding terrorism, they’re going to have a problem with the United States Congress and with other people, obviously. The IRGC is already complaining that they’re not getting the money, by the way. And whatever amount may flow – I’m just trying to be honest. I can’t tell people that no, some amount might not. But we don’t believe that that is what has made the difference in the activities of Iran in the region. It hasn’t been money-based. It’s not money-based. And a whole lot of money isn’t going to make a difference in a whole lot of places. So we just don’t see that as the differential. And to whatever degree there might be a differential here and there, we are addressing that very directly with our partners. And that’s one of the reasons why I’ll be meeting with the GCC. We are constantly in touch with them. We are plusing up their capacity where there are holes or where they think there are things that are needed. And we are confident that this will not result in an increase somehow in the threat to any partner or any friend in the region.

QUESTION: Okay. I’ll skip my second one to allow other --

MR KIRBY: Christiane.


QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I spoke to Foreign Minister Zarif yesterday and to Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria. I want to ask you about that in relation to the quarrel between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Zarif said that they have no fight to pick with Saudi Arabia – they want both sides to be able to play responsible games in the Persian Gulf – and accused Saudi Arabia of – well, said that Saudi Arabia now has nowhere to go because its allies, such as the United States, have a new relationship with Iran.

So number one, do you – how do you see this issue being resolved? Is there any mediation that’s happening that can resolve it? Does it need to be resolved, and would it affect the Syria process? And I guess on the Syria process, de Mistura has not yet sent out the invitations (inaudible).

SECRETARY KERRY: No, and I don’t think he probably – he probably won’t send them out until – what’s today, Thursday, Friday, Saturday?


SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, I think that’s fine. We all agreed on that.

QUESTION: So do you think it will happen on Monday?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I think what will happen is on Monday there’ll be some discussions, but I would say by Tuesday and Wednesday people can be able to get there. We just see this as logistical, not as any – people are already there to some degree. Some have arrived, some have – they have hotel reservations. It’s not a question – it’s just I’ve got to get to Saudi Arabia and I want to talk to the folks. And I met with Lavrov, I’ve met with Zarif, and now I’m now going to meet with the others, so we’re kind of lining pieces up a little bit here. And so we’ll see where we are. I mean, and they have both stated very clearly that this will not interfere with their willingness or ability to contribute constructively to this process.

QUESTION: Do you see an ongoing conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m hoping obviously not. No, I think – I think – look, the supreme leader went to the extraordinary lengths of actually apologizing yesterday. That’s very significant. And I hope people will recognize that’s – in today’s context, measured against where we’ve been, that’s a huge step and I hope that will be reviewed as such.

QUESTION: Two questions. First, to follow up to Christiane’s question. Concerning the Syria talks on Monday, you mentioned that some of it is logistical, some of the parties have arrived. Are you saying there is movement toward an agreement on the makeup of the opposition group?

And then secondly, concerning your meeting this morning with Prime Minister Abadi, you mentioned that you did discuss the missing American contractors. Was there any movement in terms of what happened to them?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. He – they are really investigating this. He’s looking at it. He was not able to shed light on the who/where/what, and they’re still trying to get all of that pieced together. And we’re working closely with them in Iraq on that. Our ambassador is in very close touch on a regular basis. But I have nothing to add to that at this point in time.

With respect to the invitations and everything, the UN – if you read Resolution 2254, it makes it very clear that the Syrians themselves are negotiating, not us, and that Staffan de Mistura – everybody agrees – has the ability to issue whatever kinds of invitations he desires. He has already acknowledged that the principal sort of negotiating entity was – came out of what the ISSG, the International Syrian Support Group, structured, which was that opposition would go to this meeting in Riyadh and begin to choose sort of a team, so to speak, and come together. And they surprised everybody by coming together in a much broader cross-section and representation than had previously come together. But the resolution also acknowledged that people should come from the Moscow meeting and from the Riyadh – I mean from the Cairo meeting. And they have. I think there are a group of people who were chosen from the Moscow meeting and there are a group of people who were chosen from the Cairo meeting – as many as 25, I think, actually, were chosen from Cairo.

So if Staffan believes that he needs to get more advice or have greater input or whatever, he could invite people to participate – civil society, faith-based people, others – to weigh in and to be consulted in an appropriate way and to be part of the process. But the principals of the negotiating entity that he acknowledged, which was basically also acknowledged in the resolution, starts with the HNC and builds from there.

And the first meeting will be proximity talks anyway. You’re not going to have a situation where people are sitting down at the table staring at each other or shouting at each other. You’re going to have to build some process here, and that’s what will begin. So I’m confident that de Mistura will send out a series of invitations as he sees fit, as he thinks is appropriate based on his consultations with everybody.

MR KIRBY: Felicia.

QUESTION: Going back to the contractors, I guess before your meeting with Abadi, he said that he wasn’t sure if it was an Iranian-connected militia. In your meeting with him, did you guys rule that out as a possibility? And if it is a possibility, is that something that you – have you raised it with Foreign Minister Zarif or would you?

SECRETARY KERRY: Sure. I’ve raised it with Foreign Minister Zarif. I asked him for whatever help – if Iran knew any way to provide help or there were some way they could have an impact on getting the right kind of outcome, I asked him to give us that input. And --

QUESTION: And what did he --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, he said he would take that under advisement and try to do what he can. He didn’t have any immediate knowledge whatsoever about it. And I will – but on Abadi, Abadi said specifically he didn’t think Iran – he did not believe that Iran had any insight at the beginning of our session.

QUESTION: Separately from the remarks --

SECRETARY KERRY: No, from the remarks he made publicly.


SECRETARY KERRY: That’s what he said publicly.

MR KIRBY: Go ahead, Elise.

QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Secretary. Two things. Just to follow up on the whole Saudi-Iran – I mean, I know they said that they’re – it’s not going to affect their willingness to sit at the table. But even before this whole spat, I mean, the whole idea of this – Syria becoming the lynchpin of this proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran was already affecting how they were dealing with one another. And now, in the wake of this execution of the cleric and questions about whether these Gulf states are kind of using this to alienate Iran and are concerned about U.S. warming ties with Iran, I’m wondering if this is not going to only affect Syria, which is obviously a main priority for you now, but the whole dynamics of the region.

And then I’m wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about your meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. It seems that his comments on Iran have been fairly muted. It seems as if now they’re focused more on kind of getting this U.S. military package together. And would you say that that’s the direction that your talks are going? And did you talk about this kind of spat over Ambassador Shapiro’s comments?

SECRETARY KERRY: No on the last. And with respect to the other components with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he’d have to speak to characterize his own comments. But I think he has said generally, ever since the agreement was completed for months now – since the vote in the Senate, I think he recognized that the fight’s over and we can move on. We have a very close relationship as a country, and I have a close personal relationship, and we’re working on dealing with the issues of the violence that exist in the country, tried to make sure Israel is secure. We’re working on --

QUESTION: But he was the one that said that maybe the nuclear threat could be – Israeli officials have said maybe the nuclear threat has been eclipsed by the fact that Iran is going to be up to more mischief in the region.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me be very, very clear about where we are and where the United States and everybody find themselves after this.

QUESTION: Moshe Ya’alon said that ISIS is less dangerous than Iran. Do you agree?

SECRETARY KERRY: Is that what Christiane thinks?

QUESTION: That’s what Christiane thinks. (Laughter.)


QUESTION: No, I’m --

QUESTION: That’s what I read Moshe Ya’alon said. I wondered if you agree.

SECRETARY KERRY: He said what?

QUESTION: He said yesterday that, “If I had to choose, I would choose ISIS over Iran,” something like that.

SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, yeah. Well, look, I’m not going to comment or characterize. Every Israeli is free to make their own judgment about what the threats are and where things are. And we also will make our judgments about that. And we will always stand by Israel and we continue to support Israel as firmly as any administration in history. The level of our cooperation day to day – intel, mil, et cetera – is higher than at any time in history, and that’s not an exaggeration. They have said so. It’s at a very high level, and we will keep it that way.

And so I’m not going to comment on one person or another’s own comments about the agreement. The agreement speaks for itself. Israel does not face the imminent possibility that Iran is going to have a nuclear weapon. And the breakout time is longer, so it is a priori, on its face, period, a safer period of time.

Now, here’s what I think is very, very important to note: In my comments in Vienna, when we announced the implementation date, I pointed out that President Obama did not engage in this enterprise of trying to see whether Iran would give up the nuclear weapon in order to, quote, “have some five or six other things happen at the same time,” in terms of changing what they do. He had one objective; we had one objective: make sure they can’t get a nuclear weapon. And we didn’t want to get sidetracked in other things, because then those other things could become tugs of war for what you might do on nuclear. We didn’t want that. We wanted a pure, we got to get this on nuclear. And we set out to end the capacity to have a weapon.

Now, given the nature of foreign policy and the nature of relationships and interests, if in the course of all of that we have set up a structure that sees Iran change or sees the moment to affect new policies in certain ways, so much the better. We would be foolish not to explore whether or not that’s possible. But I made it very clear in Vienna in my statement when I said none of this – I went through all the things the nuclear deal achieves, and then I said, “None of this wipes away our concerns about Iran’s behavior in the region and engagement.” So we’re not – no one has turned away from all of those concerns. They’re there.

And the issue now is: Will those be addressed in any way? That opening is possible. President Obama has said it and President Rouhani has said it. But it hasn’t happened yet. So we are – that is why, by the way, primary sanctions by the United States are still in place. That is to say, there are only defined American businesses that will be involved directly, as opposed to other countries, because of what we lifted. Now, we also left the arms embargo in place. We also – arms restraints. We also left the missile restraints in place. We left the human rights restraints in place.

So we have a road to travel still to see if we can change these other things. And there is no sudden transformation in these other concerns. They exist. And we will continue to be vigilant and engaged about them. And that is part of what I’m going to Saudi Arabia about on Saturday, in order to make sure our friends see clearly how we will map forward – go forward on – together to address those kinds of concerns. One step at a time is the way to frame it.

QUESTION: But what about the proxy element?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, again, everybody has an interest in seeing Syria resolved. These countries do not benefit by – I mean, there is something that does bring them closer in terms of Syria, and that is called Daesh. They both want to kill Daesh. They both want Daesh and Nusrah terminated as threats. And therefore, what they differ on, obviously, is how you will resolve the actual Assad-Syria problem, but they don’t differ on wanting a united Syria, a Syria that is stable, a Syria that is peaceful, a Syria that resolves this problem. And that’s why they’ve agreed to come to the table to put it to the test. And if it doesn’t work – and it may not – then the fighting will, regrettably, rage on.

And we’re trying to give people a chance for sanity here, but if they can’t grab it – the old saying, you can take a – you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. We’re going to try to get people to see the benefits of this, and including Assad. But we’ll have to see what happens. It’s a very tricky – it’s – I’ve never made some huge, grandiose pronouncement about this being easy or a solution. But I do know that if we’re not talking and not trying, it’s going to get a lot worse, and you’re going to see a lot more migrant flow into Europe, and you’re going to see a lot more pressure on Jordan, and a lot more pressure on Lebanon, and a lot more killing, and a lot more children dead, and a lot more of Syria destroyed, and a lot more ISIL present. That’s what happens if they don’t get there. So the stakes couldn’t be higher.

MR KIRBY: Folks, we have a little less than 10 minutes to go.

QUESTION: So I just want to know, as the Iran deal has been implemented, can we now see refocus of efforts in the Middle Eastern region, like a shift from Iran? What’s going to be your next priority for 2016?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there a lot of priorities. I mean, I’m heading from here to Saudi Arabia, obviously, but then I’m going to Laos, Cambodia in order to help prepare for the ASEAN Summit in Sunnylands. And ASEAN will be chaired by Lao – the Lao PDR this year. So that’s partly relationship building, agenda setting; addressing some issues, obviously, in the region like the South China Sea and other things. And then I go to Beijing in order to meet with the top leadership regarding North Korea and see if we can – and Tony Blinken was just there on purpose. We’re doing – we’ve got a lot of things to pay attention to.

In addition, I will be focused somewhat on both Yemen and Syria and Libya. We still have some unfinished business with the – with Israel, Palestine, Gaza and some concerns about where that will or won’t go, and so we’ll be engaged on talking, trying to promote some modest steps that may be able to address the violence there.

And so there’s just a huge focus ahead of us here, not just on that region, by the way, but we’ve got – we’re working very closely – I think you all know that I appointed – I – the President appointed, at my request, Bernie Aronson to be a special envoy on Colombia. We’ve been deeply involved in Colombia talks. We’re hosting President Santos in Washington to celebrate 15 years of our engagement since we did – and I voted for – the Colombia – Plan Colombia. We are going to continue to try to work to bring those negotiations to fruition. We are also engaged with the leadership of Cyprus, trying to push them to see if this moment could ripen perhaps a little bit. So (coughs)– excuse me. We’ve got the implementation of the Paris agreement to focus on, got the Arctic. We’re going to be in – the oceans conference in September will be taking place again. We will be hosting it again in Washington, and that’s a big focus. So there’s – I mean, gosh, I’ve left out --


SECRETARY KERRY: -- probably 50 percent of it. Cuba – we’re going to continue to work. We’ve got Cuba. I’ve got a meeting coming up with Rodriguez. So there’s just a big agenda, folks. There’s a lot going on. Africa – we’re trying to get Burundi quieted down. South Sudan’s still a concern. It’s a full plate. I don’t think at any time in American history has the State Department been as fully engaged in as many places on as many issues simultaneously, and I think we’re doing pretty well on a lot of them. There are a couple of troubling ones, obviously.

But look at Ukraine. I spent hours last night working on Ukraine with the Vice President. President – Vice President stayed even longer because I had to go to another thing. We have a channel we’re working very carefully to try to help the French and the Germans and work with them, and we’re hopeful that maybe this will be the year in which we can get the Minsk agreement fully implemented.

So it’s a busy time. It’s a busy time, and those are the things we’ll be focused on, quote, “next.” I think “simultaneous” is a better way to say it.

QUESTION: Do you think by the end of 2016 we’ll see the end of Daesh?

SECRETARY KERRY: I think that by the end of 2016, our goal of limiting – of seriously – very seriously denting Daesh in Iraq and Syria and of trying to have an impact on Mosul and al-Raqqa will be achieved. I think that we’re on track. We’re doing serious damage to Daesh today. They’ve lost, what is it, 35, 40 percent --

MR KIRBY: Yes, sir.

SECRETARY KERRY: -- of their territory that they controlled?

MR KIRBY: Forty percent in Iraq.

SECRETARY KERRY: Forty percent in Iraq.

MR KIRBY: 20 to 30 percent total.

SECRETARY KERRY: 20 to 30 percent total. And we are – we’ve upped our engagement significantly. Chairman Dunford has been very focused on plussing up our capacity. We have grown the capacity of those who are in the coalition. We have additional effort committed to – Ash Carter was just in Paris meeting with a bunch of coalition members. They’ve all committed. I’m meeting with all the foreign ministers in Rome on the 2nd of February, where we will brief on our current ISIL strategy and get additional commitments from the 24 nations that will be there. We’re having a small group meeting. We’re not asking the whole coalition to come, but we have 24 countries – the ones that are flying most of the missions and doing most of the work.

And we will, I’m convinced, continue to put a huge pressure on Daesh. And I don’t want to predict specifically, but it’s not a bad target to have a goal to try to achieve that by the end of the year, and I know the President very much shares what I just said in terms of looking to that as a moment to have a very serious dent in their capacities. There’s still some al-Qaida around 10 years later. There’ll be some diehard, but we’re going to prevent them from being the threat in Syria and Iraq that they are today by the end of the year. That will be – we will prevent that, yes.


QUESTION: Yes. My question regards the European Union, sir. Thank you. This morning European leaders said that if the UK were leaving the EU, it would be a disaster, a catastrophe. Do you share their sense of urgency and their pessimism?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m sorry, who said that?

QUESTION: The German and the French.

SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, okay. Well, look, we’ve always believed in a strong and united Europe, and that’s our belief. We’re not going to get in the middle of the specific referendum fight. That has to be decided by Europe and by the Europeans and the British themselves as to where they want to fit in that. They have enough voices speaking out on it. They don’t need the American Secretary of State. But our traditional policy has been to work with a strong and united Europe, and NATO and all those things are an important part of our projection of security and interest.

MR KIRBY: Last question will go to Carol.

QUESTION: When you were speaking with Prime Minister Netanyahu, did you ask him at all whatever the heck happened to those security cameras on the Temple Mount? And did you talk about the settlement building in Jericho? And if you have --


QUESTION: And if you have time, you could maybe explain a little bit more about proximity talks, what exactly you have in mind?

SECRETARY KERRY: Sure. Three questions. (Laughter.) On the issue of Prime Minister Netanyahu, we had previously talked on the telephone. I didn’t raise it today because we had previously talked about the cameras, and we’re working through getting the cameras issue resolved appropriately. What happened was something of a disagreement over exactly where they would be. I believe this will get resolved. I’m not worried about it.

I did indeed – yes, I raised the issue of land near Jericho and I raised the issue. He tells me it is not a building, there is not any building going to take place. It’s a quote, “planning exercise.” I pointed out that the history of those has always turned into a building, and that we thought this was a concern, as it has been, and our policy is very concerned about it. I don’t want to go into all the detail of what I said to the prime minister in regards to it, but we very constructively – we very constructively talked about some ideas about how we can improve the situation on the ground and have an impact on Palestinian life day to day, have an impact on Israeli security day to day, and we are going to follow up on that. We’re very committed to doing that.

Was there another part of that Netanyahu --

QUESTION: No, just that – for Netanyahu, the proximity talks.

SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, proximity talks.

QUESTION: What exactly you had in mind.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s not what I have in mind, first of all. It’s Staffan de Mistura and the UN.

QUESTION: Netanyahu – you said for Netanyahu. You mean Syria.

MR KIRBY: No, she was talking about --

QUESTION: No, Netanyahu, Netanyahu. But --

MR KIRBY: Yeah, she was talking about Syria.


SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah. No, I assumed that because there aren’t any other talks. Netanyahu – not Netanyahu – de Mistura and the UN are running the talks. They are the referee, mediator, convener/host of these talks. And they, according to our understanding within this, have the right to issue invitations – the United Nations, independent – issue invitations. But as I said to you earlier, that he respects the special place that the HNC and the Saudi effort has carved out and taken. It’s a very important part of this, because they represent real people fighting on the ground who can help implement a ceasefire.

But even with them, it’s not going to be a situation of putting the Government of Syria in a room, at a table with the government – with the HNC and other players. The Government of Syria will be wherever the – Staffan decides they’ll be, and HNC will be wherever he decides, and if he has some other people he wants to talk to and meet with, he will. And he will go and say, okay, here’s how we envision a ceasefire, what – can we implement that – to that – and he’ll come back and talk to the others. That’s proximity talk.

And he will talk about the next stage – how do we get into the transition discussion, which is critical to everybody. We don’t want to waste time. We have to get into the talk of creating this unity transitional government which the Iranians have proposed, the Russians have accepted, and everybody has signed on to in the context of Geneva and Vienna twice, and the UN Security Council resolution. So that is a firmly embedded outline of how these talks will be approached. And it’s up to Staffan de Mistura to manage the logistics of that. But that’s what a proximity talk is, as opposed to us right now being directly engaged like this – not me in the other room with Matt running between us, giving messages.

QUESTION: Incorrect ones too. (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: Okay, folks. That’s all the time we have. I’m sorry, we’ve got to get the Secretary on to his next event. Thank you guys very, very much.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

QUESTION: Onward and upward.

SECRETARY KERRY: Glad to visit with you. We’ll see you tomorrow.

QUESTION: Yes, and then Saudi.

QUESTION: Did the prime minister get enough time talking to you? You seemed concerned about that.


QUESTION: Did Prime Minister Netanyahu get enough time to talk with you?

SECRETARY KERRY: We actually – I’m concerned because there’s a lot to talk about, and in one hour, we don’t get to it all. It’s not his problem. He had something to do, I had to go do an interview. We just don’t have time when you’re here. But we laid out – we made it – we had a couple concepts that were worth exploring and working on in order to try to help improve things on the ground. That’s what we’re trying to do. So I thought it was worthwhile.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

QUESTION: Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you very much, everybody.