Interview With Christiane Amanpour of CNN International

John Kerry
Secretary of State
U.S. Embassy
London, United Kingdom
May 10, 2016

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, welcome back to the program.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Happy to be here.

QUESTION: You have just announced that you are signing, have signed another attempt to gain a nationwide cessation of hostilities in Syria. How do you think that’s going to work any better than the previous one?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re building on the experience of the previous one. I can’t sit here and tell you, Christiane, that this is going to absolutely work. I’d be a fool to say that. These are words on a paper. This is an agreement reached in a room. But the agreement has to be transferred to the battlefield and to the commanders. But what we have done is set up a very different mechanism. We’ve stood up an entity in Geneva with Russians in the room, Americans in the room, with others in the room from the coalition, who will be sharing maps, discussing and real time in touch with people in Syria.

So the key is going to be enforcement. Now, we’re looking at other methods of enforcement beyond that. But we’re not there yet, but we are building what I hope will be a stronger structure. Now, it’s also complicated – I know you want me to be quick, but it’s also complicated by the fact that Nusrah, Jabhat al-Nusrah, and ISIL/Daesh, are not within the confines of any ceasefire. So it is permissible for everybody, us included, to go attack them.

QUESTION: But as you know, sir, the attacks have mostly been against civilian targets, including the clinics and schools.


QUESTION: And the UN has even gone so far as to suggest these may be war crimes. I guess my question is – and we’ve just seen our report from Phil Black, and there’s so much Russian troops, hardware in Syria. What is it that makes you believe that the Russians are your partners in trying to get a ceasefire and a political resolution when they’re actually Assad’s partner, certainly in trying to regain Aleppo, for instance? I mean, that’s what you all analyzed.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think Russia has an interest – Russia has an interest in not being bogged down forever in Syria. Russia has an interest in not becoming the target of the entire Sunni world and having every jihadi in the region coming after Russia. Russia also has a fundamental interest – this is expensive. Russia’s economy is not exactly soaring. They’ve got other challenges. They’ve got – I mean, there’s just a lot on the table for Russia. And if Russia is going to avoid a morass in Syria altogether, they actually need to find a political solution.

Now, right now they’re angling for the political solution they want, and it’s not necessarily a workable equation. We understand that. But we would not have gotten the initial ceasefire without Russia, and literally tens of thousands of lives were saved. You can add it up. The number – 200 people a day were being killed. That stopped for a period of time. People hadn’t received any humanitarian assistance for years; almost a million people have now received humanitarian assistance. And so there’s been some benefit to this.

Is it perfect? No. Are there still problems to work out? Yes. This is a five-year war, and it’s really more than one war. You have Kurds versus Kurds, you have Kurds versus Turkey, you have Saudi Arabia and Iran, you have Sunni and Shia, you have people against Daesh, you have people against Assad. I mean, this is a very complicated battlefield.

QUESTION: I’m going to come back later to a Russia question regarding Syria, but let me ask you because we’re here in Britain and you know that the Brexit debate about EU is under full – underway fully now. Many U.S. – former Secretary of State, defense, national security advisers, and five of the former living NATO secretary generals have written asking Britain to stay – not interfering with the democratic vote, but saying that it would be much stronger for Britain to remain engaged in the EU. What do you think of that, of these interventions and what might happen in this vote?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I mean, Britain is a great democracy, and what we’re seeing is a passionate debate, which is appropriate, and people can weigh in and ought to weigh in. I think that --

QUESTION: Do you agree with their views?

SECRETARY KERRY: I think that – well, as President Obama said when he was here, and I echo, this is a decision for the people of Great Britain to make. This is their vote. It’s not our vote. But we do have an opinion. I mean, we obviously are – I mean, we are – this is a special relationship. We have fought together in so many wars. We have similar values, similar system. We have been partners in so many different efforts that clearly we have an opinion, but it’s up to the people here to vote, and we respect whatever that vote is going to be.

However, we believe that a strong, united Europe with a Britain whose voice and power is magnified by its presence within the EU – we think that’s important, and we would hate to lose that added strength that we think Great Britain gets by being a member. Now, it’s up to the people here, again. We’re not trying to interfere. But I think everybody has a right who has an interest in it to offer an opinion, and I know the people here respect as part of a democracy that people have opinions.

QUESTION: Moving on to one of the stated reasons that you’re here is this sort of global anti-corruption summit that you’re here to take part in. As you know, the United States is being pointed out now – singled out – as a growing and massive offshore haven for a lot of foreign wealth that wants to be hidden, anywhere from South Dakota to Las Vegas. The FT says something like $800 billion worth of foreign wealth is being hidden in the United States. Are you not therefore part of the problem?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, to whatever degree we are, we shouldn’t be, and we’re prepared to take steps and we have taken steps in order to prevent that. I mean, we have transparency unlike most countries in the world. We have a financial accountability task force and a financial center within the Treasury Department that looks for the hiding of wealth. We’re taking steps with respect to specific states where we think there’s been a problem and people trying to bring their wealth in buying real estate and using the real estate as a hedge against what’s ever happening elsewhere.

So we will be part of the solution, I assure you. We have as firm a system of prosecution with respect to white-collar crime as any nation on the face of the planet. I’m a former prosecutor, and I’m proud of what we have done to try – in fact, I led the efforts in the Senate to expose the BCCI bank, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which was hiding Noriega’s money and drug money and arms sales money. So offshore entities anywhere are a problem. They’re a challenge to all of us, and I’ve spoken about – I actually wrote a book about it called “The New War” a number of years ago, which is this effort to fight corruption.

So I guarantee you that the United States is going to be at the forefront of making sure there is accountability, because we believe the theft of these vast sums of money from many nations in the world is part of what contributes to radicalism, to extremism, to terrorism. It breeds an incestuous disrespect within a country for the political system and it hurts everybody by robbing from people their health care, their housing, their education, their infrastructure, their investments for the future. And that’s why it’s so important – that’s why I congratulate Prime Minister David Cameron for having this first-of-its-kind corruption summit here and I look forward to taking part in it.

QUESTION: Further afield, in Asia right now the United States and South Korea intelligence has now declared that the North Koreans can put a small warhead on a short-term – short-range or a medium-range missile. Isn’t this the nightmare scenario? Isn’t this precisely what you’ve been trying to prevent for all these years? It’s happening on your watch. They can now militarize missiles with nuclear warheads.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’ve been working very, very closely with China. One of my first trips as Secretary of State was to go to China and talk about North Korea. And I would say about 50 percent of that visit was focused on North Korea, what we needed to do to put more pressure on North Korea. We finally succeeded in getting China to move with us, most recently a few months ago at the UN, to put in place tougher sanctions against North Korea. North Korea will never be permitted to be a nuclear power, standing on its own as a recognized power. It’s not going to happen. So China, Russia, the United States, Korea, Japan – we’re all united in our position that there must be a negotiation over the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

QUESTION: Are you not worried that they can target your allies --

SECRETARY KERRY: Of course. But that is precisely --

QUESTION: -- people in that region? And they want talks with you, direct talks with you.

SECRETARY KERRY: But that is precisely why we have entered into the discussions about the deployment of THAAD, which is a high-altitude defense system, which is a defensive system. I know China has concerns about it, Russia, but it’s a defensive system. And the only reason for our discussion about deploying it is this saber rattling and – more than saber rattling, this very dangerous, evolving situation with the potential of nuclear capacity for North Korea. So we’re focused on a continuing basis. This was the centerpiece of discussions President Obama had with President Xi when he was in Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit. And I am going to China in a few weeks; we will continue to have this discussion. And I’m confident that if North Korea ever expects to sell its goods in the marketplace, to join the community of nations, to offer its people a future, they are going to have to negotiate their denuclearization.


QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, this Iran nuclear deal is very important to the President’s legacy, and yet the Iranians are now in a state where they say they’re finding it very hard to do trade, et cetera, because European banks are worried about your laws and the existing U.S. sanctions, and they’re very afraid of running afoul of your laws inadvertently and being slapped by hefty fines, so they’re not helping companies invest, et cetera.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there’s no need for them to have that fear. It’s misplaced. Under our agreement and in very clear terms, the banks in Europe are free to lend, to back a deal, to open an account for Iran, to engage in commerce. And it’s very clear what is permitted and what is not. So I think this is a misplaced fear, and we are prepared to clarify it for anybody, because as part of this agreement Iran has a right to do certain business that has been defined. And they have the rights to the benefit of a deal that they’ve agreed to. They have undone their centrifuges. They have lived by every component of this agreement. And therefore, the banks and the world community needs to live by its part of the agreement.

However, there are other forces at play here. Iran needs to modernize its banking system. Iran needs to modernize the way it does some business. And some businesses use the United States as an excuse where there’s actually a deal that they don’t want to do, but they use us as an excuse and tell them, “Hey, I can’t do this because of the Americans.” It’s not because they want to tell them, “We’re not going to do the deal.”

So there’s a lot at play here. We just ask people to call us, look at any particular agreement, and we will clarify for them if there’s any doubt. But let me be clear: European banks can open accounts, can make loans, can engage in business, can travel. There is no reason for them on a non-designated entity, for any legitimate business, not to do business.

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, thank you very much for joining us today.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Appreciate it.