Roundtable Discussion

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

MR KIRBY: Okay, guys. As I said, we only have about 10 minutes for this, so the Secretary’s not going to give an opening statement. This is on the record and we’ll just start with questions. You want to go first, Felicia?

QUESTION: I think we worked it out that --

QUESTION: I think I’m going to go first.

MR KIRBY: Okay. Whatever you guys worked out. Let’s --

QUESTION: Or you were going to go – I thought you were going to go first.

QUESTION: You go first.

MR KIRBY: Let’s go.


QUESTION: You go first, John. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Okay. Well, thank you, Mr. Secretary. Josh Lederman from AP. I wanted to ask you about the work that you’re doing on this trip to talk with banks about doing business in Iran. Given the possibility that just a number of months from now we’ll have a new administration that could scuttle this deal and slap back sanctions, why should anyone feel comfortable doing business investing now in Iran? And given the antiquated financial system, their support for terrorism and other issues, why is it the U.S. job to be advocating for people to do business in that country?

SECRETARY KERRY: What was the last part of that? Why --

QUESTION: Why is it our job as America to be trying to sell people on doing business in Iran given the fact that their financial system is still not up to par and that they’re still doing a whole lot of other concerning activities?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s not our job to sell them on doing business. It’s our job to make clear to them what the rules are, that’s all. I mean, we’re not telling people what to go do, but we are telling people what they’re allowed to do, and there seems to be some confusion about that. So it’s very simple.

And it’s clarifying that an agreement was reached in which the sanctions affecting European banks, particularly, and businesses were lifted. And some people don’t – aren’t clear about what is lifted, what is not, and that clarity has to be drawn. And the reason you do that is because if you make an agreement, you live up to an agreement. It’s very simple. It’s – Iran has a right to the benefits of the agreement they signed up to, and if people by confusion or misinterpretation or, in some cases, disinformation are being misled, it’s appropriate for us to try to clarify that.

With respect to the banks overall, et cetera, we’re simply responding to inquiries that people have about what the limits are of their – of the permissiveness within which they’re operating. And since we were the principal designer, implementer, enforcer of the sanctions themselves, and obviously a key player in the negotiations, I think it’s important for us to answer those inquiries. Any legitimate business that has a question, we have an obligation to answer.

QUESTION: And in terms of the possibility that this could change dramatically in a different direction?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t believe that. I just don’t believe that a new president regardless – is going to suddenly say, “Let’s go have a war in the Middle East,” and give up the restraint on a nuclear weapon. And I just don’t think the advisors to that president or anybody are going to suggest that that makes sense.

QUESTION: When you talk to bankers, do they raise those kinds of concerns with you?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. They have concerns about our secondary sanctions and the alternative – we do maintain sanctions on certain designated entities as a result of arms activities or missile activities, but there really shouldn’t be any confusion – and in some ways, there is. But it’s not a – it’s just not as complicated as some people make it. There are a clear list of designees who have been lifted and there’s no game being played here. There’s a – Iran gave up its nuclear weapon chase, so to speak.

QUESTION: In the oil and gas sectors, for example, like the IRGC, it can be hard to – in some instances to see where the ties sort of end and begin --

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t think it’s that hard.

QUESTION: -- based on what’s spelled out in the U.S. sanctions.

SECRETARY KERRY: I really don’t think it’s that hard, and that’s what – it’s OFAC’s job, obviously, to clarify to people. And OFAC has said if you have a question, come to us --

QUESTION: Given that --

SECRETARY KERRY: -- and they’ll clarify it. So it really shouldn’t be complicated. It’s not a – it’s not incomprehensible or undefinable. It’s clearly defined and when people have a question, we are available to answer those questions. And we’ve encouraged people, if you have a question, come to us.

QUESTION: It’s just since almost every transaction, especially in banking, it touches the U.S. financial system at least briefly, and you’ve maintained this restriction on the U.S. dollar. What are you telling these banks about how they can do those kinds of transactions and not --

SECRETARY KERRY: Banks in Europe are allowed to open accounts for Iran, banks in Europe are allowed to do business, banks in Europe can fund programs, lend money. That’s absolutely open for business as long as it’s not a designated entity, period, very simple.

QUESTION: I just wonder if I could switch back to the South China Sea and the latest --

SECRETARY KERRY: And they shouldn’t use us as an excuse.

QUESTION: European banks?

SECRETARY KERRY: Businesses, businesses --

QUESTION: Businesses.

SECRETARY KERRY: -- should not use the United States as an excuse if they don’t want to do business or if they don’t see a good business deal. They shouldn’t say, “Oh, we can’t do it because the United States.” That’s just not fair. That’s not accurate. And we sometimes get used as an excuse in this process. So I think it’s important to have clarity, and the clarity is that European banks, as long as it’s not a designated entity, are absolutely free to open accounts for Iran, trade, exchange money, facilitate a legitimate business agreement, bankroll it, lend money – all of those things are absolutely open, permissible.

QUESTION: Sorry, South China Sea. There was a (inaudible) just the last few hours and we’re very interested in the timing of that given President Obama’s planning to go to the region, to Vietnam, and you’ve got the arbitration ruling coming up, which is --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s just a regular – it’s no special timing. It’s a regular process. It’s not – I’m going to China in three weeks for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. This is not – this is not a pointed strategy that’s calculated to do anything except keep a regular process of freedom of navigation operations underway. We have done them before consistently for years, we will do them into the future, and there’s no – nobody should interpret anything special about this timing.

QUESTION: It would seem to be a demonstration of U.S. resolve to freedom of navigation.

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s a – we always do this.

QUESTION: But can we expect any sort of further demonstrations of this resolve --

SECRETARY KERRY: You can expect us – you can --

QUESTION: -- in Vietnam with the arms embargo, for example?

SECRETARY KERRY: You can expect us to regularly, without provocation, on a normal basis according to all the international standards of law and freedom of navigation, we will continue to do the same kinds of freedom of navigation operations we have done for decades. There’s nothing new about it.

MR KIRBY: Just a few more minutes, guys.

QUESTION: Okay. Just can we go back to Syria, which you talked about yesterday? You said last week that if the Syrians didn’t meet an August 1st deadline for a political transition, they’d be asking for, quote, “a very different track.” So what did you mean by that and --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, first of all, I said also that is a target date. August 1st is not a drop-dead, end-of-process date. It is a date that we – Russia and the United States – arrived at as an agreement that we needed to try to have the political transition in process by August 1st. Now, it’s a good yardstick, it’s a measurement. If by August 1st nothing is happening, it would be exceedingly difficult to look anybody in the eye – the opposition and others – and say that we’re making progress or something’s happening that is encouraging. And that in itself will be dangerous, because then those people may well decide they’re just going to up the ante militarily.

QUESTION: But at that point too, you’re about three months out from an election where the parties on the ground are probably looking and thinking, “Well, maybe come November, the U.S. will elect a candidate with a different policy on these issues and why don’t we just wait it out?” So --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, if I were the – why doesn’t who just wait it out?

QUESTION: I guess, like, the Syrian opposition or the forces on the ground that you’re trying to pressure.

SECRETARY KERRY: It’s a – when lives are at stake and people are dying on a daily basis, it is a terrible bet, it’s a terrible policy, to start betting on the outcome of an election where you simply have no way of knowing for certain what somebody’s going to do. I disagree.

I think it’s actually an incentive for trying to get things done now while you have an Administration that you know is working for a political solution and that you know would be prepared to bring parties together around a reconstruction process for Syria, protection of return of refugees, a policy of stabilizing the country with a very clear vision – with a very clear vision of what we’re reaching for, which is a whole, united Syria that protects the minorities, that is nonsectarian, and that has an election and moves forward towards stability, towards status quo ante.

I don’t think the – I think people would probably be much wiser betting on that than a host of unknowns from either candidate.

QUESTION: And since we’re in London, can I ask you about Brexit and if it’s going to come up in any of your meetings or if you’ll bring it up with some of the bankers?

SECRETARY KERRY: You can, but since your 10 minutes is up, I’m not going to say. (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: Great answer.

QUESTION: You trained him too well.

SECRETARY KERRY: No, I’ll just say --

QUESTION: It’s not going to come up at all?

SECRETARY KERRY: It hasn’t yet. Look, if it comes up, I’m very happy to reinforce what President Obama said, which we both agree with very deeply – that first of all, it is, above all, a decision for the people of Great Britain, and --

QUESTION: There were some former defense chiefs, I think, who came out recently and said it would be dangerous to exit.

SECRETARY KERRY: People will have their opinions and people will voice different views. We – President Obama and I are both convinced that there is a great strength for England, great strength for Great Britain to be able to continue its role of leadership. We believe that membership magnifies Britain’s role. We have an interest in the outcome because we work so closely with Great Britain; it’s a partner. And our special relationship plays out in many ways. And to the President, a strong and united Europe that includes Great Britain is a stronger Europe and a stronger partner. And – but again, we repeat this is not something we have a vote on. We are not trying to interfere. You asked me my opinion. As a friend, we have an interest in the outcome, as President Obama said, but it’s up to the – we respect the choice of the voters and they’ll listen to a broad array of thoughts, and ours is one opinion. Okay.

MR KIRBY: Thanks, guys. We’re going to have to end it.

QUESTION: Thank you so much.

MR KIRBY: Sir, do you want to let them know about the ISSG meeting?

SECRETARY KERRY: We’re going to meet in Vienna next week on the 17th. The ISSG will formally come together to build on what we did with the Russians in terms of this agreement and to talk about all kinds of things, ranging from duration to enforcement to the political process. We have a lot of big events.

QUESTION: Do you have a sense of when those talks might get started again? Have you spoken to de --

SECRETARY KERRY: The 17th – oh, the other talks.

QUESTION: -- no, I’m sorry, to de Mistura.

SECRETARY KERRY: Sometime after that.

QUESTION: Have you spoken to him recently?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’d say some few days after that somewhere. In some days after that, I think.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.