QUESTION: The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said that Bashar al-Assad in Syria has been strengthened since the chemical weapons deal. The United Nations says that Assad’s regime is torturing children. He seems to be – Assad seems to be slow-walking the chemical weapons process, and those are only the weapons that he’s acknowledged he has, not other ones that he might be stockpiling, according to other reports. Hasn’t the policy in Syria failed?
SECRETARY KERRY: No. The policy in Syria is just very challenging and very difficult. We know that.
QUESTION: How has it succeeded?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me lead you into that, Jake, because an important question, important policy. First of all, the chemical weapons agreement is in and of itself a significant milestone, and it is progressing. Yes, it’s been slowed down a little bit in the last month, but we have been raising that profile of questions about it, and I think it’s now speeding up again.
But more importantly, what Jim Clapper is saying and what everybody would acknowledge is that a lot has happened since the time of the potential strikes. The President of the United States made his decision to strike. He announced it publicly. That is, in fact, a significant point of leverage that helped to bring about the agreement to get the chemical weapons out. Now, before we got that agreement, Assad was using those weapons against his people. Now he’s not, and he can’t. So we have eliminated a critical, grotesque tool that this man was willing to use ruthlessly against his own people, and we’re moving it out.
Now, I would describe the situation simply that Assad is not winning, but he’s also not losing. It’s sort of a stalemate at this moment. And there is increased capacity in some of the opposition; there is continued fighting among some other of the opposition.
QUESTION: So you disagree with Clapper when he --
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s not – no, he didn’t say because of the deal. He said since the deal.
QUESTION: Since the deal.
SECRETARY KERRY: No, I agree. It’s fair to say that Assad has improved his position a little bit, yes. But he’s still not winning.
I don’t want to make any excuse whatsoever. We want this to move faster; we want it to do better. But I remember talks around Vietnam where it took Henry Kissinger a year to get the size and shape of the table decided. It took another several years before they even came to some kind of an agreement. I don’t want it to be years. We don’t have years in Syria.
But the point I’m making is that diplomacy is tough, slogging, slow work, and hard work. But we’re beginning to see the shaping of how you might potentially get somewhere, and we are always in the process of re-evaluating whether there’s more we can do, should do. We’ll work with Congress, we’re working internally, to figure out if we should – if there’s a way to get more response from the Russians, more response from Assad.
QUESTION: You, it’s no secret, were advocating for – for want of a better term – a more muscular way of dealing with this, providing different kinds of aid to the rebels, providing weapons in some cases to the rebels. And your advocacy ultimately was not what President Obama decided to do.
SECRETARY KERRY: No --
QUESTION: Do you disagree with this?
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, I do. I don’t want to go into details, I’m not free to go into all the details, but I will say to you that the President has taken an aggressive position. There are things the United States is doing right now, and everybody knows we are providing nonlethal assistance to the opposition in significant amounts. We are the largest single donor with respect to the humanitarian crisis on the ground. We have taken the leadership with respect to bringing our allies together in efforts to be able to coordinate the operations that are taking place there. And as I said to you, the President is always reevaluating this. But I assure you, the United States is doing a great deal.
QUESTION: I understand you’re the nation’s top diplomat and so you’re being diplomatic, and that’s not a surprise. But it’s not a secret that you have told members of Congress behind closed doors that you have grave concerns that maybe more needs to be done.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, but that’s – the President has said the same thing. I mean, this is not a divergence.
QUESTION: The Administration has made more progress on thawing the relationship with longtime enemy Iran and its newly elected President Hassan Rouhani. To the objections of many in Congress, the Obama Administration recently negotiated a short-term deal that would freeze parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited relief from sanctions.
Let’s talk about the Iranians. The Iranians are telling their public that this deal is not that big a deal, what they’ve agreed to do, that they could undo it within a day. Rouhani went to Davos and basically said we’re open for business in Iran. The French, the Turks, they have been sending – it’s not trade missions, but they have almost been sending trade missions looking to do more business. Have we been played?
SECRETARY KERRY: Not in the least, not even by a close margin. In fact, I think the Iranians naturally are going to go home and say what you’ve just said.
QUESTION: Sure. But to the world and the Turks and the French?
SECRETARY KERRY: No, Iran is not open for business, and Iran knows it’s not open for business. We have announced increased sanctions against particular companies since this agreement was reached. We have told the Iranians that we will continue to apply the sanctions. And we have made it clear to every other country that the sanctions regime remains in place. So while the French may send some business people over there, they’re not able to contravene the sanctions. They will be sanctioned if they do, and they know it. And we’ve put them on notice.
But nobody should doubt for an instant that the United States is prepared to enforce the sanctions that exist, and all of our allies are in agreement that those sanctions are staying in place until or unless there is a deal.
QUESTION: Do you trust Rouhani?
SECRETARY KERRY: It’s not a matter of trust. There’s nothing that we’re doing is based on trust. Everything that we’re doing is based on verification, on specific steps.
Let me give you – let me be very specific with the American people and the world who listen to CNN about what this agreement does. This agreement takes Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent uranium, and they have to reduce it to zero. They have to get rid of it. They’re not allowed to grow their 3.5 percent stockpile of uranium, not at all. They cannot do anything except replace an existing centrifuge. They can’t put in new centrifuges. They have to literally stop the construction of their heavy water reactor. They have to allow inspection of the Fordow underground facility and of the Natanz nuclear plant. They didn’t have to do that before. Now we have people in there every single day. We’ve actually frozen their program in place and have rolled it back to the degree that they’re destroying some of their stockpile.
So I can absolutely sit here and look you in the eye, and I’ve looked Prime Minister Netanyahu in the eye and said I believe Israel and the region are safer today than they were before we made this agreement, because the program is stopped and rolled back and we have greater insight and accountability into the program.
QUESTION: You’re a former senator. A lot of your colleagues are very skeptical of this deal. They want more sanctions on Iran. Are they just wrong?
SECRETARY KERRY: I believe it’s a mistake now to break faith with a negotiating process when you’re in the middle of the process. The United States of America agreed, together with our P5+1 allies – with Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Germany – all of them agreed that during the time we’re negotiating we would not increase sanctions.
Now our word has to mean something too. But we don’t want to break our word in the middle of the negotiations. We also have other alternatives available to us. We’ve lost nothing off the table, but we want to give diplomacy a chance, and we think that’s worthwhile.
QUESTION: We will have more of our interview with Secretary of State John Kerry coming up next. He’ll tell me what the U.S. is doing to ensure the safety of Americans at the Sochi Olympics, and I asked him if the U.S. will agree to turn over Amanda Knox if Italy ends up asking for her extradition.
QUESTION: What’s your response to these very harsh attacks from our allies, the Israelis?
SECRETARY KERRY: My comments need to be properly represented, not distorted. I did not do anything except cite what other people are talking about as a problem, but I also have always opposed boycotts. I have a 100 percent voting record in support of Israel for 29 years in the United States Senate.
Unfortunately, there are some people in Israel and in Palestine and in the Arab world and around the world who don’t support the peace process. There are specifically some people who don’t support two states. There are some people who don’t want any restraint on settlements whatsoever. What’s important is to look at the positive side of this, which is the majority of the people in Israel, the majority of the Palestinians, the majority of the people in the region believe in peace and want peace, and believe peace will strengthen everybody.
The United States of America, through President Obama and his direction and his policy, is absolutely committed – ironclad – to the security of Israel. And Israel needs to understand we will always stand by its security needs. But no one should distort what we’re doing or saying because they’re opposed to the peace process or don’t like two states or whatever. And words – I have to tell you, my friend – I’ve been, quote, attacked before by people using real bullets, not words, and I am not going to be intimidated. I am not going to stand down with respect to President Obama’s commitment to try to find peace in the Middle East.
QUESTION: We’ve gotten a very mixed response from lawmakers and even from the President when it comes to the safety and security at Sochi. I asked the President last week, “Would he be willing to recommend to friends of his daughters if they wanted to go?” He said that he would never discourage anybody, but there’s risk at any event and he recommended that people check in with the State Department. Other lawmakers have said they wouldn’t send their children at all.
But since President Obama said check in with the State Department before you go to Sochi, let me check in with you. Is it safe to go? And what should people do who are going to be extra safe?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I believe that anybody who wants to go to the Olympics, which are just a great event, should go. And we’re not telling people not to go. I think it will be as safe as you can make any large public event in a place where obviously we all know there have been some threats of late. But there are – we have cooperated enormously. Our Diplomatic Security people are on the ground there. We’ve been there for some period of time. We’ve been working on this leading up to it for a long period of time. We have 140 personnel, government personnel representing FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Diplomatic Security, Consular Affairs, embassy, military, all working under the same roof in a coordinated way with the Russians.
We feel that everything has been done that can be done to try to guarantee people’s safety and security. And we ask people – we simply alert them, as we would anywhere where they’re in a large public space where there are threats that people make that are sort of out there floating around, just take precautions, be careful, think about where you are, just as we did always in America post-911. We’ve sort of had a new consciousness about this.
QUESTION: Kerry may soon find himself in the middle of an extraordinary extradition request. The tabloid nature of some of the coverage notwithstanding, the saga of Amanda Knox could pose a serious diplomatic crisis. Knox was recently retried in Italy for the murder of her roommate. The Italian court found her guilty. Now back in the States, Knox could one day face extradition back to Italy to serve a prison sentence.
It may come that the Italians come to you and say we really would like Amanda Knox to come back to this country to serve a sentence. It certainly looks like the justice system is going in that direction. Would you entertain that request?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’ll see, Jake, what happens. It’s an ongoing legal process. There’s nothing in front of us now, and I don’t have to comment on it now and I’m not going to. We’ll let the legal process work out, and if and when the time comes that there’s a reason that I have to comment, I’ll do my duty.
QUESTION: There’s a lot of talk about two of your colleagues, your predecessor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, possibly running for president in 2016. Is that something you would ever consider doing again?
SECRETARY KERRY: One of the joys of this job is I’m out of politics.
SECRETARY KERRY: I’m out of politics. I have no plans whatsoever. This is my last stop. I’m going to serve the country in the extraordinarily privileged position the President’s given me, the great challenges that I have, and move on. And I don’t have to comment and won’t comment on anybody contemplating or running for office anywhere.
QUESTION: Our thanks to Secretary of State John Kerry.