POLITICS
09/04/2015 07:50 am ET

Here's The Full Transcript Of John Kerry's Interview With HuffPost

The secretary of state predicts the country will be "90 percent supportive" of the Iran deal as it is implemented.

Secretary of State John Kerry sat down with The Huffington Post's Sam Stein for an interview Thursday, discussing the Iran nuclear deal, the Syrian refugee crisis, Hillary Clinton's emails and much more. 

Below is the full transcript from the Sept. 3 interview. Watch a video of the interview above. (Video production by Marielle Olentine, Jon Strauss and Samuel Wilkes.)

SAM STEIN: Thank you, first of all, for joining us. I appreciate it.

JOHN KERRY: Glad to be with you.

STEIN: So we now know that the Iran deal will survive Congress. But roughly half of the country is opposed to it, and virtually every Republican presidential candidate says they're going to rip it up when they get into office. So how secure is the deal really? 

KERRY: Well, first of all, enormous amounts of money -- there has been a huge bombardment of distortions and outright, you know, just untruths, I guess is the word I will use, about what this deal does and how it does it. So I'm not surprised that some polls show an imbalance. 

STEIN: Sure.

KERRY: But the fact is, a lot of polls show that the country actually supports it, and there's a fairly even divide. I think that's pretty good, considering the amount of money that's been spent with myths being promulgated.

With respect to the presidential candidates and what they say today, look -- if Iran destroys its Arak plutonium reactor core, filling it with cement, and it exists no longer, and Arak dismantles two-thirds of their centrifuges and is no longer enriching, and it lowers its stockpile to 300 kilograms, and it is only enriching to 3.67 percent and it has done everything it said it would do to live up to the agreement. If a new president came in and said, "Oh, I'm going to" -- this would be absurd.

The country will be 90 percent supportive by that point in time because they will see that it is in fact working, and it has eliminated the threat of a nuclear weapon in the Middle East. 

STEIN: So you think this is largely bluster?

KERRY: No, I think there are very legitimate questions being asked, Sam. 

STEIN: I'm talking specifically about the candidates saying they'd rip it up. You think it's almost impractical.

KERRY: Well, look, I'm not going to characterize what it is or isn't, I'm just giving you my take on what the reality will be when a new president is there.

I cannot see a president willfully taking the United Nations, five other nations who supported us in this negotiation and saying, "Sorry, we're just going to walk away from this and create a more dangerous situation in the Middle East." I just don't see that happening.

STEIN: One of the more persuasive criticisms, I think, of the deal is that, sort of in the out-years, after Iran has benefited from sanctions relief, our hands are sort of tied here. And by that I mean, you know, we won't be able to further crack down on their regional instability, their funding of terrorism because they'll turn around and they'll say, 'Well that's violating the spirit of the deal,' and they might back out. So what do you say to that critic?

KERRY: I say to that critic that this deal is very specifically defined, it is laid out paragraph for paragraph, the expectations are written because we didn't want anything based on trust or based on hope. This agreement is very specific in what it requires people to do.

And if Iran, after X number of years, there is a transition from some of the more stringent restrictions that we negotiated for a period of time, but that's to build some element of confidence about what their program is. That's to get the people in place to be able to inspect. That's to be able to know that in fact there is an efficient implementation process that you can rely on.

And that 15-year period when you suddenly -- not suddenly, but when you know that you have the size of the stockpile change or something -- you still have the total requirement of access for inspection to any site, anywhere where we suspect that they may be engaged in some illicit activity. 

You also have 20 years of televised tracking of production of their bellows and rotors, which are critical elements of their centrifuges. And you have, very significantly -- first time ever in any arms control agreement -- 25 years of a tracking of their uranium production from the mine all the way to the grave.

STEIN: But the idea here is that they might not be good-faith actors. That they may take the opportunity of the U.S. clamping down on terrorism funding and say, 'You know what? They're going out --'

KERRY: That's their problem. If they were to do that, it's their problem because we will hold them accountable to this agreement, and if they break it or in any way give us pause to think that they are pursuing a nuclear weapon, we have every option available to us then that we have today. 

STEIN: You're obviously -- you're an architect, and you're probably the most vocal booster of the deal. I’m curious, what is your biggest worry about the implementation of the deal, specifically?

KERRY: Well, I think the one concern one would have is that you have some element within Iran that pushes back or refuses to do something. In which case, the Iranian government is going to have to answer for that.

So I can see the potential that you may have a hiccup here or there where you've got to confront something like that, but I don't see the government, at this point, opening itself up to the potential of a snapback of all of these sanctions, and the potential obviously also of military action -- if that was the only option available.

STEIN: The administration has hinted or said basically that they want to work with Gulf states and Israel to ramp up their national security and defense mechanisms in light of this. As a practical matter, how does introducing more weapons to the region help stabilize it?

KERRY: Well, they are defensive weapons. They are weapons that will enable these countries to be able to defend themselves, and that’s a very important ingredient of deterrence. But we would be doing this in many respects anyway regardless of the deal because Iran’s activities with respect to Hezbollah, its transfer of weapons to the Iraqi Shia militia, its transfer of weapons to the Houthi and elsewhere, are deeply disturbing. They are contrary to the embargo, and we should oppose that under any circumstance.

So I think what we will find here is a unique, newly developing security architecture for that region, that will see Israel and Arab countries actually in common cause to have a kind of barrier against this kind of Iranian activity.

STEIN: That would be a unique common cause.

KERRY: It will indeed be unique, but I think that's very much in the air right now.

STEIN: Have the Israelis expressed openness to collaborating with Gulf states that have traditionally not been exactly the warmest to Israel?  

KERRY: I think it’s fair to say that if you look for instance at Egypt -- I mean, the answer is that it's happening now. I mean, Jordan and Egypt are already cooperating with Israel with respect to the Sinai, with respect to jihadism in the region, and I would anticipate that would continue and perhaps even grow.

STEIN: This is probably an oversimplification, but in some respects, it sounds like there is a trade-off being made here: We're risking the possibility of smaller regional conflict to diminish the likelihood of larger cataclysmic conflict. 

KERRY: I don't see it that way at all. What we are trying to do is make it clear to Iran that if it wants to join the community of nations and be a nation in good standing, working towards peace and stability, without supporting proxies and surrogates, there is a road to achieve that. But if, on the other hand, Iran wants to continue with its current procedures, we are going to be united in our efforts to not allow that destabilization and to stand up to those kinds of activities.

STEIN: The president has made the case --

KERRY: And I might add, there is a very important, Sam -- I’m sure you're aware of it, with Daesh, ISIL, out there -- there is a unifying factor for many of these countries in the region, by the way including Iran.

STEIN: Yeah, I want to get to that.

KERRY: Because Iran is significantly opposed to their activity.

STEIN: Before we get to that -- the president has made the case that the same people who voted for the Iraq War are essentially inviting a war with Iran by opposing this deal. You voted for the Iraq War. I'm wondering how that vote has affected your thinking about this deal and this agreement?

KERRY: Well, let me make it clear. If you read my speech, which I invite you to do, that I gave on the floor when I described the vote, I did not vote to rush to war. I voted to give the president the tool to enable him to exhaust the remedies available to him in order to be able to leverage the behavior we wanted from Saddam Hussein.

STEIN: Well, let me rephrase it.

KERRY: But that didn't happen.

STEIN: Sure.

KERRY: And I regret that. And I regretted that vote as a result because I thought it was abused. I thought there was a rush to war, contrary to what had been promised in terms of exhausting the remedies. So it was a bad vote. And that's the way it is.

But that's very different from what we're looking at today, because I think that in the case of Iran, everybody is united in not wanting Iran to get a nuclear weapon. The only question is what is the best means of doing that.

We believe that having this agreement with the 10-year requirement, the 15-year requirement, the 20-year requirement, the 25-year requirement, the lifetime requirement that they have to live by the additional protocol and allow access for inspections -- that is far more valuable and important to hold onto than voting no and having nothing. No restrictions. No inspections. No sanctions, and losing our currently hard-won unity of the P5+1 and the rest of the world.

STEIN: So there wasn't anything redemptive about this that we wanted to pursue diplomacy even further than 2002 when we rushed to war?

KERRY: No, on the contrary. I believe deeply, and I've always believed -- and that was at the heart -- that's why I say go read what I said on the Senate floor.

STEIN: I will.

KERRY: I believe you have to exhaust the remedies. And we did not, in fact, want to give license to go, just, let's go do a war of choice. War should be not a war of choice, it should be a war of necessity. And it should be a last resort. That has always driven me.

And I believe that in this case, we had an obligation to exhaust the possibility of a diplomatic solution with Iran before we start heading down a road towards inevitable conflict.

STEIN: Now you told The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that Iranian Prime Minister Zarif said he would be "empowered to work with and talk to you about regional issues" once this deal was done. Have you had any discussions?

KERRY: No, I haven't yet. The deal's not done. So we have to finish it.

STEIN: What do you envision -- that's a good point. I guess the 34th vote is not the final element here. But what do you envision those discussions to be about?

KERRY: About the region.

STEIN: Anything specific?

KERRY: About what's happening in Syria, particularly. Well, Syria, particularly.

I think -- I mean, the killing that is taking place in Syria is an insult to everybody, to any nation that is seeking decency and rule of law. It is a strategic catastrophe for the region, for all of us. It puts greater pressure on Jordan, greater pressure on Lebanon, greater pressure on Turkey. There are now some 8 million people displaced within the country. Four million refugees outside.

We are the largest donor, I'm proud to say, to the refugee crisis. But I want to stop donating to a refugee crisis and start seeing those people be able to go back home.

STEIN: You think there's enough element of potential collaboration with the Iranian leadership to get a diplomatic resolution?

KERRY: We haven't explored that yet, Sam, obviously. But Iran hates ISIL, and so do we. ISIL is a danger. It's such a stunning contradiction in the 21st century, after all we have been through, to see a group out there destroying temples, and beheading people who try to protect them, and making rape an instrument of war and empowerment of their people in the most disgraceful way.

We have to do something about this -- more, frankly. And I think the world with the migration crisis in Europe is starting to wake up to the fact that more has to be done.

STEIN: Well, let's talk about the migration crisis. It's becoming an increasingly urgent problem here this year, the refugee crisis.

KERRY: Very urgent.

STEIN: Can we be doing more to help Europe handle this? Or help the Gulf states handle this? What can we be doing to make this --

KERRY: Well, what I think it underscores is the need to deal with the source. I think you have to prevent this kind of massive exodus of human beings.

STEIN: Absent of solving the civil war in Syria, which is not going to happen tomorrow, what can we do in the immediate future?

KERRY: No, but we could do a lot more to protect those people. Obviously you have to create a structure so those people aren't so desperate. They have to be provided with temporary housing, and the capacity to be fed.

STEIN: Could we take more? I mean, Germany's taking 800,000.

KERRY: Well, I'm not talking about taking on a permanent basis. We have huge refugee camps in Jordan, in Lebanon. They're spread more in the population. In Turkey, we have refugee camps. It may be that we have to set up some sort of a refugee camp structure for the time being in order to deal with it.

But I believe, I hope that this will be more of a call to a lot of countries that there has to be more focus on the underlying problem. 

STEIN: Did you see that picture of the 3-year-old Syrian boy this morning, by any chance?

KERRY: Of course. Of course.

STEIN: What were your thoughts?

KERRY: I mean, it's such a disturbing and provocative picture, in so many ways. I have a grandchild that age. That's what you think about.

STEIN: We are coming upon the year anniversary of the president declaring war on the Islamic State. There were recent reports that military intelligence reports were being essentially doctored or rosied up to, I don't know, maybe influence policymakers or hide the truths about the state of the Islamic State campaign. Have you seen these --

KERRY: Military reports and?

STEIN: There were reports that I believe the Pentagon inspector general is looking into. Reports that these intelligence reports about the state of the Islamic State campaign that we are waging is going better than it actually is. Have you seen this? 

KERRY: I have not seen this. No. That's news to me. But I don't think anybody has gilded the lily in any report to me.

We know this is a big challenge. I think certain parts of it are going well in certain places. And there are other parts where it is not. But it is clear that more has to be done in order to destroy ISIL.

STEIN: How would you categorize our progress a year in?

KERRY: I think we have made progress in certain places. We had 100,000 people return in Tikrit. Sunni were able to go back to their homes that had been taken over by ISIL. We have seen the Ramadi effort, campaign, begin and begin to make some progress indeed. The Sunni tribes are joining and beginning to pick up the fight.

But there is a lot more that needs to be done. Mosul remains under their control. In the Kurd component of the country, we’ve seen a significant pushback, a more competent, frankly, a pushback against ISIL.

I think in the northern part of Syria, some progress that has been made of late. But there are still too many people who are able to slip through, come in, too many recruits, too much sustainability to something that shouldn’t be sustainable at all.

STEIN: Looking forward a little bit. So you got the Iran deal done, you got Cuba done -- what's next on your bucket list in your time in this office?

KERRY: Well, we've got to try to see if we can get an agreement on climate change in Paris. This is a very, very important priority for us. We are working on it very hard. That was why I went to Alaska and we had the meetings with our fellow foreign ministers there.

My hope is that this began when I went to China two years ago, and we began to open up the participation with China in a historic agreement with China. And hopefully that comes together to produce something in Paris. I mean that's really critical.

STEIN: Let me ask you about that. I mean, the big debate right now is that your first speech to the Arctic Council, you talked about the prospects of clean energy sources in the Arctic. The first action with U.S. as chair of the Arctic Council is to essentially allow Shell to do exploratory drilling off the coast of Alaska. Isn't there a bit of a mixed message there?

KERRY: Not really, because these are leases that were granted some time ago prior to President Obama becoming president. So the leases existed, and Shell and other companies are going to be drilling somewhere over the course of these next years, because we're not going to suddenly be weaned from oil. And it's a cleaner oil than others, and I think in terms of our efforts to begin the move to a de-carbonized economy, it's going to take 20, 30, 40 years so there's going to be some element of that.

STEIN: So it's not like you can just cut it off cold turkey here.

KERRY: Well it's not just that. I mean, I'd rather have our supply come from an American-controlled source in that respect than somewhere else.

But I think in the long run, we have to wean ourselves from a carbon-based economy. We absolutely have to. We have to do it much faster than we are right now. I think the president understands that, I understand that. We're advocating as powerfully as we can.

And the president, unfortunately, because of the reluctance of some members of Congress to even believe it's happening, has to move by administrative order.

STEIN: They take snowballs onto the Senate floor.

KERRY: It has to move by administrative order and that makes it very difficult.

STEIN: We've reached the domestic politics portion of this program I think.

KERRY: We have?

STEIN: Oh yes, we have. Just a few questions.

Government employees, whistleblowers are in jail today for mishandling classified information, sometimes, you know, unintentionally. But we're only hearing Democrats and other people talk about overclassification as an issue now that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has had her email issues. Is there not a double standard going on here, that we don't care that much about --

KERRY: No, here's the difference, Sam, and I think there is a real difference here, and I think people need to focus in very carefully on it.

First of all, I'm not commenting on the merits of this, generally speaking, because there's an investigation taking place. My responsibility is to get the emails out of here as rapidly as possible so people can make judgments about them. But one of the judgments that can be made to date is that there is no evidence that something was transmitted that was classified at the time. That's what you're talking about. Whistleblowing on that is about classified information. But if information came in to somebody's BlackBerry or on somebody's email that wasn't classified, and then was later classified in the system, that's a whole different ballgame.

STEIN: You've been on both sides of this -- legislative branch, executive branch. As a general matter, do you think we overclassify?

KERRY: Yes.

STEIN: Well, what should we do about this?

KERRY: Well, it's very tricky because, I mean, there’s a massive amount of overclassification. People just stamp it on quickly because it's a way to sort of be correct if anybody had a judgment that somehow they had been wrong about whether it should be classified or not. So the easy thing is classify it and put it away.

STEIN: There's an acronym for that, it's CYA, probably not good for the cameras: "cover your ass."

KERRY: But we are -- I have initiated a review within this department, and I wrote personally to the inspector general and I invited the inspector general to review the process so that we have as much accountability and insight on our own system as we can have.

And we're prepared -- you know, this whole phenomenon of email, obviously, is something that's developed in the last years, and the system needs to catch up: How do you manage it properly? How do you handle so much volume?

STEIN: Last two quick questions. Just between us and these cameras: You're running, right?

KERRY: That's a very small world right there.

STEIN: Small world, right?

KERRY: I know you'll keep a secret no matter what.

STEIN: Obviously. No one's going to hear this, right? Would you be interested in running for president?

KERRY: I'm not running.

STEIN: Why not?

KERRY: It's just not on the table right now. I like the job I'm doing, I have great challenges in this job, I have an agenda that I want to pursue over the course of the next months and it's -- like Paris. I've been working on the climate change issue for years, since I was in the Senate.

STEIN: It's funner to do that than run for president.

KERRY: Not necessarily, but it's getting something done. And I think that that's what's important right now.

STEIN: I'm going to ask you a question that's a lot more controversial than a presidential run. Tom Brady -- he's a free man, can play in the first football game.

KERRY: Fantastic.

STEIN: Is this justice served or justice denied?

KERRY: [Laughter) You want me to comment?

STEIN: I want you to comment on this.

KERRY: You, a good Red Sox fan?

STEIN: I’m a Red Sox fan, but I’m a Giants fan. I'm in that Connecticut divide.

KERRY: That’s a huge mistake. That shows an inexplicable ambivalence. It really does.

STEIN: I know, I know. I've heard this before from other members of our office. So are you happy that the suspension has been lifted?

KERRY: I am delighted. I'm thrilled. And I’m looking forward to seeing Tom Brady and the Patriots against Pittsburgh on the 10th.

STEIN: You've got a Dunkin Donuts in this building now, which is great for a New Englander like yourself.

KERRY: It’s fantastic. Long overdue.

STEIN: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. I appreciate it.

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