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QUESTION: We’re here with the Secretary of State John Kerry. Welcome, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY KERRY: I’m delighted to be with you. I’m honored to be with you on your first outing here.
QUESTION: Well, thank you for joining us.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you.
QUESTION: We have so much to talk about. The deadline for the Iranian nuclear negotiations is November 24. What are the odds of having a deal by then or being close enough to have an extension?
SECRETARY KERRY: I honestly can’t give you odds, and I wouldn’t. I think – I’m hopeful, but it’s a very tough negotiation. There are still gaps that are fairly wide on a number of subjects.
QUESTION: Are you getting closer?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’re closer than we were a week ago or 10 weeks ago, but we’re still with big gaps, Al. We have critical weeks ahead of us. I think the stakes for the world are enormous. I hope the Iranians will not get stuck in a tree of their own making on one demand or another in order to try to find a way together. And we’re hopeful. We’ll do our best, but we have to close off all pathways to a nuclear weapon, and we have to have enough breakout time in order to be able to guarantee the security of everybody who is concerned about this.
QUESTION: In those – in these next three and a half weeks, do you have any plans to meet with high-level Iranians on this issue?
SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, absolutely. We’re going to have (inaudible).
QUESTION: So you’ll have meetings in the next couple weeks?
SECRETARY KERRY: Yes, I will. I am meeting on the 9th of November. I will be meeting with the foreign minister directly. We’ll have two days. We will be beginning a slog of going into the last two weeks. Our expert team will be on the ground with a constant process. We’ll be in Vienna for the final days with the P5+1, all of us together trying to come to some kind of an agreement.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, there are reports that the Iranians believe – they’ve indicated to some people that their leverage has been enhanced in these negotiations because of their role in fighting ISIS. Is that a correct reading?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me use this program to deliver a very clear message to the Iranians, which is: This is not a political decision for us. This is a substantive decision based on the proof of a peaceful program. It’s not hard to prove your program is peaceful if that’s what you want to do. So outside leverage, Syria, ISIL, whatever, is not relevant to this. It’s not affecting us one way or the other. We have one set of criteria within our mind.
There are four pathways to a nuclear weapon. One is the secret underground facility known as Fordow, one is the Natanz enrichment facility that is known to everybody, a sort of well-identified building. The third is the Arak, as it is called, plutonium heavy water reactor. And the fourth is the covert, whatever you aren’t sure of because it’s not clear to you, and therefore you need sufficient verification and sufficient transparency to be able to determine that there isn’t that path being pursued. That’s things like, for instance, knowing you have an eye on the production of uranium and how much uranium and where it’s going and how many centrifuges and these kinds of things.
So those four pathways need to be closed off. We’re looking to the Iranians to be as responsible as they have said they will be and as forthcoming as they have promised, which is to be transparent and allow the proof of this peaceful program.
QUESTION: You talked about ISIL. Let me just ask you a few questions about that. It’s been several months since President Obama promised to degrade and destroy the Islamic terrorists. You have said repeatedly this is going to be a long fight. But over those several months, is there any indication that they have really been degraded?
SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, absolutely. There’s a clarity to that. I mean, they have a limited supply of the heavy weapons that they captured when they routed portions of the Iraqi army and as they marched through Anbar province. We have been, day by day, destroying those.
QUESTION: So you think they’re a lot weaker than they were a month or two ago?
SECRETARY KERRY: There’s no question in my mind that they have been stopped in their momentum. That was target number one. Target number one – the point is, Al, there’s a very clear strategy which the President is implementing. The first part of that strategy was to make sure we had a government to work with in Iraq. And the President made it clear he was not going to engage in strikes and in a major effort until we knew we were on that path. Successfully, the Iraqis have chosen a new government, and that new government is working diligently to help resuscitate the Iraqi army itself, to put new generals in, to reconstitute it, and to help marshal outside forces in the coalition that have come together to help them.
The second part of it is to begin to stop ISIL where it was gaining particular momentum at – like at Sinjar Mountain or in Mosul or at the Haditha Dam or Amirli where they were laying siege. Each one of those we successfully stopped. And in addition, we have begun to take strikes to their command and control headquarters, to their oil production facilities which they use to sell to get money. And step by step, that is going to deteriorate their command and control, their training centers, their supplies. This is a long haul. I’ve said that from the beginning.
QUESTION: One of the keys is to choke off their money. They are the best financed terrorist group —
SECRETARY KERRY: (Inaudible) terrorist group —
QUESTION: — in the history of the world, I suppose.
SECRETARY KERRY: They are.
QUESTION: Up to $500 million a year by some estimates. How can you choke that off, or can you choke most of that off?
SECRETARY KERRY: We’re working on the measures that need to be taken in concert with many other countries to close down avenues for banking, for transfers; to identify people who are large donors and to block that, and also to identify the means by which they’re collecting money in smaller sums but from larger numbers of people.
All of these avenues are being pursued. In addition, we’re pursuing a de-legitimization effort that involves the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, for instance, the council on Saudi Arabia that issues fatwas, the imams, clerics, ayatollahs, people all across Islam who are speaking out to discredit any claims whatsoever that ISIL has made with respect to its so-called legitimacy with respect to Islam. That’s a major, major step.
QUESTION: You put together that coalition, most importantly the Arab countries. How much are they going to pay for this war, the Sunni countries?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the —
QUESTION: Are they delivering?
SECRETARY KERRY: There’s not a specific sum, but there is a pretty open-ended commitment by a lot of countries to do whatever it takes in order to guarantee that ISIL is defeated. And that includes Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, others in the region who are deeply committed to this effort. And they’ve proven it. They’ve put themselves online in ways that they never have before. We have said this will take time, and it will take time. But I am convinced that – because every country in the region is threatened, and countries that aren’t directly in the region. Even Russia that has been supporting Assad, for instance, knows that there are about a thousand Chechens in Syria fighting with ISIL, and that’s a threat to them.
QUESTION: So it’s in their interest. And I just – we are putting together – we’re helping to put together a – some kind of coalition government in Iraq because that’s essentially, you have said, to this fight. Is it at all possible to think about that in Syria? Is it at all possible to maybe have the Russians and the Iranians, acting in their own interest, to put together some kind of coalition there to take on ISIL that would maybe involve Assad and the Free Syrians?
SECRETARY KERRY: We are talking with the Russians and we have raised the subject with the Saudi Arabians and others in the region about how we can deal with Syria in a more concerted way. It is greatly complicated, obviously, by Assad, who is the magnet for most of these fighters coming in. They came there originally to fight Assad. And for a number of different reasons, that broadened into this other entity, into ISIL. But ISIL isn’t alone in presenting a threat to the region or to Assad. You have al-Nusrah, you have Ahrar al-Sham, you have a number of different groups there, but they’ve all come to take on Assad. And the bottom line is you will not have peace in Syria ultimately as long as Assad remains the focus of power and the center magnet, if you will, for extremism. It’s impossible to envision that.
I think the Russians and the Iranians actually deeply down understand that. The question now is: How do you focus on Iraq first, stop them from growing in Syria, then begin to bring more pressure to bear on them in Syria? But it will not take away the fundamental notion within much of the region that Assad ultimately has got to go —
QUESTION: He has to go.
SECRETARY KERRY: — because he is the magnet, and you cannot stop all of this with him there.
QUESTION: Probably the most effective fighting force against ISIL have been the Kurds. Is this the time to think about recognizing a Kurdish state?
SECRETARY KERRY: No. No, it’s not the time. It’s distinctly not the time for a lot of different reasons. We need to take one thing at a time here, and I think President Barzani understands that, which is why he helped in the creation of this new government in Baghdad. The Kurds joined into that effort. They realized it was important to be unified and concerted in this effort against ISIL, and that would be very disruptive with respect to the coalition.
QUESTION: The Washington Post had a story this week that our ties with Turkey have really frayed. They actually say they are crumbling. Has that relationship —
SECRETARY KERRY: No, they’re not crumbling, but it would be disingenuous not to suggest there haven’t been some tensions over this question of what exactly is Turkey prepared to do in order to help on some of the fundamentals. Now, I think we’ve made progress on that, and General Allen has been in the region. He’s been meeting with him. They have committed to a number of different important efforts within the coalition – training and helping with respect to humanitarian assistance.
But they have a legitimate – they have a concern. Their concern is Assad, and they view Assad as a significant component of ISIL in a sense because of his degree of attracting people there. They also have a problem with the PKK, the Kurdish terrorists within Turkey itself, and it’s complicated as a result. So they want to know that the strategy going forward is fully thought out, fully articulated, clear to them, and one that they can buy into. And we’re working on that.
QUESTION: You are going to China next week. One point I’m sure that will come up when you’re there and probably when the President is there too, is the Chinese seem to be retreating on their commitments to Hong Kong for autonomy and free elections. What message are you going to deliver on that issue when you’re in China?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’ve delivered the message. I mean, we’ve already delivered the message publicly, and we obviously are for democracy. We want people to have the right to vote. At the same time, we understand that if people are blocking streets and if they’re engaging in civil disobedience – we have our own approaches to civil disobedience here in our country. You need to sort of recognize that if you’re engaged in civil disobedience, there are consequences. But we support the dialogue. We want them to come together. We’d like to see it resolved as carefully as possible.
QUESTION: Let’s talk just a minute of something else about China, and that is North Korea. Are they being helpful as far as providing intelligence as to what’s happening there? It’s been really weird. Are the Chinese being helpful?
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, the Chinese are being helpful. They’ve taken measures way beyond where they were a year ago. When I went to visit last spring, we engaged in a discussion where they agreed to step up their efforts with the North, and they have. They’ve actually reduced the amount of jet fuel going into the country. They’ve put limitations on trade going into the country. They’ve had at least five visits, maybe six – five, I think, with President Park of South Korea. They haven’t met once with Kim Jong-un. They have had —
QUESTION: Do you have any sense of what’s going on in the North?
SECRETARY KERRY: We do. We think that Kim Jong-un is trying to consolidate. He’s always – he’s got concerns about what’s happening with respect to the human rights accountability and expose of his country. His economy is not great. They’re concerned about the South, if there were a reconciliation, sort of engulfing them. And there are other concerns that he has, obviously – what’s happening with the elites in this country, what’s happening with the control of the military and so forth.
My judgment is that – and this is a Chinese judgment too – that there’s an uncertainty still as to where he wants to go, what he wants to do. The hope of the Chinese is that we could get back to Six-Party Talks sooner rather than later. Our hope is likewise.
SECRETARY KERRY: We could do so, but we’re not going to do it just for the sake of talking. We want to know that North Korea is prepared to discuss the denuclearization. We can come back to those talks, and we’ve offered all kinds of alternative realities to the North that if they did come back and engage in denuclearization, there is a path by which they could receive, ultimately, a normal working relationship with the rest of the world and economic engagement and other things that would be enormously helpful.
QUESTION: You mentioned Russia and Ukraine a moment ago, and I think Americans are a little bit unsure of our Russia-Ukraine policy, and it seems that sanctions alone aren’t going to secure Ukraine. Have we basically given up, or is there little chance of any diplomacy with Putin?
SECRETARY KERRY: I met with Lavrov in Paris a week and a half, two weeks ago. We talked about various approaches. There is a Minsk agreement in place. It has a timetable for certain things to be done by a certain period of time in December. We’re concerned that the recent Russian statement about supporting the separatist elections on November 2nd – that that’s outside of the Minsk agreement and we would not view those as legitimate, and that could be problematic. But they just got a gas deal in the last 24 hours between Ukraine and Russia. There has been some indication of troops moving away and of some reduction of violence, but it’s very start and stop. It’s not sufficient yet to satisfy anybody, and I think we’re concerned.
But the sanctions have held. The sanctions are having an impact. The ruble is at the lowest level it’s been since – against the euro since the euro was introduced in 1999. They’ve spent billions of dollars trying to support the ruble. Oil is down, hovering in the low 80s, somewhere in that vicinity. That has a profound impact on the Russian budget and the Russian economy. Their GDP is going backwards, not forwards growth. And so they have some serious challenges.
Our desire is to see the full implementation of the Minsk agreements and move to de-escalate the confrontation which we don’t think is doing anybody any good. Ukraine should not be fought over in the way that Putin appears to believe it has to be. We believe it can associate with West, with East, can be a strong relationship with Russia and a strong relationship with Europe and could be a bridge between the two. But President Putin really needs to decide that he wants to respect the sovereign rights of the people of Ukraine to make that decision for themselves, and to work with us in a constructive way rather than to attack the norms of behavior and the standards which have guided us ever since World War II.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, thank you. We’ve covered a lot today and we really appreciate it.
SECRETARY KERRY: Likewise.