Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

John Kerry: US will “push back” against Iran’s role in region
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US Secretary of State John Kerry answers a question after his meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir at the Department of State in Washington, DC, on July 16, 2015. (AFP Photo/Mladen Antonov)

US Secretary of State John Kerry answers a question after his meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir at the Department of State in Washington, DC, on July 16, 2015. (AFP Photo/Mladen Antonov)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Next month, US Secretary of State John Kerry will head to the Qatari capital Doha to assure the US’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners regarding the nuclear deal with Iran. As Tehran continues its support for groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, many in the Gulf are worried the deal will produce a more brazen Tehran regime, buoyed by its newly found international legitimacy following the deal.

In his first print interview with an Arabic-language publication since becoming secretary of state, Kerry spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat via telephone from his office shortly after his historic meeting with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Eduardo Rodriguez, who was in Washington DC for the raising of Cuba’s flag in the US capital and reopening his country’s embassy for the first time in 54 years.

Kerry maintained that for Washington “nothing has changed” with respect to Iran and that the US will continue plans to “push back” on Iranian support for “illicit” and extremist activity in the region, working with Gulf partners to ensure the Tehran regime did not renege on the terms of the agreement.

Asharq Al-Awsat: Now that the nuclear deal has been signed, how confident are you that it will actually stick after all these months of negotiations?

John Kerry: Well, I believe as long as it is implemented, and the steps are taken by Iran to follow through, it will stick. We are not going anywhere, and I think we will persuade the Congress that this is in fact good for the security of the United States, good for the region, that it will protect in fact against an arms race in the region, and that it will prevent Iran from securing a nuclear weapon; and I think that makes Israel and the Gulf states and everyone else safer. If you didn’t have this deal, then immediately you are going to have the possibility of confrontation because Iran will say, ‘Okay, we came to the table, we negotiated, now you have said no deal, so we are not beholden to anybody.’ And the sanctions by the way would fall apart because our sanction partners only signed up to bring them to the table to negotiate, and if we kill the negotiations they are going to go away. So the fact is Iran would be freer to pursue its objectives, barring intervention, so you may have conflict, or the other states [in the region] say, ‘Whoops, now they are racing full speed ahead to get a weapon, we must do the same.’ So there is a far greater chance of having a nuclear arms race without the deal than with it. With a deal, you have ample ability to know what Iran is doing, you have Iran under enormous restraints, you have them living with limits on their enrichment, limits on their centrifuges, on their stockpile. You can’t make a bomb with those kinds of restraints and with that kind of inspection.

Q: I am sure you have heard from Arab counterparts that many in the Arab world fear that with a deal there are less restraints in terms of lifting sanctions and ending diplomatic isolation. The fear is that Iran’s policies will become more problematic in the Middle East . . .

Well, we just don’t agree with that. We don’t agree with that because in fact Iran will remain isolated for its support for terrorism, for its support for weapons trading, for its support for the Houthis, its support for Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. As long as they continue to support it, there will be push-back. There will be push-back against activities that support other countries. The whole reason for Camp David was to bring people together around in an organizational effort to push back against Iran. The fact is, Iran’s military budget is just 15 billion US dollars; the Gulf states spend 130 billion dollars a year. What is going on here so that discrepancy in expenditure doesn’t show up in terms of what’s happening on the ground? It’s because there has to be a greater effort to train, to organize, to engage in counterterrorism, to engage on the ground in different types of efforts. F16s do not make the difference against support under the radar to terrorists. So you need to have a more effective countering and that is what we are proposing. We in fact think we have a far more effective plan and people need to take a hard look at what the realities are without these restraints. It’s impossible for Iran to make a weapon with a limitation for 15 years on 3.67 percent enrichment, it is impossible with a 300 kilogram stockpile. So are you better off with the 15 years of that restraint, rather than going to have the confrontation tomorrow? Or even more so, we have 25 years’ restraint on their production of uranium, we have a lifetime restraint with the additional protocol and access on what they are able to do. So there is in fact a huge application of transparency and accountability in this situation. I will be traveling to Doha in the next couple of weeks to meet with the whole GCC and I think we can persuade them both that by being more effective in our counter-push as well as through the restraints we have, they will be significantly strengthened going forward.

Q: The meeting you are having with the GCC comes at an important time. There seems to be a lack of clarity on the United States’ policy in dealing with Iran . . .

Nothing, nothing has changed. We have made that very clear. We have told that to people. Nothing has changed. We oppose their support to Hezbollah, we oppose their support of the Houthis, we oppose their interventions with the Shi’ite militias in Iraq, we oppose their support for terrorism. Nothing has changed. We have negotiated a nuclear deal for the simple reason that we believe if you are going to push back against Iran, it’s better to push back against an Iran without a nuclear weapon than with one.

Q: Yet what has changed is that of course you have met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif many times and the channel is now open to try to deal with Iran’s policies in the region. Now that the deal is agreed, can there be an opening to discuss . . .

We have no idea and we would not dream of doing it without our allies and without their engagement and we have told them that.

Q: Would it be possible for the United States to bring the two sides to the table? Would you want to do that?

I have no idea. It depends on what our allies want. It depends on whether Iran would do it or not. But that is not the subject of these negotiations. Now, President [Hassan] Rouhani in his comments about the deal indicated he is prepared to have a different relationship, but that’s not what the negotiation was about. The negotiation was about their nuclear potential and to deprive them of it.

Q: Yes, but now those negotiations are over, what is the next step?

Well, we will sit down with our allies and friends. We are not going to proceed in a way that does anything except works with them and in support of them.

Q: There is some concern in parts of the Arab world that seeing Iran as a partner in defeating ISIS comes at a political cost. There are concerns this is the US giving a carte blanche to Iran to have groups and militias like Hezbollah emerge in Iraq. What is your position on this?

We believe all foreign troops and forces should be out of Syria, all foreign forces should be out.

Q: But what about in Iraq?

Well, we don’t believe they should be involved on Iraqi territory unless the Iraqi government [wants them] . . . that is up to the Iraqi government. If they don’t want them, the Iraqi government can tell them that. I think the Iraqi government has given them license. It is not up to us, it is up to the Iraqi government. We are not inviting them and we are not cooperating with them.

Q: But do you think their role is helpful?

I think anybody who kills ISIS is helping, but it’s not something we asked for nor something that we are coordinating.

Q: I wanted to go back to the atmospherics of your meetings with Zarif and the Iranians. Did you find it is possible to have a constructive relationship with the Iranians, especially as the deal is now struck?

Look, this is not a matter of personal relationships; this is a matter of negotiating very difficult negotiations and reaching a deal. We negotiated in good faith, and we managed to be able to always keep the atmospherics very constructive even when the debate was very heated, and we had several. But we thought it was important to keep it constructive. But the objective was not relationship building, the objective was deal-constructing.

Q: On a personal level, what does the deal mean to you?

I believe if fully implemented, and I emphasize that, this deal will be historic. A country has voluntarily negotiated away the building of a nuclear weapon. That is very significant. I think if fully implemented that will be the significance, that it will not produce a nuclear weapon. Time will obviously test that, but I believe we will know. If they try to break out, this deal is constructed in a way that means we will know and we will be in the position we are in right now, where we don’t have the deal implemented yet. So, in effect, this is an opportunity, an opportunity for the region, for us, for the Iranians, to get on to a different path which may or may not get open the door to other possibilities. We don’t know the answer to that.

Q: You are right about being on a different path. As sectarian tensions and troubles have flared up in the last months, most people in the region were saying, ‘We have to wait to see if there is a nuclear deal.’ Now that we have crossed that milestone, what is the next priority?

The next priority is making sure that our friends and allies fully understand that this [deal] in fact will help them, that we are there to back up what we have said with respect to the ability to push back, and that they can count on the United States of America to be part of the long-term security and defense of the region.

Q: This was a message that was given at the Camp David Summit. President Obama has said that; as have you, repeatedly. Yet the skepticism remains. Is it a matter of lack of trust in the US?

No, I think there are understandable anxieties. People are not certain, they don’t know. It is our job to make them more certain. We are going to have to double our time and double the effort to make sure people see what is happening. That it is constructive, real, and that it makes a difference in their lives. We are not fooling around with this; this is serious business. Their security is at stake and they need to know for certain and we are going to make sure they do.

Q: You said Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and that is the official position of the United States by law. But do you still believe that, or is it a technicality?

No, it is not a technicality. They are supporting Hezbollah, they are supporting other enemies, they are supporting the Houthis, and the Houthis are firing rockets into Saudi Arabia. They have supported people who have gone into Saudi Arabia and blown up things, the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] has supported terrorist activities, including [the 1996 attack on] Khobar Towers. This is serious business.

Q: So what are the options to deal with that terrorism?

Well, the options are many. Obviously increase intelligence gathering, to increase the sharing of information, to increase your capacity to intercept, to prevent the flow of these weapons. There is a whole bunch of different things that we will engage in.

Q: The issue of Middle East peace was a priority for you despite stalling. Now that we have this nuclear deal, can we expect a refocus of efforts on the region?

Well, it still remains a huge priority. Fighting ISIL [ISIS] is priority number one right now, taking on the extremists in the region and guaranteeing that our allies and friends feel safer. That really is the top priority. Clearly we are going to stay focused on the issue of Syria, and the issue of Israel and Palestine, and the issue of regional extremism. These are just very high priorities.

Q: So your message for the GCC meeting will be making sure allies feel secure and that they can rely on the United States?

Well, the message is to show them every detail of the deal, to go through the deal so they feel they understand it completely and they understand why it makes them safer, not putting them at risk. The message is not just to show them the details of the deal, but all of the strategy for how we will join them in pushing back against illicit activities whether from Iran or elsewhere, and join them for mutual defense and security for the region.