Secretary of State John Kerry At a Press Availability Via Teleconference

MR KIRBY:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Thanks for coming today.

QUESTION:  Welcome.

MR KIRBY:  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Even if it is a short appearance.

MR KIRBY:  I appreciate that.  Listen, so it’s my first day at the podium and I kind of figured that I might need some help, so I have asked Secretary Kerry to help join me today and so we have him remotely from Boston.  Could we bring the Secretary up, please?  There he is.

Now, obviously, this is a live remote situation, so the Secretary can’t see you.  He’s going to have a few comments to kick this off, and then we’re going to go to questions.  The Secretary also has a plane to catch, so we’re not going to be able to take a lot of questions today.  I will be moderating.  I’ll choose those who are going to – I’ll call on you.  I’d ask you to just please, as you ask your question, identify yourself and who you’re with so the Secretary knows who (inaudible).

Okay.  Mr. Secretary, can you hear me okay?

SECRETARY KERRY:  I sure can, John.  Thank you very, very much and hello to everybody.  Glad to see you.  I’ll be down in Washington later this afternoon and look forward to catching up to everybody.  But I really wanted to have a chance to personally welcome former Admiral John Kirby to the podium.  It’s a special privilege for the State Department to welcome him as our spokesperson.  He’s the face of the department now going forward.  I’ve actually had a chance to watch him a number of times from the hospital bed a few days ago, and I thought he just did an outstanding job in his first days.  So I’m really happy that he’s going to be taking over today officially at the podium and very, very much look forward to building a strong relationship with all of you.  And John, thank you so much.  Welcome aboard.  We’re really delighted to have you part of this team.

Let me just say to the members of the press there – and I very much look forward to getting back and picking up where we left off in our good give-and-take and back-and-forth, which I appreciate – but I wanted to just share a couple of quick observations.

I talked today with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan regarding a recent increase in the tensions publicly between India and Pakistan.  It’s of enormous concern to all of us for all the obvious reasons.  These are two very, very important countries playing a critical role with respect to regional interests, and it’s very, very important that there be no misinterpretation or miscalculation with respect to any of the back-and-forth and the empowerment some entities might feel as a result of that.  The prime minister was extremely forthcoming.  He could not have been more direct.  He had actually just finished a conversation himself with the prime minister of India.  And we welcomed some thinking together about how we can work, all of us, to try to reduce those tensions over the course of the next days and weeks.

In addition, I am going to be spending a fair amount of time in the next few days focused on China for the Security & Economic Dialogue, which is coming, obviously, at a time of some importance in terms of what has been going on in the region as well as conceivably some of the interests that we have with respect to trade, economy, and other interests.  So it’s going to be a very, very important meeting, and I’m confident that we’re going to have a full-throated discussion of all of the issues that confront us.

And that will be the prelude to my departing at some point – we’re not exactly sure of the date, depending on how things move in Vienna over the course of the next days – but I will be leaving to conduct the – what one hopes would be the closeout and should be the closeout of the negotiations with respect to the Iran nuclear program.

Obviously, the stakes on that are very high.  Our position has not changed.  I’ve noticed some back-and-forth in the last few days.  But our positions have not altered one iota from what we declared both in JPOA itself as well as in my own interviews and in our discussions with people over the course of the last few months.  So the talks remain tough.  They’re critical.  And just as I have said consistently, we’re not going to rush to an agreement for the sake of an agreement, and we’re not going to sign an agreement that we don’t believe gets the job done.

So with that said, let me again welcome John to the podium, and I’d be happy to share a couple of questions before I race out of here to jump on a plane.

MR KIRBY:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Our first question will come from Matt Lee.

QUESTION:  Hi, Mr. Secretary.  I hope you can hear me okay.  Welcome back almost, I guess.  Good to see that you’re back on your feet, kind of, so far, and we’ll look – that’s a nice boat, by the way, you have behind you.  Looks quite intricate.  I wanted to —


QUESTION:  I wanted to start with Iran.

SECRETARY KERRY:  I actually rebuilt part of that.

QUESTION:  The model or the original one?  (Laughter.)

SECRETARY KERRY:  I’m not old enough to build the original one.  The model.  (Laughter.)

QUESTION:  Fair enough.  I want to start with Iran, if I could.  As you mentioned, there are – there have been reports – and not just reports, but officials’ comments from a variety of places over the course of the past couple of days – about the U.S. position and the Iran negotiations.  You say that your position hasn’t shifted one iota since the JPOA was signed or even since, but is it not the case that this is a negotiation and there will be and has to be, in fact, give-and-take between the two sides, between the P5+1 and Iran?  And if that is, in fact, the case, how can you say that you’re not going to make any concessions, that there are going to be – that there isn’t going to be any movement in your position, especially regarding sanctions, what kind of sanctions get lifted, and the possible military dimensions, the resolution of that?  Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY:  Sure, Matt.  Well, no, no, listen.  Of course, it’s a negotiation.  And of course, there is always give-and-take in the context of a negotiation.  But Lausanne defined fundamental parameters, as did the JPOA, of what needs to be achieved.  For instance, on something like possible military dimensions, the JPOA refers to that and says that it’s got to be addressed in the context of the final product.  And that remains true; it has to be.  And we have to resolve our questions about it with specificity.  Access is very, very critical.  It’s always been critical from day one; it remains critical.  And we defined that at Lausanne, and those are sort of fundamental outlines, if you will.

Within that context, Matt, of course, there is leeway to be able to further define certain things, and of course, there were things that I specifically articulated in Lausanne at the press conference which we knew had not yet been resolved.  So those things remain, obviously, more open than others.

But there are fundamental things here that have to be adhered to in order to have the same definition of a good deal when we talked about it in Lausanne as when we talk about it now.  And that has not changed, not going to change, can’t change.  Those are going to have to be resolved along the lines that they were defined in Lausanne.

MR KIRBY:  Margaret.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, it’s good to hear from you and to see you again.  It’s Margaret Brennan from CBS.  I have a question about Syria.  How certain are you that it’s the Assad regime that is carrying out these chlorine gas chemical attacks, and have you made any progress in getting them to stop?

SECRETARY KERRY:  I am absolutely certain – we are certain – that the preponderance of those attacks have been carried out by the regime, and we’re putting together a portfolio of that data that supports that even as we speak now.  But that is not to say that some element of an opposition may not have had access at one point in time or another and have actually utilized something at one point in time or another.  But when I talk about the vast preponderance, I mean vast preponderance.  It has been significantly documented.  It’s dropped from airplanes.  There are only – the opposition isn’t flying airplanes or helicopters.  And you can go through a certain sort of tracking of the delivery system and delivery approach.  So it’s frankly not that hard to pin down in the end, and that’s some of what we will lay out at the appropriate time.

QUESTION:  Any progress in making him stop?

SECRETARY KERRY:  Well, I discussed this with Foreign Minister Lavrov just yesterday, as a matter of fact, and I’m confident that he will raise it with him yet again.  But I think everybody’s patience is wearing thin with respect to the extraordinary depravity of the weaponry and mechanisms for delivery, which Assad has used against his own people.  If you look at Aleppo, for instance, ISIL is in the region, ISIL in the area, ISIL is in fact attacking a community up there which could close off the movement of humanitarian assistance if they were to be successful.  And Assad has never tried to lay a finger on them.  He’s never attacked them.  Instead, he has dropped barrel bombs on civilians in Aleppo.  And I raised that issue with Foreign Minister Lavrov yesterday, and that will increasingly be something that we’ll be focusing on more publicly.

But needless to say, we are engaged in a number of efforts right now diplomatically and otherwise to see whether or not there might be some life in the political track, and it’s too early to answer that question, but we are not simply sitting there and allowing this to happen without any efforts to see if there’s a way to stop it.  Thus far, it has not been stopped, and I think it is only increasing the international community’s anger at the Assad regime.

MR KIRBY:  Michael.

QUESTION:  Sir, I’m Michael Gordon, New York Times.  You mentioned that possible military dimensions, which is the term of art for suspected nuclear design work and testing of nuclear components, has to be addressed as part of a prospective Iran agreement.  Do these concerns need to be fully resolved before sanctions are eased or released or removed or suspended on Iran as part of that agreement?  Is that a core principle or is that also negotiable?  Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY:  Michael, the possible military dimensions, frankly, gets distorted a little bit in some of the discussion, in that we’re not fixated on Iran specifically accounting for what they did at one point in time or another.  We know what they did.  We have no doubt.  We have absolute knowledge with respect to the certain military activities they were engaged in.

What we’re concerned about is going forward.  It’s critical to us to know that going forward, those activities have been stopped, and that we can account for that in a legitimate way.  That clearly is one of the requirements in our judgment for what has to be achieved in order to have a legitimate agreement.  And in order to have an agreement to trigger any kind of material significant sanctions relief, we would have to have those answers.

MR KIRBY:  Elise.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  Elise Labott, good to see you.  You spoke about —


QUESTION:  — your conversation with Foreign Minister Lavrov.  Could you talk about your discussions about Ukraine?  There are many reports that the Russians are moving heavy weaponry in – across the border into Ukraine, there have been numerous violations of the Minsk agreement, and there has been some talk that the U.S. is preparing additional sanctions along with the Europeans.  It seems as if President Putin has decided that he can absorb the costs of the current status quo, so how do you change and get the Russians to withdraw their troops, withdraw their support for the Russian-backed separatists, or are you planning additional punitive measures?  Thank you.

SECRETARY KERRY:  Well, thank you, Elise, and thanks for your warm comments.  I appreciate it.

Look, the – we discussed this at some length yesterday, of course, and I made it very clear that the United States and European capacity to try to move forward with respect to sanctions relief is fully dependent on the implementation of the Minsk agreements.  Now, there have been several meetings in the last days of the working groups and the trilateral group which have been a little bit more productive than meetings heretofore, and a little bit of discipline has entered into the elections discussion with respect to the separatists.  And I made it very clear to Foreign Minister Lavrov, and I think – it wasn’t – I – really it was my emphasizing it, because I think he understands and accepts the idea that the working groups are the key to making Minsk happen.

Now, the Russians always raise counter initiatives by the Ukrainians, which they suggest are causing the separatists to shell and to engage in further military activity, and frankly you just sort of get trapped in a rabbit’s hole if you start discussing who did what when and how.  And so we really tried to focus on how do we move from here forward.  And I made it very, very clear, and he accepted the idea, that there needs to be less fighting and more negotiating, and more movement with respect to the Minsk implementation process.

Toria Nuland will be over visiting some folks in the region shortly – today, tomorrow, and the next days.  We are going to continue to be putting pressure on the process of the working groups to be able to more fully implement Minsk.  And I made it as clear as I possibly can that in the absence of a reduction in the hostilities, and in the absence of further progress of the implementation, Europe and the United States are going to be united in a rollover of the current level of sanctions, certainly, and whether or not more comes depends on what happens on the ground.

Foreign Minister Lavrov indicated to me that they want the Minsk implementation, that they do believe that is the way to resolve this; but obviously, even as we’ve heard that before, we’ve also seen Russian activities that further support the separatists in ways that are not productive.  I called that to his attention, and we’ll see whether or not in the next days there can be progress made, and whether or not the Minsk process actually takes greater hold through the working groups and the OSCE presence and oversight, and ultimately through the political pieces that need to be achieved on both sides in order to have an election and begin to get the autonomy – the individual autonomy steps in place that have been at the heart of the separatist demands and of the Ukrainian proffers with respect to a resolution.

So if those things happen, there’s a way forward.  If they don’t happen, if President Putin chooses to play a double game and continues to allow the separatists to press forward, then obviously we have a very big challenge ahead of us.

MR KIRBY:  Okay, this will have to be the last question.  Lesley.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, Lesley Wroughton from Reuters.  I hope you’re feeling better.

SECRETARY KERRY:  Thank you, Lesley.

QUESTION:  Also coming – remaining with President Putin, today he said he would add more than 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles in its nuclear arsenal this year.  Does that concern you, or do you think it’s saber rattling, as NATO has indicated?

SECRETARY KERRY:  Well, it does concern me.  Of course it concerns me.  We have the START agreement.  We’re trying to move in the opposite direction.  We’ve had enormous cooperation from the 1990s forward with respect to the destruction of nuclear weapons that were in former territories of the Soviet Union, and nobody wants to see us step backwards.  Nobody wants to, I think, go back to a kind of Cold War status.  It could well be posturing with respect to negotiations because of their concerns about military moves being made by NATO itself, the assurance program that’s in place for the forward states, as well as potentially the missile defense deployment plan.  So it’s really hard to tell, but nobody should hear that kind of announcement from the leader of a powerful country and not be concerned about what the implications are.

MR KIRBY:  Okay, thanks, everybody.  We’re going to have to wrap it up there so that the Secretary can catch his plane back to Washington.  Sir, thank you very much for joining us today.  And I think that’s going to conclude the press conference, because I don’t think I can improve upon that, so have a good day.  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Thank you.