Just after hosting Cuba's foreign minister at the State Department, Secretary of State John Kerry sat down with NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep to discuss the restoration of diplomatic relations with that country, as well as the status of a nuclear deal with Iran.
Kerry defended the Obama administration's stance on both countries, and said if diplomatic relations with Cuba or a nuclear deal with Iran were scuttled — either by a future president or Congress — it would hurt the U.S.
Inskeep pointed out that at least one 2016 presidential candidate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, has said he'd roll back Obama's Cuba policy. Kerry said either Congress or a new president could make that decision, "But I think it'd be a terrible mistake. The vast majority of the American people believe this is a very good thing to do. ... As time goes on, people will see the benefits that come from this policy."
"We had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union," Kerry continued. "We had diplomatic relations with then-called 'Red China'. We have to have relationships with countries to do business. And American citizens get hurt when we don't do that."
On Iran, Kerry said if Congress failed to approve a nuclear deal with the country, the results would be disastrous. "I'm telling you, the U.S. will have lost all credibility," Kerry told Inskeep. "We will not be in the hunt. And if we then decided to use military [after a deal fails], do you believe the United Nations will be with us? Do you think our European colleagues will support us? Not on your life."
Kerry said Iran would use the deal's failure as an excuse to enrich uranium. "[The deal's failure] will be a travesty, and Iran will begin enriching, claiming it is a right that they only gave up in the context of negotiations, but since negotiations are dead, they're going to resume their rights."
He continued, "Iran will say, 'Aha, you see!' The Ayotollah will say, 'I told you, you can't trust the West. I told you you can't negotiate with these guys. They will lie to you. They will cheat you. And here they are, they let us down, and the Congress walked away. They have 535 secretaries of state. There's nobody to negotiate with.'"
Kerry also responded to claims that the Obama administration was too eager to get a nuclear deal, and would pay a high price for one. Kerry told Inskeep that he actually walked away from the negotiating table three times. "President Obama in almost every conversation would say, 'Remember John, you can walk away.' ... And I did walk away. ... So we had no compunctions about it, whatsoever. I think the fact is, we got the deal that was achievable beyond people's belief, and that's what you heard from people..."
Finally, Kerry touched on Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's recent comments on Sen. John McCain's war record, [McCain spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam after his plane was shot down in 1967.] Kerry has spoken out in support of McCain.
"I defended John McCain because he's a war hero," Kerry told Inskeep. "And I think the comments were obviously inappropriate." But Kerry would not discuss previous Republican criticisms of his own war record when he ran for president in 2004. "The rest is ancient history," he said.
You can hear Steve Inskeep's interview with Secretary Kerry on Tuesday on NPR's Morning Edition.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We've been putting questions to the U.S. diplomat at the center of two major shifts in U.S. foreign policy.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Secretary of State John Kerry completed a historic deal with Iran. The United Nations Security Council approved that deal yesterday.
MONTAGNE: Also yesterday, at the State Department, Kerry stood with the foreign minister of Cuba.
INSKEEP: It was the day Cuba opened its embassy in Washington. Kerry spoke in Spanish of restoring relations with the Cuban people and government.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN KERRY: (Speaking Spanish).
INSKEEP: You can hear a whoop and brief applause, rare at a sober diplomatic press conference, and suggesting the emotions of this moment. Secretary Kerry showed increasing emotion himself when he sat down with us afterward. Kerry was visibly weary when he arrived. He's been walking on crutches after a recent accident. But he was ready to answer his critics, who are many. The Iran deal faces a tough vote in Congress. Restoring relations with Cuba drew fierce questions, too.
Some weeks ago, we spoke with Marco Rubio, who's running for president, one of the Republican candidates, who said that if elected, he would reverse the Cuba policy, that he would break off diplomatic relations with Cuba. Can the next president, in practical terms, undo what you have done?
KERRY: Well, any president has obviously the ability to make a decision. Congress obviously has ability to have an impact on that. But I think it would be a terrible mistake. The vast majority of the American people believe this is a very good thing to do. It doesn't make sense. I mean, we had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. We had diplomatic relations with then-called Red China. You know, we have to have relationships with countries to do business. And American citizens get hurt when we don't do that.
INSKEEP: Although Secretary Kerry is not yet ready to push for normal diplomatic relations with that other nation, Iran.
KERRY: Well, could I imagine it? I'm sure I could conjure up some imagination - but has to be way off in the future with a huge amount of changes from where we are today.
INSKEEP: There's a reason John Kerry has to say this. World leaders and U.S. lawmakers worry about far more than Iran's nuclear program. In fact, this debate never was entirely about nuclear weapons. It's also about what else Iran might do in the region. Critics argue that a nuclear deal with its end to economic sanctions freeze Iran to pursue its ambitions across the Mideast. Secretary Kerry insists Iran will have to change its behavior.
KERRY: Well, Iran has to engage with the world and make it clear that it's going to stop supporting terror and stop exporting weapons to terrorists and engage in activities that join the community of nations in a constructive way.
INSKEEP: Well, that leads to another question, also. Will the nuclear deal make Iran in effect more powerful? Because Iran has given up some nuclear research progress in exchange for $100 billion in unfrozen assets and a lot of other benefits.
KERRY: Well, it's given up a lot more than that. I mean, Iran without a nuclear weapon is a very different Iran than one with one, and this is why many of us are so amazed at the reaction of some people. Israel, for instance, is much safer without an Iranian nuclear weapon. And we believe that what we have done in this deal and even before this deal in the last two years is roll back Iran's nuclear program. Before we became engaged with Iran, they had a two-month breakout time. Now they'll be going to a year breakout time. Is Israel safer with a year, or aren't you? I mean, this is pretty straightforward. So I believe over time, we will show people in the Congress and elsewhere in the country that Israel, the Gulf states, the countries in the region are much safer with this deal than without it.
INSKEEP: Iran will also have a much larger economy, presumably, which is good for the people of Iran. But won't that allow it to project its influence even more forcefully throughout the region?
KERRY: No, for a number of different reasons. First of all, a lot of people are ignoring the fact that there's a pretty natural divide between Persia and the Arab world. There's also a divide between Shia and Sunni, Sunni being the vast majority of the Arab world. In addition, there are other stakes here, which will change things, in that if Iran continues to support these bad activities, we have agreed with the Gulf states that we are going to push back intensely. We're going to do additional training with those Gulf states. We're going to provide them with counterterrorism training, with special forces operational training, with cyber, and with other capacities. So the region will gain in stability. If Iran chooses to engage in these activities, they're going to find a very different pushback than has existed in the previous years.
INSKEEP: When Kerry speaks of the Gulf states, he means Iran's Arab neighbors. Some have opposed U.S. cooperation with Iran, their historic rival. That means they broadly agree with Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, denounced the deal on NPR News last week. All of this leaves Kerry arguing the United States will keep pressure on Iran.
KERRY: So we are going to engage with others in making sure that we hold Iran accountable to standards that it must be expected to live up to.
INSKEEP: Do you feel you are actually freer to push against Iran than you were before?
KERRY: Absolutely, in many - well, not freer in the sense of I believe we're free to do this because that's clearly not part of our agreement. All we did was negotiate a nuclear restraint. And the reason is very straightforward. If you're going to push back against Iran, it is better to push back against an Iran without a nuclear weapon than one with one. Pretty simple proposition, and you would think that the states in the region would actually think about that a little more.
INSKEEP: I want you to have an opportunity to answer a common criticism that's been made in these negotiations, that President Obama was too eager for a deal, that Secretary Kerry was too eager for a deal, and made that too plain, that you would pay a high price for a deal. That's the criticism that was made. In light of that, I'm wondering, in looking back in your negotiations with Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, and others, can you recall a moment when you were prepared to walk away or even said we are walking away?
KERRY: Well, let me tell you what a complete and total fallacy their criticism is. It's totally made up by people who somehow want to find a way to criticize the agreement because the fact is that I walked away three times.
INSKEEP: Three different times, he says, when Iranians were intransigent. Kerry insisted he told Iranians, even at the very end, that he was ready to walk away. And he became more animated as we talked about this.
KERRY: I suppose - I suppose we were so eager. That's why it took four years to negotiate. I mean, really, it's one of the dumbest criticisms I've ever heard in my life because it has no relationship to reality of what we were engaged in. President Obama, in almost every conversation, would say, remember, John, you can walk away.
I think the fact is we got the deal that was achievable beyond people's belief. We have restraints on their RMD. We have a remarkable set of understandings of what they can do and can't do, and we will have the ability to inspect and know what they were doing. And if the Congress kills this deal, there will be no restraints, none whatsoever, no inspections, it's over, and the sanctions will disappear because our colleagues who we negotiated with will say, oh, look, the United States Congress killed this. We didn't. But now everybody's free to do what they want.
INSKEEP: You have said that the world would be on a path to conflict...
INSKEEP: ...Almost immediately, was the quote, if Congress rejects this deal. How does that happen? How does a path to conflict begin almost immediately?
KERRY: Well, let me tell you exactly what happens. If we, the - if the United States Congress says no, this deal isn't going forward, and they actually got enough votes to kill the deal, there's no deal. If there's no deal, there are no sanctions, there are no inspections, and Iran will say, aha, you see. The Ayatollah will say, I told you, you can't trust the West. I told you, you can't negotiate with these guys. They will lie to you. They will cheat you. And here they are. They led us down the path, and the Congress walked away. They have 535 secretaries of state. There's nobody to negotiate with. And our European allies will walk away saying, well, we tried our best. Now we trust Iran, and we're going to go do something. And they'll cut their own deal. We're finished. I'm telling you, the U.S. will have lost all credibility.
And if we then decided to use military, do you believe the United Nations will be with us? Do you think our European colleagues will support us? Not in your life. They'll say, you guys just walked away from something we spent four years negotiating with you. This will be a travesty, and Iran will begin enriching, and then you are right into conflict with presidential candidates screaming at Obama, what are you going to do now? You got to bomb them. You got to use military force - and Israel saying the same thing. And you'll see another $20 million spent to convince people that's what they have to do.
INSKEEP: Since you mention presidential candidates, are you comfortable with the idea of the 2016 election being, on some level, a referendum on this nuclear deal? Because many Republican candidates have said they would scotch it if they get into office.
KERRY: Well, let's see where we are when Congress finishes this debate. I really think that, on the merits, this deal makes the world safer.
INSKEEP: Do you think the critics are not serious, and they'll just move on to other issues?
KERRY: No, I think they'll continue to bang away if they think they've got an issue. The - you know, we all know that politics in America isn't exactly on the up-and-up these days. So I'm sure they'll do what they want to do. But the fact is that this deal is the only way in which Iran's program has been rolled back.
INSKEEP: Secretary Kerry, thanks very much.
KERRY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Secretary of State John Kerry speaking yesterday at the State Department. He now moves from negotiating overseas to facing former colleagues in Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.