W.H. chief of staff defends policy on Syria, Iran, Keystone pipeline

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough defended the administration’s foreign policy in Syria and Iran and outlined the next steps for the Keystone XL pipeline in a wide-ranging interview Sunday morning.

In Syria, just four percent of the chemical weapons stockpile has been destroyed, according to U.S. estimates, which drew condemnation from U.S. Ambassador Robert Mikulak. McDonough said the deal is not falling apart. The U.S. “would like to see it proceed much more quickly than it is,” he said, and pledged to keep “pushing” the issue.

 But he said it was still important that the Syrian government had even acknowledged having a chemical weapons stockpile and agreed to have it dismantled.

“We're going to make sure that the Syrians live up to their obligations. They have an obligation to the international community to do exactly what they said they'd do,” McDonough said, though he declined to say what the U.S. would do if the removal process is not sped up. 

He was also reticent about ongoing talks to end Iran’s nuclear program, even though the country’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said Saturday that the Iranians would not give up research on centrifuges that are used to purify uranium

“We'll let Foreign Minister Zarif talk about what he wants to talk about publicly. We'll make clear what we expect from him privately,” McDonough said. “The president is committed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. That's what he has made clear to the American people over the course of these last many years. Nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranians, who would be a risk to that region, to our friends, like Israel, but also would set off a nuclear arms race in that region which would be in nobody's interests.”

McDonough said the U.S. would continue to press Iran on other issues like their support for Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations, but that he would not debate about the ongoing negotiations with Iran in public.

Regarding the upcoming winter Olympics in Sochi, McDonough expressed confidence that the Russians “are taking serious steps right now” to ensure security at the event.

As for suggestions that the Russian government has not fully cooperated on security issues, McDonough said, “We always want more information. That's the life blood of how we keep our people safe. And big international events like this, as you've heard the president say it, are also times for us to be concerned.”

He added that he U.S. has not asked travelers to stay home from the Olympics, just to stay in touch with the State Department.

McDonough also laid out the process for evaluating the Keystone XL pipeline in the wake of a State Department environmental impact report released Friday that stated the pipeline would not significantly worsen carbon pollution.

“What's important is the president laid out last summer in a speech at Georgetown his standard for what he thinks should govern the decision on Keystone which is that it should not significantly exacerbate what is a significant climate change crisis we face in this country,” McDonough said. “What the president's role is now is to protect this process from politics, let the expert agencies and the cabinet secretaries make their assessments both of the study that was put on Friday as well as its impact on the national interest. So we'll resolve that over the coming period of time.”

McDonough did not say how close the president was on making a decision whether to approve the pipeline, which is a top priority for Republicans in Congress this year.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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