The Secretary of State

After a historic week at the UN, Secretary of State John Kerry talks with Scott Pelley about Syria and Iran

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The following script is from "The Secretary of State" which aired on Sept. 29, 2013. The correspondent is Scott Pelley. Producer Henry Schuster.

We've just seen breakthroughs in two crises that threaten to drag America into combat -- there's a deal to avert a U.S. airstrike on Syria -- and there are talks now between the United States and Iran over the Iranian nuclear program. Both happened at the annual United Nations General Assembly and the leader of the American team was Secretary of State John Kerry. He spent last week at the UN and we were with him as war and peace hung in the balance.

On Syria, the U.S. and Russia finally agreed on a UN Security Council resolution to force the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to give up his chemical weapons. Tonight, there are still many questions: Is the Iranian opening real? How did the U.S. make a deal with the Russians? And, what if Assad reneges on turning over his arsenal?

John Kerry: Assad has to always know that if he plays games or if he varies from this or if he doesn't comply, and if ultimately the Security Council gets stuck again and refuses to enforce-- then, the United States always reserves its prerogatives with respect to its national security interests.

Scott Pelley: But is this idea of the use of force credible anymore? After the enormous opposition you saw from the Congress and from the American people, no one believes that the president would go ahead and use force in Syria.

John Kerry: I can assure you this president of the United States is not going to take off the table unilaterally any prerogative that a commander-in-chief has. And no one should doubt that.

The president wants to punish Syria for August 21 when the U.S. says Assad's forces used nerve gas to kill 1,400 citizens -- part of a civil war that has killed 100,000 and left 4 million homeless.

John Kerry: I believe Assad has lost all moral authority by which any person governs a nation. How can you gas your own people? How can you lob missiles for two years into universities and hospitals and kill innocent women and children, and then turn around and say, "I'm the guy who ought to govern you"?

Scott Pelley: --but this is the man you're trying to make a deal with on the chemical weapons. If you get that deal, you need him to stay in power.

John Kerry: There are two fundamental reasons why Assad made this deal. One is the threat of force by President Obama. There's no question in my mind that without President Obama's willingness to take a strike, Assad would never have taken seriously the notion that he was threatened. And number two, the Russians. The Russians made a huge difference here. We thank them and congratulate them. The Russians actually weighed in heavily with Assad, and he knew that one of his principal patrons was saying, "You've gotta do this."

Scott Pelley: The development of the Syria policy has confused a lot of people. On August 30, you came out and made a full-throated argument for a military strike.

[John Kerry: My friends, it matters here if nothing is done.]

Scott Pelley: The next day, the president said, "Well, wait a minute. I'm going ot ask Congress for its authorization." It seemed in that moment that the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing.

John Kerry: Not in the least. Not in the least. The president came out and announced to the American people, "I've made a decision." That's leadership. He said, "I believe we need to have a strike." But he also, exercising his judgment about how the nation ought to make this kind of decision, felt it was the right thing to do to include the Congress after many congresspeople in our consultation said, "Hey, you ought to come to us. You ought to make sure you consult us." So, the president did that. And I think that was the appropriate decision.

Scott Pelley: Was there no tension between the two of you? You had gone and spoken around the world about how the United States had to take military action. And then the president, it appeared, left you twisting in the wind.

John Kerry: Scott, let me-- that's mythology and-- hypothe-- I mean, believe me, there was not an ounce of tension in this. I thought the president made a courageous decision, not necessarily the easiest way to get to the goal that he was achieving, but a courageous decision, and one in keeping with the constitution of the United States. And, yes, tough debate in the Congress because we're living through an enormous Iraq hangover. The American people felt betrayed by what happened in Iraq. The evidence wasn't there. Weapons of mass destruction weren't there. So, we approached this learning that lesson. And all of us, the intelligence community, the president, the entire White House staff, State Department bent over backwards to make sure we were building a case that could not be punctured.

John Kerry: From Vietnam to Syria

Despite the case, the president faced opposition. He seemed damned if he did, damned if he didn't, until something unexpected.

Scott Pelley: The apparent breakthrough on Syria came during a news conference when the CBS News State Department correspondent Margaret Brennan asked you a question.

[Margaret Brennan: Is there anything at this point that his government could do or offer that would stop an attack?

John Kerry: Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it.]

Scott Pelley: Was the answer to that question as seat-of-the-pants as it appeared or did you walk into the room intending to say something like that?

John Kerry: I didn't walk into the room intending to say it because I didn't know what question I was going to be asked. But I certainly answered it purposefully and intentionally. And Margaret Brennan asked a terrific question. It was a good question. It deserved an honest answer.

The answer exposed what had been a private Russian proposal. Vladimir Putin, Syria's ally, told President Obama Syria might surrender its chemical arsenal. Kerry went to Geneva to work on details with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Scott Pelley: In Geneva, you were supposed to be going into a formal meeting with your counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov. But instead, you surprised him at the swimming pool at the hotel. What was that all about? Why did you make that choice? And what did you get out of that, if anything?

John Kerry: Well, we got an agreement outta that. I just thought that it was a moment for a little different kind of diplomacy and it'd be a little more personal and human about it. And he was out there and I took advantage of it. And we just had a relaxed conversation by the pool. Sometimes those things just work better than getting everybody in the room and getting into formal mode.

Scott Pelley: And you sat down there by the pool and said, "Now, look--

John Kerry: Pretty much.

Scott Pelley: --"let's do this deal."

John Kerry: "Let's get at it." Well, in between each of us fighting for a word, yeah.

We noticed his informal side in Geneva when Kerry couldn't hear the translation of a Lavrov statement.

[John Kerry: Can you give me the last part of the translation please?

Sergei Lavrov: It was, "OK, John, don't worry."]

He said, "It was, 'OK, John, don't worry.'"

[John Kerry: You want me to take your word for it? It's a little early for that!]

Kerry's next challenge is to start general peace talks to end the Syrian civil war.

Scott Pelley: Mr. Secretary, 100,000 people are dead. The rebels are killing each other because there's so much disagreement among the rebel groups. How could you possibly get all of those people around a peace table and come up with a kind of compromise that you envision?

John Kerry: By having Assad make the decision, if he really cares about his country, that he will not run again. If he were to make that decision, entire ingredients of Syria would change overnight. I mean, look, this isn't easy. I wish there were a better way. Could I snap my fingers and say, "So-and-so won't be fighting so-and-so"? That would be wonderful. But it doesn't happen that way. I agree with you, 100,000 people it's beyond a human tragedy. There will be more. There'll be another 100,000 if we don't work to bring people to the table and try to get a peaceful resolution.

As we followed Kerry over two weeks we found him a "hands on"diplomat, literally.

During the General Assembly the State Department sets up its headquarters in the Waldorf Astoria hotel. And in a hall, we saw a sign of the secretary's crushing schedule. They carry, in alphabetical order, the flags to be set up with each foreign dignitary he meets. There were 59 meetings in five days.

Likely the most important meeting of them all was this: Kerry next to the Iranian foreign minister -- the highest level face-to-face talks since the hostage crisis 33 years ago. Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, said last week he will open his nuclear program to inspection if the UN will lift crippling economic sanctions.

John Kerry: Iran needs to take rapid steps, clear and convincing steps, to live up to the international community's requirements regarding nuclear programs, peaceful nuclear programs.

Scott Pelley: Give me an example, one concrete step, one thing that they can do to assure the world that they're giving up their ambitions.

John Kerry: They could immediately open up inspection of the Fordow facility, a secret facility and underground in the mountains. They could immediately sign the protocols, the additional protocols of the international community regarding inspections. They could offer to cease voluntarily to take enrichment above a certain level, because there's no need to have it at a higher level for a peaceful program.

Scott Pelley: Enrichment of uranium, which is what happens at Fordow.

John Kerry: Correct.

Scott Pelley: Throw the doors open to that place.

John Kerry: Well, that, among other things. Look, I believe, that we have hopes. President Obama clearly welcomes President Rouhani's overtures. But words are not going to replace actions. What we need are actions that prove that we and our allies, our friends in the region, can never be threatened by this program.

Scott Pelley: But the United States would look favorably on relaxing or eliminating the sanctions if the Iranians were serious about abandoning their nuclear weapon.

John Kerry: Well, the United States is not gonna lift the sanctions until it is clear that a very verifiable, accountable, transparent process is in place, whereby we know exactly what Iran is gonna be doing with its program. And if it does, of course.

Scott Pelley: Rouhani said he'd like to have a deal in three to six months. Is that possible?

John Kerry: Sure, it's possible. It's possible to have a deal sooner than that depending on how forthcoming and clear Iran is prepared to be. We need to have a good deal here. And a good deal means that it is absolutely accountable, failsafe in its measures to make certain this is a peaceful program. If it is a peaceful program, and we can all see that the whole world sees that, the relationship with Iran can change dramatically for the better and it can change fast.

A month ago, both diplomatic breakthroughs would have seemed impossible. But now the hard part begins. Will Iran truly open its program? Will Syria stick to the deal? And with a nation weary of war how far is the U.S. willing to go?

Scott Pelley: The entire world watched this debate in the United States about whether we would attack Syria and saw the opposition to that idea. For our friends and foes around the world who now believe that the U.S. military is sidelined, you would say what?

John Kerry: The United States military is far from sidelined. We will continue to stand up for our interests in every part of the world where we have articulated them. And I'll give you an example. The president of the United States has made it crystal clear: Iran will not have a nuclear weapon. Now, we want to solve that problem peacefully. We are grateful to President Rouhani and to the supreme leader for their expression that they too want to resolve this. And by far, that is the preferential way to proceed. But no one in the world should misinterpret this president's preparedness or any willingness of the Congress of the United States to protect the security interests of the United States.

  • Scott Pelley
    Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, "60 Minutes"