SECRETARY KERRY: Well, good evening and welcome, and thank you very, very much for your patience in a long afternoon between the London 11 meeting that (inaudible) and now a long meeting here with the Follow-on Committee of the Arab Peace Initiative.
I am particularly grateful to Foreign Minister al-Atiyah for his leadership and for the work that he has been doing to try to keep this debate active and engaged in this important effort. And I also thank Secretary General Elaraby of the Arab League for his commitment and for the depth of the conversation that we had today. And I appreciate his willingness to convene people on short notice. But I think it’s fair to say that this is one of the more important meetings that we had, because we’re getting to a point where there’s more substance and a great deal more direction, and therefore more to talk about.
Before I touch on the vital efforts that we discussed here this afternoon, I want to commend the very critical and significant step today taken towards reaching a verifiable resolution that will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This afternoon, this evening, we concluded negotiations constructively and positively so that on January 20th, in just a few short days, we will begin implementation of the Joint Plan of Action that we and our partners agreed to with respect to Iran in Geneva. As of that day, January 20th, for the first time in almost a decade, Iran’s nuclear program will not be able to advance – in fact, parts of it will be rolled back – while we start negotiating a comprehensive agreement to address the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
As the United States has made clear many times, our absolute top priority in these negotiations is preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Translated: Making absolutely clear, beyond any doubt, that Iran’s program is a peaceful program. We have been clear all along. President Obama initiated this effort with the belief that diplomacy is our preferred path, because other options carry much greater costs and risks and are less likely to provide a lasting solution. As this agreement takes effect, we will be extraordinarily vigilant in our verification and monitoring of Iran’s actions. And that is an effort that will be led by the International Atomic Energy administration – Agency.
While implementation of this Joint Plan of Action is obviously an important step, we are very clear-eyed about the even greater challenges that we face in negotiating a comprehensive agreement. We understand it’s going to be a tough negotiation, and we are very clear about what will be required in order to be able to guarantee to the international community that this is a peaceful program. The negotiations will be very difficult, but they are the best chance that we have to be able to resolve this critical national security issue peacefully and durably. And we have an obligation to give our diplomats and our experts every opportunity to be able to succeed.
So, as you can see, the United States is engaged and leading on several fronts, and we are working with our partners for a region that is more secure and more prosperous. There is a lot of very difficult work ahead; there is no question about that. But on each of these critical issues, I can tell you unequivocally, the President and I are absolutely determined to lead and to succeed.
Our meeting here today was the fifth with the Arab Peace Initiative Follow-up Committee, and it is part of a regular process of the negotiation consultations on the final negotiation process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. This is a promise that I made to Secretary General Elaraby and to Chairman al-Atiyah when they requested to be kept apprised of what we were doing, because their stakes in this are significant. They have been enormously helpful and constructive in this effort, and I want to thank them for that. We’ve always known that peace is a very long and complicated, difficult road. But we remain committed to this process because we understand that the benefits of peace are dramatic and they are well worth fighting for.
The Arab Peace Initiative holds out the possibility – excuse me – the Arab Peace Initiative holds out the possibility of normalizing relations with Israel and strengthening security for all of the countries throughout the region. I’m very grateful to the Arab League for their willingness to help to build support for this effort. It’s very hard to overstate the importance of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Bahrain – all of the countries that are taking part in this effort – in order to bring the Arab world to the table saying a simple thing: We are prepared to make peace now in 2014.
As I made clear in my discussions with the Arab foreign ministers today, we really are at a critical point, as Palestinians and Israeli leaders grapple with difficult and challenging decisions that lie ahead. Through the course of the last five months, President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu have both demonstrated courageous and determined leadership. They’ve made tough choices, and they are contemplating even tougher choices in the weeks ahead. The Arab foreign ministers made clear to me that they support Israeli and Palestinian leaders’ efforts to take the next bold, courageous steps of agreeing to a framework for permanent status negotiations.
The leaders here today understand what’s at stake, and they remain committed to peace, not just between Israel and Palestinians, but to the prospect of peace between Israel and 57 nations – 35 Muslim nations, and 22 Arab nations. That is the vision that summons us. That is the vision that guides us. And we will need the continued support and engagement of the Arab League in order to achieve it.
Let me also say a brief word about the London 11 ministerial today. We came together this morning, and we are planning for a Geneva II conference next week for a simple reason: because there is no military solution to the violence that has displaced millions and taken more than 130,000 lives. There is no other alternative to ending this violence and saving the state of Syria than to find a negotiated, peaceful outcome.
The conference on January 22nd is the best opportunity to bring both the regime and the opposition to the table to begin a process of ending the Syrian conflict through a negotiated transition and a full implementation of the Geneva communique. Ultimately, it is the Syrians themselves who will have to come to agreement on a political path to end the bloodshed and to chart a future that can be shared, not by one group or another, not by one sector or another, but by all of the people in Syria. Our job and the job of the London 11 is to support efforts to help get them there.
My counterparts and I also discussed the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. There is an urgent need for the Syrian regime to implement its obligations under the UN Security Council Presidential Statement. There is an urgent need for the Assad regime to deliver on the humanitarian assistance that is necessary to the people of Syria. And that includes the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, whose 160,000 citizens are effectively being held hostage by regime forces. Let me make clear that last year, the Deputy Foreign Minister Mekdad said in New York that Syria would allow any access, anywhere, at any time. Well, the citizens of Ghouta are still waiting. Almost a year now, they have been denied access to any of that humanitarian assistance, and that is absolutely unacceptable.
We believe that it is possible for the regime to put in place before Geneva a ceasefire – local ceasefires if necessary – a ceasefire with respect to Aleppo, and send the signal that they are prepared to set a different mood, a different climate, a different stage for the possibility of success in Geneva. They have the power to do that. And the opposition has pledged that if they will do that, the opposition will live by it.
In addition to that, they have said that they’re prepared to provide for the possibility of prisoner exchanges, and they are preparing for that possibility in the event that the regime would take the steps in order to engage in that kind of humanitarian gesture.
The disregard for the most basic human rights – whether through aerial bombing, barrel bombs, targeted against civilians, the starvation of Syrian men, women and children – is a barbaric act and it is just as barbaric as it is lethal. And it is unacceptable by any standard. The pictures and the dramatic demonstrations of what has happened to young children and to men and women, the practices that have been engaged in, are abhorrent. They’re a challenge to the conscience of every person on this planet. And it is important for all of us to begin to call greater attention to the level of violence that we are trying to prevent.
The international community has to be diligent in drawing much more attention to the horrible costs of this conflict, and we need to put the necessary pressure to bring an end to it. That’s why the foreign minister, Foreign Minister Atiyah, and I are here. That’s why our counterparts from the London 11 are here. And that’s why we will continue pressing for a diplomatic solution with all of our international partners. We’ll press forward with the Syrian coalition leadership, with the Joint Special Representative Brahimi, and with the Russians as we prepare to go to Montreux on January 22nd.
Tomorrow, I will be meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov. I will meet again with President Jarba and the Syrian opposition, and I will meet with Special Envoy of the UN Lakhdar Brahimi as we engage in further discussions about how we can change this dynamic and begin the process of building for Geneva II.
None of us have an expectation. No one should write cynically about Geneva II somehow failing if it doesn’t come out on day one or day two or day three with a full agreement. We don’t expect that. What we do expect is to begin to get the parties at the table convened and negotiating and beginning a process of waging an even stronger effort to provide for this political solution. It’ll take a little bit of time, but I’m confident that it needs that forum; it needs all the players at the table; it needs the umbrella of the United Nations; it needs the good faith of people coming to that table in order to begin to focus the world on the way forward to prevent this catastrophe from growing even worse. And that’s what we are engaged in and that’s what we’re determined to try to achieve.
Mr. Minister, thank you.
FOREIGN MINISTER ATIYAH: (Via interpreter) (Inaudible) the nuclear – it’s nuclear program. We hope that this would be a first step to making the Middle East region free of weapons of mass destruction. Today, the ministerial committee for the Follow-up Committee of the Arab Peace Initiative has held its first – is meeting to discuss the Palestinian issue.
And I would like to thank my friend Kerry for his efforts with respect to the peace process and ending the conflict. He has – John responded to several – or addressed several of our concerns and questions on the part of the foreign ministers and members of the committee. I would also like to take the opportunity to also thank His Excellency President Abbas and President Haniyeh for their successes in achieving strides towards the implementation of the Doha Agreement and reaching reconciliation.
We have also renewed, in our – in this meeting, we have renewed our positions concerning the peace process, and also on addressing all the issues, foremost among which are the issue of the border, Jerusalem settlements, security, and the release of Palestinian prisoners. We have also asserted that the peace process is the shortest and most effective way to achieving stability in the region.
The – resolving the Palestinian question is the key to peace and security in the Middle East region and it cannot be implemented except with the full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state with full sovereignty, with Jerusalem as its capital.
We would also like to stress the Arab commitment to lasting peace. There is no doubt that there are difficulties and obstacles facing us. And the Israeli Government should therefore stop all settlement activities and should also give the peace efforts a chance to succeed so – in order to reach a lasting settlement. We also warn against the repercussions of continued Israeli practices that would hinder such progress.
The ultimate goal of everyone is to reach a comprehensive peace and a lasting peace that would achieve peace. This is the initiative that we have launched, and these are the Arab principles for ending this conflict.
And our friend John Kerry has exerted great effort over the last few days. He has visited the region 11 times, as I believe, or 10 times. And we appreciate the American role in these mediation efforts. Our friends are not parties that relay information between two parties; they are mediators in this process. And we hope that we can reach a settlement that would satisfy the Palestinian people and would be fair to them.
Thank you very much.
MS. PSAKI: The first question will be from Lara Jakes of the Associated Press.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you. Secretary Kerry, in the meetings today with the London 11, did you receive any commitment or even any indication from President al-Jarba that he would be able to deliver the coalition to next week’s meetings? Also, if the coalition does not attend, what sort of consequences might it face from the United States in terms of credibility, support, or aid? And lastly, what assurances have you so far received from representatives of the regime that it will attend?
SECRETARY KERRY: The – I’m confident – personally, I am confident that the Syrian opposition will come to Geneva. We had some discussions today. He is working through certain issues that – President Jarba is – that he needs to work through and he needs to have the opportunity to have the space to do that.
But I’m meeting with him again tomorrow. He met yesterday with Foreign Minister Atiyah and others, with Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, among others. And they had a very constructive meeting, a very positive meeting. We had a very constructive meeting today. He’s had very constructive comments to make about it. And I am confident that he and others will be in Geneva in order to pursue this negotiation.
And with respect to the Assad regime, we have been told that from day one they allegedly are prepared to negotiate. And Foreign Minister Lavrov on several occasions has told me they’re prepared to be there. So I am counting on both parties, as well as the 30 or so plus other nations, to come together in an effort to try to end this violence, as I described earlier.
QUESTION: And could you speak to what consequences —
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to – we’ve had private conversations, and I think they understand the stakes. But I’m not going to get into consequences, other than to say that it’s a test of the credibility of everybody. And that’s why I’m confident that they’ll be there, because I think they understand that.
MS. PSAKI: The next question will be from Randa Takieddine from Al-Hayat.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, you spoke about Iran. Are you willing to speak with Iran on – for changing their policies in Syria and Lebanon?
And second, for Mr. al-Atiyah, we were told today that ministers and the 11 asked you to pressure your friends in the Syrian opposition to be more cohesive with the (inaudible). Is – are you going to do these efforts to push for more unity in the coalition?
SECRETARY KERRY: Do you want to go first?
FOREIGN MINISTER ATIYAH: No. Please, go ahead.
SECRETARY KERRY: With respect to Iran and Hezbollah, let me make it clear: Hezbollah has been designated by the United States, by Europe and others as a terrorist organization. Hezbollah is a terrorist organization. They have engaged in extraterritorial assassinations, they have engaged in terrorist activities, and they are currently engaged across international lines in fighting in another country, overtly, in ways that challenge people’s sense of decency and propriety with respect to even war. So in the process of that, they have also engaged in activities in Lebanon that are further destabilizing Lebanon.
So nobody should have any illusions about how completely unacceptable the activities of Hezbollah are, how prohibited they are by international law and norms and standards. And we would call on Iran or anyone else supporting them in whatever way they may be – by refuge, by money, by supplies, by weapons – to cease it and to recognize the damaging impact that Hezbollah is having on the security and stability of the region.
We discussed today – and our communique address it very directly – the London 11 today directed comments specifically at Hezbollah and called on countries to engage in more significant efforts to deal with their finances and to deal with their international activities.
Now, we would engage anywhere with respect to any country that wants to have a constructive impact on that. And if Iran wants to exert its influence – which is enormous, significant, because it’s perhaps the larges patron of Hezbollah – Iran could have a profound impact on helping to change the dynamics of what is happening in Syria. If Iran would simply accept the Geneva I premise, Iran could obviously make a constructive contribution to the Geneva conference itself. And the acceptance of the Geneva I communique would be a very welcome step.
FOREIGN MINISTER ATIYAH: (Via interpreter) With respect to the coalition, the truth is it is recognized by the Friends of Syria, more than 120 countries. It also has a seat on the Arab League, based on a decision by Arab leaders. And therefore, it represents the – it’s the only representative of the Syrian people. There is no one friend in the coalition that is under the influence of one country or the other. All of us in Friends of Syria, we deal with the coalition as the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people. And therefore, we feel that we – it’s imperative on us to support the coalition. We have our own point of view as members of the Friends of Syria coalition, and we all support their decisions. And in the end, it’s a Syrian decision, a pure Syrian decision.
MS. PSAKI: The next question will be from Michael Gordon of The New York Times.
QUESTION: I have a question for the Foreign Minister and then for Secretary Kerry. For the Foreign Minister, we’ve been in a number of these Arab Peace Initiative sessions, and it’s not clear that there’s been any substantial progress in the Middle East peace process during that period. Indeed, the current focus is not so much on getting a comprehensive agreement in nine months, but on an agreed framework. How do you assess the status of these talks? Do you think they’re making progress in the peace process? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of seeking a framework at this juncture, instead of pushing all the way for a comprehensive peace agreement?
And then what I – a second one for you, sir. I’d just like your view, whether you think the United States and other western powers are doing enough to help the Syrian opposition, given that the regime is being armed by Russia and Iran.
And for Secretary Kerry, a question. The – at the last London 11 meeting we attended, in the communique that was issued then, one of the points was that the participants vowed to build up and increase their material support to the Syrian opposition group you’re backing. Instead, you’ve cut off the nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition, reflecting concerns that some of it may be diverted into the wrong hands. Do you intend to restore this aid prior to Geneva II and provide more of a carrot or incentive for the opposition to go into this meeting?
And I’d like to – I think also think just – sir, on the previous question, do you think there would be value in trying to talk to Iran about any of these regional issues, instead of just issuing calls for them to do this or that? Have you, in any of your discussions, asked them to constrain their support to Syria? Would you plan to raise this in any of your negotiating sessions? Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Go ahead.
FOREIGN MINISTER ATIYAH: (Via interpreter) With respect to the peace process and the vision – and the Palestinian vision and Arab position, they are constant. There are usurped rights, and they’re clear to us. And the Palestinians are demanding these rights. There is also Israeli intransigence in granting these rights, but we cannot say that the peace process is experiencing obstacles of any sort. We should give the American mediator, represented by Mr. John Kerry, an opportunity to end – to proceed in what they have started.
And I would like to also stress on the steps that John Kerry has described. There is progress, but the final vision has yet to be proposed. Therefore, the chance is still wide open and time has run out. And it’s premature for us to judge that negotiations have failed or succeeded.
With respect to Syria, the truth is it’s not the U.S. that should be blamed in not providing sufficient support to the Syrian people. I believe all the Friends of Syria, we have not moved enough to save the Syrian people until we reached a very advanced stage. We can summarize everything that’s happening in Syria as terrorism being exercised by the regime. This is, in fact, not true. We are not doing justice to the Syrian people or the rebels.
So if there’s any real shortcoming, it’s been done by all members of the Friends of Syria, and we cannot really pinpoint the blame, even though it’s being said that the United States is a superpower and therefore it should shoulder greater responsibilities than the rest. So I hope that I have responded to the question.
SECRETARY KERRY: Michael, even with the suspension of the nonlethal aid to the north, it’s fair to say that the United States is doing more to help the Syrian opposition than it has done at any point in time, and it is very significant. In addition to which, I am leaving, as you know, on Wednesday, attending a conference in Kuwait, a donors conference, where we will make a further commitment with respect to the humanitarian crisis.
The best solution to the humanitarian crises is to get a political solution and end the creation of more refugees. And there’s a certain endlessness to this notion that we’re going to keep upping our contribution to more millions of people who have been displaced. You’ve got about eight million people displaced, over two million refugees. It’s one of the largest refugee, displaced person catastrophes on the face of this planet today, and it needs to stop. And we are not looking for a policy of simply increased assistance to refugees; we’re looking for a policy that saves Syria and provides them an ability to go home and rebuild their lives. And that is our goal.
Now with respect to the cutoff you mentioned in the north, yes, our warehouse was raided by one of the extremist groups in the north, and we decided that it was a risk to be providing that assistance if it’s going to the extremists. And we have consistently said we are not going to supply extremists. We’re not going to see them be supported; they shouldn’t be.
That has paid off. Today, the most extremist group is on the run and being taken on by some others in the opposition. And we’re anxious to see how that turns out, obviously. But even before that happened, we have been considering the renewal of that assistance to the opposition. We know it’s important, we know they need it, and we’re beginning to believe we may be in a place where that can now resume, and we would obviously want to get back to where we were. That’s why we put it there in the first place.
With respect to trying to talk to Iran with respect to Syria, the answer is yes, I have raised the subject to Iran. But we’ve been so focused and so intent on the nuclear file that we really have not dug into it in any appreciably substantive way at this time, because we both realize the real priority for the moment was – when I say both, Foreign Minister Zarif and myself – that the real focus was to get the nuclear agreement in the place that it now is.
I have said many times, publicly and privately, I would welcome any initiative Iran wishes to take, if they do, to try to provide a resolution to the crisis of Syria. The first thing they can do is accept the Geneva communique, which was adopted even by Russia, who is supporting Assad, and try to help make this peaceful resolution move forward.
But next time I see him I certainly will re-raise the issue, as we have in the past. I don’t sit around and wait with bated breath or any high expectations that there is going to be a sudden shift of heart on that. But it is obviously arguably a basic fundamental tenet of diplomacy that you leave the door open for people to make a reasonable offer of one kind or another and make your judgments about it. And we will certainly leave the door open.
MS. PSAKI: The last question will be from Stacy Meichtry of The Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Foreign Minister Atiyah, a moment ago Secretary Kerry said that if Iran accepted the Geneva I communique they would be in a position to make a contribution to the Geneva process and perhaps to the upcoming talks. Do you agree with that assessment, that Iran has a positive role to play in the negotiations?
And secondly, I was wondering if I could get your reaction to the announcement about the nuclear deal, the implementation of the interim accord. Do you feel that it goes far enough in preventing Tehran from building a nuclear bomb? Thank you.
FOREIGN MINISTER ATIYAH: (Via interpreter) Thank you. In fact, Iran is able to do more, a lot, even before Geneva II. It’s able, or it can press Hezbollah and urge it to leave Syria. There are good-faith steps that would start with Hezbollah’s departure and some other militias from Syria. But inviting any party – it’s not up to me to decide who should be invited. It is up to Mr. el-Brahimi and also the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. They are the ones who decide who gets to attend Geneva and who doesn’t.
QUESTION: And on the nuclear accord?
FOREIGN MINISTER ATIYAH: (In English) Can you repeat the question please?
QUESTION: Sure. The announcement today about the implementation of the interim nuclear accord – do you feel that it – that this is a positive step in preventing Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon?
FOREIGN MINISTER ATIYAH: (Via interpreter) I welcomed at the beginning of my statement about the agreement that the United States reached with Iran concerning the nuclear file. What we hope is for the articles of this agreement to be implemented and to even take further steps to make the Middle East region free of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons. This is what we hope for.