U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday said recent anti-U.S. remarks from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were “disturbing,” adding that the United States was “not kidding about the importance of pushing back against extremism.”
In an interview with Al Arabiya News Channel’s Nadia Bilbassy-Charters, Kerry discussed Khamenei’s speech, made four days after Iran and world powers signed an accord designed to thwart Tehran’s nuclear program.
Khamenei had said his country would continue to support its regional friends despite its recent nuclear deal with world powers, including "the oppressed Palestinian nation, Yemen, Syria, Iraq (and) Bahrain."
Kerry told Al Arabiya that he was taking the comments at face value.
“I don’t know how to interpret it at this point in time, except to take it at face value, that that’s his policy. But I do know that often comments are made publicly and things can evolve that are different. If it is the policy, it’s very disturbing, it’s very troubling, and we’ll have to wait and see,” the Secretary said.
Kerry is due travel to the Gulf in early August to discuss the Iran deal with the region's leaders, who have been skeptical that the agreement would prevent Iran gaining a nuclear weapon.
Gulf officials blame Iran for stoking instability in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria through proxies. Kerry said the meeting with his Gulf counterparts indicates the U.S. as being “very attentive to guaranteeing the security of the region."
He added: “We are not kidding when we talk about the importance of pushing back against extremism, against support for terrorism and proxies who are destabilizing other countries. It’s unacceptable.”
A safer Gulf region
When asked what the upcoming meeting would entail, Kerry said he would “go through in great detail all of the ways in which this [nuclear] agreement, in fact, makes the Gulf states and the region safer.
“I will also discuss with them at great length the things that the United States of America is going to do, working with them, in order to push back against the terror and counterterrorism efforts and other activities in the region that are very alarming to them,” he added.
While Kerry recognizes concerns from his Gulf allies on Iran, he said a deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear power was an important first step.
“You have to begin somewhere. We have begun at the most critical place vis-a-vis Israel, the region, and the potential of the nuclear arms race with a nuclear weapon. But we have not for an instant stopped focusing on counterterrorism, on the nefarious activities, particularly proxies. And we think there is a great deal more that the region can do to deal with proxies. And that’s a lot of conversation that we’re going to be having in some detail, not just in my meeting, but over a period of time,” Kerry said.
Iranian military budget
Under the terms of the deal, Iran will soon get access to over $100 billion of assets frozen abroad, U.S. officials say, equivalent to a quarter of its annual output.
Kerry said the figure should not sound alarming, particularly to Gulf states who, he says, allocate wider budgets for military spending than Tehran.
“$100 billion is nothing compared to what gets spent every year in the region. Iran's military budget is $15 billion. The Gulf states' military budget is $130 billion.
“… I think President Obama's belief and our military assessments, our intelligence assessments, are that if they organize themselves correctly, all of the Arab states have an untapped potential that is very, very significant to be able to push back against any of these activities."
When asked whether Iran can pose a threat to the Gulf allies through conventional weapons, Kerry said: “Obviously, there are a lot of conventional weapons in the region. But my belief, and I am convinced that, with the right kind of effort, we can find a very different set of arrangements that begin to give people comfort that they really don't need to fear that the agreement itself is going to change anything.
“The agreement gets rid of the nuclear weapon potential. But if we do the right things in all of these other sectors, then I believe the Gulf states and the region can feel much more secure than they do today. Obviously, we have to end all of these proxy initiatives, and there are ways to do that,” he added.
But can the deal guarantee Iran will never consider pursuing nuclear ambitions in the future?
“Iran has said it won’t, but again, it’s not words that matter, it’s not a statement; it’s acts, it’s actions that you have to measure. And what I do know is that there are very specific inspection and accountability measures that are part of the agreement forever – not for 15 years or 20 years, but forever,” Kerry said.
Political resolution for Yemen
On the crisis in Yemen, the Secretary of State said that warring parties need to be willing to negotiate a political solution.
“We’re urging the Hadi government and we’ve urged the Houthis, through some of their friends, to try to sit down as soon as possible.
“But last time we tried to have a pause, the Houthis didn’t keep the pause. They moved people, they attacked, they did different things, so they’ve given people a lot of reason to be suspect of their intentions. Obviously, it would be better to have a political resolution, but you have to have people willing to sit down and negotiate,” Kerry added.
The full Al Arabiya News Channel interview and transcript will be posted shortly