On first trip as Secretary of State, Kerry talks Syria, Iran, and ‘basketball diplomacy’

Andrea Mitchell interviews Secretary of State John Kerry in Doha, Qatar. March 5, 2013.
Andrea Mitchell interviews Secretary of State John Kerry in Doha, Qatar. March 5, 2013.
Catherine Chomiak/NBC News

On his first trip overseas as the nation’s top diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry discussed meeting with members of the Syrian opposition last week in Rome, and defended the administration’s position not to arm the rebels in an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in Doha Tuesday.

“The president has put in place sanctions, the president has led an effort to try to pull together the Syrian opposition, identify it, clarify it—get it unified, to speak with one voice, and now the president has raised the American engagement to the level of giving directly to the Syrian opposition and the Syrian military,” Kerry told Mitchell, reflecting on the administration’s decision last week to supply the rebels with direct aid including body armor, night-vision goggles and communications gear.

Kerry also called for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict that has killed nearly 70,000 people, according to the United Nations high commissioner for human rights in mid-February. That estimate is up 10,000 from the U.N. high commissioner’s report at the start of the year. Nearly one million refugees have been displaced to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

“The president is also, I think, determined to make sure that the United States do its part going forward to help define a diplomatic resolution,” Kerry told Mitchell. “We don’t want this killing. President Assad could quickly decide to come to the table and negotiate.”

Although Kerry reinforced the U.S. position on supplying only non-lethal aid, he acknowledged that, “The President has put in place a policy that is extremely  forward leaning with other countries, other countries as you know are arming the Syrians.”

“I think what we achieved in Rome, was to raise the focus and the energy of all of these countries who came together—each of whom are contributing in different ways—we are committed together, with that community,  and hopefully the rest of the world, to ending the violence.”

Secretary Kerry also made clear in a strong warning to the Iranians that President Obama has ruled out military options in response to the growing nuclear threat. “President Obama’s preference clearly stated, is to ask the Iranians to come to the table in good faith, in mutual respect and do what they say they’re doing,” Kerry told Mitchell. “If that can’t happen, then obviously there are other choices available to the president, and he has taken nothing off the table.”

Asked by Mitchell whether that included military choices, Kerry reiterated, “he has taken nothing off the table.”

Regarding basketball star Dennis Rodman’s visit to Pyongyang last week and his subsequent praise of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, who he called a “friend for life,”  Kerry argued that the visit was  less than helpful in terms of garnering international support for imposing sanctions on the nation less than a month after the dictator launched an antagonistic  nuclear test in February.

“Dennis Rodman was a great basketball player, and as a diplomat, he was a great basketball player. And that’s where we’ll leave it,” Kerry said.

Kerry, who served 28 years in the Senate and chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry emphasized the wealth of experience in the White House.

“I’m delighted to work for this president, with this president and his advisers,” he said. “It’s a great team and the president has a terrific vision and that’s what I came over here to try to reinforce.”

The secretary has visited nine countries in 11 days and will begin his trip back to Washington on Wednesday.

On first trip as Secretary of State, Kerry talks Syria, Iran, and 'basketball diplomacy'