The Cable

Kerry: Administration ‘evaluating’ next steps on Syria violence

Secretary of State John Kerry met with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, the first foreign minister to visit Kerry since he became America's top diplomat.

"He was one of the first calls that I made after I officially came into the building and started and was sworn in, and he is my first guest as foreign minister," Kerry said at his first joint press conference, held in the Treaty Room on the 7th floor of State's Truman Building. "I hope everybody does understand that this is meant to underscore the extraordinary strength of the relationship that we have, and we're very, very grateful for it."

Kerry declined to speak in French, saying he had to brush up on his language skills first, but gave remarks on the ongoing crisis in Syria and next month's nuclear talks with Iran in Astana, Kazakhstan.

On Syria, Kerry declined to say whether he was in the loop last summer when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus pushed for a plan to arm the Syrian opposition, a plan that the White House rejected. On Thursday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey testified that he and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (whose last day was today) also supported that plan.

"This is a new administration now, the president's second term. I'm a new secretary of state, and we're going forwards from this point," Kerry said. "My sense right now is that everybody in the administration, and people in other parts of the world, are deeply distressed by the continued violence in Syria."

Kerry indicated that a new discussion on Syria was taking place inside the administration, but he didn't tip his hand as to which side of that discussion he was on.

"So I'd just say to you that we're evaluating. We are evaluating now. We're taking a look at what steps, if any, diplomatic, particularly, might be able to be taken in an effort to try to reduce that violence and deal with the situation. And when we are prepared, as I tell you, you'll be the first to know, I'm sure. We'll let you know. We're going to evaluate this as we go forward," he said.

Kerry emphasized that Iran still has an opportunity to prove that its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes, and he urged Iranian leaders to negotiate the terms under which that claim can be verified by the international community.

"We've made our position clear. The choice is really ultimately up to Iran. The international community is ready to respond if Iran comes prepared to talk real substance and to address the concerns, which could not be more clear, about their nuclear program. If they don't, then they will choose to leave themselves more isolated. That's the choice," he said.

But Kerry added that if Iran chooses not to do what's necessary to assure the international community it is not developing a nuclear weapon, President Barack Obama retains the right to use military force to prevent that from becoming a reality.

"And the administration, the president, has made it clear that his preference is to have a diplomatic solution. But if he cannot get there, he is prepared to do whatever is necessary to make certain that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon," said Kerry.

Baird, in his remarks, focused on two bilateral issues important to Canada: the new bridge Canada wants to build to connect to Michigan, called the Detroit River International Crossing, and the Keystone XL pipeline, which stands in limbo until the State Department decides whether the project can move forward.

Kerry said that he will respect the ongoing process of evaluating the environmental effects of the pipeline project and promised that an announcement is on the way.

"I can guarantee you that [the process] will be fair and transparent, accountable. And we hope that we will be able to be in a position to make an announcement in the near term. I don't want to pin down precisely when, but I assure you in the near term. I'm not going to go into the merits of it here today," he said.

Kerry seemed comfortable but cautious at his first engagement with the State Department press corps. Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland limited the press conference to only one question from each country. Kerry cracked a joke when CNN's Elise Labott squeezed in three.

"Let me see, that was three questions, if I counted correctly. But well done. I'm impressed," he said. "Next time you'll have to ask her to ask a half a question, or a quarter."

Nuland joked before the press conference that the podiums were set much higher than when Clinton stood in the same spot.

"I guess change has really arrived," she said.

Getty Images

The Cable

U.S. ambassador forced to leave speech by Georgian president

The U.S. ambassador to Georgia and several other American diplomats had to leave the national library in Georgia's capital of Tbilisi after a mob of angry protesters tried to prevent the Georgian president from giving a speech there.

U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Richard Norland gave remarks in Tbilisi after President Mikheil Saakashvili was forced to cancel his planned speech due to a violent crowd that prevented him, his top advisors, and several Georgian lawmakers from entering the front door, even attacking them physically.

"There are certain basic principles in democracy and no matter how strongly you feel about an issue or how much you feel you've been wronged there is no excuse for using violence, for punching parliamentarians as they go in to hear a speech by the president," Norland said in remarks after the incident. "We condemn this violence."

The audience waiting for the speech, including Norland, made their way out of the library at their own pace -- via the back door  in an orderly exit  to stay away from the crowd out front, a U.S. official told The Cable.

Raphael Glucksmann, a senior advisor to Saakashvili, told The Cable that the crowd physically assaulted the mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava, who is one of the main leaders of the opposition, along with many opposition members of parliament, journalists, and civil society activists. Videos of the incident can be seen here and here.

The violence continued into Friday evening and Saakashvili made his speech from the presidential palace. The Georgian Minister of Interior Irakli Garibashvili eventually showed up on the scene and threatened any protesters employing violence with arrest.

Garibashvili said to reporters on the scene that the police had set up a safe route for Saakashvili to enter the library but that the president decided to try to go through the main entrance where the protesters had assembled.

"Our political opponents came here from the direction where protesters were mobilized and they did not use corridor which was secured for them by the police; so we suspect that they deliberately staged this provocation," Garibashvili said.

Norland that said the government needed to keep the peace.

"We condemn the violence and we believe there should be an investigation and those who are responsible for a crime should be prosecuted... Clearly the government has the responsibility to provide law and order," he said.

The violence and conflict inside Georgia has continued ever since last October's highly contentious parliamentary elections, which unseated Saakashvili's United National Movement party for the first time since Georgia became a democracy and brought to power the Georgian Dream party, led by the new Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Saakashvili remains president until October and both sides have pledged to adhere to a policy of "cohabitation" until then, but the political mood in Tbilisi is still tense, in part because of the ongoing prosecutions of several former senior officials -- cases seen by many observers as politically motivated.

While in Washington last November, Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze told The Cable that the officials under investigation are "criminals and guilty." Several U.S. senators were so troubled by those comments they wrote to her to urge the new Georgian government to avoid selective prosecutions and follow the rule of law.

"I understand obviously that Western governments have to engage with Georgian new authorities but I also do think that some stronger statements coming from them would be very helpful to calm things on the ground," Saakashvili's advisor Glucksmann said.

"We condemn today's violence in Tbilisi," State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told The Cable. "We urge all parties to work together constructively to advance Georgia's democratic and economic development."