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Kerry: Administration ‘evaluating’ next steps on Syria violence

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.