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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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February 5th, 2014
01:19 PM ET

Kerry: Syria’s Assad's position is improved, 'but he's still not winning'

Washington (CNN) – Secretary of State John Kerry made a rare admission that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has gained ground.

"It's fair to say that Assad has improved his position a little bit, yes,” Kerry said in an exclusive interview with CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper. “But he's still not winning. This is a stalemate.”

But a stalemate means the status quo continues, which means Assad remains in power, continues killing innocent civilians, and maintains control of his military.

But Kerry denied that Obama administration’s the policy is failing.

"I don't want to make any excuse whatsoever. We want this to move faster. We want it to do better," said Kerry. "But the point I'm making is that diplomacy is tough, slogging, slow work and hard work. But we're beginning to see the shaping of how you might potentially get somewhere.”

“And we are always in the process of reevaluating whether there's more we can do, should do. We'll work with Congress. We're working internally to figure out if we should if there's a way to get more response from the Russians, more response from Assad," he added.

Kerry argued last year that more needs to be done to topple al-Assad, including arming the rebels.

"The President has said the same thing, I mean this is not a divergence," Kerry said.

This week, Kerry reportedly told some members of Congress behind closed doors that he has grave concerns about President Barack Obama's Syria policy.

In addition to a recent U.N. report saying the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is torturing children, and concerns that he is slow-walking the chemical weapons process (and possibly hiding others, according to reports), the top U.S. intelligence official told Congress on Tuesday that al-Assad has actually strengthened his position since agreeing to turn over chemical weapons to the international community to avoid possible military action against his regime.

“I would describe the situation simply that Assad is not winning, but he's also not losing,” said Kerry.

 'Iran is not open for business'

The nuclear deal struck in November between the world powers, collectively known as the P5+1, and Iran calls for Tehran to limit its nuclear activities in return for a relaxation of sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.

But within Iran, officials played down the severity of the deal. The key negotiator on Iran's nuclear program said even if a deal forces Iran to dismantle or freeze some of its nuclear program, the decision could be reversed and the program could be back up and running within just 24 hours.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that Iran is open for business. Indeed, France and Turkey have sent trade missions looking to do more business in the country.

But Kerry insisted the U.S. has not been played, “not even by a close margin.”

“Iran is not open for business. And Iran knows it's not open for business,” Kerry said.
France may send businesspeople to Iran, but they cannot contravene the sanctions, the Secretary said.

“They will be sanctioned if they do and they know it.  And we've put them on notice,” Kerry said.

“Nobody should doubt for an instant that the United States is prepared to enforce the sanctions that exist. And all of our allies are in agreement that those sanctions are staying in place until or unless there is a deal,” Kerry said.

'I'm not going to be intimidated'

Kerry has devoted a great deal of his freshman year on the job to negotiating a peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

But Israeli officials recently lobbed personal attacks at Kerry, backlash from the Secretary's recent comments at a conference in Germany.

“For Israel, there’s an increasing de-legitimation campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it, there’s talk of boycotts, and other kinds of things,” Kerry said at the Munich Security Conference last weekend.

Kerry said his remarks were distorted, and emphasized he has "always opposed boycotts."

"The United States of America, through President Obama and his direction and his policy, is absolutely committed, ironclad, to the security of Israel.  And Israel needs to understand, we will always stand by its security needs. But no one should distort what we're saying because they're opposed to the peace process, or don't like two states, or whatever," Kerry said.

"I've been ... attacked before by people using real bullets not words, and I'm not going to be intimidated," said Kerry.

For more of our interview with Secretary of State John Kerry, including his thoughts on security at the Sochi Winter Olympics, and whether he’s in for 2016,watch the video below, or click here.

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