Thursday, December 12, 2013
Kerry to Congress: We Promised No New Sanctions
United States Secretary of State appeals to lawmakers to "hold off" on new sanctions against Iran.
By Elad Benari
Israel news photo: Flash 90
United States Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday appealed to Congress to "hold off" on new sanctions against Iran, Fox News reports.
Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that such legislation would be "gratuitous" and could give Tehran an excuse to "flout" the recently struck nuclear deal.
"We're asking you to give our negotiators and our experts the time and the space to do their jobs," Kerry said. "I'm not saying never [pass additional sanctions]. ... I'm just saying not right now."
The secretary described the current talks as a "hinge" point, and suggested that failure here could lead to "continued hostility" and potentially "conflict."
"Believe me, we are all skeptical," he said. "But we now have the best chance we've ever had" to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with Iran, Kerry claimed.
The comments came as a bipartisan group of senators is preparing to propose new sanctions against Iran. The concern is that the current deal gives the country too much leeway, and additional pressure may be needed.
On Monday it was reported that the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, and Republican Senator Mark Kirk are close to agreeing on legislation that would target Iran's remaining oil exports, foreign exchange reserves and strategic industries.
Citing the agreement by the U.S. and other world powers, during talks in Geneva, not to impose new sanctions for six months, Kerry said Congress could threaten that unity if it goes on a "tangent" with new legislation.
He added that the U.S. would "test but verify" and disputed claims that the deal provides significant sanctions relief. Kerry said the relief could be quickly reversed if needed.
Stressing that the ultimate goal is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, he said, according to Fox News, "We now have the best chance we ever had to rigorously test this proposition, without losing anything."
He was challenged by committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and other members, who complained that the current deal does not require Iran to stop enriching uranium entirely.
"We are facing an immoral and very dangerous regime in Iran," Royce said. "I am hard-pressed to understand why we would be letting up sanctions pressure" at this point.
Kerry’s appearance before the committee is the latest part in a very aggressive campaign by the administration to convince lawmakers to postpone passing new sanctions on Iran.
President Barack Obama recently told lawmakers that Iran would make progress in its ability to build a nuclear weapon if there is no diplomatic deal to halt or roll back its nuclearprogram.
Iran's foreign minister has warned that new sanctions would kill the nuclear deal negotiated last month aimed at curbing Tehran's uranium enrichment program.
"The entire deal is dead," Mohammad Javad Zarif told TIME Magazine in an interview conducted Saturday and published Monday.
"We do not like to negotiate under duress. And if Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States,” he threatened.
The Senate group drafting a new bill has agreed that the new sanctions would take effect in six months, when the current interim deal brokered between the U.S., Iran, and five other world powers expires, if a satisfactory long-term deal is not struck.
The sanctions would permit Iran to develop nuclear power for commercial purposes, so long as the development is monitored by the international community.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that imposing new sanctions on Iran, even those that are delayed, would be counterproductive and could "unravel the unity" of the six world powers working to implement the deal.
"It could certainly put the negotiations that we have all worked so hard on that we believe is the best chance we've had in a decade to achieve a peaceful outcome at risk," Psaki told reporters.
By Rebecca Shimoni Stoil and AP December 11, 2013
ASHINGTON — The head of the US Senate’s Banking Committee said Tuesday he is leaning toward delaying any new legislation on Iranian sanctions, hours after Secretary of State John Kerry pressed Congress to hold off on passing new penalties.
Senator Tim Johnson, a Democrat from South Dakota, said Kerry and US President Barack Obama had convinced him to put off new sanctions against Iran, pending an interim deal that curbs enrichment activity in return for eased sanctions.
“We’ll see. Not this year,” he added to The Hill.
The Banking Committee, which oversees international finance agreements, would play an important role in creating and passing new sanctions legislation.
Johnson’s statement came hours after Kerry took a brief break from his rigorous travel schedule to the Middle East to pressure Congress to delay additional sanctions against Iran, describing such legislation as “gratuitous” and potentially damaging not only to any future deal with the Islamic Republic, but also to America’s relations with fellow states in the P5+1 group.
The administration and Tehran both see new sanctions as potential deal-breakers that could undermine the recently signed pact between Iran and six world powers.
Two senators at the head of a drive for new sanctions, Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), are reportedly pursuing language that would legislate new penalties, but give the White House the option of deferring on them, according to The Washington Post, citing a Senate aide. In recent weeks, the administration has strongly indicated that such legislation is not welcome – with or without the added provision.
Speaking to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Kerry said Congress needed to tread carefully or risk unraveling diplomatic progress made in Geneva.
“Let me be very clear: This is a very delicate diplomatic moment and we have a chance to address peacefully one of the most pressing national security concerns that the world faces today,” Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “We’re at a crossroads. We’re at one of those really hinge points in history. One path could lead to an enduring resolution in the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. The other path could lead to continued hostility and potentially to conflict.”
Kerry’s comments shed light on Washington’s flexibility on the terms of a final-status agreement. While he said that the interim agreement reached last month in Geneva rendered the Arak heavy water facility “frozen stone-cold,” he did not rule out the possibility of future negotiations over the fate of the plant, which could be used to produce plutonium for a nuclear bomb.
The secretary of state also avoided any commitment to the effect that the final agreement would prohibit Iran entirely from enriching its own uranium.
Kerry assured Congress that during the interim period, while the P5+1 member states are negotiating a final agreement, “Iran’s nuclear programs will not move forward.” Instead, he promised, “this agreement halts the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and rolls its back in certain places.”
In response to a question by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Kerry said that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia had welcomed the deal because it provided new-found security. He acknowledged, however, that Israel did not find the deal reassuring.
Anticipating being pressed by members of Congress on the repeal of sanctions placed on Iran by Congressional mandate, Kerry told the committee that the estimated $7 billion in sanctions relief that would result from Iran’s compliance with the interim agreement “pales in comparison with the amount of pressure we’re leaving in place.”
Describing additional sanctions as “gratuitous,” Kerry emphasized that he would not rule out such legislation in the future.
The interim deal with Iran prohibits the Obama administration from introducing new sanctions for six months. Kerry and other US officials have warned of dire consequences if Washington breaks its word. And Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has said any new package of commercial restrictions would kill the deal.
“If Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States,” Zarif told Time magazine.
“I’m just saying ‘not right now.’ This is a very delicate diplomatic moment,” Kerry explained on Tuesday, arguing that were Congress to finalize additional sanctions, it could result in the Iranians pulling out of talks, or disunity among fellow members of the P5+1 negotiating team.
“I don’t want to give the Iranians a public excuse to flout the agreement,” Kerry said. “It could lead our international partners to think that we’re not an honest broker, and that we didn’t mean it when we said that sanctions were not an end in and of themselves but a tool to pressure the Iranians into a diplomatic solution. Well, we’re in that. And six months will fly by so fast, my friends, that before you know it, we’re either going to know which end of this we’re at or not.”
Members of both parties challenged Kerry. Engel, the top Democrat on the panel, specifically asked Kerry why the administration was so strongly opposing sanctions that wouldn’t be imposed unless Iran breaks the agreement. And Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman expressed misgivings about trusting the Obama administration, which he accused of hampering all sanctions efforts against Iran thus far.
As Kerry spoke, reports circulated that the secretary of state will address Iran sanctions before the full Senate on Thursday in an intensified effort to keep the upper house from voting on a sanctions bill before it goes on its winter recess.
Members of Congress generally believe that crippling petroleum, banking and trade sanctions levied on Iran in recent years were responsible for bringing its more moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, to power and his representatives to the negotiating table. Many argue more pressure, not less, could break Iran’s will and secure better terms in a final agreement.
At several points, Kerry and lawmakers talked over each other as they argued about whether the deal recognized Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium — which the administration rejects — and about the details of international inspections on Iranian sites and its non-nuclear weapons programs.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., was perhaps strongest in her criticism of the administration, flatly denouncing the agreement in Geneva as a “bad deal.”
“We may have bargained away our fundamental position,” said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the committee chairman. “Iran should not be enriching and reprocessing,” he said, criticizing what he termed the administration’s “false confidence that we can effectively check Iran’s misuse of these key nuclear bomb-making technologies.”
Iran insists its program is solely for peaceful nuclear energy and medical research.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.