Kerry cautions critics of nuclear talks with Iran

“There is no deal yet” with Tehran, Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate hearing Tuesday. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

“There is no deal yet” with Tehran, Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate hearing Tuesday. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry sought Tuesday to rebut critics of a potential nuclear deal with Iran, making his case on Capitol Hill just a week before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is scheduled to deliver his broadside against the emerging accord in an address to Congress.

“Anybody running around right now, jumping in to say, ‘Well, we don’t like the deal,’ or this or that, doesn’t know what the deal is,” Mr. Kerry said. “There is no deal yet. And I caution people to wait and see what these negotiations produce.”

At another point, Mr. Kerry asserted that Mr. Netanyahu had been wrong about the Obama administration’s policy toward Iran in the past. The prime minister, Mr. Kerry said, had denounced a 2013 interim accord to freeze much of Iran’s nuclear program, only to acknowledge belatedly that it was in Israel’s interest.

“I don’t know anybody who looks at the interim agreement and doesn’t say, ‘Wow, this has really worked’ — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who would like to see it extended, having opposed it vehemently in the beginning, calling it the deal of the century for Iran,” Mr. Kerry said.

Mr. Netanyahu, however, reiterated his criticism of the nuclear agreement that the Obama administration is now trying to negotiate, charging that it would do too little to constrain Iran’s nuclear program and would leave Tehran in a position to pursue the development of nuclear weapons when it lapsed.

“This agreement, if indeed it is signed, will allow Iran to become a nuclear threshold state,” Mr. Netanyahu said as he toured a military base in southern Israel on Tuesday. “It is my obligation as prime minister to do everything that I can do to prevent this agreement. Therefore, I will go to Washington to address the American Congress, because the American Congress is likely to be the final brake before the agreement between the major powers and Iran.”

The State Department has already made it clear that Mr. Kerry does not plan to meet with Mr. Netanyahu when the Israeli leader visits Washington. And on Tuesday, Mr. Kerry told lawmakers that he planned to be in Switzerland next week negotiating the very agreement with the Iranians that Mr. Netanyahu intends to denounce in his March 3 address to Congress.

President Obama has also said he will not meet with Mr. Netanyahu, and the Israeli prime minister, who was invited to Washington by the House speaker, John A. Boehner, has turned down Democratic senators’ request for a private meeting, Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said Tuesday.

In a letter released by Mr. Durbin’s office, Mr. Netanyahu said such a meeting “could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit.”

Officially, the purpose of Mr. Kerry’s testimony on Tuesday, which he delivered to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was to explain the State Department’s $50 billion budget request. That sum, he said, includes $3.1 billion in support of Israel; $1.5 billion in assistance for the new Afghan government; $639 million to help Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova build up democracy and stand up to Moscow; and $355 million to support “governance and security reforms” in Iraq.

But the hearing was dominated by other issues, including Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, the administration’s efforts to counter the Islamic State, the White House’s plans to pull out troops from Afghanistan, and Iran’s nuclear program.

On Ukraine, Mr. Kerry said that Russian officials had lied to him about the Kremlin’s involvement in the crisis, which has included providing weapons to the separatists and sending Russian military units into eastern Ukraine to shell and fire rockets at Ukrainian forces.

“They have been persisting in their misrepresentations — lies, whatever you want to call them — about their activities there to my face,” he said.

On Afghanistan, Mr. Kerry said the president had been conducting a review and would soon decide if an “adjustment” of his troop withdrawal plan was needed, as Ashton B. Carter, the new defense secretary, implied during a recent visit to Kabul.

The hearings were held a day after Mr. Kerry returned from high-level talks with the Iranians in Geneva on an accord that would limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. A major American goal in negotiating an accord is to slow the Iranian nuclear program to the point that it would take Iran at least a year to produce enough fuel for a nuclear weapon if it decided to “break out” of the accord.

But Iran and the United States have been at odds over how many years the agreement should last. And the United States, its negotiating partners and Iran have been considering an approach that would ease some of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program during the later years of the accord.

In a briefing for reporters on Monday, a senior Obama administration official said that the United States would insist that Iran be constrained from having the ability to quickly break out of an accord for “at least a double-digit number of years.” The official, who could not be identified under the Obama administration’s protocol for briefing reporters, declined to be more specific.

In his testimony to the Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Kerry insisted that reports that the United States would settle for an agreement that maintained the provision constraining breakout time for only 10 years were not accurate. But, he added, “I’m not going to go into the details of where we are and what we’re doing.”

“We’re looking for a deal that will prove over the long term that each pathway to a bomb is closed off,” Mr. Kerry said.

By The New York Times