(Bloomberg) — “The clock is ticking” to an end-of-March deadline, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he doesn’t know yet if Iran will agree to a strict, verifiable deal to ensure it can’t acquire a nuclear weapon.
“Important gaps” remain going into talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Sunday night in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the top U.S. diplomat said “it may be that Iran simply can’t say yes to the kind of deal that the international community is looking for.”
In Israel and Washington, critics of the Obama administration’s push to reach a deal for 10 or more years to monitor and restrict Iran’s nuclear program say it’s not enough. They’re calling for tougher economic penalties to force the Islamic Republic to abandon uranium enrichment forever and accept intrusive monitoring that would last indefinitely.
Kerry pushed back at that argument, saying sanctions alone are incapable of ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program is purely for energy and medical research. “We need a verifiable set of commitments and we need a plan” that allows long-term access for international monitors to guarantee Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful, Kerry told reporters on the sidelines of an economic conference in Egypt.
Only a negotiated agreement to “lock in Iran’s obligations” under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons can achieve that for the long-run, he said.
The Obama administration and its negotiating partners from the U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia are pressing Iran for an agreement lasting at least a decade to strictly limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities to civilian uses and guarantee the United Nations unrestricted access to inspect its facilities.
“We need to cover every potential pathway — uranium, plutonium, covert — that might lead to a weapon” and only a negotiated agreement can do that, Kerry said. Sanctions to cripple Iran’s economy or even a preemptive military strike could only set back its nuclear program, U.S. officials have said.
An interim deal reached in Geneva in November 2013 between foreign ministers from six world powers including Kerry and Iran’s top diplomat is the only thing that has succeeded in the last 20 years to roll back Iran’s nuclear progress, Kerry said. Under the agreement, Iran has converted its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium to fuel plates for a medical reactor, reduced its stockpile of low-enriched uranium for a power plant and permitted UN inspectors daily access for the first time to Iran’s nuclear facilities and uranium mills and mines.
Low- and medium-enriched uranium is used in nuclear energy reactors and medical research. If enriched to higher levels, uranium can be used to fuel a nuclear weapon. Iran insists its program is for peaceful uses, but the international community believes Iran has sought a nuclear weapons capability for several decades, since before the Islamic Revolution.
For the last 18 months, negotiators from the six powers have pressed Iran accept a deal that would continue intrusive inspections, reduce Iran’s enrichment capacity by limiting its centrifuges and prevent an alternate plutonium path to a nuclear weapon by reconfiguring a planned heavy-water reactor.
On the eve of his return to talks aimed at a political framework by the end of the month, with a technical agreement by the end of June, Kerry said he doesn’t know “whether or not we will get a deal and whether we are close,” but “we owe it to the future” to try.
Responding to critics in Congress and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who have accused the Obama administration of being desperate for any deal, Kerry insisted “President Obama means it when he says Iran will not be allowed to get a nuclear weapon.”
The goal “is not just to get any deal, it’s to get the right deal,” Kerry said. “Time is of the essence, the clock is ticking and important decisions need to be made” by Iran.
Kerry also criticized the letter written earlier this week to Iran’s leaders by 47 Republican senators warning that Congress could overturn any deal made by President Obama.
Calling the letter an “interference” in the president’s constitutional power to conduct foreign policy, Kerry said, “As far as we are concerned, the Congress has no ability to change an executive agreement.”