Kerry on Iran Nuke Talks: ‘I Don’t Think We’re Stupid’

November 10, 2013 - 7:53 PM
John Kerry and Cathy Ashton in Geneva

Secretary of State John Kerry and European Union foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton in Geneva on Friday Nov. 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Jason Reed, Pool)

(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday pushed back at suggestions that only resistance from a skeptical France prevented a group of world powers from reaching a deal with Iran over the long running nuclear dispute.

“A number of nations – not just the French, but ourselves and others – wanted to make sure that we had the tough language necessary, the clarity in the language necessary, to be absolutely certain that we were doing the job and not granting more or doing something sloppily that could wind up with a mistake,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Kerry, who changed travel plans to join the talks in Geneva, bristled when asked by NBC’s David Gregory whether he was being “skeptical enough about a man [President Hasan Rouhani] who has been called a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who wrote a book in which he talked about how they can continue work on their nuclear program while they gain confidence of the West.”

“David, some of the most serious and capable, expert people in our government, who have spent a lifetime dealing both with Iran as well as with nuclear weapons and nuclear armament and proliferation, are engaged in our negotiation,” he replied.

“We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid. I think we have a pretty strong sense of how to measure whether or not we are acting in the interests of our country and of the globe, and particularly of our allies like Israel and Gulf states and others in the region.”

Reports say the talks in Geneva broke down late on Saturday over issues including the question of whether Iran should be permitted to retain a domestic nuclear enrichment program.

Feeding the speculation that his country played a spoiler role, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius left the talks on Saturday night and declared them to have failed.

The standard protocol in the negotiations between Iran and the “P5+1” – the U.S., Britain, Russia, China, France, and Germany – would dictate that E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton make any such announcements.

Hours earlier, Fabius had told French radio that his government could not accept a draft agreement on the table, citing uranium enrichment and concerns about the proliferation risk arising from Iran’s plutonium reactor at Arak. France would not be part of a “fool’s game,” he said.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Geneva, Switzerland for talks on Iran’s nuclear programs. (AP Photo/Martial Trezzini, Pool)

The surprise decisions of foreign ministers to join what were initially due to be two days of lower-level negotiations had prompted talk that an agreement could be imminent, but with hindsight it appears Paris dispatched Fabius to apply the brakes.

At a joint press briefing with Ashton, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif declined to comment on allegations that France created hurdles, although before leaving Geneva he wrote on his Facebook page, “One of the delegations created some problems.”

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency accused France of “preventing” a deal, claiming that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had “called the French asking them to go to Geneva to stop the agreement,” while the Mehr news agency quoted an Iranian political analyst as charging that both Israel and Saudi Arabia had “leaned” on France to do so.

France has raised Tehran’s ire before. Last March, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the country, both under former President Nicolas Sarkozy and the incumbent, Francois Hollande, of displaying “animosity” towards Iran, and called it “imprudent, irrational behavior.”

Khamenei took to Twitter on Sunday to remind France of a quote from that earlier speech: “A wise man, particularly a wise politician, should never have the motivation to turn a neutral entity into an enemy.”

France’s determination to punish Syrian President Bashar Assad for last August’s deadly chemical weapons attack near Damascus also alienated Iran, Assad’s closest ally. (Ultimately President Obama decided not to go ahead with a military strike which France had pledged to support.)

‘Right to enrich’

Rouhani told lawmakers in Tehran later Sunday that “enrichment on Iranian soil” was a non-negotiable, a “red line” that Iran would not cross.

Iran insists that the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) gives all countries the “right” to enrich uranium at home, portraying it as a matter of national pride, underpinned by international law.

But a number of non-nuclear weapons countries have peaceful nuclear energy programs without enriching their own uranium. According to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies at least 18 countries fall in that category, compared to just six countries that do enrich at home.

The Obama administration says it has repeatedly made clear that it does not interpret the NPT as giving any country the “right” to enrich. But officials have also hinted that as part of a broader deal that resolves the world’s concerns about Iran’s activities, some domestic enrichment may be allowed.

Before Kerry took up his current post the then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee criticized the Bush administration’s demand that Iran stop enriching uranium altogether, saying in a 2009 interview it was a “ridiculous” stance and an example of “bombastic diplomacy.”

Wendy Sherman, the State Department official leading the U.S. delegation at the P5+1 talks demurred when asked during a Senate hearing last month to say categorically that the administration does not envisage a deal that would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium domestically.

Briefing reporters in Geneva in the early hours of Sunday morning, Kerry disagreed when asked Geneva whether the U.S. and others had been “blindsided by the French and their objections.”

“We work very closely with the French,” he said. “We agreed with the French that there were certain issues that we needed to work through.”

During the later NBC interview, Kerry disagreed strongly with criticism that Obama has displayed a reluctance to exercise U.S. power in the region, advising Gregory not to “let mythology and politics start to cloud reality here.”

He recalled that opposition to a strike on Syria had come from Capitol Hill and said that before Obama had to make a decision on whether he would use force regardless of that opposition the U.S. and Russia had crafted a deal to remove Assad’s chemical weapons stocks.

Obama had “used force in Libya” and made it clear he was “prepared to use force with respect to Iran’s weapon,” Kerry added.

“And he’s also the president who has prosecuted al-Qaeda with an intensity – and terrorists generally with an intensity unprecedented, and way beyond the last administration.”