(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday negotiators deserve “the benefit of the doubt” in attempts to secure a nuclear agreement with Iran, after the White House threatened to veto a bill providing for Congress to approve of any final deal.
Kerry repeated the administration’s position that Iran has lived up to an interim agreement reached in late 2013, known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), and said that as a result of that agreement, “Israel is safer today.”
Speaking as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu headed for Washington for an address to Congress that has been dogged by controversy, Kerry told ABC’s “This Week” that the administration was “not seeking to politicize” the planned speech.
“We want to recognize the main goal here is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And on that, Israel and the United States agree.”
“Given our success on the interim agreement, I believe we deserve the benefit of the doubt to find out whether or not we can get a similarly good agreement with respect to the future,” he added.
As Kerry outlined his assessment that Iran has complied with the JPOA, he referred to Iran’s conversion of its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium from “uranium hexafluoride” form to another chemical form, “oxide” – a process experts say can easily be reversed.
Listing other achievements of the interim deal he added, “we are inspecting inside of their facilities” and “we have stopped the Arak plutonium reactor in its tracks.”
Kerry did not mention – nor was he asked about – Iran’s failure to address International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concerns about past and possibly current activity that could advance a nuclear weapons capability.
The IAEA’s latest Iran report, released on Feb. 19, referred to Iran’s failure to resolve the agency’s concerns about these so-called “possible military dimensions” (PMDs) of a program which Tehran insists is peaceful.
In this regard the report added that suspicious activities continue at Parchin, a military site where the IAEA suspects Iran conducted experiments in the past on nuclear detonators. Iran has consistently rejected IAEA requests to visit the site.
“It remains important for Iran to provide answers to the Agency’s questions and access to the particular location at the Parchin site,” the report stated.
While Kerry may be technically correct that Iran has complied with the JPOA, its failure to address the PMD questions is a valid concern. The JPOA, referring to the PMD questions, says that Iran and six negotiating countries “will work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.”
The end of March is the agreed deadline for a political agreement on replacing the JPOA with a comprehensive final deal, with a June 30 deadline for the final details to be agreed upon.
Netanyahu says he plans to warn Congress of the dangers of the purported final deal proposals.
On Friday two of the most powerful foreign policy figures on Capitol Hill, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), introduced a bipartisan bill giving Congress the right to examine and approve – or reject – any final agreement.
The White House quickly warned President Obama would veto it.
“The president has been clear that now is not the time for Congress to pass additional legislation on Iran,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan. “If this bill is sent to the president, he will veto it.”
“It is disappointing that the president feels he is the only one who speaks for the citizens of our country,” Corker said in response to the threat. “Congress put these sanctions in place and helped bring Iran to the table with the administration working against the effort the whole way. As a result, Congress should decide whether a final nuclear deal with Iran is appropriate enough to have the congressionally-mandated sanctions removed.”
The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act would require the president to submit any agreement to Congress within five days of its conclusion.
It would prohibit the administration from suspending sanctions for 60 days during which Congress could hold hearings before approving, rejecting – or taking no action on – the agreement.
Beyond that, it would require the president to certify every three months that Iran has not breached the agreement, taken any action to “significantly advance” a nuclear weapons program, or “directly supported, financed, planned, or carried out an act of terrorism against the United States.”
The specific inclusion of the terrorism reference in the bill directly challenges the administration’s policy regarding the talks. It has said all along that the nuclear negotiations are separate from U.S. concerns about other Iranian activity, whether terror-sponsorship, damaging regional policies, or human rights abuses at home.
Lead U.S. nuclear negotiator, undersecretary of state Wendy Sherman, reiterated that stance during an unrelated event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Friday.
“There is no grand bargain underway with Iran,” she said in response to a question. “The negotiation is about their nuclear program. We are quite well aware of what goes on in the region. All of our sanctions around terrorism, all of our sanctions around human rights, all of our concerns about instability in the region remain, and will for a very, very long time, I am sure, unfortunately.”
Earlier the White House also pledged to veto another bipartisan Iran measure, which would impose sanctions on Iran if a comprehensive agreement is not reached by June 30.
The latest version of this bill, co-authored by Menendez and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), was marked up by the Senate Banking Committee in late January, by an 18-4 vote.
Menendez said Friday that the legislation “is poised to move forward if a political framework agreement is not reached by the March 24 deadline.”
The Menendez-Kirk bill has 48 co-sponsors – 41 Republicans and seven Democrats.
The Corker-Menendez bill, seeking congressional approval for any Iran deal, has 10 co-sponsors – Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), James Risch (Idaho); Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine (Va.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Bill Nelson (Fla.); and independent Sen. Angus King (Maine).