State Department

John Kerry, After Iran Deal Victory, Stays on the Defensive

The State Department chief continued to decry a now-unlikely rejection.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion just got what it needed to en­sure the health of the Ir­an nuc­le­ar deal, but John Kerry isn’t tak­ing a vic­tory lap.

In a hour-long speech Wed­nes­day morn­ing, Kerry be­trayed none of the con­fid­ence the ad­min­is­tra­tion was likely feel­ing after se­cur­ing its cru­cial 34th Sen­ate vote in sup­port of the agree­ment.

Call­ing Con­gress’s up­com­ing vote on the deal one of the most im­port­ant for­eign policy de­cisions in re­cent his­tory, Kerry said any re­jec­tion of this agree­ment would show a lack of strength on the part of the Amer­ic­an people.

“It would be broad­cast­ing a mes­sage so puzz­ling, most people across the globe would find it im­possible to com­pre­hend. … Who could fairly blame them for not un­der­stand­ing if we sud­denly switch course and re­ject the very out­come we had worked so hard to ob­tain?” Kerry said from the Na­tion­al Con­sti­tu­tion Cen­ter in Phil­adelphia. “And not by of­fer­ing some new and vi­able al­tern­at­ive but by of­fer­ing no al­tern­at­ive at all.”

Less than an hour be­fore Kerry began speak­ing, Sen. Bar­bara Mikul­ski of Mary­land be­came the third Sen­ate Demo­crat this week to back the agree­ment, still nearly a week be­fore Con­gress is back in ses­sion and form­al de­bate over the deal be­gins.

With her vote, the Sen­ate will be able to up­hold Pres­id­ent Obama’s veto of any GOP-backed res­ol­u­tion to dis­ap­prove of the deal. And if the ad­min­is­tra­tion is able to win the sup­port of just sev­en more sen­at­ors—for a total of 41—there won’t be any res­ol­u­tion passed for him to veto. As it stands, there are 10 un­de­cided sen­at­ors.

In his ad­dress, Kerry char­ac­ter­ized many cri­ti­cisms of the deal as “myths,” in­clud­ing the ideas that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion trusts Ir­an, that the deal le­git­im­izes Ir­an’s quest for nuc­le­ar weapons, and that sanc­tions re­lief will make a huge dif­fer­ence to Ir­an’s fund­ing of un­rest in the Middle East.  

In an in­ter­view with CNN just ahead of his speech, a char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally staid Kerry pushed back on that last cri­ti­cism, re­fut­ing the claim that the sanc­tions re­lief will res­ult in Ir­an re­ceiv­ing hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars that the re­gime can use to fund ter­ror­ism.

He said the amount Ir­an will take in is closer to $50 bil­lion to $55 bil­lion. And while it’s “prob­ably fair” to say some of it will fund “bad or ne­far­i­ous activ­ity,” Kerry said, neither he nor the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­munity be­lieve the funds “will be de­term­in­at­ive in any way re­gard­ing the se­cur­ity of the re­gion.”

Minutes later, Kerry began his ad­dress by ask­ing the audi­ence as­sembled to de­cide for them­selves wheth­er the deal is sound. He went on to out­line its vari­ous pro­vi­sions: to ex­tend Ir­an’s break­out peri­od, cut the de­vel­op­ment of weapons-grade plutoni­um, and give the In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency ready ac­cess to in­spect Ir­a­ni­an fa­cil­it­ies, among oth­ers.

Is­rael’s se­cur­ity has been of much con­cern to U.S. sen­at­ors weigh­ing their votes on the deal. The two Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors who’ve come out against it, New York’s Chuck Schu­mer and New Jer­sey’s Bob Men­en­dez, have done so in no small part be­cause of con­cerns about Is­rael.

But in his speech, Kerry sought to as­sure the coun­try’s sup­port­ers that he is its cham­pi­on.

“I take a back­seat to no one in my com­mit­ment” to Is­rael’s safety, Kerry said, paint­ing the dis­agree­ment between Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion as one of re­spect­ful dis­agree­ment.

Along with Pres­id­ent Obama, seni­or U.S. de­fense of­fi­cials, and “even” former Is­raeli of­fi­cials, Kerry said, he be­lieves “this agree­ment puts us on the right path to pre­vent Ir­an from ever get­ting a nuc­le­ar weapon. The people of Is­rael will be safer with this deal, and the same is true for the people throughout the re­gion.”  

Kerry re­jec­ted the concept that the United States could walk away from the cur­rent deal and re­turn to the bar­gain­ing table with Ir­an later on. He pree­mpt­ively warned mem­bers of Con­gress that, in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s view, there is no vi­able al­tern­at­ive to the agree­ment.

“To vote down this agree­ment is to solve noth­ing, be­cause none of the prob­lems that we are con­cerned about will be made easi­er if it is re­jec­ted,” Kerry said. “None of them. Not Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram, not Ir­an’s sup­port for ter­ror­ism or sec­tari­an activ­it­ies, not its hu­man-rights re­cord, and not its op­pos­i­tion to Is­rael. To op­pose this agree­ment is, wheth­er in­ten­ded or not, to re­com­mend in its place a policy of na­tion­al para­lys­is.”

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