Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, in a round of interviews that aired Sunday, defended the deal they negotiated with Iran, saying that it leaves the Middle East safer and that there is no viable alternative.
“The real fear of that region should be that you don’t have the deal,” Kerry said in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
The agreement finalized last week in Vienna has come under heavy criticism from Republicans in Congress, which could vote to reject it. On Sunday, the administration officially presented the agreement to lawmakers, who will have 60 days to review it.
Kerry said that if opponents in Congress get enough votes to override a presidential veto, the consequences will be dire, warning that Iran would resume enriching uranium to levels prohibited under the deal. “If Congress says no to this deal, then there will be no restraints on Iran, there will be no sanctions left,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
He added that the five nations that negotiated alongside the United States would blame Washington for the deal’s failure and lift their sanctions on Iran. “Our friends in this effort will desert us,” Kerry said. “We will be viewed as having killed the opportunity to stop them from having weapons. [Iran] will begin to enrich again, and the greater likelihood is what the president said the other day — you will have a war.”
Kerry’s remarks were recorded Friday as part of five interviews he and Moniz did in tandem for the Sunday talk shows. The interviews were part of an aggressive campaign by the Obama administration to defend the deal announced last week, in which Iran agreed to restrictions on its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions being lifted.
In another move to reassure wary skeptics, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter left this weekend on a Middle East tour that includes stops in Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Israelis across the political spectrum consider the Iran agreement a threat because of Tehran’s support for proxy groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of the deal’s fiercest critics, characterizing it as a mistake of historic proportions. Largely Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are regional rivals, and Saudi leaders have expressed concern that when sanctions are lifted, Iran will use a windfall of cash to spread its influence by backing proxies, including Houthi rebels in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has led a bombing campaign. Jordan, another stop on Carter’s tour, also has concerns about the agreement’s regional implications.
In the Sunday interviews, Kerry dismissed criticism over the United Nations getting a vote on the agreement before Congress has a chance to weigh in. A U.N. resolution endorsing the deal is expected to be introduced this week, though it will have no practical effect for several months, until Iran takes several steps enshrined in the agreement.
“They have a right to do that, honestly,” Kerry said on ABC’s “This Week” regarding the U.N. vote. “It’s presumptuous of some people to suspect that France, Russia, China, Germany and Britain ought to do what the Congress tells them to do.”
Kerry and Moniz defended the decision not to seek spontaneous inspections of undeclared sites where inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency suspect covert nuclear activity is being conducted. Moniz was asked on several shows about comments he made earlier this year insisting on “anytime, anywhere” access to sites in Iran after an Iranian general said in April that inspections of military sites would be off-limits.
In response, Moniz differentiated between the round-the-clock access IAEA inspectors would have to Iran’s known nuclear sites and the “managed access” to sites that Iran does not declare but where inspectors may suspect nuclear-related activity, which could be on military facilities. Managed access refers to a 24-day process in which inspections would be negotiated case by case — first through discussions between the IAEA and the Iranians, and then, if they can’t decide, by a joint commission. It falls short of spontaneous inspections, but experts say the only place where something close to “anytime, anywhere” occurred was in Iraq when it was occupied and the IAEA was looking for weapons of mass destruction.
“In the IAEA world, it is very important to distinguish [between] declared and undeclared sites,” Moniz said on “Face the Nation.” “Declared, we have 24-hour access. Undeclared, we have this process — anywhere, I might add.”
But in other interviews, Moniz said, he had used “anywhere, anytime” to describe managed access. “I said access anywhere, anytime in the sense of a well-defined procedure and well-defined time window to resolve it,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Kerry noted that no country has “anywhere, anytime” inspections.
“We never, ever had a discussion about ‘anywhere, anytime,’ ” Kerry said on “Fox News Sunday.” “It’s called ‘managed access’ . . . and the intelligence community has made clear to us, as they did before we signed on to this deal, that we would be able to know what they are doing during that intervening period of time.”
In every appearance, Kerry was asked why the agreement leaves an embargo on conventional arms in place for five years and a ban on ballistic missiles for eight years. Neither involves nuclear weapons, but they were part of U.N. sanctions resolutions designed to nudge Iran to the bargaining table, Kerry said.
In a reference to Russia and China, along with Iran, Kerry noted that three of the parties argued there be no arms embargo at all.
“The United Nations resolution, which brought about the sanctions in the first place, said that if Iran will suspend its enrichment and come to negotiations, all the sanctions will be lifted,” he said on “This Week.” “Now they’ve done more than just come to negotiations; they’ve actually negotiated a deal. And three of the seven nations thought they shouldn’t, therefore, be held to any kind of restraint. We prevailed and insisted, no, they have to be.”
Kerry said that the United States and Iran will remain adversaries and that Washington will work to counter Iran’s support for militant groups and the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad.
“The simple reality is that if you’re going to push back against Iran,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “it is better to push back against an Iran that doesn’t have a nuclear weapon rather than one that does.”
On “Face the Nation,” Kerry compared negotiating with Iran to historic breakthroughs in talks with other hostile nations.
“The same way that Ronald Reagan negotiated with the Soviet Union, and the same way that Richard Nixon negotiated with what we then called Red China, we have now negotiated with somebody who took our embassy over, took hostages, killed Americans, many of the things you hear people say, supported terrorism,” he said. “But what we need to recognize is that an Iran that we want to stop the behavior of with a nuclear weapon is a very different Iran than an Iran without a nuclear weapon.”
Kerry also said the administration is still working to secure the release of three Americans imprisoned in Iran, including Jason Rezaian, a reporter for The Washington Post imprisoned for almost a year and accused of spying. Kerry said negotiators asked for their freedom on the sidelines of every meeting held with the Iranians.
In an interview aired Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” Martin Baron, executive editor of The Post, said editors were also trying to reach out to Iran through sources outside the State Department.
“We’ve tried every channel we can think of,” he said. “Through other governments, other individuals, the administration, you name it.”
Baron noted that President Obama said recently that the U.S. government is working diligently for the release of Rezaian and the other Americans.
“We hope it’s the case, we believe it’s the case, and we want them to work harder,” he said.
Critics of the agreement also appeared on the Sunday talk shows.
Among them was Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who in March wrote an open letter to Iran’s clerical leaders, signed by 46 other Republican senators, warning that a future Congress or Republican president could revoke or alter an agreement. Appearing on “Meet the Press,” he predicted that Congress will ultimately reject the agreement.
“In the end, I don’t think it’s a good thing to give such an outlaw regime nuclear weapons capability,” he said, adding, “I think the alternative is for Congress to reject this deal and demand a better deal. To send our negotiators back to the table, with both tougher sanctions and military force, and get a better deal for the American people.”
Netanyahu also appeared on several talk shows, criticizing the agreement and saying it made Israel less safe.
“I think that what they have got now is a path that gets rid of all these sanctions and allows them, if they keep the deal, within a few years, they are able to break out to a situation where they can get to nuclear arsenal with virtually zero breakout time,” he said. “So, Iran is actually on path to a much bigger nuclear arsenal. And, secondly, they’re getting a lot of money. Their economy was really stifled. Now they’re going to get all that windfall.”
Kerry, meanwhile, fresh from his successful negotiation with Iran, was asked whether there was any chance he would run for president again.
“None,” he said on CNN, adding quickly: “Zero. Absolutely none whatsoever. I have a great job. We have a lot of work to do in the next year and a half, and I’m looking forward to it.”