The Obama administration is on the cusp of major decisions on Ukraine, the Islamic State and Iran, Secretary of State John F. Kerry told lawmakers Tuesday, though he declined to specify the direction in which those decisions are heading.
In his first testimony to the new, Republican-led Senate, Kerry outlined an ongoing high-level debate over whether to send lethal, defensive weapons to Ukraine. “There are lots of different considerations,” he said. While some have argued that Ukraine should not enter a fight against Russia that it cannot win, Kerry said, “there are plenty of people advocating that you ought to raise the cost” to Moscow, “no matter what.”
But, he said, it is not clear whether breaches by Russian-backed separatists of a cease-fire accord are now going to stop. That, Kerry said, “is critical to any decisions that are made by anybody as to what the next step is.”
Kerry’s comments came in budget hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an appropriations subcommittee, where he sought to steer the conversation toward the need for more money for diplomacy.
“We ask for 1 percent . . . 1 percent of the total budget of the United States of America goes into everything we do abroad,” he said. “All of our efforts for our citizens, our visas, our embassies, our counterterrorism, our aid, our assistance, everything, 1 percent.
“But I absolutely guarantee you that well more than 50 percent of the history of this era will be written off that 1 percent, and off the things we do or don’t choose to do in terms of foreign affairs.”
President Obama’s 2016 budget requested $50.3 billion for the State Department.
While lawmakers appeared sympathetic to and supportive of Kerry’s own energetic diplomacy, they repeatedly challenged the administration’s strategy on a number of issues.
Much of the questioning was about negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Kerry denied media reports here and in Israel that negotiators are considering a plan to limit Iran’s nuclear activities for 10 years, with sanctions gradually eased over that period.
“If that happens to be in the universe, that’s problematic,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said.
“The answer is the proverbial ‘don’t believe what you read,’ ” Kerry said. “I’ve told you it’s not true. But secondly, I’m not going to go into what is or isn’t the situation.”
In both hearings, Kerry defended negotiated, verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear activity by saying that the previous administration, under President George W. Bush, turned a blind eye to prohibited uranium enrichment by Tehran.
Kerry also rejected congressional demands that lawmakers be given veto rights over the agreement, saying their only opportunity to approve or reject it would come with a decision on whether to lift congressionally mandated sanctions on Iran.
As Kerry testified, an Iranian exile group claimed that a secret plant in suburban Tehran has been enriching uranium since 2008 at an underground site, named Lavizan-3. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, which has a mixed history of questioning Tehran’s nuclear program, showed satellite images of a large, walled complex of buildings. The group also exhibited photographs — purportedly taken inside tunnels where the clandestine labs are supposedly located — showing a steel door that it said was lined with lead to prevent radiation leaks.
“It’s absolutely senseless to continue negotiations and decide the number of centrifuges you’re going to have if we have these serious issues lingering out there,” said Alireza Jafarzadeh, deputy director of the group’s Washington office.
Monday, when the group said that it would expose the site’s existence, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani denied the allegations, calling them “a big lie.”
Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow with the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said the allegations should be investigated by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is tasked with monitoring Iran’s facilities.
“Every credible lead like this has to be pursued,” he said. “I don’t think you can dismiss the allegations out of hand. But this organization has been right sometimes and has sometimes been quite wrong.”
The IAEA and the Obama administration declined to comment on the group’s allegations.
Kerry responded to repeated questions about the administration’s strategy against the Islamic State by saying that Obama is committed to defeating the militant group but that it will take more than military strikes.
“I believe it will require some type of forces on the ground,” Kerry said. “Not ours, but some type. . . . There are a number of ways to come at it, some of which mix kinetic with diplomatic.”
Noting a series of upcoming meetings among allies, Kerry said, “we have to see what happens in the course of the decisions that are made over the course of the next weeks and months to see what shape the approach takes.”