WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry warned Congress Wednesday against scuttling a historic opportunity for a nuclear pact with Iran by pressing ahead with new sanctions while international negotiators seek to prevent Tehran from being able to assemble an atomic weapons arsenal.
Kerry, who as a senator joined the effort to impose crippling oil, trade and investment restrictions on Iran, said the United States and other world powers are united behind an offer they presented to Iranian negotiators in Geneva last week. But he said new action now from U.S. lawmakers could shatter an international coalition made up of countries with interests as divergent as France, Russia and China, endangering hopes for a peaceful end to the decade-long nuclear standoff with the Islamic republic.
"We put these sanctions in place in order to be able to put us in the strongest position possible to be able to negotiate. We now are negotiating," Kerry told reporters ahead of testifying before the Senate Banking Committee. "And the risk is that if Congress were to unilaterally move to raise sanctions, it could break faith in those negotiations, and actually stop them and break them apart."
With nuclear negotiations set to resume in Switzerland next week, the Obama administration dispatched Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to seek more time for diplomacy. They faced skepticism from members of Congress determined to further squeeze the Iranian economy and wary of yielding any ground to Iran in the talks.
At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday, Democratic and Republican lawmakers sharply criticized Kerry and other senior U.S. officials for their offer during last week's inconclusive negotiations.
"The Iranian regime hasn't paused its nuclear program," lamented Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman. "Why should we pause our sanctions efforts as the administration is pressuring Congress to do?"
Positions are more mixed in the Senate. After briefing the Banking Committee, Kerry and Biden gathered behind closed doors with Senate Democratic leaders to explain the administration's strategy. No Democratic leader left the meeting contradicting the administration's call for caution on sanctions.
Kerry said the potential accord with Iran stems from a "tough proposal," adding: "If it weren't strong, why wouldn't Iran have accepted it yet?"
But the former Massachusetts senator said moving the goalposts during the current lull in talks by adding new sanctions against Iran's oil and other industrial sectors would cause America's negotiating partners to see the U.S. as "dealing in bad faith."
"They would bolt and they will say, 'That's not the deal,'" he said. "And then the sanctions do fall apart."
"What we're asking everyone to do is calm down, look hard at what can be achieved and what the realities are," Kerry added. "If this doesn't work, we reserve the right to dial back up the sanctions. I will be up here on the Hill asking for increased sanctions and we always reserve the military option. So we lose absolutely nothing, except for the possibility of getting in the way of diplomacy and letting it work."
Kerry said negotiators should have a "few weeks" more to see if they can reach an agreement. The State Department's nuclear negotiator, Wendy Sherman, and the Treasury Department's sanctions chief, David Cohen, also joined him at the Capitol.
President Barack Obama is under pressure at home and abroad to resolve the Iran nuclear standoff, having stated that Iran could reach nuclear weapons capacity by sometime next year. Obama has reached out in an unprecedented manner to Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani, with the two men holding the first direct conversation between U.S. and Iranian leaders in more than three decades.
Yet at the same time, Obama has angered wary U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, which see an Iranian nuclear arsenal as existential threats. Iran insists its program is solely for peaceful energy production and medical research purposes, but until recently had offered little to assuage Western and regional fears that it was secretly trying to develop atomic bombs.
Both Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have repeatedly warned Iran about the potential for military action if negotiations fail. The allies differ, however, over how any diplomatic solution should look.
Some in Congress are gearing up for a fight with the administration over the new sanctions, which were overwhelmingly approved by the GOP-led House in July. The legislation blacklisted Iran's mining and construction sectors and committed the U.S. to the goal of eliminating all Iranian oil exports worldwide by 2015. If the Senate Banking Committee pushes off its parallel bill any longer, lawmakers could attach it to a Senate defense bill which could come up for debate as early as Thursday.
Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2-ranked Senate Democrat, told The Associated Press he supported delaying action on further sanctions as long as diplomatic progress was being made.
Sen. Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top Republican, also sounded conciliatory. He said his focus was on maintaining existing restrictions on Iran's economy so the U.S. keeps its negotiating leverage. But Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has called this week for tougher sanctions as an incentive for negotiations. And many Republicans back him.
"We ought to be actually ratcheting up the sanctions against Iran," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. "What the administration was promoting is something the Israelis think is a bad deal for them. It's pretty clear the Sunni Arab allies of ours also think it's a bad deal. Looking at it strictly from an American point of view, I think it's a bad deal as well."
Last week's talks came tantalizingly close to an accord. They broke down as Iran demanded formal recognition of what it calls its right to enrich uranium, and as France sought stricter limits on Iran's ability to make nuclear fuel and on its heavy water reactor to produce plutonium, diplomats said.
Obama spoke Wednesday by telephone with French President Francois Hollande. The two countries "are in full agreement" on Iran, the White House said in a statement.