WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry told wary lawmakers on Tuesday that it was premature to criticize nuclear negotiations with Iran before any deal can be reached to keep Tehran from developing atomic weapons.
"The president has made clear — I can't state this more firmly — the policy is Iran will not get a nuclear weapon," Kerry told members of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. "And anybody running around right now, jumping in to say, 'Well, we don't like the deal,' or this or that, doesn't know what the deal is. There is no deal yet. And I caution people to wait and see what these negotiations produce."
Kerry testified in Congress 12 hours after returning to Washington from the latest round of talks in Geneva involving Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers. U.S. and Iranian officials reported progress on getting to a deal that would clamp down on Tehran's nuclear activities for at least 10 years but then slowly ease restrictions.
Negotiators are rushing to try to meet a March 31 deadline for a framework agreement.
Republican and Democratic senators are skeptical that Iran is negotiating in good faith and accuse Tehran of buying time and meddling throughout the Mideast. Still, a comprehensive pact could ease 35 years of U.S-Iranian enmity — and seems within reach for the first time in more than a decade of negotiations.
Subcommittee chairman Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the U.S. is negotiating with Iranian officials who are "hell bent on expanding their influence in the Mideast in a destructive fashion."
"I think they are wreaking havoc," Graham said. "I think they've destabilized the Yemeni government, who was helpful in the counterterrorism actions against al-Qaida in the region. I think they are propping up (Syrian President Bashar) Assad, who is one of the great mass murderers of the 21st century. I think Hezbollah has been a destructive element in Lebanon and a constant thorn in the side of Israel."
Kerry agreed that Iranian influence was having an impact on other countries in the region.
When asked if Assad was a "puppet" of the Iranian regime, Kerry replied, "Pretty much."
Asked if Hezbollah, an Islamic militant group based in Lebanon, was a subcontractor of the Iranian regime, Kerry answered, "Totally."
But he said it would be worse if Iran was armed with nuclear weapons and could project even more power and influence in the region than it does today.
The administration's battle with Congress over the nuclear talks is expected to get louder next week, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses Congress and is expected to strongly criticize any deal with its archenemy. The invitation to Netanyahu from Republican leaders has spurred a contentious debate in Congress.
Democratic Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Dianne Feinstein of California sent a letter to Netanyahu on Monday, saying the speech would sacrifice long-standing U.S. cooperation with Israel for "short-term partisan points" that could have "lasting repercussions." The two invited Netanyahu to a private meeting with Democratic senators during his visit to Washington, but Netanyahu turned down their invitation in a letter he sent them.
As Kerry testified, a prominent Iranian opposition group alleged that Iran has been conducting secret nuclear research and some uranium enrichment using sophisticated machinery at an underground facility in the suburbs northeast of Tehran. The group offered no proof, but said it had learned of the activities through years of reporting from its sources inside Iran, including people who had visited radiation-shielded tunnels under what is purported to be a building housing the ministry of intelligence.
The group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has in the past revealed secret Iranian nuclear sites, most prominently when it disclosed a hidden nuclear facility in Natanz in 2002. But it has also made claims that have been disputed by experts. U.S. intelligence officials had no immediate comment on the claims.
Group leaders described a 62-acre site they dubbed Lavizan-3, which they said included four underground tunnels below a building used by Iran's intelligence agency. The facility was built in great secrecy between 2004 and 2008, they said, by companies that had been affiliated with Iran's nuclear program.
The hearing was supposed to be about the State Department's budget request for the 2016 fiscal year, yet most of the questions were about the world's hot spots, not dollars and cents.
—RUSSIA: Kerry said Russia has repeatedly lied to him about its activities in Ukraine where pro-Russian rebels are fighting national forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin denies arming rebels in the war in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 5,600 people and forced over a million to flee their homes. The fighting began last April, a month after Russia annexed the mostly Russian-speaking Crimean Peninsula.
"They have been persisting in their misrepresentations — lies — whatever you want to call them about their activities there to my face, to the face of others on many different occasions," Kerry said.
During his second congressional appearance of the day — this time before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — Kerry said: "The separatist movement is, in our judgment, a de facto extension of the Russian military and it is an instrument of Russian national power."
—AFGHANISTAN: On whether to adjust the schedule for U.S. troop withdrawals, Kerry said President Barack Obama will make a decision shortly after he reviews their pace.
—NEW WAR POWERS TO FIGHT ISLAMIC STATE: Obama's proposed draft of new war powers to fight IS proposes a ban on "enduring offensive combat operations." The White House says that language gives him the ability for rescue missions, intelligence collection and the use of special operations forces but would not authorize a ground war like the one U.S. troops fought in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Some Republicans say Obama's proposal is too restrictive for the mission to succeed while some Democrats want more limitations on Obama's authority so the United States doesn't sign on for another open-ended war.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told Kerry that the language was big enough to "drive a combat truck through." She said she and other Senate Democrats would not support that language in a new authorization for military force against IS.
Kerry challenged Boxer to find new language that could satisfy both sides of the aisle.
—SYRIA: Several lawmakers questioned the Obama administration's focus on fighting IS and not ousting Assad.
Kerry noted that there has been a slight increase of IS presence in Syria, but that the group was defeated in Kobani and lost as many as 1,000 fighters there.
He noted that the U.S. and its partners are setting up sites to train moderates to fight IS. He said there were other things "taking place that will augment the ability of the moderate opposition to be able to have an impact on Assad." Kerry did not elaborate, but he said that he believes that during the next months "the pressure can increase significantly on the Assad regime and that will affect who is willing to do what on the ground."
Associated Press writer Ken Dilanian contributed to this report.