WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State John Kerry has implored skeptical senators not to criticize nuclear negotiations with Iran before a deal can be crafted, but he's certain to get another round of questions about the sensitive talks from members of the House.
Kerry's second appearance in two days on Capitol Hill follows Tuesday's session before a Senate panel. He already has been asked about the fight against Islamic State militants, Russia's meddling in neighboring Ukraine, the crisis in Syria and the sensitive negotiations underway to prevent Iran from being able to have nuclear weapons.
Negotiators are rushing to try to meet a March 31 deadline for a framework agreement that would keep Tehran from being able to develop nuclear 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 went to the Senate a day 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.
Kerry wouldn't disclose details about the latest negotiations, but he said the term "breakout" in the context of the current talks does not refer to the time it would take Iran to deliver a nuclear weapon.
"Breakout is the amount of time it takes to develop enough fissile material for one weapon. ... You still gotta go design a means of delivery," he said.
That could take years, which would give the international community time to know about it and respond, Kerry said. If that happened, "we have the same options available to us to whack them — do whatever you want — as we have today," he said.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers 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 were armed with nuclear weapons and could project even more power and influence in the region than it does today.