WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry hopped a plane to Geneva today to join the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, sharply raising speculation that the White House plans to rush through a deal this weekend.
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, a onetime campaign manager at the Democratic National Committee named to her current post by Hillary Clinton, was sent to Geneva on Tuesday for the next round of talks.
“Secretary Kerry will travel to Geneva later today with the goal of continuing to help narrow the differences and move closer to an agreement,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement Friday afternoon. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had already joined the meeting.
The fast-tracking of a deal comes after a week of lobbying Congress to not pass new sanctions on Iran — and Congress not listening.
On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) indicated on the floor that he will support a new sanctions bill and bring it to the floor after lawmakers return from the Thanksgiving break on Dec. 9.
Shortly after Reid announced his support, a Group of 14 was announced to forge bipartisan legislation: Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).
“A nuclear weapons capable Iran presents a grave threat to the national security interest of the United States and its allies and we are committed to preventing Iran from acquiring this capability,” the senators said in a joint statement.
The mounting support for new sanctions — as Obama’s deal with Iran promises to peel back some of the existing ones — indicates that the administration feels it’s racing against the clock to beat Congress to the punch and ink a deal with the Islamic Republic.
That urgency — and likely desire to thumb its nose at the legislative branch, at least until they are able to fire their own volley with a bill — also comes with the realization that Reid’s support, coupled with already strong support for sanctions in the House and Senate, means Congress could easily override Obama with a veto-proof majority.
The last sanctions bill in the House passed 400-20.
Schumer, Casey, Menendez, Graham, McCain and Collins wrote Kerry this week, demanding that he take any rollback of sanctions off the negotiating table.
“We are concerned that the interim agreement would require us to make significant concessions before we see Iran demonstrably commit to moving away from developing a nuclear weapons capability,” the senators wrote to Kerry.
“It is our understanding that the interim agreement now under consideration would not require Iran to even meet the terms of prior United Nations Security Council resolutions which require Iran to suspend its reprocessing, heavy water-related and enrichment-related activities and halt ongoing construction of any uranium-enrichment, reprocessing, or heavy water-related facilities,” they continued. “…We feel strongly that any easing of sanctions along the lines that the P5+1 is reportedly considering should require Iran to roll back its nuclear program more significantly than now envisioned.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said today that the P5+1 “is unified on the offer that has been made to the Iranians and there is a process that continues as we speak in Geneva as these issues are worked on.”
“The fact is we’re not reading out hour by hour or day by day the meetings in Geneva, but we believe that the first round provided progress that indicated that it is at least possible to reach an agreement on this first phase, and an agreement that allows for a verifiable decision by Iran to halt any progress on its nuclear program and to roll back key aspects of it as we’ve discussed,” Carney continued. “And on the parameters of that agreement, we have all in the P5+1 been in consensus and continue to be.”
A deal at the first round of negotiations was reportedly halted by France, and President Francois Hollande then flew to Israel to confer with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who praised France as “one of six” in the P5+1 standing up for the Jewish state in talks over the nuclear program.
Then this afternoon, the White House announced that President Obama would fete Hollande at a state dinner on Feb. 11. “The United States and France are close friends and allies, including through NATO, and our countries have worked together to support democracy, liberty, and freedom at home and abroad for more than two centuries,” Obama said in a statement. “During the visit, we will discuss opportunities to further strengthen the U.S.-France security and economic partnership.”
Carney claimed the White House isn’t alarmed about the Senate planning to hike up sanctions in December.
“I believe that the Senate has not acted while these negotiations are taking place and we will see what happens coming out of Geneva, first of all, and we appreciate that for all the reasons that we’ve discussed — that we believe Congress ought to basically save for the most effective moment implementation or passage of new sanctions if they’re necessary to try to change or affect Iranian behavior,” he said.
“It is the president’s policy that Iran must not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon, and it is his view, strongly held, that, as commander in chief, he has to pursue the possibility that we can resolve that diplomatically. Because obviously the use of force, while never taken off the table, is a very serious proposition, A; B, because the best way to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon is if Iran itself decides to give up that pursuit, and decides in a way that ensures to the satisfaction of the international community that it can be verified through all the means that we have discussed when it comes to inspections and the like.”
Carney added that “if there comes a time when new sanctions would be effective, as we’ve said in the past, we would welcome that.”
He also claimed reports that France objected to the first-round deal were “conflated.”
“The deal that Iran rejected was supported 100 percent by every member of the P5+1. That’s a fact. And it is the deal that we’re negotiating today in Geneva,” Carney said, repeating the claim when a reporter noted that France had publicly criticized the offer.
Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency reported that Tehran is happy with the direction of the current round of talks, which have consisted of bilateral meetings between Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Fars said Ashton took over as lead negotiator “after France ruined the chances for a deal.”
“Iran and the 5+1’s discussions are now focused on enrichment. We have declared that enrichment is our redline,” Fars quoted Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister for European and American Affairs Majid Takht Ravanchi. When asked if France was still standing in the way, he said, “We are negotiating with Mrs. Ashton and she presents the collective view of the six powers now. Negotiations are moving on a positive track.”
“The real Iran is not one that disseminates false propaganda videos with classical music in the background,” Netanyahu tweeted yesterday. “The real Iran is led by a leader who once again attacked the United States and was responded to with chants of ‘Death to America’.” That was in reference to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s address to the Basij in which he called Israel “the sinister, unclean rabid dog of the region.”
U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said the ayatollah’s rhetoric just proved the need for the administration strategy of negotiations.
“What I will say is that we have decades of mistrust, partly on the basis of comments like this, partly on the basis of the continued steady progress toward a nuclear weapon,” she said. “And that’s why we’re in the negotiations in the first place, right, is to ensure that a regime like that does not acquire a nuclear weapon, pose a threat not only to Israel but to the broader region and to mankind.”
Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) said yesterday that on sanctions “the administration has it backwards.”
“Iran has been in pursuit of nuclear weapons for nearly a decade. They ought to be the ones to cease first and then we give them some relief on that, rather than we give you the money first, we give you — we drop the sanctions or lessen the sanctions first and then we’ll trust you to go forward,” Coats told CNN.
“You know, we’ve been through that before with North Korea in 1994. I was here then. That was supposed to be verified. The North Koreans cheated,” he added. “…I think it’s just very bad negotiating on our part, another desperate way to get out of a difficult dilemma and avoid making a hard choice.”
“The supreme leader has the final say in Iran’s affairs,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said. “His anti-Western broadside must be taken seriously and thoroughly condemned. His despicable words sure don’t build confidence.”
“I remain deeply concerned that the Obama administration is close to taking a bad deal with a bad regime.”