Kerry Defends Peace Process at AIPAC: 'This Isn't About Me; This Is About the Dreams of Israelis'

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John Kerry tried to assure the country's largest pro-Israel lobby that the Iran nuclear deal was the last, best hope of stopping Tehran while proclaiming Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a willing partner for peace.

Kerry showed up 45 minutes late for his Monday evening address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington as both Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and an AIPAC board member tried to assure the crowd that Kerry was a longtime friend of Israel.

And one of Kerry's first messages to the massive crowd -- more than 14,000 registered for the conference -- was that Israel had no better friend than President Obama.

While extolling how Obama is "unrivaled" on Israel policy, the secretary of State challenged anyone to say otherwise: "You can look it up, you can measure it, it's not exaggeration, it's a matter of fact."

"I know there are many questions" about the Iran nuclear deal, Kerry acknowledged. "There's been a healthy debate about the approach."

Then he laid out administration policy in 10 words: "We will not permit Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, period." He then corrected himself -- it was 11 words, "just for punctuation."

Kerry received a standing ovation for that line and for a condemnation of the boycott movement directed at Israel, yet received slight or polite applause at other points in the speech.

"But I want you to understand, there are no if, ands or buts. This is not a political policy. This is a real foreign policy, and we mean every word of what we say. You have the word of the president of the United States that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon," said Kerry. "…And we also know something else: This is not some favor that we do for Israel. This is something that is also in the interests of the United States of America."

"Now to do that, to achieve this all-important goal, important for America's security and for Israel's security, it is crucial that we seize what might be the last best chance to be able to have diplomacy work, and maybe the last chance for quite some time. Because the reality is only strong diplomacy can fully and permanently achieve the goal. Those who say 'strike' and 'hit' need to go look at exactly what happens after you've done that… only strong diplomacy can guarantee that a nuclear weapons program actually goes away."

Still, he acknowledged, there's no guarantee that Iran will play ball.

"I'm not coming here to stand up in front of you and tell you that I know that Iran is going to reach an agreement. I don't know. I don't know what they'll do. I don't know if they are able to make some of the tough decisions they're going to have to make in the months ahead, but I know that if the United States is going to be able to look the world in the eye and say we have to do something, we have to have exhausted the possibilities available to us for that diplomatic, peaceful resolution," Kerry said. "Let me make it clear: Our approach is not Ronald Reagan's and the Soviets. We're not looking at this and saying trust, 'Trust, but verify.' Our approach, in a much more complex and dangerous world, is, 'Verify, and verify.' And that's what we intend to do."

Despite relaxed sanctions that coaxed Iran into a six-month interim agreement, he told the crowed "we have not changed one piece of the sanctions architecture, and yet we are able to negotiate."

"Our eyes, my friends, are wide open. This is not a process that is open-ended. This is not a process that is about trusting Tehran. This is about testing Tehran. And you can be sure that, if Iran fails this test, America will not fail Israel," he said. "Now, we have taken no options off of the table, but so far, there is no question but that tough sanctions and strong diplomacy are already making Israel and America safer."

The Iran deal has been a key point of criticism around this year's conference, and Kerry appeared to acknowledge that by quipping, "Like I tell my staff, there aren't any exit polls in foreign policy."

"If it turns out that Iran cannot address the world's concerns," then the administration will support sanctions bills in Congress. "…Iran is not open for business until Iran is closed for nuclear bombs."