Kerry Says Iran Deal Criticism Premature as Talks Go On

The U.S. and world powers were “extremely close” to a first-step agreement on limiting Iran’s nuclear program, Secretary of State John Kerry said, telling critics their objections are premature.

“The time to oppose it is to see what it is, not to oppose the effort to find out what is possible,” Kerry told reporters yesterday in Abu Dhabi.

Talks in Geneva, which broke up Nov. 9 without an initial agreement, have been criticized by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for considering steps to ease some economic sanctions without first ensuring a halt to Iran’s uranium enrichment. Kerry is returning to the U.S. to brief Congress, where some members want to increase pressure on Iran by adding additional sanctions.

The negotiating group in Geneva known as the P5+1 was united behind a proposal that Iran wasn’t able to accept, Kerry said yesterday, disputing reports that French objections had blocked an initial deal. The group includes the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China -- the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- plus Germany.

“Hard work was done, progress was made, the P5+1 was united,” Kerry told reporters. Iran, he said, “couldn’t take it at that particular moment, they weren’t able to accept that particular agreement.”

In an interview with the BBC, Kerry said, “We were very, very close, actually -- extremely close.” Negotiations are scheduled to resume Nov. 20.

Eroding Confidence

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif objected to the characterization that his nation presented a roadblock. “No amount of spinning can change what happened” in Geneva, Zarif said in a Twitter Inc. posting. “But it can further erode confidence.”

The agreement that was considered during talks in Geneva would have offered Iran a temporary easing of existing sanctions on petrochemicals, gold and auto trade and some access to frozen assets, according to diplomats who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to comment.

Iran is “anxious to reach an agreement in the sense that their sanctions are very, very difficult and it’s creating difficulties at home,” Kerry said in the BBC interview.

The International Monetary Fund said yesterday that a team visited Iran from Oct. 29 to Nov. 7 for discussions that “focused on the need for Iran to tackle high inflation and restore economic growth.” The IMF estimates that Iran’s economy will contract 1.5 percent this year after shrinking 1.9 percent in 2012.

Brent crude for December settlement climbed $1.28, or 1.2 percent, to $106.40 a barrel yesterday on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange.

Opposition Opening

The breakup of the Geneva talks without an agreement creates an opening for opponents in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Washington to lobby against a deal before negotiations resume.

Kerry is scheduled to meet the Senate Banking Committee in a closed-door session tomorrow, and administration officials are also likely to brief congressional leaders, according to a Senate aide who asked not to be identified because the classified meeting hasn’t been announced.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez plans to press for a package of added economic penalties against Iran that could be lifted if an “acceptable” deal is struck.

“I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to move forward on a package that ultimately will send a very clear message where we intend to be if the Iranians don’t strike a deal to stop their nuclear weapons program,” Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said Nov. 10 on ABC’s “This Week.”

Reassuring Allies

Many lawmakers share the view “that sanctions and the threat of military force is the only thing that’s going to bring the Iranians to the table,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said the same day on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Kerry sought yesterday to reassure Mideast allies that the U.S. wouldn’t go along with an agreement that would weaken international efforts to keep Iran from obtaining the capability to build a nuclear weapon. Iran says its nuclear efforts are aimed at peaceful medical and energy uses.

“It’s important for people in the region to know, whatever arrangement we arrive at, it’s not going to change our fundamentals, our alliances, our friendships,” Kerry told the BBC. “It’s not going to come at the expense of a relationship with the Arab Emirates or with Saudi Arabia or other countries.”

Netanyahu “needs to recognize that no agreement has been reached about the endgame here,” Kerry told reporters in Abu Dhabi. “That’s the subject of the negotiation.”

Giving Nothing

The Israeli leader said Nov. 10 that, under the plan under consideration in Geneva, Iran “gives practically nothing and gets a hell of a lot.”

Asked whether Iran is demanding a right to continue enriching uranium, Kerry told the BBC that “right” is “the wrong word.”

“There is a standard by which they might be able to do something, providing they meet certain standards in order to do it,” Kerry said. “What’s critical is you cannot have a nuclear weapons program.”

Lobbying Congress

The pause in talks won’t just give members of Congress more time to weigh in, but also will unleash lobbying on Iranian sanctions and nuclear proliferation by outside groups. All told, groups that listed those areas on lobbying disclosure reports have spent $9.1 million in the three months ended Sept. 30, according to disclosure reports. The 31 groups that listed Iran among their lobbying issues include the American Petroleum Institute and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The Senate Banking Committee is weighing legislation that would impose more curbs on Iran. Senator Tim Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat who leads the panel, is reserving judgment on any new measure until after that briefing, the Senate aide said.

Menendez favors a pending Senate proposal that would demand that five nations -- China, India, South Korea, Turkey and Japan -- further curtail their purchases of Iranian crude oil and other petroleum products, said Adam Sharon, his spokesman.

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