Kerry defends role in talks to curb Iran’s nuclear program

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry defended U.S. participation in global talks aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear program, in the face of criticism from members of Congress and Israeli leaders who say negotiators should wait until economic sanctions apply more pressure.

“We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid,” Kerry said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday. “We have a pretty strong sense of how to measure whether or not we are acting in the interests of our country and of the globe, and particularly of our allies like Israel and Gulf states and others in the region.”

Iran and six other nations failed last week to reach a deal limiting the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, creating an opening for opponents in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Washington to lobby against any agreement before negotiations resume. A next round of talks has been scheduled to begin Nov. 20, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said Sunday.

The agreement that was weighed during talks in Geneva would have offered Iran a temporary easing of the 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 speak.

Kerry expressed confidence talks can achieve an agreement, and said it’s more important to “get the right deal” rather than rush. He also said the U.S. isn’t taking a military strike off the table if Iran doesn’t agree to terms.

U.S. lawmakers Sunday said they intend to boost the pressure on Iran. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said he will advance a package of added economic sanctions against Iran that could be lifted if an “acceptable” deal on the nation’s nuclear program is struck. He didn’t specify what type of sanctions he would support.

He said further action would provide “insurance” to the U.S. that fall-back penalties would be in place if Iran won’t agree to conditions that the U.S. and its allies can approve.

“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 said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Republicans in Congress also called Sunday for further action, in advance of a bipartisan meeting with Kerry this week to discuss their concern.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said many lawmakers share his view “that sanctions and the threat of military force is the only thing that’s going to bring the Iranians to the table.”

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Sunday he’s concerned the U.S. is giving up needed leverage in talks by not first allowing existing economic sanctions to have a greater impact. He said he fears a “partial deal” that ends with the talks being as unsuccessful as past efforts to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program.

At the same time, Corker said, it’s not yet clear whether lawmakers will proceed with further sanctions because it would take at least several months for any further U.S. actions to have any impact on Iran’s economy.

“There are a lot of concerns about the approach,” Corker said. “A lot of us want to see it resolved diplomatically. We know the sanctions have gotten us here, but we’re worried we’re dealing away our leverage.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters early Sunday that more work is needed on an Iran accord. He yesterday raised concern that not enough restrictions had been imposed on Iran’s partly-built Arak heavy-water reactor or the country’s stockpiles of enriched uranium and capacity to make more.

Israel, Saudi Arabia and and some members of the U.S. Congress have been lobbying against any deal that would allow Iran to keep sensitive nuclear technologies and to press for new sanctions. After a stop in Abu Dhabi later Sunday, Kerry intends to fly back to Washington to brief lawmakers and try to head off further congressional penalties that President Barack Obama’s administration says could scuttle an accord.

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