Secretary of State John F. Kerry defended the Obama administration’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran in the face of mounting bipartisan scrutiny from lawmakers Tuesday — even as an Iranian dissident group claimed to have fresh proof that Tehran has lied to world powers about its drive to obtain a nuclear weapon.
With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heading to Capitol Hill next week to argue against the deal, Mr. Kerry told lawmakers not to judge the deal until it is completed.
“I caution people to wait and see what these negotiations produce,” Mr. Kerry said in response to news reports suggesting that the administration is close to a deal in which Iran would be allowed to increase its nuclear activities after a 10-year period of restrictions and inspection from outside powers.
“Anybody running around right now, jumping in to say, ‘Well, we don’t like the deal’ doesn’t know what the deal is. There is no deal yet,” Mr. Kerry told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee Tuesday morning during the first of two State Department budget hearings.
He told a subsequent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that the administration’s policy is still to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon but to do so diplomatically, in a way that avoids a military confrontation.
Mr. Kerry’s plea seemed to have little effect on critics, including some Democrats.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, told Mr. Kerry that he was concerned about news “leaking from the negotiations” that Iran will be left with “a vast majority of its nuclear infrastructure” under the proposed deal.
Any deal that relieves Iran of Western sanctions while allowing it to “go from being a threshold to an actual nuclear weapons state is no deal at all,” Mr. Menendez said.
Noting that the Obama administration suggested a 20-year pact with Tehran, Mr. Menendez said, “Now we’re talking about a 10-year time frame — if it’s true — and with relief in the five latter years of the 10 years. That’s problematic.”
Mr. Kerry insisted that the administration and its negotiating partners — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — want a long-term deal under which Iran’s pathways to a bomb are “closed off.” Specifically, he said, inspections would prevent any weapons development activity at Iran’s Natanz, Arak and Fordow nuclear facilities.
“Covert, of course, is the hardest,” Mr. Kerry said. “You need to have verification and intrusive inspection to be able to find covert” facilities.
While Mr. Kerry spoke, an Iranian dissident group that exposed past Iranian nuclear deceptions was arguing that the problems with inspection and verification would remain — that Tehran hasn’t come clean about its nuclear programs.
Claiming that Iran’s government has been lying for years to United Nations nuclear inspectors, the National Coalition of Resistance of Iran asserted that scientists in the Islamic Republic have been running a secret uranium enrichment operation at a facility buried deep beneath the ground in the northeastern suburbs of Tehran since 2008.
The facility, known as “Lavizan-3,” has been used for clandestine nuclear program research and development, as well as for enrichment with advanced IR-2m and IR-4 centrifuge machines, according to the resistance coalition.
Its claim was not immediately verifiable, and the dissident group has a controversial history in Washington. However, the group is thought to have deep sources inside Iran’s nuclear community, and its members are credited with making game-changing revelations about Tehran’s activities in the past.
The group said its latest claims were the result of a 10-year “detailed, risky and complex” intelligence gathering effort by members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq. The “MEK” is a main component of the coalition of resistance but has long drawn scrutiny in Washington because the State Department had listed it as a terrorist organization until 2012.
Although the MEK appears to be virulently opposed to the regime in Tehran, U.S. officials have said the group’s terrorist listing was related to attacks its members carried out against U.S. interests in the Middle East decades ago.
The National Coalition of Resistance of Iran said Tuesday that MEK operatives have “highly placed sources within the Iranian regime as well as those involved in the nuclear weapons projects.”
Iranian officials have long argued that their nuclear program is for purely peaceful and civilian purposes. The U.S. and its allies say Tehran has secretly tried to build a bomb in violation of orders from the U.N. Security Council, and Western powers for years have leveled economic sanctions and pursued a global embargo on Iranian oil.
The resistance coalition’s accusations did not come up at either of Mr. Kerry’s congressional hearings Tuesday.
Apart from Iran, the hearings covered a range of issues facing the Obama administration’s foreign policy, including the Islamic State, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Cuba and the president’s $50.3 billion budget request for the State Department and USAID through next year.
One key difference from the last fiscal year budget request is a $3.5 billion line item for State Department efforts — separate from those of the Pentagon — to counter the Islamic State.
Mr. Kerry took issue Tuesday with lawmakers who raised questions about the seriousness of the Obama administration’s commitment to defeating the extremist group. “The president’s goal is to degrade and destroy” the Islamic State forces, he said.
He defended comments from department spokeswoman Marie Harf citing the need for economic development and jobs for young people in the Middle East as part of the effort to combat terrorism.
“She never set out to say the solution is give them jobs,” Mr. Kerry said. “She talked about a much broader array of things we have to do. And if we can’t have a serious conversation about this, without politicizing it on cable TV and making it a scoring point for one day, we’re in trouble.”