- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Obama administration is likely to begin lifting sanctions on Iran “within the coming days,” according to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who made no mention of Tehran’s recent ballistic missile tests or other destabilizing actions during a wide-ranging foreign policy speech Wednesday.

Despite increasing pressure from both Democrats and Republicans to punish Iran for violating U.N. Security Council resolutions by testing the missiles, Mr. Kerry said the administration believes Tehran is very close to meeting all of its commitments under last summer’s nuclear accord.

“Implementation Day — the day on which Iran proves it has sufficiently downsized its nuclear program and can begin to receive sanctions relief — will take place soon, likely within the coming days,” the secretary of state said.

Mr. Kerry made the assertion in prepared remarks circulated by the State Department ahead of a speech Wednesday morning at the National Defense University in Washington, during which he outlined the Obama administration’s foreign policy priorities for the coming year.

During 2016, the U.S. “will remain more engaged in more places around the world than at any time in history,” said Mr. Kerry, who pushed back against criticism that the world has become increasingly chaotic and doomed to disorder on President Obama’s watch.

“I’m about to enter my fourth year as Secretary of State — and from all I’ve experienced, from all I have seen — I strongly disagree,” Mr. Kerry said in the prepared version of his remarks. “I see challenges, yes, but as I travel the world … I don’t sense an unraveling of the global fabric. On the contrary: I see a world that in critical areas is actually coming together.”

He asserted that the administration helped during 2015 to foster in “progress” on a host of fronts that had “seemed intractable for years,” specifically citing the Iran nuclear accord reached in July, and “an historic agreement on climate change” reached last month in Paris by nearly 200 nations.

Growing refugee crisis

Mr. Kerry also asserted that progress is being made in the international fight against the Islamic State terror group, which he said has been deprived of “more than 40 percent of the territory it once occupied in Iraq.”

But he acknowledged more needs to be done to end “the outrageous human suffering” spawned by violence in Iraq and Syria, where “one Syrian in 20 has been killed or wounded,” and half the nation’s population has been displaced over the past 4½ years.

Calling it the “worst refugee crisis since the Second World War,” Mr. Kerry said the Obama administration has channeled $4.5 billion — more than any other nation in the world — toward humanitarian aid for the refugees and is bent on expanding the effort.

Mr. Obama, he said, intends to push on other nations via the U.N. during the coming year to ramp up their own funding for humanitarian aid and to be more open to receiving Syrian refugees.

Away from Syria’s war, Mr. Kerry suggested the Obama administration also views many people fleeing from gang and drug violence in Central America as refugees and has plans from 2016 to “expand the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to help vulnerable families and individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.”

Iran sanctions fight

But it was the secretary of state’s remarks Wednesday on the imminent lifting of sanctions on Iran that are most likely to result in a confrontation with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

It was first revealed weeks ago that the administration was poised to move on sanctions relief, possibly as early as January, even as Iran was seen to have flouted the spirit of the nuclear agreement with ballistic missile tests and other shenanigans — including the ongoing imprisonment of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, a spate of cyberattacks on U.S. targets and Tehran’s export of weapons to Syria and Yemen.

The missile tests in October and November have drawn the most ire from critics, who say they were clear breaches of existing U.N. Security Council resolutions.

But administration officials have argued the tests were technically “not in violation” of the nuclear accord reached between world powers and Tehran in July and that Iran has so far implemented the terms of the accord to a point that the suspension of U.S. sanctions is warranted.

Mr. Kerry pushed that point during his speech Wednesday, saying Iran has held up its end of the deal, which was aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear programs and opening them to close IAEA inspection in exchange for sanctions relief.

“As it agreed to do, Iran is now well on its way to dismantling critical elements of its nuclear facilities,” Mr. Kerry said. “Last month, Iran shipped the vast majority of its enriched uranium out of the country. That shipment more than tripled our previous timeline of two to three months for Iran to acquire enough weapons-grade uranium for one [nuclear] weapon.”

Many Republicans argue such developments are irrelevant because Iran has continued to violate U.N. resolutions on other fronts.

The GOP-controlled House voted Wednesday to prevent Mr. Obama from lifting sanctions on some Iranian banks and officials.

Democrats say the new fight appears to be more about “embarrassing” Mr. Obama on the world stage than an effort to try to find successful ways to rein in the Iranian regime.

Under the terms of the Iran deal, hundreds of Iranian banks and officials who had been involved in the country’s banned nuclear program will now get access to tens of billions of dollars in oil assets that have been frozen for years.

Republicans pushing Wednesday’s legislation said they don’t want Mr. Obama to grant reprieves to any of those entities if they have also been involved in terrorism or Iran’s ballistic missile program.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this article.

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