John Kerry’s backroom conversations with foreign officials have sparked a fierce backlash in Washington again as the former secretary of state and President Biden’s point man on climate issues faced growing calls to resign Tuesday over reports that he fed Iran sensitive information about Israeli military strikes.
With a history of seemingly using private discussions with world leaders — in and out of office — for political purposes, Mr. Kerry’s latest firestorm threatens to overshadow White House hopes of resuming diplomatic overtures to Tehran. The controversy centers on Mr. Kerry’s relationship with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Mr. Zarif claimed in a recently leaked audiotape that Mr. Kerry revealed previously unknown details about Israel’s covert bombing campaign against Iran-backed militias in Syria.
The State Department rejected that characterization, and Mr. Kerry denied that he ever made such disclosures. He called the accusations “unequivocally false.”
Congressional Republicans seized on the controversy. If the reports are true, they said, then Mr. Kerry’s actions were betrayals of both America and its key ally, Israel. Some even said Mr. Kerry has become a national security risk.
“If Mr. Kerry provided sensitive information to Iran about Israel’s activities in Syria, he undermined a friend and bolstered an enemy. At best, such behavior would be despicable; at worst, it would verge on treason,” Rep. Andy Biggs, Arizona Republican, wrote in a Tuesday letter to President Biden calling for the suspension of Mr. Kerry’s security clearance. “He should not have access to any sensitive materials, pending a much fuller investigation. For the sake of national security, I again urge you to act immediately in this matter.”
In the Senate, some Republicans who served alongside Mr. Kerry for years unloaded on their former colleague.
“I think he’s a dangerous person,” Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, told reporters on Capitol Hill late Tuesday afternoon. He added that he thinks Mr. Kerry should resign.
In an impassioned floor speech Monday evening, Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, said that if the reports were accurate, then Mr. Kerry “crossed a red line” by “revealing secret information to one of America’s most sworn enemies, with the blood of thousands of American military members on its hands.”
‘If this is true, John Kerry needs to go,” Mr. Sullivan said. “He should resign or he should get fired by the president of the United States.”
Administration officials argue that Mr. Kerry did not tell Mr. Zarif anything that Israeli officials had not already shared publicly about the war in Syria.
But there are serious questions about the timing of conversations between the two men. It’s unclear when they talked about the Israeli strikes, and the exact date is important in determining whether Mr. Kerry may have shared potentially sensitive intelligence with Mr. Zarif that could undercut the Trump administration’s hard-line policies toward Tehran.
The revelations also bolster the narrative that Mr. Kerry and other veterans of the Obama era — now back in powerful positions under Mr. Biden — ran a shadowy, behind-the-scenes effort after leaving office to undermine the Trump administration, maintain friendly ties with Mr. Zarif and keep alive a 2015 nuclear deal among the U.S., Iran and other world powers that Mr. Trump vowed to kill.
Mr. Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018 and lobbed harsh criticism at Mr. Obama and his negotiators in the process. Mr. Biden is now trying to resurrect the deal or implement another like it. The U.S. and Iran held the latest round of “indirect negotiations” in Vienna on Tuesday, and diplomats expressed cautious hope that progress was being made.
Mr. Kerry is no stranger to finding himself in hot water over private conversations with foreign officials. He built up a large number of overseas contacts as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as secretary of state. China recently brought one of its top climate officials out of semi-retirement to host Mr. Kerry on a recent negotiating trip, largely because Mr. Kerry and the official had dealt with each other for many years.
During his ill-fated 2004 presidential run, Mr. Kerry said he had spoken with multiple heads of state as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. He claimed the foreign leaders privately told him that the U.S. needed new leadership and they hoped he would defeat President George W. Bush.
“I’ve met more leaders who can’t go out and say this publicly, but boy, they look at you and say, ‘You’ve got to win this. You’ve got to beat this guy,’” Mr. Kerry said at a 2004 campaign fundraiser.
Pressed on the specifics, Mr. Kerry never revealed which foreign leaders supposedly made the comments. Mr. Kerry ultimately lost the election to Mr. Bush.
Once again, Republicans are calling on the former senator from Massachusetts to disclose the details and timing of his talks with foreign officials.
Questions about the Kerry-Zarif relationship resurfaced this week after audio of Mr. Zarif’s interview with an Iranian journalist was leaked to the London-based Iran International media outlet and later given to The New York Times. In the clip, the English-speaking Mr. Zarif bemoans the power of the Iranian military and says the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps routinely overrules diplomats and, along with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sets the country’s foreign policy.
As an example of how he is often kept in the dark, Mr. Zarif said he learned from Mr. Kerry the extent of Israel’s air campaign against Iran-linked forces stationed in Syria.
“Kerry has to tell me that Israel has attacked you 200 times in Syria?” Mr. Zarif asked rhetorically, according to published accounts of the recording.
Mr. Zarif was asked explicitly by the interviewer whether he knew Israel had conducted so many strikes. “No, no,” he said. The veteran Iranian diplomat said he was “astonished” by the news.
Mr. Kerry flatly denied ever having such a conversation.
“I can tell you that this story and these allegations are unequivocally false. This never happened — either when I was secretary of state or since,” he said in a post on Twitter.
Mr. Kerry and State Department spokesperson Ned Price referred back to a September 2018 Reuters article in which Israeli officials confirmed that they had conducted “more than 200 strikes against Iranian targets in Syria in the last two years.”
“I would just make the broad point that if you go back and look at press reporting from the time, this certainly was not secret, and governments that were involved were speaking to this publicly on the record,” Mr. Price told a State Department briefing Monday.
It’s not clear whether Mr. Kerry informed Mr. Zarif of Israeli military activity before the September 2018 Reuters report was released, which appears to be the first time Israeli officials used the 200 figure.
Israeli officials in the summer of 2017 said they had conducted about 100 airstrikes in Syria, but again, it’s unclear whether Mr. Kerry may have talked to Mr. Zarif before that acknowledgment was made.
Mr. Kerry has publicly acknowledged meeting with Mr. Zarif at least twice after he left the federal government at the end of President Obama’s term in January 2017. Neither Mr. Kerry nor Mr. Zarif has detailed whether it was at either of those meetings that the Israeli strikes were discussed.
Those questions and a host of others, Republicans said, must be answered.
“I think we should have a hearing,” Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, told reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill. “I doubt my Democratic colleagues will call a hearing, so my Plan B preference would be to have a classified briefing, and let’s find out what happened. And he can come in and explain his side of the story.”
⦁ Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.