Senators walked out of a Banking Committee briefing given by Secretary of State John Kerry this afternoon expressing renewed dissatisfaction with the administration’s approach to negotiations with Iran, and blasting administration officials for attacking the credibility and concerns of both of U.S. allies and of other U.S. lawmakers.
Speaking on his way out of the meeting, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) told reporters that when he asked Kerry about assessments he received from Israel earlier in the day that the latest deal the Obama Administration was prepared sign with Iran would only “set back the [Iranian nuclear] program about 24 days,” Kerry repeatedly told senators to “disbelieve everything that the Israelis had just told [us].
“The Israelis gave that to me this morning,” Kirk said, “and the administration very disappointingly said discount what the Israelis say and I think that was wrong as a policy matter. I think the Israelis have a very good intelligence service.
“This administration like Neville Chamberlain is yielding a large and bloody conflict in the Middle East involving Iranian nuclear weapons that will now be part of our children’s future. And the best way to prevent that from happening is to continue sanctions which Secretary Kerry goes on and on about how effective.”
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have expressed deepening skepticism regarding administration calls to delay sanctions. Writing in USA Today on Monday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez wrote that “tougher sanctions will serve as an incentive for Iran to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program” and that “when Iran complies, sanctions can be unwound and economic relief will follow.”
Menendez also gestured toward broad criticism over the State Department’s overall approach to Iran talks – Foggy Bottom has been criticized for consistently seeming overeager to take any deal – telling ABC News “we seem to want the deal almost more than the Iranians. And you can’t want the deal more than the Iranians, especially when the Iranians are on the ropes.”
On the other side of the aisle, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) had told NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday that Congress was “very concerned” that the Obama administration would “deal away” leverage acquired through successive Congressional sanctions resolutions.
According to Politico, following today’s hearing, Corker, a member of the Senate Banking panel who is also the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee told journalists, “I was very disappointed in the presentation. It lacked content..I was stunned that in a classified setting, when you’re trying to talk with the very folks that would be originating legislation relative to sanctions, there would be such a lack of specificity.”
A Senate aide familiar with the meeting told BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray that “every time anybody would say anything about what would the Israelis say, they’d get cut off and Kerry would say ‘you have to ignore what they’re telling you, stop listening to the Israelis on this.’”
Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s Under Secretary for Political Affairs, also faced harsh criticism for downplaying the risks of Iranian breakout and for her role in crafting a similar and failed policy with North Korea in the 1990s and early 2000s. “I started questioning Wendy Sherman about her record on North Korea and she surprisingly defended it to me,” Kirk said. “Wendy led the effort to give North Korea nuclear reactors and food, her record on North Korea is a total failure and an embarrassment to her service,” Kirk explained, recalling that U.S. cut a deal and reduced sanctions on North Korea, only to later have the country violate the agreement, shutting-off IAEA video monitoring devices, breaking the seals on nuclear material, and constructing nuclear weapons.
Below is a full transcript of Kirk’s remarks to the media after the closed-door, classified briefing:
Sen. Kirk: …that it was fairly anti-Israeli that I was supposed to disbelieve everything that the Israelis had just told me. And I don’t. I think the Israelis probably have a pretty good intelligence service.
Question: What did the Israelis just tell you?
Sen. Kirk: They told us that the total changes proposed set back the program about 24 days.
Question: Oh wow. And in exchange they get what?
Sen. Kirk: They get billions in gold.
Question: Billions in gold and also humanitarian stuff?
Sen. Kirk: What I’m going to start doing is add up the financial incentives and divide it by the number of Iranians and seeing how much money per Iranian is it. I asked the Secretary if you add it all, how much per Iranian citizen is this? He didn’t know. The one thing I did, I started questioning Wendy Sherman about her record on North Korea and she surprisingly defended it to me.
Question: Really? What’s her defense? I’m wearing my North Korea flag pin today.
Sen. Kirk: There is no defense. After Wendy led the effort to give North Korea nuclear reactors and food, her record on North Korea is a total failure and an embarrassment to her service.
Question: And you think that speaks to her handling of the Iran…?
Sen. Kirk: Yea, she started to defend using very precise legal words, saying “we haven’t had any plutonium production in..”
Question: So you’re saying that the administration is not representing…?
Sen. Kirk: The point that Wendy wants you to forget her service on North Korea. You shouldn’t allow her to.
Question: Okay I won’t. What about, do you think the administration has lost credibility on this?
Sen. Kirk: A lot, very low credibility, I would say.
Question: What about sanctions on the defense bill?
Sen. Kirk: I’ll use every method I have as a Senator.
Question: Do you think the banking committee will move forward?
Sen. Kirk: I think today is the day in which I witnessed a feature of nuclear war in the Middle East in the future someday that will be part of our children’s heritage. This administration like Neville Chamberlain is yielding a large and bloody conflict in the Middle East involving Iranian nuclear weapons that will now be part of our children’s future. And the best way to prevent that from happening is to continue sanctions which Secretary Kerry goes on and on about how effective. What I told Bob Menendez was the administration is sitting at a negotiating table that was built by the Congress. Without the Congress having tough sanctions, the Iranians would walk away.
Question: Do you think there’s the votes in the Senate to attach Iran sanctions to the defense authorization bill?
Sen. Kirk: I do in fact. I think overwhelmingly if it was given a vote 90% of the Senate would vote for it as they did last time. All we would do is remind Senators that every single Senator voted for Menendez-Kirk.
Question: What made you move to the conclusion that we witnessed the beginning of the potential nuclear war in the Middle East?
Sen. Kirk: That the administration is not going to act in the best way to prevent nuclear war in the Middle East. Right when the Iranians are…you know, how do you define an Iranian moderate? It’s an Iranian who is out of bullets or out of money.
Question: What was the exact source for the 24 days, can you elaborate?
Sen. Kirk: That was the Israelis, the Israelis gave that to me this morning. And the administration very disappointingly said discount what the Israelis say and I think that was wrong as a policy matter. I think the Israelis have a very good intelligence service.
[Photo: U.S. Department of State / YouTube]