Kerry asserts here that the deal makes it “physically impossible” for Iran to make a nuclear bomb. If everything Kerry says in this interview were true, it is hard to see why the Israelis or the Republicans would have the slightest objection to the deal. Their reading of the agreement with Iran differs sharply from his. It would be wisest to hope he is correct by preparing as if he isn’t.
This Administration, however, is not going to do that. Note also his breezy assertion that we have “huge mechanisms by which we can push back and make the counter-difference” if Iran begins to use the money it receives from sanctions relief to arm Assad (which may not be a bad thing, given the Islamic State) and Hizballah. Those “huge mechanisms” haven’t made any significant headway against the Islamic State.
And as for “screwing” the ayatollah, and the idea that he will never negotiate again if these negotiations had failed, is based on the assumption that any deal with Iran is better than none. Unproven, at best.
…Goldberg: Do you believe that Iranian leaders sincerely seek the elimination of the Jewish state?
Kerry: I think they have a fundamental ideological confrontation with Israel at this particular moment. Whether or not that translates into active steps to, quote, “Wipe it,” you know…
Goldberg: Wipe it off the map.
Kerry: I don’t know the answer to that. I haven’t seen anything that says to me—they’ve got 80,000 rockets in Hezbollah pointed at Israel, and any number of choices could have been made. They didn’t make the bomb when they had enough material for 10 to 12. They’ve signed on to an agreement where they say they’ll never try and make one and we have a mechanism in place where we can prove that. So I don’t want to get locked into that debate. I think it’s a waste of time here.
I operate on the presumption that Iran is a fundamental danger, that they are engaged in negative activities throughout the region, that they’re destabilizing places, and that they consider Israel a fundamental enemy at this moment in time. Everything we have done here, Jeff, is not to overlook anything or to diminish any of that; it is to build a bulwark, build an antidote. If what Bibi says is true, that they are really plotting this destruction, then having the mechanism to get rid of nuclear weapons is a prima facie first place to start, and you’re better off eliminating the nuclear weapon if that’s their plan. Then we can deal with the other things.
Goldberg: Let me posit this analysis: that the deal is actually good, but then it becomes bad 10 years down the road. As a confidence-building measure, you’ve curtailed their ability to get to a bomb, but 10 or 15 years down the road, their breakout time shrinks back down to a month or two.
Kerry: Jeff, I fundamentally, absolutely disagree with this premise. It’s not true; it’s provable that it’s not true. And close analysis of this agreement completely contradicts the notion that there is a 15-year cutoff, for several different reasons. Reason number one: We have a 20-year televised insight into their centrifuge production. In other words, we are watching their centrifuge production with live television, taping the whole deal, 24-7 for 20 years. But even more important, and much more penetrating, much more conclusive, we have 25 years during which all uranium production—from mine to mill to yellowcake to gas to waste—is tracked and traced. The intelligence community will tell you it is not possible for them to have a complete, covert, separate fuel cycle. You can’t do the whole cycle; you can’t do the mining and milling covertly. So it’s not 15, it’s 25, and it’s not even just 25. I went back and reread the Additional Protocol the other day, just to make sure I was accurate—Marie, could you go get me my white book, it’s on the floor underneath the desk with all the tabs.
[Harf goes to Kerry’s study, off his main office.]
Goldberg: Marie, could you get the maps of the West Bank while you’re there?
Harf: Haha, very funny.
Kerry: [Pauses] Doable. But not unless somebody wants to do it….
Goldberg: In your mind, they couldn’t possibly move to 90 percent [enrichment] without every bell—
Kerry: Physically impossible. And therefore, when you add the Additional Protocol with 25 years of uranium tracking, we’re more than confident that this is something unusual that doesn’t exist in any other agreement in the world. They will not be able to get a bomb.
Goldberg: There’s a political component to what you’ve been—
Kerry: There is a big political component in America.
Goldberg: So let me ask you, in your mind, how much of this is about Jewish fear, and how much of this is about the exploitation of Jewish fear?
Kerry: I can’t answer that. That’s getting analytical, and my attitude is that I take the fear seriously. The fear is real, based on history—based on 2,000-plus years. I mean, I am extremely sympathetic to the fear that people feel, and I understand the historical argument. The reason I disagree with it is that we don’t give up any option whatsoever—and I know that a president of the United States, if you tell the president that if you don’t do something in the next three weeks Iran is going to get a bomb, the president is going to do what we have to do, and everybody in Congress will support it.
Goldberg: There is an option you’re giving up, in the sense that the money that is going to be released to Iran is irreversibly released.
Kerry: I disagree that we’re giving it up and I’ll tell you why. Sanctions are already fraying, Jeff. We’ve pressed our case hard and the reason people went along with us is that we went to negotiations and we were in negotiations. People agreed to what was happening in negotiations. If we unilaterally walk away from this process and turn our back on their cooperation, they’re gone. I know they’re gone. Russia? China? Russia and China didn’t even want an arms embargo or a ballistic-missile embargo. They’re gone.
Goldberg: Iran needs this deal more than we need this deal. They need the money. Therefore if Congress was to say, “Go get a better deal with the Iranians,” why do you think the Iranians would just walk away?
Kerry: I know they would walk away for several different reasons. It’s not a “think”—it’s a “know.” You need to talk to the intel community. You know, we had pretty good insight in the course of this process. Our evaluations out of the intel community informed us about where the reality was, what the market would bear.
The ayatollah approached this entire exercise extremely charily. He gave a kind of dismissive OK to [President Hassan] Rouhani and company to go do this, in the sense that he didn’t want to be blamed if this didn’t work. It was all Rouhani’s risk. He was playing the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps], and this and that. And so it was clear to me from my many conversations with Zarif and from the entire dynamic how fragile that journey was with him. The ayatollah constantly believed that we are untrustworthy, that you can’t negotiate with us, that we will screw them. This will be the ultimate screwing. We cut a deal, we stand up, it’s announced, five other countries believe in it—six other countries, because Iran signs off, and we’re the seventh—but you know, China, Russia, France, Germany, Britain, all sign off. Now the United States Congress will prove the ayatollah’s suspicion, and there’s no way he’s ever coming back. He will not come back to negotiate. Out of dignity, out of a suspicion that you can’t trust America. America is not going to negotiate in good faith. It didn’t negotiate in good faith now, would be his point.
Moreover, our friends who kept the sanctions in place because we were negotiating in good faith—here’s the other problem. We don’t control the money in the banks. It’s not in our banks. That $55 billion is in India, China, Abu Dhabi. It’s being held at our request and our insistence. But if we break this … And by the way, if Congress votes the way they vote, the president doesn’t have the ability to waive anything.
Goldberg: Let me go to another concern, the moral side of this. This is a bad moment for the people of Syria, in the sense that this money we’re talking about, some of it will be flowing to bad actors in the region. I mean, your own department labels Iran the world’s chief state sponsor of terrorism.
Kerry: Here’s the problem. We are totally eyes absolutely wide open. We have every awareness in the world about the ways in which Iran destabilizes the region.
Goldberg: But does it bother you that money will be going to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and Hezbollah?
Kerry: Yes, but it’s not dispositive. It’s not money that’s going to make a difference ultimately in what is happening. We have huge mechanisms by which we can push back and make the counter-difference. And the biggest, most important thing this is doing is that it is galvanizing a stronger, more defined security relationship between us and the Gulf states, and it will with Israel. We have countless ways to push back against those activities. And this will put to test whether or not Rouhani and Zarif are serious when they say they want a different relationship with the region….