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Republicans in Washington reacted with outrage to Secretary of State John Kerry’s acknowledgment that money now available to Iran with the lifting of sanctions could end up funding terrorist activities, although he still believes in the overall benefits of the deal that prompted Iran to sharply curtail its nuclear program.
“Iran was hurtling towards an unaccounted for, uninspected, full-fledged nuclear program with high levels of enrichment where they had enough enriched material to make 10 to 12 bombs,” Kerry said Thursday in an interview with CNBC from the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “Now, frankly, at Iran’s consent and agreement, they have rolled that back.”
But he added, “I think that some of it will end up in the hands of the IRGC [Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps] or other entities, some of which are labeled terrorists. … If we catch them funding terrorism, they’re going to have a problem in the U.S. Congress and other people, obviously.”
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No need to wait. Already, Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, are criticizing the secretary’s words. One is an outspoken critic of President Obama’s foreign policy, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who accused Kerry of understating the threat.
“It is certain that they will use this money to support terrorism,” Graham said in Washington. “You might as well have written the check to [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad yourself. You might as well have funded Hezbollah yourself.”
Fellow Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire responded contemptuously to Kerry’s remarks. “Talk about stating the obvious,” she said. “It’s something we’ve all known from the beginning.”
Ayotte is leading a group of Republican senators who plan to introduce a bill that would stiffen the new sanctions that Obama imposed on 11 Iranian individuals and companies that he said had recently violated U.N. resolutions forbidding ballistic missile tests. The senators dismissed the sanctions as “tepid and weak.”
Kerry stressed to a group of reporters that there’s no evidence yet of any improper use of newly freed funds, and said the reputations among Iranians of both Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, and President Hassan Rouhani depend on Iran’s ability to improve the country’s economy, not fund military misbehavior.
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The secretary repeated an argument often made by the Obama administration that opponents of the deal with Iran have inflated the value of assets, now unfrozen, that are available to Tehran. Many say they amount to up to $150 billion, but he said they’re worth more like $55 billion because of the huge amount of foreign debt that Iran must repay.
Kerry acknowledged that the United States and its allies can’t prevent every potential effort by Iran to use these assets for aggressive purposes. “But I can tell you this: Right now, we are not seeing the early delivery of funds going to that kind of endeavor.”
There have been signs of cooperation, if not an outright thaw, between Tehran and Washington that appear to be linked to the lifting of the sanctions. On Jan. 12 Iran captured 10 U.S. sailors who said their small craft had inadvertently strayed into Iranian waters of the Persian Gulf, but released them less than 24 hours later.
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In a move almost simultaneous with the lifting of sanctions, Iran freed four imprisoned Americans, including Jason Rezaian, a reporter for The Washington Post, who had been convicted of spying for the West. Washington responded by freeing seven Iranians imprisoned in the United States for violating the sanctions.
At the same time, though, Khamenei has warned his country to remain wary of American “deceit,” and other Iranian leaders have denounced the new sanctions related to the missile tests.
Kerry said he and Obama wish the two countries’ dialogue would improve. “What I’m trying to do and what President Obama is trying to do principally is move us away from that kind of confrontation and put to test whether or not we can find cooperation.”
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com