Kerry delays trip to Israel, to return after Thanksgiving weekend

US secretary of state still plans to visit region in next couple of weeks; delay comes as nuclear talks in Geneva about to resume.

John Kerry in Geneva 370 (photo credit:  REUTERS/Denis Balibouse )
John Kerry in Geneva 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse )
US Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday postponed a trip to Israel scheduled for later this week amid a public row with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over Iran’s nuclear program.
“As the secretary stated, they’ve discussed the best timing for the visit,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at her daily press briefing, adding that Kerry still plans to travel to Israel in the next several weeks.
“Obviously there’s a lot going on right now.”
The delay comes as talks are set to restart on Wednesday for the third time in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 – the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France and Germany – where negotiators hope to forge an interim deal over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
During the previous round of talks earlier this month, Kerry traveled directly from meetings with Netanyahu in Tel Aviv to Geneva, where he met with the Iranians to discuss the possible agreement.
At the time, the prime minister offered scathing remarks to gathered press over what he considered a “very, very bad deal,” supported strongly by the United States.
Netanyahu kept up the lobbying against any interim deal this week, saying on Monday that Iran already has five bombs worth of lower-enriched uranium.
His comments came during an interview with Germany’s Bild newspaper, to be published on Tuesday.
Government officials explained that this amount of uranium enriched to a lower level means that it would take relatively little effort – a matter of weeks – for the Islamic Republic to turn it into higher-grade uranium that would make up the fissile material needed for five nuclear bombs.
Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama will meet with Senate leaders from both parties on Tuesday as senators weigh whether to impose new sanctions on Tehran, the White House said.
Republicans and some of Obama’s fellow Democrats in Congress argue that more sanctions are needed.
Obama urged Congress last week to hold off on new sanctions and sought to reassure lawmakers that any easing would be “modest” and could be quickly reversed if Iran showed it was not serious about curbing its nuclear program.
The meeting on Tuesday at the White House will include Senate leaders from both parties as well as the chairmen and ranking Republicans from the Senate Banking, Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Intelligence committees.
Obama would provide them with an update on the negotiations in Geneva, Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said.
Netanyahu reiterated in the interview with Bild that Iran should be forced to dismantle its centrifuges and dismantle the plutonium reactor being constructed at Arak.
“And if they refuse to do so, increase the sanctions,” he said.
“Because the options are not a bad deal or war. There is a third option: Keep the pressure up, in fact increase the pressure.”
Netanyahu said he has made this point to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but up until now Berlin has not been swayed by the arguments.
The negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 will continue on Wednesday, the same day that Netanyahu will meet with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to argue against what he is saying at every opportunity is a “bad agreement.”
Putin believes Iran faces a moment of a “real chance” to resolve the long-standing dispute over its nuclear program with the international community, he told President Hassan Rouhani in a telephone call on Monday.
Requesting the call two days before the third round of Geneva talks, Putin characterized the interim deal being forged as a possible “solution to this long-running problem.”
US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman is scheduled to fly to Geneva on Tuesday, where she will lead the American delegation in negotiations with Iran, as well as in separate talks in Geneva concerning Syria’s civil war.
In the Bild interview, Netanyahu said the agreement being discussed was indeed bad because it did not obligate the Iranians to dismantle any of its capacity to make fissile material for nuclear weapons.
“And if Iran won’t dismantle their centrifuges and their plutonium reactor now with all the pressure, when you reduce the [sanctions] pressure, you think you will get a better deal tomorrow? This is a mistake, a terrible mistake, a historic error,” he said.
Rather than giving Iran sanctions relief – something that will give the Islamic Republic “billions of dollars” – the international community should ratchet up the sanctions, the prime minister said.
“And just at a decisive moment when you can actually get Iran to back off – look who’s backing off... The P5+1 would make a terrible mistake by reducing sanctions,” he said.
Strengthening the sanctions may lead to “a better deal,” he said.
Regarding the public dispute with Kerry over Washington’s Iran policy, Netanyahu said that even among friends there will be disagreements.
“We agree on a lot of things, and on this point we disagree,” he said. “I have to think about the survival of my country and the survival of my people, and we are not going to let ayatollahs with nuclear weapons threaten that.
Asked how – “considering the Iranian threat” – he wanted to be viewed by history, Netanyahu replied, “As someone who did everything on his watch to protect the Jewish people and the Jewish state so that the horrors of the past are not repeated.”
Meanwhile, an exiled Iranian opposition group is claiming to have information on a clandestine nuclear site in Iran, built in similar fashion to the plant burrowed deep inside a mountain in Fordow and first unsheathed by Western intelligence agencies in 2009.
The group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, has a spotty track record with such claims – though it is credited for exposing Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy-water facility at Arak in 2002.
US intelligence officials have tacitly acknowledged the existence of Iranian nuclear facilities not publicly acknowledged by either Iran or foreign governments.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has testified before Congress that, should Iran choose to break out its enrichment of uranium to high levels, its government would likely choose to do so in clandestine facilities, slowing down the process.
International law does not require a country to declare the existence of a facility under construction, until its government plans on bringing the plant online for nuclear work.
Reuters contributed to this report.