WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry admitted Thursday that terrorists could end up with “some” of the billions Iran will receive in sanctions relief from the Iran nuclear deal.
In a week that saw a prisoner swap with Tehran, the relaxation of sanctions and Iran’s swift release of US sailors who ended up near a major Iranian naval base, Kerry’s statement raised hackles among Republicans in Congress who have expressed deep concerns over the diplomatic thaw between Washington an Tehran.
For the record, Kerry said there was no indication yet freed-up funds had gone to “that kind of endeavor,” Kerry told CNBC's "Squawk Box" at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that every component of that can be prevented, but I can tell you this,” Kerry said. “Right now, we are not seeing the early delivery of funds going to that kind of endeavor at this point in time. I’m sure at some point some of it will.”
Yet, Republicans who have attacked the Obama administration on Iran and issued dire warnings about the repercussions of the nuclear deal used the opportunity to criticize its chief proponent for stating what they have said for months.
“Duh, I mean really,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. “It’s been so obvious all along that if they’re willing to do it when they’re on their knees, they’re certainly going to fund terrorism when they have more economic relief.”
Ayotte, who faces a tough re-election fight next year, was one of several Senate Republicans who threatened to introduce new sanctions against Iran if the administration does not impose tougher, multilateral sanctions against Iran over its ballistic missile program and its support for terrorism.
Iran drew condemnation from the United States and other Western powers for two ballistic missile tests late last year said to violate UN Security Council resolutions.
Republicans and Democrats called for the Obama administration to take punitive action against Iran over the tests, though — in the midst of a diplomatic flare-up between Iran and Saudi Arabia — the action was not immediate.
The US Treasury Department on Jan. 17 announced sanctions against 11 people and companies involved in Iran's ballistic missile program, just one day after President Obama lifted sanctions based on Iran's nuclear program.
Iran has defended the tests, and its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told the Associated Press Jan. 20 the sanctions were “illegal” and that the missile program is “a legitimate defense program.”
Ayotte called the latest sanctions “tepid and weak.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said, in the absence of tougher action from the administration — responsible for “the biggest miscalculation since Munich,” the nuclear deal — “Congress will step up to the plate, and hopefully our Democratic friends will join us.”
“Every member of the Senate will be able to tell their constituents exactly what they think about the test firing of these missiles by the Iranians,” Graham said. “To my Democratic and Republican colleagues: Get ready to have a say, get ready to stand up and be counted.”
In the CNBC interview two days earlier, Kerry defended Washington’s willingness to deal with a country that supports terrorism and illicitly develops missiles as ultimately making the world safer. The end of sanctions frees about $100 billion, but he said Iran will get about $55 billion — not enough to upset the region’s military balance, he said.
“The Saudis alone spend $80 billion on defense, the entire Gulf state community spends $130 billion on defense, Iran spends $15 billion a year on its military activities,” Kerry said. “It’s so disproportionate that working with our Gulf state partners, which we are going to do, and which we are upgrading, we have the ability that they are secure, that we will stand by them, even as we look for this potential of a shift in behavior.”
Kerry acknowledged that allies in the region, like Israel, feel alienated by the dialogue between Washington and Tehran, saying: “I respect completely Israel’s perception of the threat that Israel faces,” and “Israel is safer today.”
“Israel was facing a country that is in position to Israel and Israel’s existence that was moving towards a nuclear weapon and moving at a rate that was disturbing,” Kerry said. “President Obama decided before you start dropping bombs and going to war was to find a diplomatic solution.”
As for other frayed relations in the region, Kerry acknowledged “a skepticism on the part of some,” but said he was headed to meet with Gulf state leaders, “and I’m convinced that we will see the way forward, in a way that keeps us united, keeps us on the same page with respect to security, and indeed, upgrades their ability to defend themselves in a dangerous region.”
But Sunni Arab allies are scared and upset with the US, Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
“Iran is on the move” in a Middle Eastern Cold War between Tehran and Riyadh, Crocker warned, and the US must “stand on one side of it” — with its traditional allies, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, with Turkey, with Israel, with Egypt. Russia, he said, has sided with Iran and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.
“So that axis, Damascus, Tehran, Moscow is perceived in the region as an anti-Sunni Arab axis,” Crocker said. “And the more we don't take sides, the more we try to work with the Russians or the Iranians, the more that perception takes hold among the Sunni Arabs, a considerable majority of the population of that volatile region. And the more Islamic State can make hay out of it.”