US Secretary of State John Kerry told a Republican lawmaker on Tuesday he did not know whether Iran sought to destroy the United States.
The exchange, during Kerry’s latest testimony to Congress on the July 14 nuclear accord between world powers and Iran, appeared to catch Kerry off-guard.
“Is it the policy of the ayatollah, if you can answer for him, that Iran wants to destroy the United States?” Texas Republican Lloyd “Ted” Poe asked Kerry during the latter’s Tuesday appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Is that still their policy, as far as you know?”
Kerry responded: “I don’t believe they’ve said that. I think they’ve said ‘Death to America,’ in their chants, but I have not seen this specific.”
“Well, I kind of take that to mean that they want us dead,” Poe replied. “That would seem like that would be their policy. He said that. You don’t think that’s their policy? I’m not mincing words. Do you think it’s their policy to destroy us?”
“I think they have a policy of opposition to us and a great enmity, but I have no specific knowledge of a plan by Iran to actually destroy us,” Kerry said.
The Iranian regime under Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has long called the US “the Great Satan” and predicted the coming fall of the United States.
Kerry was on Capitol Hill Tuesday to warn skeptical lawmakers not to nix the contentious nuclear deal with Tehran, insisting that it includes strict inspections and other safeguards to deter cheating, and would prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon.
Kerry spoke as the administration picked up critical support for the deal from Rep. Sander Levin, a strong supporter of Israel who referred to his Jewish background in announcing his decision.
“If Congress does not support the deal, we would see this deal die — with no other options,” Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, his testimony part of the Obama administration’s all-out campaign to sell the accord.
“I believe the agreement offers the best option to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Levin said in a statement circulated by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is leading the effort to round up Democratic support for the deal in the House.
Congress has begun a 60-day review of the international agreement that curbs Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from sanctions stifling its economy. All members must weigh the deal, but it’s especially a tough decision for those who have a large number of Jewish constituents because Israel, a “cancer” targeted for destruction in Iranian regime rhetoric, vociferously opposes the deal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called it a “historic mistake.”
“Iran has cheated on every agreement they’ve signed,” said Rep. Ed Royce, the panel’s chairman. With Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew waiting to testify, he asked if Tehran “has earned the right to be trusted” given its history.
Few, if any, new details emerged from the more than three-hour hearing. Some committee members asked the three officials questions, while others used their time to read lengthy statements in opposition. That left Kerry visibly frustrated and several times he accused the members of misconstruing or misunderstanding the details of the agreement.
“Nothing in this deal is built on trust. Nothing,” Kerry said.
Kerry was asked what would prevent Iran from adhering to the agreement for a short time, and then, in effect, taking the money and running toward building an atomic bomb.
Kerry said that was not a likely scenario. He said the Iranian government is under pressure to improve the economy in their country where half the population is under 30 years of age and wants jobs. And he defended the inspection protocol under the agreement, arguing that if Iran tries to develop a nuclear weapon covertly, the international community will know.
“They can’t do that. Because the red flags that would go off — the bells and whistles that would start chiming — as a result of any movement away from what they have to do” to meet their obligations under the agreement, Kerry said.
Faced with Republican majorities in both houses, the administration’s objective was to line up enough support for Obama among Democrats in what is all but certain to become a veto fight this fall.
Congress is expected to vote in September to prevent Obama from lifting sanctions imposed previously by lawmakers, a step that would likely cause Iran to walk away from the agreement. Obama has said he will veto any bill along those lines, and Republicans will need a two-thirds majority in both houses to override his objections.