Selling Iran Deal To Congress, Kerry Downplays Israeli Criticism

Secretary of State John Kerry has been urging Congress to hold off a new sanctions on Iran to see how diplomacy plays out. But many lawmakers are skeptical and cite concerns from Israel that the deal under consideration isn't worth easing up on sanctions yet. Kerry's spokesperson dismissed an Israeli official's account of the proposed deal as "inaccurate, exaggerated and not based on reality." And the secretary himself reportedly told senators behind closed doors that they should disregard the Israeli reports about the deal. Kerry's also been more vocal lately about Israeli settlement building in the West Bank as his other priority, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, falter.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. This could be a big week for diplomacy with Iran. The U.S. and other world powers are sending diplomats back to Geneva. They're hoping to persuade Iran to roll back some of its nuclear program, in exchange for limited sanctions relief. One key U.S. ally is not happy about that. Israel calls it a bad deal, and is urging the U.S. to stand tough.

Secretary of State John Kerry says he understands Israeli concerns, but he's moving ahead. And that's not the only tactical dispute he's having with Israel these days, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When President Obama went to Israel at the start of his second term, experts - including former ambassador Daniel Kurtzer - thought the U.S. had finally improved ties with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

DANIEL KURTZER: What we had all thought was a turning of the corner in the U.S.-Israeli trust relationship turned out to be very thin, paper thin.

KELEMEN: Kurtzer, who now teaches at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, says the latest diplomacy with Iran has exposed that lack of trust once again.

KURTZER: Even a secretary of state who had years, many years of close relations with Israeli prime ministers of all stripes, turns out not to have any credibility; and Kerry is being torn apart personally in the Israeli press.

KELEMEN: And that leads Kurtzer to this question.

KURTZER: Why the Israelis would so undercut American credibility, at a time when American credibility is under assault anyway by opponents of the United States. That makes no strategic sense whatsoever.

KELEMEN: Prime Minister Netanyahu says the proposal on the table in the nuclear negotiations is, quote, "Iran's dream deal, and the world's nightmare." One of his Cabinet members, Naftali Bennett, lobbied Congress last week, and told the Brookings Institution that the only way to talk Iranians out of a nuclear bomb is to ratchet up the sanctions.

NAFTALI BENNETT: They'll have to decide: Do we want this regime to survive and our economy to survive, or do we want this nuclear program?

KELEMEN: But U.S. officials don't think Iran will simply capitulate. They're negotiating an interim deal that would give diplomacy more time; and have said that the Israeli reports about the proposal are inaccurate, exaggerated, and not based on reality. Secretary Kerry says he's been talking with Netanyahu several times a week, and has great respect for Israeli concerns.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Nothing that we are doing here, in my judgment, will put Israel at any additional risk. In fact - let me make this clear - we believe it reduces risk.

KELEMEN: Kerry has also made it a priority of his to push for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. There, too, there are rising tensions between the U.S. and Israel, says Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress.

BRIAN KATULIS: What we're seeing right now, as things are moving on the diplomacy with Iran, and things are somewhat stagnant and not moving on the peace talks - there's very visible disagreements being surfaced about the tactical implementation of how to move forward.

KELEMEN: He says Secretary Kerry's tough rhetoric about continued Israeli settlement building caught the attention of many Israelis.

KATULIS: We're going into a rocky period for U.S.-Israeli relations, I'm afraid.

KELEMEN: That thought is echoed by Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution.

TAMARA WITTES: It's clear that the Israeli government felt itself pressed on two issues at the same moment, in a way that made it deeply uncomfortable.

KELEMEN: And Wittes says that means Secretary Kerry has some tricky diplomacy ahead.

WITTES: If there's really a prospect of reducing or ameliorating the nuclear threat from Iran through negotiations, then that, in a way, puts the United States in a stronger position as it works with Israelis and Palestinians on the peace process.

KELEMEN: But the reverse is also true, she says. A failure of talks with Iran, and the possibility of conflict, would distract from a peace process already in crisis.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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