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Kerry Urges Congress To Ease Up On Iran Nuclear Negotiators

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Secretary of State John Kerry is defending his decision to let yesterday's deadline in nuclear talks with Iran slide by. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that Kerry will likely have a tough time convincing Congress that this wasn't a mistake.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Kerry is telling the skeptics that the Obama administration has earned, as he put it, the benefit of the doubt. He says Iran has abided by the interim deal, and sanctions for the most part remain in place. So he's urging lawmakers to give negotiators more time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: I hope they will come to see the wisdom of leaving us the equilibrium for a few months to be able to proceed without sending messages that might be misinterpreted and cause miscalculation.

KELEMEN: That means no talk of sanctions. The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, says he's concerned that a series of rolling extensions will become the norm and reduce America's leverage. He says Congress needs to weigh in and start thinking about the alternatives, including tougher sanctions should the negotiations fail. Another Republican, Mark Kirk of Illinois who co-authored a key Iran sanctions bill, is sounding frustrated with Secretary Kerry's approach.

SENATOR MARK KIRK: He has told the Iranians over and over that he is working with Congress to try to lift the sanctions. So the Iranians now think that the administration is on their side.

KELEMEN: While the White House is urging Congress to hold off on new sanctions, Senator Kirk wants the incoming Republican majority to act sooner, complaining that even the limited sanctions relief Iran is getting during these talks adds up to $700 million a month.

KIRK: As long as Iran has a nuclear weapons program, we should also have a sanctions regime to make sure it's very costly.

KELEMEN: Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, and the talks are meant to prove that. Secretary Kerry says that the interim deal that's been extended increases the breakout time that would be needed for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

KERRY: We would be fools to walk away from a situation where the breakout time has already been expanded rather than narrowed and where the world is safer because this program is in place.

KELEMEN: Kerry, who was a longtime senator, says he will be consulting members of Congress in the days and weeks ahead. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Robert Menendez, says he will be working with his colleagues, too, to make it clear to Iran that the U.S. will not permit it to become, as he puts it, a nuclear threshold state. Menendez says it's disappointing and worrying that after a year of talks with Iran, there's still no comprehensive deal. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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