WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State-designate John Kerry on Thursday pledged to commit "totally" to enforcing a regime of unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran if the Senate confirms his nomination to assume the nation's top diplomatic post.
Kerry issued the assurance in response to questioning from Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who during President Obama's first term helped to develop and push into law several sets of economic penalties aimed at nudging Iran toward allaying international fears over the end goal of its ostensibly peaceful nuclear program. The lawmaker, who chaired Kerry's confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted the State Department's critical role in implementing a significant number of the penalties.
Iran remains "entrenched in its nuclear weapons ambition," said Menendez, whose proposals to mandate punitive U.S. steps against Iran's foreign business partners have at times placed him at odds with the Obama administration.
A drop-off in Iranian oil sales and a rapid decline in the value of the nation's currency demonstrate "the impact" of the penalties, Kerry said when asked if he would be devote himself "to the full enforcement" of congressionally established sanctions and their implementation abroad if confirmed to lead the State Department.
"Congress deserves credit, together with the administration, for having put the toughest sanctions and the biggest coalition together in history," the Democratic senator from Massachusetts added in his appearance before the panel he usually leads.
After President Obama tapped Kerry for the top position at State and a vocal critic of unilateral sanctions to head the Defense Department, issue experts speculated that his second administration could prove more willing to curb sanctions against Iran as part of a potential compromise to end the nuclear standoff. Iran last year joined three rounds of high-level nuclear negotiations with China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The United States would press Iran to fully comply with its obligations to the Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency under any deal, Kerry said. The 15-nation U.N. body has pressed Tehran in four sanctions resolutions to cease uranium enrichment, a process capable of generating civilian reactor fuel as well as nuclear-weapon material. Iran has for years ruled out such a move and demanded international acknowledgement of its right to refine the material as an initial concession in a potential agreement.
"The president has made it clear that he is prepared to engage, if that's what it takes, in bilateral efforts," Kerry said, adding there is "hopefully ... a negotiation going on right now for the next meeting of the P-5+1."
"It is not hard to prove a peaceful program," he said. "Other nations have done that and do it every day. And it takes intrusive inspections. It takes living up to publicly arrived-at standards. Everybody understands what they are."
Speaking earlier, Kerry reaffirmed President Obama's assurance that the United States "will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon" and would not focus its strategy on deterring aggression by the Persian Gulf regional power should it acquire atomic arms.
"I repeat here today: our policy is not containment. It is prevention and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance," he said in prepared testimony.
Kerry is not expected to face any significant obstacle to his appointment. He addressed several other strategic concerns, and at one point played down Defense Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel's support for an independent group's call for significant nuclear arsenal reductions.
When the disarmament advocacy organization Global Zero issued its findings, "I sort of scratched my head. And I said, what? You know, how's that going to work?" he said.
The prominent names who backed the report did not expect to achieve its objectives in the existing strategic environment, Kerry said.
"It's a goal. It's an aspiration. And we should always be aspirational. But it's not something that could happen in today's world," he said, adding it is indefensible to advocate reducing "our deterrent level below an adequate level to maintain deterrence."
"It is important for any administration to keep faith with the commitments it makes to senators, and particularly in the course of an agreement to a treaty. And if people's votes depend on that, there's an even higher obligation in the Senate. So I recognize that, and I respect it," he said.
Kerry said the administration is also following through on a pledge to pursue negotiations with Russia on curbing deployments of nonstrategic nuclear armaments. That has been one U.S. goal since the sides instituted the New START nuclear arms control deal, which involved only strategic nuclear weapons.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell you it's a formal negotiation, but there is a dialogue ongoing," according to the lawmaker.