NEW YORK -- Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday continued his aggressive defense of the nuclear agreement recently reached with Iran. Pushing back against mounting criticism from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several pro-Israel lobbying groups in the U.S., Kerry framed the nuclear accord as a boon for Israeli national security.
"For Israel, for the region, we started with a two-month breakout time," Kerry said in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to the estimated amount of time it would take Iran to create enough fissile material to fuel a bomb.
"With this agreement, for ten years, the breakout time will be one year or more," he continued. "Let me ask you a very simple question: Is Israel safer with a one-year breakout time or a two-month breakout time?"
In a dig at Netanyahu's 2012 warning that Iran would have a nuclear weapons capability by the following year, Kerry challenged his critics to come up with a better way to curb Iran's nuclear program.
"We've seen the Prime Minister draw a cartoon of a bomb at the U.N. and so on and so forth," he said. "But what's happened? What has anyone done about it? Anybody got a plan to roll it back?"
The agreement reached July 14 between Iran and six world powers requires Iran to significantly downsize its nuclear infrastructure in exchange for broad sanctions relief. Netanyahu has slammed the deal as a "historic mistake." But Efraim Halevy, the former director of the Israeli national intelligence agency Mossad, has conceded that the deal includes "components that are crucial for Israel's security," arguing that Iran agreed to "serious concessions."
When negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 partners began in 2013, Kerry noted on Friday, Iran had enough enriched uranium to fuel 10 to 12 nuclear weapons. After implementation of the nuclear deal, its stockpile of uranium will be reduced to 300 kilograms for a period of 15 years -- an insufficient amount to fuel a weapon.
Kerry urged detractors of the agreement to compare the existing deal to realistic alternatives, rather than contemplate a deal that would force Iran to surrender its entire nuclear program -- an option Kerry has described as a "fantasy."
"I've heard people say, 'Why don't you just ratchet up the sanctions?'" the secretary of state said. "I'll tell you why -- because China, Russia, France and Germany and other countries don't think that's necessary if these guys are willing to negotiate and have a deal." He noted that sanctions, while successful in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, failed to curb the expansion of the country's nuclear program.
If the U.S. were to back out of the deal now, Kerry warned, military conflict against Iran would become increasingly likely. "We'd go right back to square one where we were with no alternatives. Iran is enriching, we have no inspections, we have no ability to know what they are doing, we don't roll back their program, we're back where we were and we are going to head to conflict," he said. "When they start to enrich, you can hear every presidential candidate in the country say, 'What are you going to do, Mr. President? They're enriching.'"
Netanyahu and his allies in the U.S. have launched a lobbying campaign in Congress, urging lawmakers to kill the nuclear deal. Members of Congress are expected to vote in September on a resolution of disapproval, which would revoke the president's ability to provide some of the sanctions relief promised to Iran as part of the deal. In order to override President Barack Obama's veto, lawmakers will need a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate.
Kerry accused some critics of the nuclear agreement of allowing "fear and emotion" to govern their judgement.
"I'm very proud of my 100% voting record for Israel," he said, referring to his 29 years in the Senate. "I fear that what could happen is if Congress were to overturn it, our friends Israel could actually wind up being more isolated and more blamed."