During an invitation-only phone briefing for supporters, one of the Senate's top Iran hawks relished his battle with the Obama administration over the imposition of more sanctions against Iran amid the latest round of diplomatic negotiations underway in Geneva. During the call, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., reserved special attacks for Secretary of State John Kerry and lead U.S. negotiator Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.
"It's the reason why I ran for the Senate, [it] is all wrapped up in this battle. I am totally dedicated to the survival of the state of Israel in the 21st century," said Kirk, whose office framed the call as an update on Iran's nuclear program and Kirk’s efforts to pass additional sanctions. "This has been very much a one-senator show, unfortunately," he said of his confrontational, public approach.
Kirk is leading the Republican effort to introduce new sanctions in the Senate. Along with six co-sponsors, Kirk on Tuesday announced his intention to introduce amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual bill that budgets for the military, that would increase sanctions on Iran and impose restrictions on any possible interim nuclear deal with Iran. The effort is currently being held up by the upper chamber's Democratic leadership.
The 28-minute phone call with Kirk, which occurred on Monday afternoon, was by invitation only, but Salon reporters obtained an invitation and RSVPed by name to Kirk for Senate finance director Barret Kedzior.
On the call, Kirk gave a frank account of his cooperation with the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee to ram new sanctions through the Senate. He delivered unusually strident attacks against top U.S. diplomats on the call, citing their main objective in talks as "desperately want(ing) a New York Times article saying how great they are.” Kirk also vowed to supporters to pursue an individual line of communication with international nuclear inspectors working on Iran to verify that Iran would keep to any agreement it struck with world powers in Geneva.
A spokesperson for Kirk, when asked about the senator's outspoken criticism of U.S. diplomats, responded, "It is no secret that Sen. Kirk believes the administration's offer to give $20 billion in sanctions relief to the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism while allowing Iran to advance its nuclear program will make war in the Middle East more likely, not less."
The Illinois senator was unsure whether he would succeed in ramming through new sanctions. He said Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose procedural powers have reportedly held up the amendment, was sending mixed signals to the Senate Banking Committee, "which is always where AIPAC wanted this legislation written because it has such a potential for bipartisan support in the Senate Banking Committee" — one of Kirk's assignments.
"Plan B is marking up in the banking committee with something that [AIPAC chief] Howard Kohr and AIPAC have gotten us floor time from Harry to do an amendment to the upcoming NDAA whose debate is coming up as early as this week," Kirk told his supporters on Monday, apparently not anticipating Reid's block. (Neither AIPAC nor Reid's office responded to requests for comment. Reid announced today he supports passing new sanctions after the Thanksgiving recess.)
Not one to shy away from harsh criticism of the U.S.'s top diplomats and negotiating team, Kirk's attack offered unusually personal attacks against the Obama administration officials who delivered a classified briefing to senators last week asking that they delay the latest sanctions push.
"If you see the administration's negotiating team lined up in these classified briefings, not one of them speaks a word of Farsi or brings any expertise on Iran to the table," he said. "If I was going to run a Democratic primary I would definitely hire our current negotiating team," Kirk said. "And that would be Kerry and Wendy and the president's sole qualification for getting on this team is whether you can be a reliable partisan or not," he added, referring to Secretary of State Kerry and Under Secretary of State Sherman (by her first name).
Kirk raised an issue he'd brought up in public remarks after the briefing — his admonishment of administration officials for telling him, according to Kirk's account, to discount Israeli officials' assessments of the Iran deal being negotiated in Geneva — but gave a richer level of detail.
"Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer gave me the collective estimate of Israeli intelligence as to where the Iranians are and Wendy Sherman said, 'Don't look at that. Israeli intelligence is not correct,'" Kirk recounted to his supporters. "So Wendy Sherman would tell me not to believe Israel's intelligence service and I took her on pretty strongly. The message that I gave to her was, 'If you tell the American people that Israeli intelligence is bad, that's not gonna be a dog that will hunt very well.'"
The Israeli embassy did not respond to calls for comment about their alleged briefing of Kirk.
Israeli officials have been predicting an imminent Iranian nuclear weapon since the early 1990s. In Israel's recent public campaign against the deal being negotiated in Geneva, Israeli officials have been unable to agree on just how much sanctions relief is on offer to the Iranians; the Obama administration, for its part, has called all the Israeli numbers "inaccurate, exaggerated, and not based in reality."
Kirk offered guarded praise for Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the Democrats' leading sanctions hawk and a fellow member of the Senate Banking Committee, because of his tough questioning of Obama administration officials.
"Bob Menendez has been very good in these classified briefings. He has been the only Democrat who takes the administration on pretty calmly and pretty forcefully," Kirk said. "Always see Bob Menendez as an ally of the pro-Israel community because of what he does in private."
"In public," Kirk added, damning the pro-Israel stalwart with faint praise, "I'd say he's pretty good."
Kirk also described to his supporters an arrangement he made with a prominent Washington nuclear expert to establish direct contact with an international nuclear inspector working on Iran.
"I spent an hour and a half meeting with David Albright, the best analyst," Kirk said. "David has put me in touch with one of the inspectors, and once I talk to this guy I think I'm going to get a pretty disheartening picture about the fantastic regime of inspection that Kerry keeps selling us on. I'll call the guy, who is in the U.K. right now, to ask him, 'What is your day like and where have you actually been?'" (Albright declined to comment for this story. A spokesperson for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog conducting inspections in Iran, said, "I don't think we would have any comment on that.")
Despite the cautious praise for Menendez, Kirk presented himself to supporters as the lone voice sticking up to the Obama administration in classified briefings.
"Now I know exactly what Galileo felt like when he was dragged before the papal court," Kirk said.
But Galileo caved under pressure, and disavowed his scientific work. Kirk seems unlikely to give up his hard line on Iran.