WASHINGTON – The Obama administration ramped up its campaign Thursday for support of the Iran nuclear deal at home and abroad, vowing to help defend Saudi Arabia and other allies from any surge in Iranian-backed unrest and lobbying skeptical members of Congress.
After his first Cabinet-level meeting with a Mideast partner since Tuesday's accord, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. and its Arab partners in the Persian Gulf were "committed to working together to push back against any extremist enterprises, including the activities of Iran in the region." But his Saudi Arabian counterpart, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, stopped short of endorsing the nuclear accord and said his country still has questions.
The landmark deal, struck between Iran and six world powers after an 18-day negotiation in Vienna, curbs Iran's nuclear program for a decade, in exchange for potentially hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of relief from international sanctions. Many key penalties on the Iranian economy, such as those related to the energy and financial sectors, could be lifted by the end of the year.
Iran's regional rivals, such as Israel and the Gulf's Sunni monarchies, are as much concerned by the economic windfall awaiting Tehran as they are by its retention of significant nuclear infrastructure.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter travels to Israel this weekend with the aim of reinforcing the administration's message that it is fully committed to ensuring Israel's military edge over its neighbors. He'll then travel on to Saudi Arabia.
Kerry said he will follow up Carter's trip with a stop in Doha, Qatar, on Aug. 3 to brief the Gulf Cooperation Council on the agreement and answer questions, continuing an effort that has been going on for months and included a Camp David summit of Arab leaders in May.
Sitting next to him, al-Jubeir spoke cautiously. His country, in particular, is concerned Iran will use its newfound wealth to increase support for Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, Yemen's Houthi rebels, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and other forces it sees as destabilizing to the Middle East.
"We hope that the Iranians will use this deal in order to improve the economic situation in Iran and to improve the lot of the Iranian people and not use it for adventures in the region," al-Jubeir said. He added: "If Iran should try to cause unrest in the region, we are committed to confront it resolutely."
Al-Jubeir told reporters his entire region wants a nuclear agreement that prevents Iran from reaching nuclear weapons capability, includes a "robust and continuous inspections regime" and allows sanctions to quickly come back into force if the Iranians are caught cheating.
The Obama administration contends the deal satisfies all those conditions, but al-Jubeir said the Saudis are still studying the package and would be exchanging ideas with the Americans in the future. He also seemed to express some doubt about whether it would ever fully be realized, adding the caveat: "if a deal is implemented."
The meeting at the State Department took place as the President Barack Obama ramped up efforts to sell the nuclear accord at home. Vice President Joe Biden was meeting Thursday with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes hosted Jewish House Democrats at the White House.
Top Republican lawmakers are united in opposition, saying the deal imperils the security of Israel and places an undue burden of trust on an Iranian government that has repeatedly broken its word on the nuclear program over the years. Many Democrats are skeptical about allowing Iran to maintain much of its nuclear infrastructure and easing sanctions so quickly, but few have come out publicly against Obama.
"I'm very optimistic about our ability to support the president" on the agreement, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday.
On his trip, Carter will discuss ways to improve Israel's defenses but isn't necessarily offering any specific weapons deal, according to officials familiar with his plans. They weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
The U.S. and Israel have cooperated for years on a wide range of weapons, including the anti-rocket Iron Dome system. They've recently discussed extending partnerships into cyberdefense, maritime security and countering the military use of tunnels, such as those dug by Hamas from the Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials also say they aren't interested in any form of "compensation" for the nuclear accord, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes. Obama spoke to Netanyahu by telephone shortly after the nuclear pact's announcement Tuesday, though the Israeli leader has in no way tempered his fiery criticism.
But increased cooperation could still be on the cards.
The two countries have been holding talks on renewing a 10-year defense pact that is set to expire in 2017. Under the current deal, Israel receives about $3 billion in military aid from the U.S. each year.
That amount is likely to increase at sine point, and the Israel already has received approval to buy V-22 Osprey airplane-helicopter hybrid used in transport and rescue missions. Israeli defense officials also are interested in long-range missiles and electronic warfare devices, according to people familiar with the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing a secret security issue.
Associated Press writers Joe Federman in Jerusalem and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.