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Don’t Interfere With Iran Talks, Kerry Urges Congress

Washington (AFP) — Secretary of State John Kerry will this week defend an emerging deal intended to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, urging skeptical U.S. lawmakers not to put up obstacles that could scupper the tough negotiations.

“I’ll lay out the facts,” Kerry told CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday when asked about a different narrative emerging from Iranian leaders about the outlines of a deal agreed in Lausanne, Switzerland earlier this month.

“Everything I have laid out is a fact. And I’ll stand by them.”

The Lausanne framework marked a major breakthrough in a 12-year standoff between Iran and the West, which disputes Tehran’s denial that it is seeking to acquire nuclear bomb.

Global powers must resolve a series of difficult technical issues by a June 30 deadline for a final deal, including the steps for lifting global sanctions imposed on Iran, and lingering questions over the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.

“I think people need to hold their fire and let us negotiate without interference and be able to complete the job over the course of the two-and-a-half months,” Kerry said.

The State Department angered Iran when it released a fact sheet on April 2 about the Lausanne outlines, which appeared to differ from the Iranians’ understanding of what had been agreed.

Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will have the final say on any deal, plunged the accord into doubt last week suggesting that “nothing is binding” while President Hassan Rouhani demanded that sanctions be immediately lifted when any deal is signed.

Global powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — have said sanctions will only be gradually eased and want a mechanism to ensure they can be swiftly reimposed if Iran breaks its word.

“We had this same duelling narratives, discrepancies, spin, whatever you want to call it with respect to the interim agreement” reached in November 2013, Kerry said.

But he insisted that Iran had complied with the interim deal freezing parts of its nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief.

Kerry, however, has come under fire from U.S. lawmakers, including his former Republican Senate friend and adversary John McCain who last week said America’s top diplomat was “delusional.”

“I think you’re going to find out that they never agreed to the things that John Kerry claimed they had,” McCain told a radio show on Thursday, adding that Kerry was now trying to “sell a bill of goods hoping that maybe the Iranians wouldn’t say much about it.”

Kerry refused to be drawn into a tit-for-tat argument with McCain.

“What we’re looking for is not to have Congress interfere with our ability, inappropriately, by stepping on the prerogatives of the executive department of the president, and putting in place conditions and terms that are going to get in the way of the limitation of a plan,” Kerry told NBC’s Meet the Press.

But President Barack Obama on Saturday leapt to Kerry’s defense.

Suggesting America’s top diplomat was “somehow less trustworthy in the interpretation of what’s in a political agreement than the supreme leader of Iran — that’s an indication of the degree to which partisanship has crossed all boundaries,” Obama told reporters in Panama.

Obama said he could understand that people might not trust Iran, which has not had diplomatic ties with the United States since the 1979 storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

But “actively communicating that the United States government and our secretary of state is somehow spinning presentations in a negotiation with a foreign power, particularly one that you say is your enemy, that’s a problem. It needs to stop.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius meanwhile agreed Sunday that “there remains work to do” to reach a final deal after talks in Saudi Arabia.

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Geneva on January 14 for a bilateral meeting to provide guidance to their negotiating teams before their next round of discussions, which begin on January 15.

Despite Concerns, United States Restocks Israel With Ammunition

By Jo Biddle

Washington (AFP) — The United States confirmed it had restocked Israel’s supplies of ammunition, hours after finally sharpening its tone to condemn an attack on a United Nations school in Gaza.

But while both the White House and the State Department condemned the shelling of the U.N.-run school in the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza in which at least 16 Palestinians were killed, neither would assign blame to staunch U.S. ally Israel.

“Obviously nothing justifies the killing of innocent civilians seeking shelter in a U.N. facility,” deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf acknowledged, in some of the toughest U.S. comments since the start of the 23-day fighting in the Gaza Strip.

“Innocent Palestinians seeking refuge in these schools should not have shells dropped on them, should not come under attack.”

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA said Israeli forces had hit the school, which had been sheltering some 3,300 Gazans.

But despite heated exchanges with reporters, Harf stressed that “we don’t know for certain who shelled this school, we need to get all the facts.”

National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan also condemned “those responsible for hiding weapons in United Nations facilities in Gaza” and warned of rising fears that thousands of Palestinians who have been told by Israel to leave their homes increasingly had nowhere to go in the blockaded narrow coastal strip.

U.S. officials also warned that patience with “crazy” Israeli criticism of would-be-peacemaker John Kerry had snapped.

– New ammunition for Israel –

The Pentagon confirmed the Israeli military had requested additional ammunition to restock its dwindling supplies on July 20, with the U.S. Defense Department approving the sale just three days later.

“The United States is committed to the security of Israel, and it is vital to U.S. national interests to assist Israel to develop and maintain a strong and ready self-defense capability,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement.

“This defense sale is consistent with those objectives.”

Two of the requested munitions came from a little-known stockpile of ammunition stored by the U.S. military on the ground in Israel for emergency use by the Jewish state. The War Reserve Stockpile Ammunition-Israel is estimated to be worth $1 billion.

The decision to provide ammunition to Israel could fuel controversy, coming just as Washington expresses growing concern about the deaths of more than 1,300 Palestinians, most of them civilians, since the Israeli operation began on July 8.

Kirby said Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel told his Israeli counterpart that the United States was concerned about the deadly consequences of the spiraling conflict, including a “worsening humanitarian situation” in Gaza, and called for a ceasefire and end to hostilities.

He also renewed calls for the disarmament of Gaza’s Hamas rulers and “all terrorist groups.”

Relations between Israel and its staunch ally the United States have plunged in recent days after Kerry returned from a mission to the Middle East to try to broker a ceasefire between the Israelis and Hamas militants.

Anonymous Israeli officials have hit out at Kerry’s truce proposal, calling it “a strategic terrorist attack” and criticizing it for being a “Hamas wish-list” including moves to lift a long-standing Israeli blockade of Gaza while failing to address Israel’s security concerns, such as Hamas rocket fire and a network of underground tunnels.

And on Tuesday a fabricated transcript of a call between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went viral on social media.

– Out to hurt ties? –

Stressing the “unprecedented” U.S. support for the Jewish state, Harf hit out at Israeli elites’ “offensive and absurd” claims that Kerry backs Hamas.

She rubbished the fake transcript as “complete crap,” adding “there’s clearly people… who are putting out false and defamatory and absurd information.”

“I don’t know what else you can assume about the intentions except that they’re designed to hurt our relationship,” she added.

Washington, which has provided billions in military aid to Israel, including funding the Iron Dome shield protecting the country from Hamas rockets, was “very committed” to the security of the Jewish state, which is “why these vicious attacks on the secretary are just crazy,” she added.

And U.S. lawmakers are working on a package of additional military support from Washington to commit $225 million for the Iron Dome missile defense shield.

More than 100 people died in Israeli strikes across Gaza Wednesday, medics said, including 17 at a crowded marketplace, sending the Palestinian toll from the 23 days of fighting to 1,363.

On the Israeli side, the conflict has cost the lives of 56 Israeli soldiers, and two civilians.

AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards

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