January 7, 2016 6:27 pm

Kerry says Iran may be ‘days away’ from reaching nuclear deal targets; calls Syria, North Korea top priorities

WATCH ABOVE: Kerry says Iran 'days away' completing nuclear deal targets

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WASHINGTON – Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that Iran may be “days away” from complying with last summer’s nuclear deal, a step that would compel the U.S. and other Western nations to immediately suspend many sanctions on the Islamic republic.

The landmark could usher in a new phase in the budding U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.

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Kerry told reporters he spoke earlier in the day with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who made it clear that the Iranians intend to satisfy their nuclear obligations “as rapidly as possible.”

The Obama administration, Kerry said, is “prepared to move on that day” on the nuclear-related sanctions on Iranian oil, banking and commerce that it promised to end as part of the July agreement.

“We are days away from implementation if all goes well,” Kerry said.

Speaking just hours after a House committee advanced a bill that could interfere with the administration’s plans, Kerry said the nuclear accord already has delivered significant results.

Iran shipped out most of its stockpile of enriched uranium overseas last week, extending the time period it would need to develop a bomb to about nine months, from as little as the two months it needed before the deal.

“Iran literally shipped out its capacity, currently, to build a nuclear weapon,” he said, adding that “in the next days, with the completion of their tasks, we will meet our target of being
more than a year of breakout time.”

The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s legislation would give Congress greater oversight over the pact.

But it also would prevent the U.S. from removing sanctions on some Iranian individuals and companies unless President Barack Obama certifies their non-involvement in ballistic missiles work or terrorist activities.

Such requirements aren’t part of the nuclear deal agreed last year and would likely enrage Tehran, possibly to the point that it would renege on some of its commitments. Obama would be sure to veto such a bill should it pass Congress.

Kerry said the administration was committed to address the question of Iran’s missile and other activities, including its detention of several American citizens.

Still, he said nothing about new sanctions or other penalties toward Tehran, which is accused by U.S. intelligence of conducting at least two ballistic missile tests in recent months, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

The U.S. and Iran still lack diplomatic relations, dating from the 1979 Islamic Revolution and subsequent U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran.

But the longtime foes have been consulting and working together on an expanding range of efforts, including the international battle against the Islamic State and a new peace process in Syria.

Kerry and Zarif’s telephone contacts have been frequent.

Much of the recent effort has focused on Iran’s spiraling crisis with regional rival Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis executed a prominent Shiite cleric and then severed diplomatic relations with Iran this week after their embassy in Tehran was stormed by a mob protesting the death.

Despite the tensions, Kerry said his talks with Zarif and Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir assured him that their differences wouldn’t interfere with their joint commitment to Syria’s peace talks.

WATCH: U.S. ‘extremely focused’ on diplomatic efforts in Syria

Negotiations are scheduled to begin Jan. 25 in Geneva.

The Iranians back Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government; the Saudis support rebel groups hoping to oust him.

Kerry also addressed North Korea, after the hermit kingdom announced it had successfully tested a hydrogen nuclear bomb on Wednesday.

Kerry denied claims that North Korea was allowed to make progress in developing nuclear weapons due to the U.S. focusing its efforts on other foreign issues.

“Let me just make it clear — North Korea has never been left unattended to. Not for one day,” a heated Kerry said.

We have had meetings, we have had constant consultations, on the first trip that I made to China, when I raised the issue of the climate negotiation that resulted in China joining with us, I spent most of that trip and most of that time on North Korea.”

However, Kerry did agree the U.S. allowed China to take a more active role in overseeing relations with North Korea.

“China had a particular approach that it wanted to make. And we agreed and respected to give them space to be able to implement that,” said Kerry.

WATCH: U.S. denies claims North Korea ‘left unattended’

Kerry said the United States and China agreed on Thursday that there cannot be business as usual after North Korea’s nuclear test.

“Today, in my conversation with the Chinese, I made it very clear – that has not worked, and we cannot continue business as usual.”

© 2016 Associated Press

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