WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Kerry, President Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of state, said Thursday that the United States will "do what we must" to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon even as he signaled that diplomacy remains a viable option with Tehran.
Testifying at his confirmation hearing, and with Senate approval a foregone conclusion, Kerry addressed a range of concerns raised by members of the Foreign Relations Committee, from his past outreach to Syrian President Bashar Assad to GOP concerns about the nomination of Republican former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary.
"The president has made it definitive - we will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," Kerry said in his opening statement. "I repeat here today: Our policy is not containment. It is prevention, and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance."
Pressed on Iran and its nuclear ambitions, Kerry said he was hopeful that the U.S. and other nations could make progress on the diplomatic front, but that Tehran needs to understand it must prove that its program is for peaceful purposes.
"It is not hard to prove," he said, stressing that "intrusive inspections" are required.
In an unexpected exchange, Kerry found himself defending Obama's controversial pick of Hagel to be the next defense secretary against GOP criticism.
Sen. Bob Corker, the senior Republican on the panel, expressed concerns about Hagel's support for an 80 percent reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons, a major issue for the Tennessee lawmaker and his home state. The Y-12 nuclear facility is located near Oak Ridge, Tenn., and any cuts would have an impact on local jobs.
"I know Chuck Hagel. I think he is a strong patriotic former senator, and he will be a strong secretary of defense," Kerry said of Hagel, who like Kerry served in Vietnam.
The Massachusetts senator urged lawmakers to be realistic, arguing that an 80 percent cut is an aspiration that would be unlikely in the current climate.
On Syria, Kerry was asked about his outreach to Assad, now an international pariah after months of civil war and unending violence against his citizens.
Kerry said there was a moment where Syria reached out to the West but that the moment has long passed.
"History caught up to us. That never happened. And it's now moot, because he (Assad) has made a set of judgments that are inexcusable, that are reprehensible, and I think is not long for remaining as the head of state in Syria," the senator said. "I think the time is ticking."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a fierce critic of Obama's policy on Syria, said the status quo is unacceptable with the United Nations estimating that 60,000 have been killed and the heavy influx of refugees in Jordan and Turkey.
After a recent visit to the refugee camps, McCain warned that Syrians frustrated with the U.S. response will be a recruitment target for extremists.
"We can do a lot more without putting American boots on the ground," McCain said. "Otherwise, we will be judged harshly by history."
Kerry said it was imperative to continue discussions with Russia and others in dealing with Syria, but he was realistic.
"I don't have optimism," he said.