Senators from both parties hammered the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran on Thursday, prompting Secretary of State John F. Kerry to launch his fiercest public defense of the accord to date — calling it “fantasy” to think that a better agreement could have been reached and warning that a congressional repudiation of the deal would only increase the chances of a nuclear-armed Tehran.
The exchanges in the long Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing at times got personal. Republicans said the Obama administration had been “fleeced” and “bamboozled” by Iran. Mr. Kerry, a former chairman of the committee, said his critics were demanding a “sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran’s complete capitulation.”
Appearing with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Mr. Kerry repeatedly warned of the consequences if Congress votes down the deal reached this month by the U.S. and its five international partners with Iran.
“The result,” Mr. Kerry said, will be a “great big green light for Iran to double the pace of its uranium enrichment, proceed full speed ahead with a heavy-water reactor, install new and more efficient centrifuges and do it all without the unprecedented inspection and transparency measures that we have secured.”
The U.S., he said, would be walking away from five other world powers that signed on to the deal — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — and “will have squandered the best chance we have to solve this problem through peaceful means.”
“President Obama has made it crystal clear we will never accept a nuclear-armed Iran,” Mr. Kerry said. “He is the only president who has developed a weapon capable of guaranteeing that. And he has not only developed it, he has deployed it.”
That appeared to be a reference to a bunker-buster bomb, the Massive Ordnance Penetrator.
Although some Democrats on the panel offered support for Mr. Kerry’s analysis, several others — joined by every Republican on the committee — offered reviews that ranged from deeply skeptical to openly hostile.
Lawmakers repeatedly accused the Obama administration of accepting a bad deal and trying to sell it through rhetorical exaggeration. In particular, they rejected Mr. Kerry’s argument that the only alternative on the table was war with Iran.
Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, was among the chief critics of the deal, which puts new curbs and monitoring on Iran’s nuclear programs in exchange for an end to punishing international economic sanctions on Tehran.
The deal, Mr. Corker and others said, fell far short of ending Iran’s suspected nuclear programs altogether.
“What I think you’ve actually done in these negotiations is codify a perfectly aligned pathway for Iran to get a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Corker told Mr. Kerry. “From my perspective, Mr. Secretary — I’m sorry — not unlike a hotel guest that leaves only with a hotel bathrobe on his back, I believe you’ve been fleeced.”
Mr. Corker said later in the hearing that he did not intend for the remark to be a personal insult to Mr. Kerry, but that the Obama administration had “crossed a new threshold in U.S. foreign policy” by accepting a deal that fails to take into account Iran’s long record of support for terrorism and destabilizing movements across the Middle East.
“Now it is the policy of the United States to enable a state sponsor of terror to obtain a sophisticated, industrial nuclear development program,” Mr. Corker said. “That’s what you’re here to ask us to support.”
Bigger problems with Iran
Mr. Kerry insisted that the Obama administration was clear that any nuclear deal should be viewed separately from overall U.S. criticisms of Iran’s record at home and abroad.
“This plan was designed to address the nuclear issue alone, not to reform Iran’s regime, or end its support for terrorism, or its contributions to sectarian violence in the Middle East,” he said.
He said the deal was vital to preventing Iranian dominance over the Middle East.
“The fact is, there is not a challenge in the entire region that wouldn’t become much worse if Iran had a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Kerry said. “That’s exactly why this deal is so important. Its provisions will help us to address the full range of regional challenges without the looming threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.”
He added, “If the U.S. Congress moves to unilaterally reject what was agreed in Vienna, the result will be the United States of America walking away from every one of the restrictions we have achieved.”
Mr. Lew told lawmakers that sanctions relief will pertain only to Iran’s nuclear program and that certain key sanctions relating to Iranian support for terrorism will remain in place.
“Let me be clear that the sanctions that are being lifted, if Iran complies, if they comply, we said we would not reimpose nuclear sanctions if they live with the nuclear agreement,” he said. “We are not lifting sanctions on a bank like Bank Saderat that was sanctioned for reasons related to terrorism.”
The hearing marked a key milestone in the bruising struggle over what ranks as one of the biggest foreign policy votes in more than a decade on Capitol Hill.
Congress has 60 days to review the deal and vote on whether to try to block the Obama administration from carrying through with broad sanctions relief for Iran. Republicans in control of the House and Senate have made clear that they intend to do just that in September.
Mr. Obama has vowed to veto any such bill. That would lead to a vote to override his veto, and the administration is searching for 34 votes in the Senate or 146 in the House, enough to assure the veto sticks. The Democratic minorities in both chambers are big enough to sustain a veto, and the big question now centers on how many of Mr. Obama’s fellow Democrats will desert him on an override vote.
The United Nations Security Council has voted to support the deal and to lift the international sanctions if Iran complies.
Under terms of the accord, sanctions will be lifted only after the U.N. nuclear watchdog organization — the International Atomic Energy Agency — has conducted inspections of sites and declared that Iran has met protocols for limiting aspects of its nuclear program that could be used to develop nuclear weapons. The IAEA’s exact role came under particular scrutiny Thursday.
Republicans and some Democrats expressed outrage that the Obama administration has failed to provide Congress with details relating to classified protocols — “secret side deals,” in the words of critics — that the IAEA and Iranian authorities have arranged for how specific inspections of Tehran’s nuclear sites will be conducted.
Such protocols are traditionally kept secret from international scrutiny, but lawmakers argued that Iran represents a special case that warrants a higher level of disclosure.
“How can that be confidential? And why would that be classified?” Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, snapped at one point. “I can see the IAEA having those confidential agreements with normal powers, but Iran is not a normal nation. It’s the largest state sponsor of terror.”
“It’s unbelievable,” the senator said.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, said access to any IAEA side agreements with Iran will be “very important” for lawmakers to determine whether to support the overall nuclear accord. Classified documents passed between the IAEA and Iran are “critical for us to have as a baseline in order to deal with moving forward,” he said. “If we can get eyes on that document, it may answer some of our questions.”
Mr. Kerry said other administration officials, including Mr. Moniz, would do their best to explain the inner workings of the IAEA inspection process during closed-door sessions with lawmakers.
Mr. Kerry said he and Mr. Moniz are “confident the IAEA has the ability to get the answers they need” from Iran. But both men acknowledged that neither they, nor anyone else in the Obama administration, has a copy of the specific agreement between Iranian and IAEA officials.
“This is a road map worked out between the IAEA and Iran,” said Mr. Moniz. “We do not have those documents that are, as is customary, confidential between the country and the agency.”
The White House said U.S. officials were confident that they know exactly what the IAEA-Iranian arrangement entails. “We do know what the agreement is,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “It’s not something I can discuss in this setting, but it is something that can be discussed in a classified setting.”
Despite the many sharp exchanges, several Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee appeared to be edging toward support for the deal.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said she “thinks Iran is a bad and dangerous actor” and “that’s why I believe we need to curb their nuclear ambitions. I think it’s essential.”
“I don’t think the American people want another war,” she said.
Florida Republican and presidential hopeful Marco Rubio warned that the vote on the agreement won’t be its last battle.
Even if Congress fails to override an Obama veto, he told Mr. Kerry, “The next president is under no legal or moral obligation to live up to it.
“The Iranian regime and the world should know the majority of the members of this Congress do not support this deal, and that the deal could go away on the day that President Obama leaves office,” Mr. Rubio said.
⦁ Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.