Iran’s long record of evading and concealing its nuclear programs from U.N. inspectors hung like a specter over Capitol Hill on Tuesday, as Secretary of State John F. Kerry and other top administration officials faced their second sharp grilling in as many weeks from lawmakers weighing whether to support the Iranian nuclear deal.
The question of how the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, will truly be able to verify that Iran is not secretly pursuing nuclear weapons took center stage — with the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, questioning early in a hearing on the nuclear accord whether Tehran has “earned the right to be trusted.”
“It is a fact that we have been surprised by most every major nuclear development in Iran’s history,” Mr. Royce said. “And Iran has cheated on every agreement they have signed.”
Mr. Kerry, who testified as he did before a Senate panel last week alongside Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, denied the deal amounts to a leap of faith.
“Nothing in this agreement is based on trust,” the secretary of state said. “Nothing is based on an expectation of some change of behavior.”
“Bottom line,” Mr. Kerry said, “if Iran fails to comply with the terms of our agreement, our intel community, our Energy Department, which is responsible for nuclear weaponry, are absolutely clear that we will quickly know it and we will be able to respond accordingly with every option available to us today.”
As he did a week ago, Mr. Kerry also framed the nuclear deal as the “best chance that we have to solve this problem through peaceful means,” and asserted that the U.S. will be badly isolated from its allies should Congress succeed in blocking the accord.
“If Congress does not support the deal, we would see this deal die — with no other options,” he said in the latest turn of the Obama administration’s all-out campaign to sell Congress on the deal that top diplomats from Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, the European Union and the U.S. spent two years negotiating with Iran.
The agreement to curtail Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief capped more than a decade of convoluted back-and-forth between the IAEA and Iran, as well as years of brinkmanship between Tehran and the West.
Congress is now roughly a week into a 60-day review before voting on whether to try to block President Obama from carrying through with sanctions relief. With the president vowing to veto any disapproval, the big question is whether Democrats will have enough votes to sustain the veto.
Mr. Obama did pick up one important Democratic supporter on Tuesday. Rep. Sander M. Levin of Michigan — the longest-serving Jewish member of Congress and a strong supporter of Israel — referred to his own heritage in announcing his support for the nuclear accord.
“I believe the agreement offers the best option to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Mr. Levin said in a statement circulated by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, who is leading an effort to keep nervous Democrats in line behind Mr. Obama.
But Republicans in control of both chambers have made clear that they intend to do everything in their power to block the deal, and there are indications that some key Democrats may join them.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the Foreign Affairs Committee’s ranking Democrat, said he had “trepidation” Tuesday, because “barely a week after Iranians signed the deal,” Iran’s supreme leader was “chanting, ‘Death to Americans, death to Israel.’”
“How can we trust Iran when this type of thing happens?” Mr. Engel asked. “It’s very disconcerting.”
The New York Democrat also cited a potential timing loophole in the deal that seems to help Iranian authorities who may seek to hide certain nuclear activities from the IAEA, because the deal states that IAEA inspectors will be forced to wait more than three weeks for access to potentially sensitive nuclear sites inside the country.
“Under the agreement, Iran has 14 days to grant access. If Iran refuses access after that time, then members of the joint commission could take another week to resolve the IAEA’s concerns. After that, Iran has three more days to provide access,” Mr. Engel said.
“So we’re already nearly a month after inspectors first wanted access. But if Iran continues to say ‘no,’ another month could go by while this dispute is resolved,” he said. “I’d like to know how we can be sure Iran cannot use these delays to sanitize sites and get away with breaking the rules.”
Mr. Kerry acknowledged the seriousness of the verification question but played down Iran’s ability to stall.
The “inspection verification regime” to be carried out by the IAEA is “extremely rigorous,” the secretary of state argued, because, in addition to the main deal, Iranian authorities have agreed to comply with what’s known as the Additional Protocol, a separate and more demanding agreement on top of Iran’s obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But the implications of the Additional Protocol remain a subject of heated debate among Republicans and Democrats.
The Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation describes the protocol as “a voluntary agreement” and notes that “each agreement is independently constructed between a state and the IAEA.”
In Iran’s case, there is already a complicated history with the IAEA. The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation notes how Tehran negotiated such an agreement with the U.N. in 2003, which was signed but never ratified. While unratified, Iran still abided by the protocol from 2003 to 2006 before announcing it would no longer adhere to it.
While there is sporadic evidence of cooperation from the Iranians over the years, there were repeated incidents of frustration among IAEA inspectors, who felt they were being either outright blocked or intentionally misled during investigative visits to Iran.
The frustration reached a critical moment in 2006. The U.N. Security Council asserted at the time that, despite years of attempts by IAEA inspectors to gain access to sites inside Iran, the agency was “still unable to provide assurances about Iran’s undeclared nuclear material and activities.”
Confusion over ‘side deals’
Confusion has swirled, meanwhile, around the question of how provisions of the Additional Protocol between Iran and the IAEA might work to resolve past mistrust.
As a result, Republicans and some Democratic critics of the overall nuclear accord have pounced on the charge that the IAEA has agreed to a set of secret and unacceptable “side deals” with Tehran as part of the final accord signed in Vienna this month.
Mr. Kerry and Obama administration officials deny there are secret side deals, saying there are only confidential search-and-monitoring guidelines negotiated between with Iran that are standard operating procedure when the IAEA deals with member states. Mr. Kerry said U.S. officials are aware of what is in the confidential agreements and is briefing Congress on their contents, but many skeptical Republicans say those assurances are insufficient.
Mr. Moniz, a nuclear physicist who played a key role in the negotiating endgame in Vienna, told the House panel he had confidence that the entire inspection regime throughout the nuclear production cycle was rigorous enough to catch any Iranian attempts to cheat on its commitments.
Added Mr. Kerry, “If they try to evade that obligation, we will know it, because a civil nuclear program requires full access 24/7, requires full documentation, and we will have the ability to track that as no other program before.”
Still, the controversy over side deals between Iran and the IAEA have emerged as a linchpin of Republican efforts to stop Mr. Obama from implementing the nuclear accord.
On Tuesday, Reps. Mike Pompeo of Kansas and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas sent a letter to Mr. Moniz, calling on him to clarify his level of knowledge on the contents of side agreements between the IAEA and Iran.
In a statement, the lawmakers said that Mr. Pompeo had questioned Mr. Kerry about the side agreements during a briefing last week, during which the secretary of state denied having read the documents but claimed the U.S. government is in possession of copies of them.
The statement said that Mr. Moniz had not indicated during the briefing whether or not he had read the secret agreements.