Bipartisan resistance to the Obama administration’s push for a nuclear deal with Iran surged on Capitol Hill on Thursday, even as details emerged about a potential agreement that would allow Tehran to retain up to 6,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges while getting immediate relief from international economic sanctions.
Administration witnesses got an earful from representatives of both parties over the administration’s handling of nuclear negotiations involving the U.S., Iran and other world powers that could be reaching a climax in Geneva this week. Many lawmakers say the White House is flagrantly icing Congress out of the deal.
A bipartisan letter signed by 360 House members warned President Obama on Thursday that Iran can’t get “permanent sanctions relief” unless Congress approves it.
A top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee said the administration is clinging to “preposterous” logic in its pursuit of a deal by the self-imposed deadlines at the end of the month.
Rep. Brad Sherman of California, the committee’s second-ranking Democrat, made the charge during a heated hearing on Iran just hours before The Associated Press reported on a leaked draft of the treaty that Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Iranian negotiators are considering in the final days of negotiation.
One key point of the draft says the U.N. arms embargo on the Islamic republic could be rolled back as a way to entice Iran to curb its nuclear programs.
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The most striking revelation centered on the potential concession that would allow Iran to retain 6,000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment — a process than can lead to nuclear weapons grade material — for the next 10 years.
Although the figure would commit the Islamic republic to a 40 percent cut from some 10,000 centrifuges that U.N. weapons inspectors believe it has in operation, the number is notably higher than the 500- to 1,500-centrifuge cap that U.S. officials originally proposed.
Mr. Kerry and U.S. officials have said the goal is to curb Iran’s infrastructure, increase international inspections and significantly expand the amount of time it would take for Tehran to “break out” to develop a weapon.
Right now, according to the AP report, Iran would require only two to three months to amass enough material to make a bomb. But the report cited only anonymous officials, and U.S. negotiators refused to speak publicly on such matters.
As part of the agreement, punitive U.S. economic sanctions would be phased out over time. Mr. Obama has the authority to eliminate some measures immediately, and others would be suspended as Iran confirms its compliance over time. Some sanctions would be held to the later years of the deal, and a last set would require Congress to act.
Mr. Kerry, meeting in Geneva with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for a third straight day, said only that “tough issues” were on the table and progress was being made.
In Washington, administration officials pushed back against the AP report. “There is no draft document being circulated,” said State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki.
Mr. Obama, addressing the Iranian people directly in a video message Thursday night, said the U.S. and Iran have “an historic opportunity” to resolve Tehran’s nuclear issue peacefully. He said Iran’s leaders must choose between a path of further sanctions and hardship, or a “reasonable deal” that would lead to “greater opportunities for the Iranian people.”
“We have the best opportunity in decades to pursue a different future between our countries,” Mr. Obama said in a greeting for the Persian holiday of Nowruz. “The days and weeks ahead will be critical. There are people, in both our countries and beyond, who oppose a diplomatic resolution. My message to you — the people of Iran — is that, together, we have to speak up for the future we seek.”
The administration has pushed for more than year for a breakthrough toward a larger deal that the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany could ink with Iran as a way to prevent a military confrontation with the Islamic republic.
Iran insists its nuclear program is solely for peaceful energy, medical and research purposes, though many governments believe it has nuclear weapons ambitions.
Aligned with Netanyahu
Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have aligned increasingly with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has slammed the Obama administration for pursuing a deal that would allow Iran to carry on with any uranium enrichment at all.
Hawkish Democrats have increasingly jumped into the fray. The latest example came Thursday when Mr. Sherman said Iranian leaders cannot be trusted to stick by any nuclear restrictions after economic sanctions are lifted as part of a proposed deal.
Mr. Sherman made the remarks after Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken testified that any deal ultimately would be insured by Tehran’s long-term commitment to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty after Iran meets other demands.
“Even after certain obligations are completed by Iran, it cannot become a nuclear weapons state,” Mr. Blinken said. “It will be legally bound under the Non-Proliferation Treaty not to make or acquire a nuclear weapon.”
Mr. Sherman responded that the administration could not guarantee Iran would not try a nuclear “sneak-out.”
“I fear that you have misled this committee in telling us that, once Iran has the rights of a non-nuclear state … that you’ll be able to stop sneak-out, because you’ve said first that, well, they can’t develop a nuclear weapon because that would be illegal,” Mr. Sherman said. “That’s a preposterous argument.”
Mr. Blinken said punishment would be exacted on Iran if it attempts to pursue a weapon after striking a deal.
“If Iran makes an agreement, it will make it with the full knowledge that if it violates the agreement, there will be severe consequences,” he said.
Anger over the talks — and the lack of congressional input — reached unprecedented heights last week when 47 Republican senators sent a letter to Iran’s top leaders assuring them that a deal reached in Geneva that is not approved by Congress would be “nothing more than an executive agreement” that could be instantly repudiated by the next president.
Some veteran diplomats said the letter was over the top.
Nicholas Burns, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs under President George W. Bush, wrote in The Boston Globe this week that it was “reckless in its assault on the president’s lead role in the conduct of foreign policy.”
“Congress has the right to exercise oversight and control the purse strings,” Mr. Burns wrote. “But we won’t have a successful foreign policy if 535 members of Congress insist on interfering directly with the president’s negotiations with foreign governments on difficult issues like nuclear weapons.”