Secretary of State John Kerry pushed back hard Thursday against fierce congressional criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, insisting that any breaches would be quickly detected and warning that its rejection would give Tehran “a great big green light” to expand its ability to build nuclear warheads.
“The alternative to the deal we’ve reached isn’t what we’re seeing ads for on TV,” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It isn’t a better deal, some sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran’s complete capitulation. That’s a fantasy, plain and simple.”
Thursday’s hearing was sometimes heated and personal, the verbal sparring highlighting the opposition by Republicans and some Democrats fearful that Iran will secretly build nuclear warheads and use a financial windfall from the lifting of sanctions to sow further instability in the Middle East.
“I believe you’ve been fleeced,” asserted the panel’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
“You guys have been bamboozled,” contended Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, prompting Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to admonish him and Corker for being “disrespectful and insulting.”
Kerry, the other chief U.S. negotiator, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew – whose agency oversees sanctions – defended the agreement at the first open congressional hearing held since the deal was struck last week after two years of talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, Britain, China, France and Germany.
The deal, however, faces intense opposition that’s being rallied by groups aligned with Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, says Iran’s nuclear program poses an existential threat to the Jewish state.
Designed to prevent Tehran’s theocratic regime from obtaining nuclear arms, the accord sets strict limits on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium and produce plutonium – the fuels used in warheads. In return, Iran will win an end to nuclear-related international sanctions that have ravaged its economy and isolated its 77 million people.
Iran could quickly gain some $50 billion that China and other countries owe for purchases of Iranian oil, said Lew, a huge revision of an estimate initially pegged at some $100 billion.
The U.N. sanctions could be “snapped back” if Iran is found in violation of the agreement, the severity determined according to the gravity of the breach, said Kerry, who disclosed that a special State Department office is being set up to track implementation of the deal.
Under legislation co-sponsored by Corker and the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, Congress has 60 days to review the deal and pass a resolution of approval or disapproval. A resolution of disapproval could effectively kill the agreement by maintaining U.S. economic sanctions on Iran. President Barack Obama has promised to veto such a resolution, and he will need 36 votes in the GOP-controlled Senate and 146 in the House to block an override.
Kerry warned that if lawmakers undermine the accord, the world would hold Congress responsible, international sanctions would collapse and Iran would be free to expand its enrichment capability, restoring its ability to produce highly enriched uranium for a nuclear warhead.
“If the U.S. Congress moves quickly to unilaterally reject what was agreed . . . the result will be the United States of American walking away from every one of the restrictions that we have achieved and a great big green light for Iran to double the pace of its uranium enrichment,” said Kerry, adding, “We’d be proceeding without any of our allies” if the United States was forced to go to war to halt a weapons program.
Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons. But the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, pressed Iran for years to explain evidence appearing to show that it used the program it kept secret for 18 years to research a nuclear missile warhead until at least 2003.
Kerry reassured the committee that the deal requires Iran to end its stone-walling and assuage IAEA concerns about the “possible military dimensions” of its program before sanctions are lifted. But some lawmakers expressed indignation that side agreements between Iran and the agency on resolving the issue aren’t being shared with the United States.
In a closed briefing on Tuesday, lawmakers were told that Iran would collect samples sought by the IAEA from Parchin, a military base near Tehran where suspected weapons-related research was once conducted, said Risch.
“They’re going to be able to test by themselves. Even the NFL wouldn’t go along with this,” said Risch. “We’re going to trust Iran to do this? This is absolutely ludicrous.”
Kerry noted that bilateral arrangements between the IAEA and its members are customarily kept confidential. But he said that the agency was satisfied with the methods by which the samples would be collected, and Moniz added that U.S. laboratories would be involved in analyzing them.
The issue promises to remain contentious. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., sent a letter to Obama demanding that he obtain the side agreements and give them to Congress, contending that they must be submitted under a law mandating a 60-day legislative review of the nuclear deal.
Kerry reminded lawmakers that when negotiations began, Iran had a stock of 20 percent enriched uranium – a short step from the 90 percent required for weapons – and nearly 20,000 centrifuges, the machines that enrich uranium.
Those capabilities would have allowed Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one weapon in two to three months.
Iran, Kerry recalled, also was building a heavy water reactor at Arak that could produce one to two bombs’ worth of weapons-grade plutonium per year after it became operational.
Under the deal, he said, Iran must remove 98 percent of its enriched uranium stockpile, dismantle two-thirds of its centrifuges and replace the Arak reactor core with one that cannot produce bomb-grade plutonium. It also will be limited to maintaining a stock of 300 kilograms of 3.67 percent enriched uranium for 15 years.
As a result, Kerry said, Iran now needs a year to produce enough highly enriched uranium for one weapon, giving the international community sufficient time for detection and a response.
Senators reiterated a litany of concerns that Kerry, Moniz and Lew sought to parry, including an end to a U.N. ban on conventional arms imports and exports by Iran in year five of the deal, and the lifting on a U.N. ban on ballistic missile-related imports and exports in year eight.
The trio insisted that the United States still would have legal means to restrict Iran’s access to missile technology and to interdict Iranian arms shipments to terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Kerry insisted that the deal would strengthen Israel’s security. It also might lead to cooperation between Iran and its Arab rivals, like Saudi Arabia, on fighting the Islamic State and seeking resolutions on disputes like civil war-riven Syria, where Iran is backing the regime and the Arab powers are supporting armed opposition groups, he said.
Corker, a leading critic, asserted that by abiding by the agreement, Iran will be able to build an industrial-size uranium enrichment program as the enrichment restrictions and other limits phase out in years 10 to 15 of the deal.
“What I think you’ve actually done in these negotiations is codify a perfectly aligned pathway for Iran to get a nuclear weapon just by abiding by this agreement,” Corker said.
Kerry and Moniz disputed that assertion, saying that the IAEA will deploy the most intrusive monitoring system it has ever designed to detect an illicit nuclear arms development, something that would require Iran to reproduce its entire program in secret.
They also pointed out that Iran agreed to refrain from any weapons-related work and observe the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the bedrock accord of the international regime designed to halt the spread of nuclear bombs.
“If Iran fails to comply, we will know it quickly and be able to respond accordingly,” Kerry said, referring to the “snap back” of harsh international sanctions. “Many of the measures will be in place – not just for 10 or 15 or 20 years – but for the lifetime of Iran’s nuclear program.”