Republicans and some Democrats expressed deep reservations Tuesday about the Iran nuclear deal as Secretary of State John Kerry and two Cabinet colleagues detailed the Obama administration’s case for the agreement to the House of Representatives for the first time.
“I have trepidation. Barely a week after the Iranians signed the deal with us, there was the supreme leader, the Ayatollah (Ali Khamenei), chanting ‘Death to America, Death to Israel,’” said New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “How can we trust Iran when this type of thing happens?”
The hearing was marked, however, by decorum and a lack of harsh language, a sharp contrast with the rough treatment that Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz received last week in the Republican-controlled Senate, which traditionally is the more reserved chamber.
As in the Senate, the administration faces an uphill battle in dissuading the GOP-controlled House from passing at the end of a 60-day congressional review period a measure rejecting the deal. That would mean barring the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Iran that Washington is obliged to end, thereby essentially killing the accord.
We are being asked to consider an agreement that gives Iran permanent sanctions relief for temporary nuclear restrictions.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman
President Barack Obama, who has made the proposed pact his top foreign policy priority, has promised to veto legislation that nullifies the accord. He would need 36 votes in the Senate and 146 in the House to sustain a veto.
As he has done since the agreement was reached, Kerry warned that a rejection by Congress would erase constraints on Iran’s program, freeing it to resume unrestricted uranium enrichment, the process that produces low-enriched uranium for power plants. That same process also produces highly enriched uranium for weapons, which would raise the threat to U.S. and regional security.
“This agreement gives us far stronger detection capability, more time to respond to any attempt to breakout to a bomb, and more international support in stopping it than we would have without the deal,” Kerry said. “If we walk away from this deal, and then we decide to use force (to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon) we are not going to have the United Nations or the other five nations that negotiated with us.”
The accord was reached with Tehran earlier this month after two years of negotiations by the United States, Britain, France, Russia, Germany and China. It is designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons by imposing limits on its program, policed by the toughest inspection system ever designed by U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency. In return, Tehran will be freed of international financial sanctions that have devastated the economy of the nation of 77 million people.
In a boost for the administration, the longest-serving Jewish member of the House and a staunch supporter of Israel, Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., endorsed the deal.
“Israel’s security has and always will be of critical importance to me and our country,” Levin, who is not on the committee, said in a statement. “I believe Israel, the region and the world are far more secure if Iran does not move toward possession of a nuclear weapon. I believe the agreement is the best way to achieve that.”
Levin’s decision carries weight as Israel and conservative U.S. sympathizers wage an intense lobbying offensive to derail the deal, charging that it allows Iran to maintain an ability to develop nuclear weapons, endangering the Jewish state. Israel is the only Middle East nation with a nuclear arsenal.
Despite the hearing’s respectful tones, concerns expressed by critics were every bit as serious as those raised by other opponents.
They included fears that the IAEA would fail to detect secret Iranian efforts to produce weapons, especially in the deal’s later years, and that Iran would be able to sanitize sites, like military bases, during a 24-day process in which disputes over agency requests to inspect facilities suspected of housing banned activities are to be resolved.
“Can the IAEA really have access to any and all military sites suspected of housing nuclear activities?” asked Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.
Kerry insisted that the IAEA inspection system, boosted by intelligence from the United States and other countries, will discern any attempt by Iran to hide banned activities, triggering a “snap back” of international sanctions.
“I want to be very clear that we are achieving what we set out to do, which is dismantling their capacity to have a nuclear weapon,” said Kerry.
Members also objected to the lifting of a U.N. arms ban – after five years – and a U.N. missile technology embargo – after eight years – and the unfreezing of billions of dollars held in Chinese and other banks. Critics fear Iran will use the influx of cash to boost its support for groups on the U.S. terrorism list and the Assad regime of civil war-torn Syria.
Kerry insisted that the delays in lifting of the embargoes were a “victory” for the United States because Iran, Russia and China demanded that they end immediately, which Washington and its European allies opposed.
He added that the United States has other international means of blocking Iranian access to ballistic missile technology and other mechanisms for maintaining financial sanctions on Iranian officials, banks and other entities involved in terrorism and human rights abuses.
Lew sought to calm the concerns over the tens of billions of dollars frozen in Chinese, Indian and other banks to which Iran will have access with the lifting of sanctions, saying that it has pressing financial requirements.
“Iran is in a massive economic hole from which it will take years to climb out,” he said.
He provided a more detailed explanation than he previously had given, backed by a revised administration estimate that Iran would reap just over $50 billion in cash instead of $100 billion as earlier believed.
We see at least $500 billion of competing demands for that $50 billion.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew
“Over $20 billion is committed to projects with China where it cannot be spent. And tens of billions in additional funds are in non-performing loans to Iran’s energy and banking sector,” said Lew. “Iran can’t simply spend the usable resources as they will likely be needed to meet international payment obligations, such as financing for imports and external debt.
Moreover, President Hassan Rouhani, who won election in 2013 on pledges to end the sanctions and revive Iran’s flagging economy, also faces more than $500 billion in “pressing investment requirements and government obligations,” said Lew.
He pointed out that even while under sanctions, Iran was able to expand its enrichment program and support the Assad regime and groups like Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim militia movement that dominates Lebanon.