It was a mostly polite three-and-a-half-hour hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But Secretary of State John Kerry found no member Tuesday wholeheartedly in favor of the administration's six-month nuclear freeze with Iran, even among Democrats. Instead, the remarks ran from skepticism to outright opposition to the late-November agreement. While numerous members on both sides of the aisle said they don't trust Iran's government to comply with the agreement—which is designed to provide time to negotiate a permanent, comprehensive pact—a couple indicated they don't trust the Obama administration in this matter either.
Most if not all Republicans and perhaps half or more of the Democrats on the committee would like to impose new sanctions on Iran despite the agreement. Iran has said that move would wreck further negotiations. Kerry said it's not just Iran that might step out of the picture over new sanctions, but also Russia and China. The point is moot for the moment. It's clear the Senate will not approve new sanctions this year.
“We're asking you to give our negotiators and our experts the time and space to negotiate,” Kerry told skeptical lawmakers on the House Foreign Relations panel.
“This is very delicate diplomatic moment. ... We have an obligation to give these negotiations a chance to succeed.”
On one subject, Kerry and all the committee members who spoke, agreed: Iran must not be allowed to get a nuclear weapon, a long-standing U.S. policy under three administrations. "Our whole policy is that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon," Kerry said. "We are not in negotiations for the sake of negotiations, but to get to this objective."
Building nukes is something he and everyone on the committee who spoke say Iran wants to do and has been trying to do.
Iran denies this, as do its supporters, some of whom argue that the short-term deal and the probable long-term agreement impinges unfairly on Iran's sovereignty. This is especially hypocritical, they say, since Israel, unlike Iran, has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and has an officially undisclosed arsenal of perhaps as many as 200 nuclear bombs and warheads. The critics complain that this reflects a deep double standard that is a result of the long-standing alliance between Israel and the United States, an alliance and partnership that Kerry made a point of reiterating in his comments Tuesday when questioned about differences between the Obama administration and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu over the deal.
The newly elected president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has said his country will never build a nuclear weapon. Several members of the Foreign Affairs Committee expressed skepticism about that pronouncement.
The six-month agreement, announced with considerable fanfare, is a product of negotiations that began in March and were hammered out with Iran by the so-called P5+1 nations—the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany—over five days in Geneva last month. It is what diplomats call a confidence-building deal, designed to give all parties time to draft a verifiable comprehensive pact with stepped-up inspections that assure Iran is not secretly building a nuclear weapon or positioning itself close to a technological "break out" to quickly do so without anyone catching on until it already has one.
The six-month agreement mandates intrusive inspections of nuclear sites, including the facility at Fordow built beneath a mountain, where 2,700 sophisticated centrifuges separate the fissionable U-235 isotope from uranium yellowcake without fear that a bomb or missile attack could destroy the operation. The country is spinning another set of centrifuges—16,000 of them—at Natanz, a highly vulnerable site. It also has centrifuges in reserve for a total of 19,000.
In addition to inspections, Iran must for the next six months stop spinning all but 8,000 of its centrifuges, stop development of its heavy-water facility at Arak, where U.N. inspectors arrived Saturday, stop manufacturing additional centrifuges and dilute its 140-kilogram stock of 20 percent enriched uranium, considered a problem by the U.S. and its P5+1 partners because it could be quickly turned into 90 percent weapons grade material.
In exchange, Iran gets sanctions relief amounting to $7 billion.
In reply to a question and comment from Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia, Kerry said the deal is not "an interim agreement" but literally a first step toward a comprehensive pact. This was done so that Iran would have to actually take action now, the secretary said, thus avoiding setting up a "North Korean situation" that would buy time to allow the country to make further progress in building a weapon.
Republican Rep. Joe "You lie!" Wilson of South Carolina said he agrees with Prime Minister Netanyahu that the agreement is a mistake. He said he also agrees with an essay written in the Weekly Standard by John "Bomb Iran Now" Bolton in which the former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. called the agreement an abject surrender and with Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez who has said the agreement is badly flawed.
Republican Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona, who complained that the Obama administration had misled the country by lying about whether it was negotiating with Iran, asked whether Kerry could "assure the American people that not a dollar of the $7 billion [in sanctions relief] will be spent to kill an American soldier?" Kerry said, of course, that he could make no such assurance.
While the strongest pushback came from Republicans, Democrats also indicated they aren't happy with the proposal.
Rep. Ami Bera of California said he was skeptical of Iran's intentions and wondered how the short-term agreement and ultimate long-term pact could guarantee that Iran does not enrich uranium above the 5 percent level. He said he just didn't see the agreement as a big deal. Kerry replied that the purpose of first step is to know what Iran is doing. "They have said we'll have access to this secret underground facility [at Fordow]. That's a big deal." He added that the "mutually agreed upon" arrangement will provide "intrusive knowledge" about Iran's nuclear operations so that it cannot make a "break-out" toward a nuclear weapon without setting off alarm bells.
Rep. Juan Vargas of California said he was a fan of the secretary and had hoped he would become president. But he said he opposed to the deal and believes sanctions were working "but we didn't do them enough." The agreement, he added, "seems to be naive on its face."
Kerry disagreed. "I think it is anything but naive." Passing tougher sanctions now, he said, would probably mean the Russians and Chinese and maybe even the European partners in the P5+1 would bail. He also noted that some analysts think Iranian hardliners would welcome more sanctions or being "whacked" by the United States because they think people on the Iranian street would support them under those circumstances. That would, Kerry said, lead Iran to seek a nuclear weapons capability by digging its facilities deeper.
"We're in a good place to negotiate," he said. The "test and verify" approach will prove whether Iran is serious or not.