Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday mounted a furious counterattack against critics of the Iran nuclear deal, telling skeptical lawmakers it would be fantasy to think the United States could simply “bomb away” Tehran’s atomic know-how.
Testifying before Congress for the first time since world powers reached the landmark accord with Iran last week, America’s top diplomat was confronted head-on by Republican accusations that Iranian negotiators had “fleeced” and “bamboozled” him.
The vitriolic exchanges on Capitol Hill reflected a hardening of positions as Congress opened a 60-day review of the deal considered crucial to its fate.
Iranian hardliners are also trying to undermine the pact, and U.S. ally Israel has condemned it as a dire security threat.
The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union signed the deal with Iran. Washington suspects Tehran of having worked to build nuclear weapons but Iran says its program is peaceful.
Kerry insisted that critics of the deal, which curbs Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief, are pushing an unrealistic alternative that he dismissed as a “sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran’s complete capitulation.”
“The fact is that Iran now has extensive experience with nuclear fuel cycle technology,” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We can’t bomb that knowledge away. Nor can we sanction that knowledge away.”
Kerry said that if Congress rejects the agreement reached in Vienna, “the result will be the United States of America walking away from every one of the restrictions we have achieved and a great big green light for Iran to double the pace of its uranium enrichment.”
“We will have squandered the best chance we have to solve this problem through peaceful means,” he said.
Opening the hearing, the committee’s Republican chairman, Bob Corker, offered scathing criticism of Kerry for the terms he secured in negotiating the deal. “Not unlike a hotel guest that leaves only with a hotel bathrobe on his back, I believe that you’ve been fleeced,” he said.
Corker chided Kerry and other administration officials for their line of argument that the only alternative to the accord would be more war in the Middle East, saying that the real alternative would be a better deal.
RUBIO: DEAL NOT GUARANTEED BEYOND OBAMA’S TERM
Senator Marco Rubio faulted President Barack Obama for striking a “terrible deal,” saying it rewarded Iran for “its atrocious human rights record.”
Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate, said: “This is a deal whose survival is not guaranteed beyond the current term of the president.”
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the committee, said he has not yet decided how he would vote but said he felt U.S. negotiators had made significant progress.
“Our negotiators got an awful lot, particularly on the nuclear front,” Cardin said.
Under a bill Obama signed into law in May, Congress has until Sept. 17 to approve or reject the agreement. Republicans control majorities in both houses of Congress, and many have come out strongly against the pact, which they say will empower Iran and threaten Israel.
Obama, who could gain a boost to his presidential legacy from his diplomatic outreach to U.S. foe Iran, needs to convince as many of his fellow Democrats as possible to back the deal.
If a disapproval resolution passes Congress and survives a veto, Obama would be unable to waive most of the U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran, which could cripple the nuclear pact.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz also testified before the committee as part of the Obama administration’s effort to sell the deal to lawmakers, as well as to the American public and uneasy Middle East allies.
Responding to Republican criticism that the agreement lifts sanctions too fast, Lew said it would not prevent the United States from imposing additional sanctions over issues such as human rights violations if it feels it necessary.
Seeking to reassure Israel and its U.S. supporters, Kerry reasserted the U.S. promise to increase security coordination with the Jewish state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed concerns that Iran could use unfrozen assets to increase funding and weapons supplies to militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Kerry said the Iran deal carried the “real potential” for change in the volatile Middle East but acknowledged it “does not end the possibility of a confrontation with Iran.”—Reuters