John Kerry came to Congress on Tuesday touting a new nuclear accord with Iran and asking members for their support. He didn't get it.
In the Obama administration's first big public foray on Capitol Hill since the interim deal with Iran was announced last month, the secretary of State was met with skepticism from members of both parties who worried that the deal was too lenient to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon.
"I keep reading about the resolve of Iranians to get this nuclear program done, and quite frankly I just don't know if this diplomatic effort on their behalf is really serious," Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., told Kerry at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Kerry always faced long odds on getting support, even from Democrats, and especially in the House. Legislation slapping additional sanctions on Iran already passed the chamber with overwhelming backing this summer. And those House members who are up for reelection next year — and have already voted — face little risk in continuing to press for sanctions against a second-term president whose popularity has waned.
And so attack they did. The critics' main contention is that the agreement offers Iran too much sanctions relief in exchange for provisions that will do little to stifle Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Foreign Affairs panel members took turns demanding that Kerry explain why, at a minimum, Iran should not be required to halt all of its uranium enrichment while negotiations on a comprehensive agreement continue.
"If there are six [United Nations] Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to stop enriching, the least they could do is stop enriching while we are negotiating," said the committee's ranking member, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. "I don't really think that is too much to ask, and that is one of the things that bothers me greatly."
"I believe we need to keep sanction pressure on Iran and that the pressure's strength will actually strengthen your hand," Engel told Kerry. "How can the U.S. send the message to Iran that there will be dire consequences if the interim deal does not come to fruition?"
Kerry acknowledged that the language of the interim agreement is "silent" on the long-term question of enrichment, neither expressly allowing it nor banning it, and that the issue will have to be worked out in a "mutually defined agreement" going forward.
He argued that Iran wanted all sanctions to cease in exchange for halting enrichment and made the case that the U.S. comes out ahead because Iran will eliminate its entire stockpile of uranium enriched at 20 percent, considered to be the most dangerous, and halt enrichment above 5 percent. In exchange, Iran will receive only $7 billion in sanctions relief during the six-month window to work out a comprehensive deal — a detail many members openly doubted.
Kerry's main point is that the U.S. is winning unprecedented access to Iran's uranium mining facilities and mills, centrifuge workshops, and storage facilities at little cost.
"We are building the capacity to know exactly what is going on here in an unprecedented fashion," he said. "Has Iran changed its nuclear calculus? I honestly don't think we can say for sure yet." He also said the initial agreement allows time for a better long-term deal. "We are asking you to give our negotiators and our experts the time and the space needed to do their jobs," he said.
Kerry's campaign now turns to the Senate, where he'll address the full chamber Wednesday alongside Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. On Thursday, the State Department's Wendy Sherman and Treasury's David Cohen are scheduled to discuss the Iran deal with the Senate Banking Committee and to plead for a pause in sanctions.
While there are signs key senators are amenable to his position — the ever-cautious Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., told reporters Tuesday that he is "inclined" to support Kerry — the secretary of State still faces an uphill climb.
Members from both parties are exploring legislation to keep the sanctions in place.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., told reporters Tuesday he remains unconvinced of the administration's arguments and expects bipartisan sanctions legislation to proceed.
"I respectfully disagree with the administration," he said. "We have been in the path in other iterations in which we have been told that sanctions was not an appropriate vehicle or time and we found that it was. And we believe it is now"¦. We are pushing forward in getting legislation together."
Two other sanctions supporters, Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Christopher Coons, D-Del., declined Tuesday to discuss where they stand on the issue.
A senior Senate aide said that the administration's overdrive seems to be creating a chilling effect in the chamber. "The White House has redoubled its efforts behind the scenes to maximize pressure on Senate Democrats to block a vote on basically any legislation that has the word sanctions in it, regardless of what it does or doesn't do. Unlike the Republican side, the Democratic caucus is clearly very divided."
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, told National Journal Daily, "My sense is that the impulse to do additional sanctions at this time may be diminishing some."