Kerry Fails to Quell House Critics on Iran Deal

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 10: Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on December 10, 2013 in Washington, DC. During his testimony Secretary Kerry asked on behalf of the Obama Administration that congress hold off on sanctioning Iran to give diplomacy a chance to work its course.
National Journal
Stacy Kaper
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Stacy Kaper
Dec. 10, 2013, 3:47 p.m.

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.”

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