Sen. Risch blasts nuclear deal with Iran


Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman takes her seat on Capitol Hill before testifying on Tuesday. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
February 4

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing Tuesday on negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Sen. James Risch (D-Idaho) expressed a strong opposition to the temporary deal reached in November that caps the most worrisome elements of Iran’s nuclear program and eases some restrictions on the country’s oil business. Many in Congress on both sides of the aisle are wary of the deal.

Risch was addressing Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of state for political affairs, and David Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financing.

SENATOR JAMES RISCH (R-ID): Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Ms. Sherman, your thank-you to Senator Coons implied, I think, when you said that you thank us for supporting the effort -- this committee for supporting the efforts of the administration in this regard -- don’t put me in that column. I don’t want to be thanked because I do not support what has been done. I think this thing is a disaster. I think it -- I was stunned when I saw what the -- what the agreement was. I’ve been disgusted as we’ve gone forward. And I hope you will prove me dead wrong, but I don’t think I will, given the history of these people.

But in any event, I want to focus on just a couple of aspects. Number one, Pastor Saeed Abedini is a constituent of mine. He is held in jail in Iran; his only crime is being a Christian. You know, last week I see where we showered the Iranians with, what, $500 million. Why can’t we get this guy out of jail? I’m -- you said that Secretary Kerry had a conversation with the foreign minister, Zarif, this weekend at the meeting in Munich. Can you tell us what the substance of that conversation was?

MS. SHERMAN: Certainly, Senator. First of all, we completely agree with you. Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati and Robert Levinson should all be home with their families, and nothing I can say today -- because they are not yet home -- will be satisfactory to you or to their families. And I would agree with them and agree with you, in that regard. Secretary Kerry raised these situations with the foreign minister, insisted that these be addressed as quickly as possible, that there was no basis for any of the three of them to be held. And indeed, we are doing whatever we can in whatever channel we can to bring them home as quickly as possible.

SEN. RISCH: Well, Ms. Sherman, you know, that’s not good enough. Those are just words. Somebody needs to look these people in the eye and tell them they’re not getting another penny and they’re not getting anything until they do a very simple act of letting three absolutely innocent Americans go free. I hope you’ll convey that to the foreign minister, and I would hope Secretary Kerry would convey that to the foreign minister. This is absolutely outrageous -- for everything we’ve given to the Iranians, and then still to hold this. I mean, this is absolute nonsense.

[READ: In Iran, opponents of nuclear deal speak up]

Let me change -- let me change horses here for just a second. I keep reading in the media about -- now that the -- now that the sanctions have been relaxed -- and this has been something that’s been a concern of mine from the beginning, that now that they’ve been relaxed our partners, most if not all of whom were unwilling partners, are now flooding in there with businesspeople -- the French, the Italians, the Irish, the Canadians. You got -- you’ve got political people, you’ve got businesspeople flooding in there, ready to do business, going back to business as usual with the Iranians.

Whose job is it going to be to put the genie back in the bottle when this thing fails? Who’s going to do this?

[READ: Foreign firms are lining up to do business with Iran, officials say]

MS. SHERMAN: Let me make one comment, and then turn it to Undersecretary Cohen.

A couple of things. As the undersecretary said, every single member, key member of our administration talks with every country with whom we need about enforcing and keeping these sanctions in place and on board. And indeed, I believe, based on the conversations I’ve had with many, including the French -- and Secretary Kerry has talked directly to Foreign Minister Fabius about the trade delegation that went; it was a private business delegation. It wasn’t a government delegation -- about how this is not helpful in this regard, to ensure that in fact it is not business as usual.

As Undersecretary Cohen said, Tehran is not open for business because our sanctions relief is quite temporary, quite limited and quite targeted. That in fact most of these delegations that are going -- because we talk to them all, we tell them what are the limits of what they can do, that we will in fact go after them, that we will sanction them. Doesn’t matter whether they countries are friend or foe; if they evade our sanctions, we will sanction them.

We have all delivered that message, not just Treasury, but every department in our administration, in the executive branch. That indeed, most of these delegations appear to be going to get themselves in line for the day that in fact the comprehensive agreement is reached, if it is reached. And we have told them all that they are putting their reputations, themselves and their business enterprises at risk if they jump the gun.

SEN. RISCH: Well, this is exactly why those of us who were critical of this at the beginning were so critical. The optics of this are such that the rest of the world says, it’s back to business as usual. You can tell them what you want to tell them, but their acts indicate that they believe it’s back to business as usual. That’s the problem.

Mr. Cohen?

MR. COHEN: I completely agree with Undersecretary Sherman in terms of how we have been making certain that our partners around the world understand that whatever interests they may have in the Iranian market someday, that is not the market today, that what’s available today in this joint plan of action is extraordinarily narrow. It’s limited, as I said, to petrochemical exports, the sale of goods to the auto sector and some trade in precious metals, but even that is substantially constrained.

There’s very limited economic potential today in the Iranian business sector. That’s the point that we make over and over again in these engagements. That point, I believe, is getting through. We have not seen deals being done. But even more importantly, what we have been absolutely clear about is that we will continue to enforce our sanctions.

In -- the implementation agreements on the joint plan of action explicitly recognizes that we have the right and that we will fully enforce existing sanctions. And I think that message is one that we have communicated over the years -- and more recently in a pretty credible fashion.

SEN. RISCH: Well, I understand that that’s the message you’re giving them, but it sure doesn’t look like they believe it, because they are acting entirely differently than what the message that you’re giving them.

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