Saying Secretary of State John Kerry got a frosty reception at the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing is like saying it’s chilly at the North Pole. Kerry went there to reassure lawmakers that he wasn’t giving away the store and to hold off Iran sanctions. Instead, there was a blizzard of angry questions and skeptical remarks from Democrats and Republicans alike. A Democratic aide told me, “Members on both sides of the aisle are clearly uncomfortable with certain provisions in the interim agreement, particularly allowing Iran to continue certain enrichment activities.” Indeed.
Chairman Ed Royce (Calif.) explained at the start of the proceedings he was deeply skeptical about the deal: “I continue to have serious concerns that the agreement the Obama Administration negotiated does not meet the standards necessary to protect the United States and our allies. The deal does not roll back Iran’s nuclear program, but instead allows Tehran to keep in place the key elements of its nuclear weapons-making capability. Under the agreement, the international community relieves the sanctions pressure on Iran while its centrifuges continue to enrich uranium.”
Ranking member Eliot Engels (N.Y.) was equally tough:
I want to make it clear that I have some serious reservations about this agreement. First and foremost, it seems to me that — at a minimum — it should have required Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, as demanded by numerous UN Security Council resolutions. … First, if Iran retains any enrichment capacity, how can we be sure that they will not forever remain on the brink of a breakout capacity? Second, why do many of our closest regional allies feel the interim deal caught them by surprise? And what are you doing to make certain they are included as negotiations continue on a final deal? Third, why does the administration strongly oppose congressional action on Iran sanctions legislation that makes clear new sanctions will not be imposed unless Iran violated the terms of the interim deal.
Things didn’t get easier for Kerry as the hearing progressed. Liberals like Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) accused the administration of foot-dragging on sanctions and told Kerry Congress couldn’t be told to keep quiet. He blasted the deal, telling him, “The fact is, they’ve got 9,000 centrifuges turning now and they’ll turn throughout — they’ll spin throughout the term of this agreement. So the centrifuges are literally rolling forward. You’ve told us that they can’t increase their stockpile of enriched uranium. Yes, they can.” Liberal Democrat Ted Deutch said, “We put sanctions in place to get Iran to give up their nuclear program, not to get them to talk about it.” These are liberal Democrats, normally inclined to bend over backwards to accommodate the president. Republicans including
The lawmakers’ open hostility is a measure of how bad the deal is and how distrusted are both Kerry and the president. Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) are expected to proceed with sanctions legislation. (Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) criticized the recent defense authorization bill for omitting sanctions legislation.) If anything, Kerry’s outing may have increased momentum in the House for a resolution to define the parameters of any final deal, and pushed the Senate to move forward on sanctions. Indeed, last night reports suggested that Kirk and Menendez had reached agreement on new sanctions legislation, although it is not clear whether the majority leader will provide a vehicle for the bill. Given Kerry’s performance there is little reason to wait.