Iran nuclear deal: Facing tough crowd in Congress, Kerry pleads for time

Appearing before a House panel that last year unanimously proposed tougher sanctions on Iran, Kerry asks for 'time and space' to deal with the delicate diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry rubs his eyes while testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, in the hope of persuading Congress to not forge any new economic sanctions on Iran that could break the recent historic agreement that would end Iran’s progress toward weapons-grade uranium. The deal struck in Geneva prohibits the Obama administration from introducing new sanctions for six months. Iran's foreign minister has said any new package of commercial restrictions would break the agreement.

In his first appearance before Congress to defend a fledgling nuclear deal with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry appealed to lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, to take a breath – and give negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program a chance.

“This is a very delicate diplomatic moment,” he said. “We have a chance to address peacefully one of the most pressing security concerns that the world faces today.”

He faced a tough crowd. After all, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which hosted Tuesday’s hearing, unanimously proposed legislation last February to step up sanctions against Iran in a bid to “cripple” its economy and prevent a nuclear Iran.

“The pressure we have put on Iran through these sanctions is exactly what has brought Iran to the table today,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R) of California, who chairs the panel, in his opening salvo with Secretary Kerry.

By contrast, the Obama administration agreed last month to ease sanctions on Iran for six months, in exchange for international access to nuclear enrichment and reactor facilities and negotiations on the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

The pushback from many Democrats was just as pointed. Sanctions against Iran have had overwhelming, bipartisan support since at least 2010.

“I’m completely against it,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D) of California. “Sanctions were working, but we didn’t ratchet them up enough.”

The Nov. 23 deal “seems to me to be naïve, frankly, on its face.” he added.

“I think it’s anything but naïve,” Kerry shot back. “I’ve been thinking about the Iran file for a lot of years,” he told the freshman lawmaker.

Yes, Kerry said, Congress could push stronger sanctions, but the Russians and the Chinese won’t. Even the Europeans would balk. “You’ll lose them,” he said. “Then, you’ll have undone the sanctions, not built them up.”

Moreover, if sanctions take the Iranian regime “into real extremis,” Iran, too, would likely break off the most promising negotiations with the US since the 1979 revolution.

“We’re asking you to give our negotiators and our experts the time and space to do their jobs,” Kerry said at the Tuesday hearing.

Under the deal worked negotiated last month in Geneva, Iran would get $7 billion in sanctions relief over six months. In return, it would degrade its higher-enriched uranium stockpiles, refrain from adding to the centrifuges it uses to enrich uranium, and stop building a heavy water reactor that could produce plutonium used in nuclear weapons.

By contrast, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, proposed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and passed by the House by a vote of 200 to 20 on July 31, aims to step up the sanctions regime by penalizing companies that trade with Iran, cutting purchases of Iranian crude oil by 1 million barrels per day, and shutting off access to foreign currency reserves. The Senate has yet to take up the legislation.

“I believe we need to keep the pressure on Iran and that the pressure track will actually strengthen your hand,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D) of New York, the top Democrat on the panel.

Both White House and Iranian officials say that congressional threats to step up sanctions, even after the six-month window for negotiations, could scuttle the deal. 

Unlike most big issues in a deeply divided Congress, support for ever-tougher sanctions against Iran appears to be hard-wired into Congress’s world view.

“We’ve gotten locked into a mindset of one-upmanship on toughness toward Iran,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“The sanctions have been working. That’s evident in the election of [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani. But in fairness to the Congress, it’s hard to know how hard-line one should be in an optimal approach.’

But with just days left before a long holiday recess and urgent budget deadlines looming, Congress is unlikely to find the floor time to make good on threats to scuttle the deal.

Material from the Associated Press was included.

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