Secretary of State John Kerry testifies Tuesday, Dec. 10 in Washington before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
Secretary of State John Kerry urged members of Congress Tuesday not to pursue tougher sanctions against Iran that some lawmakers say would help ensure the interim deal signed last month leads to a final one that keeps Iran’s nuclear program peaceful.
“Believe me, we are all skeptical,” Kerry told members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “But we now have the best chance we’ve ever had” to negotiate a comprehensive agreement with Iran.
“We’re asking you to give our negotiators and our experts the time and the space to do their jobs,” Kerry said. That means “to hold off with new sanctions while we negotiate. I’m not saying never. I’m just saying not right now.”
The deal Kerry signed last month obligates the United States not to impose new sanctions during the six-month period of the deal. The House of Representatives passed tougher sanctions in July, and the Senate is considering a bill with new sanctions that would go into effect after the interim deal expires.
“We’ll do sanctions tied to the endgame where the relief will only come if they stop the enrichment program, dismantle the reactor and turn over the enriched uranium,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CNN on Monday.
Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told Time magazine this week that “the entire deal is dead” if Congress passes sanctions.
“We do not like to negotiate under duress,” Zarif said. “And if Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States.”
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he has “serious concerns” that the agreement with Iran “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,” Royce said.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., said in a statement that the interim deal “will effectively freeze Iran’s nuclear program” and is better than the status quo, “which allows Iran to freely pursue its nuclear ambitions away from the prying eyes of the international weapons inspectors.”
Connolly’s was one of the few voices supportive of the agreement at Tuesday’s hearing.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the interim deal allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium, which he said raises important questions.
Among them, how can the world prevent Iran from having the capacity to build a bomb if Iran retains the ability to produce nuclear fuel. And why do Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates, which are closest to Iran, oppose the interim deal?
Any deal that doesn’t prevent Iran from achieving a breakout capacity “will be a devastating failure,” Engel said. Additional sanctions would increase the United States’ ability to convince Iran to do so, he said.
“I personally think it would strengthen your hand,” Engel told Kerry.
The interim deal requires Iran to stop producing nuclear fuel that is close to weapons grade and to dilute or convert its stockpile of near-weapons-grade uranium to a form that would be harder to turn into fuel for a bomb. Iran agreed not to install key components in its Arak nuclear reactor, which is under construction and would produce plutonium when operational, another fuel that can be used in bombmaking. Iran agreed to allow inspectors additional access to the Arak facility and other facilities to assure the international community that its nuclear program has peaceful aims.
World powers and the United States agreed to ease some sanctions on Iran by giving it access to some of its assets that have been frozen in foreign countries. The White House has said Iran gets about $7 billion worth of relief. Iran is not required under the deal to dismantle any of the industrial-scale infrastructure it has built over the years for producing nuclear fuel.
The United States and its allies in the region, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, suspect Iran is developing the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Critics of the Iranian program point at Iran’s development of long-range missiles and ICBMs and suspected covert weapons experiments that have not been disproved. These fears helped galvanize an international sanctions effort to pressure Iran to clarify its nuclear intentions, which damaged Iran’s economy and helped bring it to the negotiating table.
Kerry said the interim agreement makes the United States and its allies safer. He and President Obama have committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, he said.
“If you’re going to take a nation to war, you better exhaust all the possibilities of getting a peaceful resolution before you do that,” Kerry said. “We are doing that right now — exploring all the options — but there’s nothing naive about what we’re doing.”
Kerry presented committee members with the Iranian perspective on sanctions.
Iranians ask why they should stop doing what sanctions are supposed to prevent — uranium enrichment — without those sanctions being lifted, Kerry said. The Iranian negotiators said, “We stop enrichment — you stop sanctions altogether,” according to Kerry.
Royce said, “The key issue is whether a final agreement would allow Iran to manufacture nuclear fuel.
“Unfortunately, the interim agreement reads, yes, it will,” Royce said. “My concern is that we have bargained away our fundamental position, which is enshrined in six U.N. Security Council Resolutions -- that Iran should not be enriching and reprocessing — in exchange for a false confidence that we can effectively check Iran’s misuse of these key nuclear bombmaking technologies.”