Kerry: Critics of Iran deal spinning ‘fantasy’

Democrats start to choose sides as testimony begins in Congress

US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, March 11, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, March 11, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The nuclear agreement reached between world powers and Iran last week took its first official beating in Congress on Thursday, with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from both parties questioning the strength of the accord.
Before the panel sat three architects of the deal: Secretary of State John Kerry, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. They fiercely defended the agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the “only viable” option before them to verifiably prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Kerry mounted a furious counter-attack against the deal’s detractors, saying it would be “fantasy” to think the US could simply “bomb away” Tehran’s atomic know-how.
The secretary of state insisted that critics of the deal – which curbs Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief – were pushing an unrealistic alternative that he dismissed as a “sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran’s complete capitulation.”
“The fact is that Iran now has extensive experience with nuclear fuel cycle technology,” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We can’t bomb that knowledge away. Nor can we sanction that knowledge away.
“Let me underscore the alternative to the deal we have reached is not – as I’ve seen some ads on TV suggesting disingenuously – it isn’t a ‘better deal,’ some sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran’s complete capitulation,” Kerry said. “That is a fantasy, plain and simple, and our intelligence community will tell you that.”
Several Democrats on the panel were listening closely.
Some expressed concerns with specific provisions of the deal, but the majority seemed to voice agreement that a lack of alternative paths to a peaceful end to the decades-long conflict may force them to vote to approve of it.
Congress began a 60-day review period on Monday, during which it may choose to vote to approve or disapprove of the deal. A resolution of disapproval would have to come to a second vote with two-thirds support of both chambers in order to overcome a presidential veto.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) said at the hearing that the deal produces a “dramatically better” status quo, and that negotiating with adversaries such as Iran is hard but necessary business. His colleagues Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California) and Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-California) also defended President Barack Obama, Kerry and their negotiating team for crafting a deal they say will further world peace. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), also on the committee, has declared support for the agreement.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware) said he would carefully review the deal in the coming weeks, but said it appeared “based on distrust” and seemed to lean in favor of supporting it.
“I do wonder what the alternative is,” Coons said. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) expressed a similar stance.
Kerry was forceful in his defense of the JCPOA, which is intended to cap, restrict, monitor and partially roll back Iran’s nuclear work for a finite period. In exchange, Iran will receive sanctions relief.
He pushed back against the notion that an influx of Western business will influence the enforcement of the deal over time – should Iran violate it and world powers be faced with the prospect of snapping back sanctions.
He also said that the deal would reinforce Israel’s security, despite strong objections to the contrary from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
An American Israel Public Affairs Committee memo released on Thursday asserted that Israel’s political leadership – of all stripes – is united in opposition to the agreement.
So, too, is the Republican Party. The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), told Kerry he was “fleeced” in the negotiations by Tehran and accused him of constructing a false narrative to whip up support for the deal in Congress.
Some of the Democratic leadership on foreign affairs, however, remain on the fence. They will be critical to the outcome of the deal.
The ranking member of the committee, Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), said he has not yet decided how he will vote. And Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) questioned whether the deal sets up Iran as a regional power.
“To some degree, there’s an element of power in what they do right now,” Kerry said. “They’re not going to be sanctioned into submission. We’ve seen that.”
Thursday’s hearing provided a stage for two of the 16 Republicans running for the White House – Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
“This is a deal whose survival is not guaranteed beyond the term of the current president,” Rubio said. “And, by the way, I personally hope that the next person is someone that will remove the national security waiver and reimpose the congressional sanctions that were passed by Congress because this deal is fundamentally and irreparably flawed.”
In a sharp exchange, Rubio cut Kerry off briefly. “There’s no alternative that you or anybody else has proposed as to what you,” Kerry said. Rubio interrupted: “I have, I sure have, Secretary Kerry.”
Kerry said if Congress rejects the agreement reached in Vienna, “the result will be the United States of America walking away from every one of the restrictions we have achieved and a great big green light for Iran to double the pace of its uranium enrichment.”
“We will have squandered the best chance we have to solve this problem through peaceful means,” he said.
Seeking to reassure Israel and its US supporters, Kerry said Washington would increase security coordination with the Jewish state.
Kerry said the Iran deal carried the “real potential” for change in the volatile Middle East but acknowledged it “does not end the possibility of a confrontation with Iran.”
Reuters contributed to this report.