Secretary of State John Kerry experienced just how difficult it will be for the Obama Administration to get members of Congress on board with the interim nuclear agreement that was signed with Iran last month. Testifying before the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Kerry was hammered for nearly three hours by Democrats and Republicans alike about the incomplete nature of the deal that was negotiated in Geneva, the $7 billion in sanctions relief that Iran is due to receive over the next six months and whether any final agreement would allow the Islamic republic to preserve a low level uranium enrichment capability.
Republican Ed Royce, the chairman of the committee, criticized what he saw as the administration’s soft negotiating strategy toward Iran, calling the agreement a much needed opportunity for the Iranians to receive billions of dollars without dismantling a single centrifuge.
“My concern,” the California congressman said, “is that we have bargained away our fundamental position in exchange for a false confidence that we can effectively check Iran’s misuse of these key nuclear bombmaking technologies.” The chairman went on to say that “Iran is not just another country. It simply can’t be trusted with enrichment technology, because verification efforts can never be foolproof. An agreement in which Iran purchases and returns spent nuclear fuel for energy generation is one thing but allowing enrichment is too high risk, going beyond the lines of realistic international control.”
New York’s Eliot Engel, the Democrats’ ranking member of the committee and typically an ally of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, echoed those critical remarks. “I want to make it clear that I have some serious reservations about this agreement,” he said. “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.”
At times during the hearing, Kerry looked visibly strained about the profound skepticism that lawmakers were displaying toward the administration’s diplomatic outreach. Multiple members simply did not agree with the notion that the Iranian government should be allowed any domestic enrichment capability at all. Others, including Brad Sherman, a Democrat, complained to Secretary Kerry that the sanctions relief that had been promised Iran could jeopardize the sanctions regime altogether. “I was briefed by the administration on this deal,” he said, “and I was impressed a little bit less after I read it.”
Of all the members who asked questions during the hearing, only two were relatively supportive of the Geneva agreement.
Although Congress has consistently been more hawkish than the Obama Administration on the Iranian nuclear issue during the past five years, the fact that Kerry was confronted with so much doubt from lawmakers is a strong indictment of President Barack Obama’s relationships with key members of Congress. If the administration is to be successful in delaying more sanctions over the next six months, it will have to do a lot of convincing.
Thankfully for the president and his national-security team, Congress is highly unlikely to pass any additional sanctions against Iran this year. In a small victory for the administration, the chairman of the Senate’s banking committee announced that it would hold off on debating new measures for the remainder of the year, giving diplomats more time to negotiate a long-term nuclear accord. But if history on the Iran issue is any guide, Congress will not wait indefinitely for progress to happen.