WASHINGTON—Secretary of State John Kerry faced tough questions from members of both parties three months ago when he tried to convince the House Foreign Affairs Committee to authorize war in Syria. A similar scene unfolded on Tuesday as the committee greeted Kerry again with bipartisan opposition to the administration’s new nuclear agreement with Iran.
“I am concerned we have bargained away our fundamental position, which is enshrined in six UN Security Council resolutions—that Iran should not be enriching and reprocessing [uranium]—in exchange for a false confidence that we can effectively check Iran’s misuse of these key nuclear bomb-making technologies,” committee chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said in prepared remarks.
Six world powers—including the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany—struck a deal with Iran last month in Geneva, Switzerland, to slow the rogue nation’s nuclear ambitions. Leaders from these six countries touted the agreement as a breakthrough that would make the world safer.
Kerry told the House committee “unequivocally” that the United States, Israel, the Gulf states, and American interests in the Middle East “are more secure than they were the day before we entered into this agreement. … [It] halts the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and rolls it back in certain places for the first time in nearly 10 years.”
Committee members from both parties did not seem to buy it, calling the administration “naïve” for thinking agreement would work. Several committee members openly wished Kerry’s predictions would come true but added they had no confidence they would.
“[Iran] has a history of deceiving the international community about its nuclear program,” Royce said. He pointed out that within days of the agreement Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the country would continue construction at the Arak reactor, which will be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium. “That tells you something about Iran’s intentions.”
Kerry expressed some skepticism about Iran’s commitment to follow through on the temporary agreement but maintained the United States has nothing to lose by waiting to see if Iran abides by the pact: “It doesn’t cost us a thing.”
The secretary of state pleaded with lawmakers to not pass further sanctions against Iran—one part of the Geneva agreement—saying doing so would hurt U.S. credibility and give Iran an excuse to flout the six-month deal. Kerry said the seven countries hope to reach a “comprehensive” agreement next year, and in the meantime, limited relaxed sanctions would only net Iran about $7 billion while costing the country $30 billion in lost revenue.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., said Iran has 9,000 centrifuges that will continue operating throughout the life of the agreement and accused Kerry of “asking us to be asleep and do nothing while 9,000 centrifuges turn.” Kerry repeatedly urged patience and said if the agreement didn’t work, the White House would come to Congress to quickly tighten sanctions further.
On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate on Tuesday appeared poised to pass tougher sanctions, but they likely wouldn’t take effect until after the six-month deal expires.
Reps. Royce and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, this year co-authored the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, a bipartisan measure that overwhelmingly passed in July on a 400-20 vote. The Democrat-controlled Senate never considered the bill, which would broaden economic sanctions and increase pressure over human rights abuses in Iran.
Among those abuses is the imprisonment of American citizen Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor who was sentenced to prison last year on dubious charges. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., said Abedini is being tortured and pressed Kerry on why U.S. negotiators didn’t make it a priority to secure his release as part of the nuclear deal. Kerry said, “We have a lot of problems with Iran,” and the negotiations were focused solely on curbing the country’s nuclear program, because it is the administration’s top foreign policy objective.
Kerry said he raised Abedini’s case with Iran’s foreign minister the first time he met him, but “we have not linked it directly to the nuclear issue because we believe that prejudices them. We don’t want them to become hostages or pawns.”
Smith, who on Thursday is convening a subcommittee hearing on Abedini’s case, read prepared testimony from Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, saying she feels the U.S. government has abandoned her husband. Kerry disputed that claim, but added that he could not discuss the details of what the United States was doing to free Abedini and two other Americans who are being held in Iran. The other two captives are FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007, and Amir Hekmati, arrested in 2011 for allegedly spying on Iran for the CIA.
“We have never stopped trying to secure their release,” Kerry said. “It is a constant process and we are engaged in that effort.”
Smith asked about the recent report that the United States this year released Mojtaba Atarodi, an Iranian scientist many believe is involved in developing Iran’s nuclear program. The revelation angered many who have advocated for Abedini’s release, but Kerry claimed Atarodi’s release was unrelated to the nuclear negotiations.