WASHINGTON — The United States never intended to dismantle Iran’s entire nuclear program and the nation’s top diplomat never promised “anytime, anywhere inspections,” Secretary of State John Kerry told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing Thursday morning. Dismissing talk of a better deal to thwart Iran’s nuclear program as a “fantasy” involving “some sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran’s complete capitulation,” the secretary was met by several highly skeptical critics, one of whom told him Iran had “fleeced” the US in the negotiations.
After conducting hours of classified briefings Wednesday, Kerry was testifying together with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in an effort to sell the controversial Iran deal signed 10 days ago to a dubious Congress.
Speaking in a contentious open-door session before the Senate committee, Kerry told senators that the US had never considered the initial demand for which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had advocated in the months leading up to the initial deal between the P5+1 group of world powers and Iran.
“It’s a question of how you dismantle their weapons program, not their whole program,” Kerry said.
“Nobody has ever talked about dismantling their whole program,” he asserted in his impassioned testimony, arguing that when dismantlement was the policy, Iran multiplied its nuclear program a hundredfold.
“Under this program, Iran has agreed to remove 98 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium,” Kerry noted, adding that, in addition, “Iran has agreed to refrain from acquiring enriched uranium or weapons grade uranium.”
The nuclear agreement reached by the US-led P5+1 powers with Iran is currently facing a 60-day review period mandated by the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. In Thursday’s televised congressional testimony by Kerry — the first following the final deal — senators grilled the secretary of state on the agreement.
Under the law, Congress will have the ability to vote on a resolution of approval or disapproval – and if a vote of disapproval garners enough votes to defeat a presidential veto, it could impact President Barack Obama’s ability to stand by the terms of the agreement.
Although he received applause from viewers in the committee chamber when he entered, Kerry faced hostile challenges from Republican members.
Responding to comments made earlier by Committee Chairman Senator Bob Corker accusing the administration of backing down from its initial commitment to rigorous inspections, Kerry said, “I never utter the words anywhere, anytime; nor was it part of the discussions we had with the Iranians.”
Under the Iran agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency can request access to any sites, should it acquire evidence of a violation of the nuclear deal. Inspectors must “provide Iran the basis for such concerns and request clarification,” according to the Vienna agreement. If Iran’s explanations do not adequately assuage the IAEA’s concerns, the agency “may request access to such locations” to make sure no illicit activity has occurred there. “The IAEA will provide Iran the reasons for access in writing and will make available relevant information,” the deal stipulates.
Should the Iranians and the inspectors prove unable to “reach satisfactory arrangements,” Tehran will resolve any concerns “through necessary means agreed between Iran and the IAEA,” the deal reads. If there is still no agreement two weeks after the initial inquiry is filed, a so-called Joint Commission — consisting of the six world powers and Iran itself — will vote on how to resolve the crisis. Altogether, the process could take up to 24 days.
In his opening statement, Corker had accused Kerry of allowing the United States to be “fleeced” by Iran during the negotiations on the nuclear deal agreed last week.
“I believe we’ve been fleeced and in the course of being fleeced you turned Iran from being a pariah into Congress being a pariah,” he said. “A few weeks ago, you said that no deal was better than a bad deal. What you say now is that somehow if Congress were to turn this down, the only option is war.”
Corker also targeted the administration’s attitude toward Israel and the Gulf states, about which he said Kerry speaks “with a degree of disdain.” Corker told Kerry that he had “crossed a new threshold in US foreign policy where it is now the policy of the United States to allow a state sponsor of terror to develop a sophisticated nuclear program.”
Corker, who authored the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, said that he was “disappointed” by the closed-door testimony offered by Kerry and other administration officials Wednesday. Corker, a skeptic of the Iran deal, complained that every time a member of Congress conveyed skepticism toward the deal, administration representatives accused them of leaving America with no alternative but war.
Corker disparaged the agreement, saying that the US “ended up with a deal that basically codifies the industrialization of their nuclear program.
“We’ve not had a single scientist, a single witness who can lay out a single reason for Iran to develop this nuclear program,” he asserted.
But Kerry warned that “If the US Congress moves to unilaterally reject what we agreed upon in Vienna, the result will be… a great big green light for Iran to resume enrichment of uranium. If the US were to walk away, we’re on our own. Our partners will not walk away with us, they will walk away from the tough multilateral sanctions regime we have put in place.”
Kerry said that even if the US did walk away from the agreement, Iran would inevitably continue along its path to a nuclear weapon.
“The fact of the matter is that Iran now has developed experience with a nuclear fuel cycle and the ability to develop fissile material for a bomb. We cannot bomb that away and we cannot sanction that experience away,” he told the senators.. “If we walk away, year 15 or 16 or twenty starts tomorrow, without any of the transparency, inspections or safeguards in place.”
The secretary critiqued advertisements that he said he had seen recently, asking lawmakers to demand a better deal — a demand also repeatedly made by Netanyahu.
“The choice isn’t a better deal — some sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran’s complete capitulation. That is a fantasy plain and simple,” he argued. “The choice we face is between an agreement that will ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is limited, rigorously scrutinized and wholly peaceful, and no deal.”
Kerry also responded to critics who suggest that the P5+1 states have repeated the same mistakes that led to North Korea’s emergence as a nuclear-armed state. “The additional protocol is an outgrowth of the failure of the North Korea agreement,” he argued, “and they have to ratify it before the UN sanctions are lifted by the end of this process. And they’ve agreed to live by it from day one.
“If Iran fails to comply we will know it – we will know it quickly and we will be able to respond accordingly up to the most draconian sanctions that we have today,” he said.
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.